Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Kissinger and world order

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s conception of world order may provide a set of governing principles for our time, writes Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby

Kissinger and world order
Kissinger and world order
Al-Ahram Weekly

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, born in 1923, established his academic credentials with his doctoral thesis “The World Restored”, which examined the policies pursued by diplomats and statesmen like Metternich following the Napoleonic Wars and gave Europe almost a century of peace.

What attracted Kissinger to this regime was that it was based on creating a balance of power in which any single power would not be allowed to dominate or impose its will. This concept remained important in Kissinger’s academic life, and when he was called to the world of diplomacy by American president Richard Nixon, who selected him to be his national security advisor and then secretary of state from 1969 to 1977.

During this time Kissinger was the architect of the strategy of detente, used by Nixon to transform the relationship between the then two superpowers from one of confrontation to one of dialogue and negotiation.

In developing this strategy and analysing its international impact, Kissinger was responding to the other emerging power of the time, the People’s Republic of China. He arranged Nixon’s visit to Peking in May 1972, ending 25 years of US disengagement with China. Through his diplomacy, Kissinger hoped to create a triangle composed of the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

He was motivated by the expectation that the adversarial relationship between China and the Soviet Union would become more serious than that between the United States and China and that this new relationship could balance US relations with the Soviet Union.

Using this analysis of world order, Kissinger remained concerned with the development of this new triangular regime even after he ended his diplomatic work. He remained an active observer during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the world’s only superpower in the 1990s.

He followed the debate that emerged after the end of the Cold War of whether the United States would remain as the world’s only superpower, or whether other emerging forces like Europe, Japan, China and maybe even Russia would eventually challenge the United States. This debate continued throughout the 1990s, until it was settled by the world recognising that the United States was the only country that possessed all the components of a superpower.

Kissinger certainly followed the developments that took place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which marked the first time the American mainland had been targeted and directly threatened its security. The outcome was the strategy of then US president George W. Bush, which led to the United States launching two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and resulted in catastrophic material and human losses for the United States, as well as damaging its international reputation.

These wars were accompanied by the financial and economic crisis experienced by the United States after 2008.

Kissinger must have realised that with this foreign policy and the American setbacks a new reality had emerged in which new forces would compete with the United States to lead the world order.

This culminated in the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. His proclaimed policy was to correct the foreign policy mistakes of his predecessor. He would withdraw American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, focus on diplomacy rather than force, would not work unilaterally but rather through partnership with allies and friends, and would even extend his hand to the United States’ adversaries.

It was clear from these dramatic changes that the world order was in a state of disorder, fluidity and uncertainty. A new world order was in the making, and a scholar and diplomat like Kissinger was motivated to write what might be his last word on politics and diplomacy.

He has thus surprised the world with his recently published book World Order, an insightful and analytical survey of the world order since the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna that established the future of Europe. In the book, Kissinger turns to the role of Asia in the world order and focuses on Asia and Europe and their different concepts of the balance of power.

He also focuses on the role of the United States in the world order, recalling that the United States has long seen itself as “acting for all mankind.” He looks at the role of president Theodore Roosevelt and the rise of America as a superpower, together with the parts played by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D Roosevelt in the establishment of the 20th-century world order. Kissinger calls the United States the “ambivalent superpower.”

Kissinger, who had built part of his reputation on his book Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons, devotes a chapter of his new book to the challenge of nuclear proliferation and cyber technology. In examining the world order of our time, his main question is: Where do we go from here?

His starting point is that every international order must sooner or later face the impact of two tendencies that challenge its cohesion: either a redefinition of legitimacy or a significant shift in the balance of power.

The second cause of crisis in any international order is when it proves unable to accommodate a major change in power relations. In some cases the order collapses because one of its major components ceases to play its role or ceases to exist, as happened to the order near the end of the 20th century when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

A rising power may also reject the role allotted to it by a system it did not design, and the established powers may prove unable to adapt the system’s equilibrium to incorporate its rise. Germany’s emergence posed such a challenge to the system in the 20th century in Europe, triggering two catastrophic wars from which Europe has never fully recovered.

The emergence of China poses a comparable structural challenge in the 21st century. The essence of statesmanship is to strike a balance between the two aspects of order: power and legitimacy.

As these imbalances have grown, the structure of the 21st-century world order has been revealed as lacking in important dimensions. Meanwhile, the nature of the state itself, as the basic formal unit of international life, has been subjected to a multitude of pressures and attacked and dismantled by design.

Kissinger notes that since the end of the Cold War we have witnessed the phenomenon of “failed states,” “ungoverned spaces,” or states that hardly merit the term. Moreover, the political and economic organisations of the world are at variance with each other. The international economic system has become global, while the political structure of the world has remained based on the nation-state.

Despite all the limitations on its power, Kissinger regards American leadership as having been indispensable to world order, even when that leadership has been exercised ambivalently. It has sought a balance between stability and the advocacy of universal principles of sovereign non-interference in other nations’ historical experience.

He argues that the contemporary quest for a new world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the world’s various regions and to relate these regional orders to one another. The domination of one region by one country militarily, even if it brings the appearance of order, could produce a crisis for the rest of the world, he writes.

Kissinger believes that a reassessment of the concept of the balance of power is in order. In theory, the balance of power should be quite calculable. In practice, it has proved extremely difficult to harmonise a country’s calculations of its place in the world with those of other states and achieve a common recognition of limits.

The conjectural element of foreign policy, or the need to gear actions to an assessment that cannot be proved when it is made, is never truer than in periods of upheaval. In these periods, the old order is in flux while the shape of its replacement is highly uncertain. Everything depends, therefore, on some conception of the future.

Kissinger concludes that in order to play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the United

States must be prepared to answer some questions itself. What do we seek to prevent, he asks, no matter how it happens, and, if necessary, alone? The answer will define the minimum conditions for the survival of society. What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? These goals will define the minimum objectives of national strategy.

What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? This will define the outer limits of a country’s strategic aspirations as part of a global system. What should we not engage in, even if urged by a multilateral group or an alliance? This will define the limiting conditions of American participation in the world order. Above all, what is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? What applications depend in part on circumstances?

For Kissinger, a purposeful American role is philosophically and geopolitically imperative for the challenges of our period. Yet world order cannot be achieved by any one country acting alone.

To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a “second culture” that is global, structural and juridical. It is a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. At this moment in history, this would be the modernisation of the Westphalia system informed by contemporary realities.

In asking whether it is possible to translate divergent cultures into a common system Kissinger returns again to the Westphalia system drafted by some 200 delegates at a conference centuries ago.

They overcame the obstacles of their time because they shared the devastating experience of the Thirty Years War in Europe, and they were determined to prevent its recurrence. Kissinger concludes that our era is facing even graver prospects and needs to act before it is overwhelmed by the world’s many crises.


The writer  is director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

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