Leaving Something to History

  • World Order
  • By Henry Kissinger
  • Penguin Press, New York 2014
  • HC, 420 pages, US$36.00
  • ISBN: 978-1-59420-614-6

  • Click here to buy World Order

Henry Kissinger, the well-known and highly acclaimed American diplomat has published a new book entitled World Order, a much needed volume at the beginning of this troubled century. Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in 1923 in Fürth, Germany located in the Bavarian region of Europe, Kissinger encountered growing anti-Semitism during that turbulent period causing his family to seek refuge in New York when he was 15 years old. Thus, in 1943 as a naturalized U.S. citizen, Henry Kissinger, remarkably in only five years, served in the U.S. armed forces both in France and Germany during the Second World War.  Later educated at Harvard University, Kissinger went on from academia to statesmanship and became an influential American policymaker. Consequently, his book was awaited with anticipation by both his admirers and his critics. Not unexpectedly, World Order is well-written, informative and provocative. While the author is an accomplished historian and a knowledgeable man who helped shape some of the most important and tragic foreign policy of the latter part of the 20th century, his world vision can be described as soundly “establishment” and his legacy as questionable.

As National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Kissinger was instrumental in America’s controversial opening to China, in the negotiations to end the Vietnam War, and in the peace process between Egypt and Israel. In his vision, all of those dealings brought about a more secure world. But, did they?

As a former refugee from Eastern Europe and as a geographer, I read with interest Kissinger’s theories and his views of the events that he personally witnessed and shaped. I also followed his endeavors to promote a safer world order along with his philosophical conclusions. What can we learn from this book and how does it prepare us for a better future? The quick answer is that we learn a lot from reading it, and, yet, we remain unprepared for the future. Actually, at the end of the book the author writes that when he was young he wanted to find “The Meaning of History.” Now, he concedes, the meaning of history is yet to be found.

The book offers a good review of history, geopolitics and international relations starting with antiquity and ending with the ongoing events of these very days. In his search, he focuses on the idea of ‘world order.’ In this regard, Kissinger is solidly embedded in the European post-Westphalia order established in 1648 following the 30 Years War. The Westphalia agreements set up the modern state as a cornerstone for order and the concept of the balance of power for maintaining international peace. The system was a compromise between ‘power’ and ‘legitimacy’ and between the small and large European countries of the time. In Kissinger’s opinion, the Westphalia system endured, acquired global acceptance, and although challenged by a perpetually changing world, it remains the best model for securing international peace. He mentions that “no truly world order has ever existed” and that the old Westphalia system is now challenged from many sides.

As an adviser to several American presidents, as well as a diplomat and negotiator, Kissinger is admired and criticized at the same time. One can admire him for his knowledge, for his analyses, and for the attempt to put his ideas into practice. Yet, he is criticized for having been cynical in a world of increasing humanitarianism and idealism and for negotiating treaties that in the end were detrimental to America and the West. Indeed, if his ideas were so thoughtful and beautiful, why was applying them so ugly? Kissinger received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to bringing peace to Vietnam and South-East Asia. Yet, instead of bringing freedom, millions of people were arrested, massacred and enslaved following the ‘peace’ that he helped to negotiate. Kissinger was also instrumental in opening America to China claiming that a mutual engagement would bring about international cooperation and more security.

Recounted elsewhere, it was this very rapprochement with Beijing that caused a permanent rupture in Kissinger’s valued relationship with his mentor since 1943, of whom he says, “Fritz Kraemer was the greatest single influence of my formative years. His inspiration remained with me even during the last thirty years when he would not speak to me.”

Kissinger was convinced that such an approach would lead to a split between Beijing and Moscow. And what really happened? The two powers are colluding against America. Where is the international peace and cooperation that he envisioned? And with regard to the Middle East, where he was deeply involved in peace negotiations, it seems that we are now further away from peace than ever before.

In World Order, Kissinger avoids criticizing any American President apparently to keep open his ‘advisory capabilities’ and to preserve his link with the White House for future benefits. He even praised President Obama for his foreign policy choices and for maintaining good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Actually, Kissinger boasts that he enjoys a friendly relationship with Putin and advocates a dialogue rather than a confrontation with him. In this vein, he took a soft approach with regard to Moscow’s claims on Ukraine, recognizing, somehow, Russia’s right to a sphere of influence. Is this appeasement toward Russia or promoting his own undisclosed interests?

In spite of this criticism, the book is a good source of knowledge. The reader finds out that some ancient Asian countries were equally or even more advanced in their international dealings than the European states of the time. The political and moral principles advocated by Cardinal Richelieu or Machiavelli in medieval Europe, for example, had been espoused two thousand years earlier in India. Some medieval societies produced their own wise statesmen, but are their recommendations universally applicable? How can one reconcile power and legitimacy or democracy, dictatorship and terrorism? Kissinger offers many case studies and gives priorities to some of them, but he offers few solutions.

Perhaps that is the distinguishing difference between the statesman and the strategist.

With regard to the U.S., the author embraces the idea of American ‘exceptionalism’ based on democracy and government by consent, but he admits that there is an innate ambivalence and contradiction in U.S. foreign policy. He tries to justify America’s current world preeminence, but is this preeminence going to last? In fact, any growing superpower appears driven by a sort of a natural law to achieve global domination. Historically all great powers that have tried to expand as far as possible, have failed in the end.  Is the world any different today? It is in a way.  Today, the world has the capacity to destroy itself.  Reminiscent of his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger is worried and cautious about nuclear weapons and their proliferation. He vehemently opposes Iran’s efforts to achieve nuclear capability.

As for the contemporary world, the author mentions the transformation of the former Soviet Union, but does not explain why the Soviet system collapsed. World Order also focuses on the coming of age of Asia and the changes Russia and China are bringing to the new world order.  The global geopolitical order went from bi-polar at the end of the Second World War to uni-polar at the end of the Cold War with the U.S. as the sole superpower. The world is now slowly moving toward multi-polarity and uncertainty. How the world is going to change in the future is a theoretical question without a practical answer. Although, one thing is clear: America ought to remain strong and engaged internationally and must try to keep the world in balance. But it is not going to be easy.  In this context, Kissinger offers a statement by President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz who said: “Americans, being a moral people, want their foreign policy to reflect the values we espouse as a nation. But Americans, being a practical people, also want their foreign policy to be effective.” Can these opposing values be reconciled? They were successfully combined under a strong leader. At the height of the Cold War Ronald Reagan had a vision and he was capable of transforming his vision into reality!

The reader can see the knowledgeable historian and the astute statesman in this book, but what is Kissinger’s philosophy at the end of a long career?

He admits that we live in a contradictory world of cooperation and confrontation and we need wise leaders to navigate the dangers surrounding us. In a digital world of instant information and with a population increasingly demanding participatory democracy, the task is not easy.  Other than that, is there a sense and purpose in history? In Henry Kissinger’s World Order, the author does not tell us. Perhaps we must look elsewhere for the answer.

It is in his eulogy to his mentor and Pentagon strategist, Dr. Fritz Kraemer, at the Fort Meyer Chapel on October 8, 2003 that Kissinger reveals the divergence between the policymaker and the ancient prophet. “The prophet thinks in terms of crusades; the policymaker hedges against the possibility of human fallibility. The policymaker, if he wants to avoid stagnation, needs the prophet’s inspiration, but he cannot live by all the prophet’s prescriptions in the short term; he must leave something to history.”

At the end of the day, the erudite cannot substitute for the strategic approach in American foreign policy.

And so, as Kissinger approaches his 92nd year, he pursues “policymaking” via his ‘advisory capabilities’ through his firm Kissinger Associates, Inc. This includes the promotion of globalization, which is the process of international integration through trade, investments, and the outsourcing of manufacturing and information technology.

Arguably, globalization largely favors the wealthy, the powerful and the influential, otherwise known as the “establishment” and brings about even more socio-economic inequities which in turn may trigger political upheavals. Are we advancing toward freedom and free market cooperation or toward societal confrontation? We shall see!

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a retired professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He is currently a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.