Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Henry XVII

Love him or hate him, at 91 Henry Kissinger remains one of the foremost analysts of world affairs and foreign policy. See earlier blog The World of Henry’s Orient for remarks on his roles as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Henry is noted as a practitioner of Realpolitik whose foreign policy prescriptions typically are, in his terms, Westphalian. This is a reference to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War. Many of the norms of modern diplomacy were developed at that time, including the convention of treating states and their representatives as equal negotiating partners. The Peace itself and international conduct for many years following it, at least among the major European nations, were characterized by hardheaded calculations of the balance of power among states, divorced from concerns of ideology or religion within those states. A modern example would be the US rapprochement with China – with which Kissinger was intimately involved – to counter what was then rising Soviet military power that disquieted both; both countries shelved ideological differences for the purpose.

Yet, he is aware of the limits to this approach. The philosophy underlying it is not shared by all the players, though they may appeal to it for tactical reasons. During the Cold War, ideology unlimited by national boundaries was at the core of the dispute. Religion is a motivating force in recent challenges, again without respect to national boundaries. There are ethnic-historical motives at play, such as in Ukraine. (For Kissinger’s opinion on Ukraine 6 months ago, see How the Ukraine Crisis Ends.) The USA itself rarely adopts a Westphalian policy – we prefer not to speak of power balances but in selfless universal terms such as “defending freedom and democracy” while of necessity reverting to the pursuit of strictly national interests in desultory fashion; the result is a back and forth lurch of policy so illogical that others sometimes mistakenly think there must be some hidden plan to it. "No country has played such a decisive role in shaping contemporary world order as the United States," writes Henry, "nor professed such ambivalence about participating in it.”

Kissinger’s latest book World Order is now on bookshelves, and plainly was updated to the last possible minute before publication. The thought must have crossed his mind that this book might be his last, for he expresses his fundamental philosophy as compendiously as in any of his 16 previous books. With a deep sense of history, he describes the development of competing worldviews from ancient times to today, and how these relate to (or conflict with) modern Westphalian considerations. He offers no grand solution (nor does he indicate any belief such a thing is possible) but he does offer some advice to US policymakers. As a handbook for the world as it is and how it got that way, it is, for its modest length (377 pages plus notes), hard to do better than World Order.

Whatever this is, it sums up the book correctly


  1. World Order for some might provoke a near jerk reaction of conspiracy theories and Big Brother. Though I assume in Kissinger's case it's a peaceful goal to achieve. I wish it were so. I saw him the other day on Sunday's Face The Nation or some other topical program where they were discussing the whole Mideast thing, ISIS, etc. As he and others have said, it's a complex thing. It's hard for me to accept that it's all based around religion, though it may be, there seems to be an underbelly to it as well. For example, some of ISIS or ISIL terrorist are recruiting young people into their group, and paying them to serve, which otherwise would be unemployed, so I guess there's an economic concern as well. Either way, though, yes, complex problem. It'd be hard to be in the President's shoes these days. :)

    1. Had he mentioned the Trilateral Commission I'm sure he would have put a bow on those theories.

      Maybe the theorists who claim violence has sexual roots are right, though I'm not sure what practical response that entails.