Henry_Kissinger_2009Today a review about Kissinger's book “World order” that saw the light in September last year. It's book that draws notice as much because of the writer as the subject itself. Kissinger, being the most famous secretary of state that the US ever produced is a “real politiker” pur sang. When the world seems to be increasingly in disarray it makes sense to listen what someone of his stature has to say about the subject. What solutions are there for the problems the current world is facing? Kissinger looks at the historical perspective bypassing many historical developments and keeping to the red thread of power and balance.

That begins with the peace of Westphalia (1648, which also recognized the independence of the Dutch republic). Born out of necessities that were shaped by the 30 year war. It seems to me that historical landmarks like that are always the product of necessity. The penalty for breaking the compact being far higher than the gain. People of that era knew why the treaty was formed and had good reason to abide it's terms. In later times it might have become a habit, but not then. Kissinger sees the treaty as a landmark because it recognized national states as an entity instead of royal houses and set rules of conduct between those entities. A system he notes that still is in force today.


Ratification of the Peace of Münster (Gerard ter Borch, Münster, 1648)Kissinger also discusses the Chinese, the Russian and the Islam as components of world order. Africa and South-America are not discussed. Their influence on the world order is perhaps for him to small to matter. I think this is a mistake. Although not historical relevant these continents can still play a role in the future. For example, as much as Africa has problems, it also has potential. A potential we nowadays explore by mining and digging. We are not colonizers any more. However others can see it differently. Chinese and Indians are also interested in Africa. Not only for it's natural resources, but for agriculture and migration. Islamists are trying to spread their belief by conquest past the Sahara. This sets the stage for a new 'battlefield' which could upset the world order again if it's not properly contained.

We are also facing the threat of Russian expansionism. Kissinger asserts, rightly, that problems on the border of the Russian empire always have been solved by conquest. Conquer a new part and bring it under control. It explains more or less Putin's behavior towards Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. Even Afghanistan during the Brezhnev period would fit in this paradigm. It is all too well that Putin refers to the Russian bear as “master of the taiga”, but where does the taiga begin and where does it end? Maybe it is up to us to draw the line. Till here and no further.

Drawing lines in the Islamic world is more difficult. The Islamic world had the Westphalia system imposed without being part of the developments that created the necessity. Because it does not recognize the need it has questioned the system since the founding of the Muslim brotherhood (1928). The Islam does not recognize states that are don't embrace it's belief. They might grant you peace, but that's temporary. Not a natural state of things. The natural state of things is that all are united in the same belief. However this “universal truth”, does not prevent them from being hopelessly divided. The Arab League is widely known to be a paper tiger. It cannot act because it's members never seem to agree on anything in spite of professing the same belief. It's the experience of the 30 year war and it's consequences that is lacking and it's the fragmentation in the Muslim world that is the source of current instability in the world order.

It's president George W. Bush who bears much responsibility for this. Kissinger is very diplomatic towards him (more than I would be). Calling him a freedom loving President, but he condemns the size and scope of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless. Engaging the US in two wars in order to bring peace and democracy to the middle east has brought about a state of anarchy that is hard to contain. Also the deep recession in the economy has brought about crisis amongst almost every state in the world. In Europe we had to respond to the banking crisis it brought about. In Muslim countries the Arab spring toppled governments and brought civil war. Surviving governments have responded by increasing oil production in order to quench the flames of revolution. The low oil price is a result and a big problem for Russia whose economy is simply too dependent on that one product. It is not inconceivable that the soft power of the EU could bring Russia to it's knees, but somehow I have a hard time believing that. It's more likely that dictatorial Russia finds more in common with dictatorial China and becomes the loyal follower of the Chinese Emperor (Chairman). Chinese technology married with Russian natural resources. How would that affect the world order?

The_New_Republic_magazine_February_11_2013_coverKissinger provides no clear answers. I had hoped for such when I started to read the book, but there are none. At least he formulates the basic questions. In an review of “The new republicthese questions are answered by President Obama in a West-Point speech.

Kissinger:What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort?”

Obama: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.”

Kissinger: “What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance?”

Obama: “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake—when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us—then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”

Kissinger: “What should we not engage in, even if urged by a multilateral group or an alliance?”

TNR: That last question is the one Obama answers by omission. Obama’s speeches during his first term, as well as his National Security Strategy, championed the principle of “responsibility to protect, endorsed by all members of the United Nations at their sixtieth anniversary in 2005.” As Obama’s own White House described it, the principle recognizes that the “primary responsibility for preventing genocide and mass atrocity rests with sovereign governments.” But when “those governments themselves commit genocide or mass atrocities,” or when they are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from outside forces committing such acts within their borders, “this responsibility passes to the broader international community.” That responsibility can be exercised by many means, including the use of force.

It seems to me that Obama's answers are sensible for all of us (Hillary Clinton would surely follow in his footsteps). If you would substitute EU for US the answers would be the same. Does that solve all our problems? No, these principles are no guidelines for global issues like mass migration, nuclear proliferation, climate change, the role of the internet and other issues that demand answer from the international community as a whole. Maybe it's from challenges in those areas that ultimately a new world order will arise. Or better yet a reinvention of the old, because we should forget that a new world order (like the peace of Westphalia) is always build upon the ashes of the old.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.