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. Other omissions are less easily defended. Fascist and communist ideas of world order are notable by their absence, despite their evident impact on international affairs.
Historians will be struck by the complete lack of discussion of Rome, or its successors around the Mediterranean. The single most plausible candidate for a world order power in the medieval era—the Mongols under Genghis Khan—gets no look in at all, despite forging an empire that dwarfed anything the Chinese ever achieved and possessing an interesting cosmo-political theory of their own. But then including the Mongols might have made the author wonder whether his neat quadripartite schema really worked, since their chief victims were other Islamic states.
Each of Kissinger’s supposed four cases can only be swallowed with a pinch of salt. His “Westphalian” Europe of sovereign states did not in fact exist for much of the period he claims. Far from operating purely procedurally and with disregard for what happened internally, European states were increasingly concerned with which were monarchies and which were not. Was it coincidence that the two great casualties of Kissinger’s beloved balance of power—Poland and Venice—were both republics? And his long-time hero, Austria’s Foreign Minister and Chancellor Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), was unquestionably prepared to intervene where he could to stamp out revolutionary or radical movements to preserve the principle of monarchical rule.
The idea of an “Islamic” world order does not get us any further: this is merely a shorthand which obscures the fact that numerous polities have existed in the name of Islam over centuries and found ways to reconcile the precepts of the Koran with geopolitical realities. As for “the” American view of world order, there was more than one: the Wilsonian idea of spreading democracy and the nation state, something Kissinger evidently thinks has done much damage, was a relative newcomer; in the late 19th century, the dominant strain of American internationalism was based on procedural legal principles, not on the proselytising of political values.
To understand what kind of historical reasoning is at work here, we need to go back to Harvard graduate school in the 1950s, where the young Kissinger had already made it clear that he believed Americans could fight the Soviet Union successfully only if they took on board some European lessons. Wilsonian methods would not work in the Cold War. Missionary fervour was dangerous in a standoff with another nuclear power. Better try to articulate rules of the diplomatic game and then bring the Soviets in, much as Metternich had brought the French back in to international society after the Napoleonic wars.
More than half a century later, Kissinger still seems to believe that understanding 19th-century European principles of the balance of power are a valuable corrective to the American tendency to sermonise, to bang on about things like human rights and to think that virtue can replace power. Now as then, Russia figures in his worldview as a power half in and half out of the tent, embodying both primitivism and a desire for acceptance. Now as then, Russia is playing a game Kissinger understands—raison d’état and the balance of power are his diplomatic currencies.
In the old days, Kissinger had little interest in spending time on any parts of the global chessboard that did not affect the central superpower struggle. In particular, he made a sharp distinction between Soviet communists, whom he basically regarded as rational and therefore potential negotiating partners, and Third World radicals leading the decolonisation charge, many of whom he wrote off as unreasoning fanatics. To be sure, he was early to see the importance of reconciliation with the Chinese communists. But the world has become a lot more complicated since then. The earliest effort from Washington to frame an understanding of the new world that emerged in the 1990s was Samuel Huntington’s work on the “clash of civilisations.” This replaced bipolarity with regionalism, and handpicked morsels from the smörgåsbord of history as shamelessly as Kissinger does here, to authorise its definition of a given civilisation’s “world view.”
Huntington detected more “civilisations” than Kissinger has time for, but there is much overlap—the Islamic and the Chinese are common to both. The main difference is that while Huntington talked about a single “western” civilisation, Kissinger—focusing on attitudes to international affairs—distinguishes the American from the European. In effect, what World Order does is to take Huntington’s approach, discarding pesky irrelevances such as Latin America, Africa and India, and bolt it on to Kissinger’s older Metternichian vision. Its major difference is one of attitude and outlook: Huntington’s deep-rooted pessimism about the capability of different peoples and parts of the world to reach any basic understanding is replaced by Kissinger’s pragmatism and belief in statecraft.
This pragmatism faces at least two major challenges. One is Islam. As one would expect from the Chairman of Kissinger Associates, he has plenty to say on Iran and the state of the Middle East in general. The other is the problem of state debility. Nothing is more disturbing to Kissinger than the idea that states might collapse or implode, since that threatens his vision of an international system composed of states.
The diagnoses that follow are often questionable. Using his world order perspective, for instance, Kissinger suggests that the basic problem in the Israel-Palestine conflict is the clash between two conceptions of world order—the European and the Islamic. How that squares with the Palestinian desire for a state of their own—an eminently Westphalian goal in his terms—is not evident. (It also requires turning a blind eye to the obstacle posed by Israeli territorial occupation.) Similarly, the analysis of the reasons for state failure is pretty perfunctory: there is little discussion of why states might fail and certainly no attempt to connect the weakness of the modern state with the transformation of modern capitalism and finance in particular. This book is the expression of a very American Metternich, one who won’t rock the Washington boat too far.
Readers are constantly reminded of the obvious—above all, the need to balance legitimacy and power—but those expecting fresh insights into where American foreign policy should go will find that his specific prescriptions are cautious. Kissinger remains an Atlanticist: he believes the transatlantic partnership is still needed, especially as Europe becomes more introverted. More generally, as one would expect from a historian of the “Concert of Europe,” he thinks that powerful states should work together. China and the United States, above all, will simply have to. The prospects of state failure in particular require international cooperation among major powers to avert the worst. This is a world in which it is a sin to be small and in which major powers have “responsibilities” to “lead,” and rarely abuse their power except by neglecting to use it.
His discussion of how the internet is changing diplomacy has next to nothing to say about Wikileaks or Edward Snowden or the revelations of enhanced surveillance. What really bothers him is the prospect that greater openness and speed of communications make the diplomat’s life more difficult. As for the Middle East, Kissinger, as one would expect, sees no alternative to America remaining the indispensable bridging power, continuing to engage Iran in dialogue in order to wean her leaders from their “Islamic” world view. How helpful this is to the Washington policymaker I am not equipped to say. Not much, I would have thought—since the Iranian elite may already be operating on the basis of Westphalian principles in pursuing their nuclear programme, Kissinger’s world historical analysis may be entirely beside the point.
The US, for Kissinger, must avoid the temptations of isolationism; it must remain engaged across the world because peace in the Middle East and the Pacific, as much as security in Europe, require its participation. What counts is not spreading democracy but guaranteeing stability and establishing or upholding principles of international conduct among states. That basically means getting big powers to realise they have more to gain than to lose by cooperating, since competition will unleash forces of anarchy that will threaten everyone. Washington’s grand old man does not stoop to address the domestic problem of growing isolationism and war weariness: no more than Metternich did does he regard this as the statesman’s concern. Nor does he spend much time pondering the fate of those rule-making bodies that international cooperation has produced—from the United Nations downwards. He has never had much time for international organisations. How the rules and procedures that he wants to see emerge are supposed to do so is never spelled out.
In the good old days after Napoleon’s defeat, European foreign ministers could craft new rules for diplomacy because they shared a similar social background and spoke the same language. Today’s diplomats inhabit the Tower of Babel and worse still, no one listens to them any more. The age of the great statesmen appears to be over. On the evidence of this book, that may not be entirely a bad thing.