The age of the great statesman is over—but the former politician and historian appears not to have noticedby Mark Mazower / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
There are books that clearly drove the author to write them. Now nearly 50 years old, Henry Kissinger’s first book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822, on the conservative statesmen who brought peace to Europe after 1815, was one of these. His latest, however, is not. Why should a retired elder statesman, sure of some kind of place in history, the founder of what appears to be an immensely profitable Washington consultancy, have felt the need to cobble together this superficial historical panorama-cum-policy survey?
Taking us through what he terms the four great world orders in history—the European, the Islamic, the Chinese and the American—Kissinger combines rapid summaries of centuries of change with breathtaking generalisations and bizarre omissions. In his telling, “Europe” stands for a system of states interacting with one another according to agreed procedures and with little regard for what each state does at home. The Americans are the opposite—detesting European notions of the balance of power and wedded to the idea of spreading liberal values around the globe. Islam, he says, is not just a religion; it was and is a vision of the world in which true believers exist in a state of permanent war with non-believers. As for the Chinese, they are apparently still heirs to the ancient imperial view in which the whole world was regarded as tributary to the emperor.
Push beyond the stereotypes and there is so much wrong with this that it is hard to know where to start. In the first place, his Big Four is obviously a grouping influenced by the state of the world in the early 21st century rather than by any desire to approach geographical comprehensiveness or historical reality. There is virtually no mention of South or Central America throughout the book; as so often, America means US of A. That may not be so surprising—since South American ideas of Pan-Americanism, interesting in themselves, have rarely forced their way onto the world stage. There is no Africa, for similar reasons. There is some discussion of “Asia,” mostly by way of deconstructing the concept.…