Book review: “World Order” by Henry Kissinger



Book review: World Order, by Henry Kissinger. 2014, Penguin Press. 433 pages, R$46,73 (Kindle,

Henry Kissinger's book Diplomacy, published in 1994, has perhaps been the most widely read international affairs book over the past two decades, influencing both policy makers and scholars around the world. Rightly so, for his analysis is intellectually rigorous and factual flaws are rare, even though the book's title is misleading as Kissinger, in a classic Western-centric fashion, only writes about non-Western events when they were relevant to Western interests. European or Western Diplomacy would have been a more adequate title.

For those who have read Diplomacy, the first chapters of Kissinger's latest book, called World Order, will be somewhat repetitive, as he merely reformulates -- in a somewhat abbreviated fashion -- his analysis of events from the Peace of Westphalia all the way to the present. Admittedly, he does so in an authoritative and engaging way, and his analysis is highly recommendable for International Relations students -- say, for an introductory course on Realism (even though he barely cites primary sources or comments on previous analyses) -- or newly minted diplomats.

As in Diplomacy, Kissinger emphasizes the importance of 1648 when, with the end of the universal Church as the ultimate source of legitimacy, and the weakening of the Holy Roman Emperor, the ordering concept for Europe became the balance of power - which, by definition, involved ideological neutrality and adjustment to evolving circumstances.

As would be expected, Kissinger enjoys focusing on realpolitikers like Cardinal Richelieu, who ruthlessly sided with the Protestants against Rome during the Thirty Years' War, and who famously articulated the doctrine that "the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right", holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d'état. Kissinger's other heroes are Austria's shrewd Klemens von Metternich, who pulled the strings at the Congress of Vienna, Britain's Lord Palmerston, the French diplomat Talleyrand and, of course, the scheming Otto von Bismarck, the latter of whom the author calls "a master manipulator of the balance of power". Reading through these passages, one can sense how Kissinger admires all of them, and how he regards himself as one of their heirs. In a similar way, he is clearly put off by incompetence, mocking Leo von Caprivi for his incapacity to understand or replicate Bismarck's subtle dealings.

The author repeatedly argues how European ideas "shaped the world" and how European expansion starting in the late 15th century created the first truly global order. That overlooks that the history of ideas was not entirely unidirectional, and that European civilization benefited greatly from both Arab and Chinese innovations. Kissinger, however, implies that norms have generally diffused from the Western center to the periphery. Non-Western actors either adopted or resisted such new ideas, but rarely were they the agents of progress. According to this widely accepted model of “Western diffusionism”, history is a Western-led process, underlined by Kissinger's emphasis on Europe. He repeatedly points out how non-Western powers were forced to adopt a set of rules and norms that they barely knew, yet that overlooks the significant contributions non-Western thinkers and policy makers made to today's order -- for example, China was part of both conferences in The Hague, in 1899 and 1907, which made important contributions to international law.

In Kissinger's contemporary analysis of Europe, he does not hide his skepticism regarding the continent's capacity to weigh in on the debate about the future of global order -- contrary to the important contributions the continent's thinkers have made in the past. "Europe", he writes, "turns inward just as the quests for a world order it significantly designed faces a fraught juncture whose outcome could engulf any region that fails to help shape it."

The chapter on the Middle East is perhaps the book's weakest, as it provides the reader with little new information, and it lacks the unique insights or personal stories Kissinger provides about European, US-American or Asian history. Who, one wonders, were the great Ottoman negotiators comparable to Metternich? When discussing the democracy vs. security dilemma vis-à-vis Egypt, he could go beyond arguing that "the most sustainable course will involve a blend of the realism and idealism too often held out in the US-American debate as incompatible opposites."

Kissinger is again insightful when discussing Asian geopolitics and the future of Sino-US relations. Pointing to the challenges ahead, he writes

The United States and China are both indispensable pillars of world order. Remarkably, both have historically exhibited an ambivalent attitude toward the international system they now anchor, affirming their commitment to it even as they reserve judgment on aspects of its design. China has no precedent for the role it is asked to play in twenty-first-century order, as one major state among others. Nor does the United States have experience interacting on a sustained basis with a country of comparable size, reach, and economic performance embracing a distinctly different model of domestic order.

The cultural and political backgrounds of the two sides diverge in important aspects. The American approach to policy is pragmatic; China’s is conceptual. America has never had a powerful threatening neighbor; China has never been without a powerful adversary on its borders. Americans hold that every problem has a solution; Chinese think that each solution is an admission ticket to a new set of problems. Americans seek an outcome responding to immediate circumstances; Chinese concentrate on evolutionary change. Americans outline an agenda of practical “deliverable” items; Chinese set out general principles and analyze where they will lead. Chinese thinking is shaped in part by Communism but embraces a traditionally Chinese way of thought to an increasing extent; neither is intuitively familiar to Americans.

China and the United States have, in their histories, only recently fully participated in an international system of sovereign states. China has believed that it was unique and largely contained within its own reality. America also considers itself unique—that is, “exceptional”—but with a moral obligation to support its values around the world for reasons beyond raison d’état. Two great societies of different cultures and different premises are both undergoing fundamental domestic adjustments; whether this translates into rivalry or into a new form of partnership will importantly shape prospects for twenty-first-century world order.

Kissinger also recognizes the important theoretical contributions about global order made by Indian thinkers such as Kautilya, who, millenia before European thinkers articulated a theory of balance of power, set out an analogous and more elaborate system termed the "circle of states". Contiguous polities, in Kautilya’s analysis, existed in a state of latent hostility. (See also: Book review of “The First Great Realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra)


Kissinger's critical analysis of Wilsonianism is, though biased, a wonderful read. Despite disagreeing with most of what Wilson proposed, the author astutely observes that

Woodrow Wilson, whose career would appear more the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy than of foreign policy textbooks, had touched an essential chord in the American soul. Though far from being the most geopolitically astute or diplomatically skillful American foreign policy figure of the twentieth century, he consistently ranks among the “greatest” presidents in contemporary polls. It is the measure of Wilson’s intellectual triumph that even Richard Nixon, whose foreign policy in fact embodied most of Theodore Roosevelt’s precepts, considered himself a disciple of Wilson’s international- ism and hung a portrait of the wartime President in the Cabinet room. (See also: Book review "Wilsonianism in the 21st Century")

And yet, he also -- rightly -- argues that the tragedy of Wilsonianism "is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century's decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics." Indeed, arguing that foreign policy is a teleological battle for a better world is far more aligned with American psyche than depicting international diplomacy as a permanent endeavor for contingent aims, dealing with ever-recurring challenges.

Kissinger's brilliance in analyzing the past is contrasted by his remarkable short-sightedness when assessing contemporary US foreign policy in the Middle East. Kissinger supported the Iraq War (along with almost the entire foreign policy establishment), yet fails to even mention the Bush administration's false case about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Rather than questioning the entire enterprise, Kissinger points to "the tragedy of a country whose people have been prepared for more than half a century to send its sons and daughters to remote corners of the world in defense of freedom but whose political system has not been able to muster the same unified and persistent purpose." That overlooks that the United States may have never, even after decades of occupation, transformed Iraq into a stable and peaceful multiparty democracy, and it fails to consider the human suffering unleashed in Iraq by the US intervention.

As Stephen Walt wisely points out, looking back to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq,

Counterinsurgency (COIN) is very hard because it requires local knowledge that U.S. forces invariably lack, and because a large foreign military presence triggers local resentments and produces a raft of unintended consequences. Successful COIN also requires reliable local partners, who are usually absent (if the locals were competent and reliable, they wouldn’t need help). Moreover, COIN is an expensive and time-consuming strategy that is normally conducted in places of modest strategic value. Because it is hard to justify big expenditures of blood or treasure for relatively small stakes, public support inevitably erodes over time. The insurgents know that Uncle Sam will eventually go home and that they can simply wait us out. Bottom line: The idea that the United States can or must master the art of counterinsurgency is absurd.

Kissinger's final chapter on how technology will affect politics offers a series of cautionary tales for those who believe that the internet, greater transparency and instant global communication will help solve fundamental conflicts both on the domestic and the international level. The author rightly points out that, quite to the contrary, the never-ending news cycle, the quick spread of extreme opinions (or, say, videos of atrocities committed by ISIS) and the way non-democratic regimes have used the internet to strengthen their repressive tactics all suggest that technology can be used for purposes both good and bad, but that it hardly made policy making easier:

Policymakers are expected to have formulated a position within several hours and to interject it into the course of events—where its effects will be broadcast globally by the same instantaneous networks. The temptation to cater to the demands of the digitally reflected multitude may override the judgment required to chart a complex course in harmony with long-term purposes. The distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom is weakened. 

Considering that the author is 92 years old, the clarity with which Kissinger assesses the impact of modern technology on politics and humanity more broadly is quite remarkable.

All this makes World Order, despite its flaws and a disturbing unwillingness to recognize the United States' nefarious role in the Middle East over the past decade, a rewarding read.

Read also:

Book review: “Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It Most” by Thomas Hale, David Held and Kevin Young

The Forgotten History of Pre-Western Global Order

How the East Learned to Live with the West

Photo credit: Grant Cornett