Henry Kissinger’s World Order harks back to a foreign policy that might seem old-fashioned. But it warns against ignoring the realities of power and interest.

World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History
Henry Kissinger. London: Penguin, 2014. £25.00. 420 pp.

Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, offers advice on the big issues facing American foreign policy, including Iran, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and China. It is impressive to observe a nonagenarian worrying about positioning himself in order to stay true to his analysis without straying too far from his Republican political base. In practice, however, much of his advice is cautious and already dated, and so that is not why this book should be read. As the subtitle indicates, this is essentially a valedictory – a return to the core themes that have shaped Kissinger’s full life. As an exile from Nazi Germany, and then as a soldier returning to his former homeland in an army of occupation, he observed at first hand the impact of totalitarian zealotry and democratic inattention. It was an introduction to the consequences of recklessness and carelessness at the highest political levels. In his subsequent career, both as an academic and a practitioner, he struggled to reconcile the optimism and idealism of his adopted country with this awareness of the speed with which a political order can break down and tragedy strike. The book therefore is a meditation on the limits and dangers – as well as the possibilities – of power.

The primacy of states

His template for world order is the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that concluded the catastrophic Thirty Years War. This took the form of three separate agreements put together by 235 largely anonymous souls. They did not do so to give legal expression to a morality of peace, but because they had endured the futility of war. That was crucial. The value of Westphalia lay in its lack of ambition, in that it did not attempt to address differences of substance. The innovation was procedural. Instead of a hierarchy of states, which encouraged rivalry and demands for deference, they should all be treated equally, whatever their underlying power. The key rule was that one state should not interfere in the internal affairs of another. What they did within their borders was a matter for them. Neighbours might object, but they must not meddle – and certainly not attack. 

This assertion of the sovereign rights of states has remained the starting point for any scheme for world order. But it was never really sufficient. There were many ways that states had an impact on each other as a result of economic and political policies. While Westphalia had dealt with one form of ideological divergence, others soon arose. Nor were states equal in practice. It was always likely that if one acquired excessive power it would seek advantage at the expense of others. Hence the need to combine the Westphalian rule of non-interference with a precautionary balance of power.

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Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. His latest book is Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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