News | April 1, 2015

Book Review: World Order

By David A. Anderson Joint Force Quarterly 77

World Order Cover

Henry Kissinger, the scholar, statesman, and philosopher, writes a fascinating, insightful, and thought-provoking history of the concept of the state, statecraft, grand strategy, and international cooperation in the pursuit of order and stability among nations. Although no true universal arrangement among states has ever existed, he asserts the order that does exist is at risk because of developing forces beyond the control of states themselves. So we must ask whether collective state order can be achieved while maintaining individual state freedom in an increasingly intricate and turbulent global environment.

The author sets the stage by addressing evolution of the state as a permanent and fundamental entity in conducting international intercourse. He notably highlights the significance of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) in first institutionalizing international order among states. The state became the impetus in establishing foreign policy and the representative strategy for protecting and promoting the best interests of its people, free of foreign intervention based on religion or otherwise. Kissinger smartly details the role of the state in developing European relations and its enduring legacy in shaping the dealings between and among states to this day. Along the way, he draws upon classic philosophers including Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes who have shaped our understanding of the role of the state.

Kissinger painstakingly details the breakdown of international order over time due to imbalances of power and ambitions between and among states. He then examines the collective pursuit by nations to reestablish order through agreements, such as the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) that spoke to the post-Napoleonic era in Europe. He describes how difficult such agreements became over time owing to varying state historical experiences, perspectives, and interests. As effective as the Congress of Vienna was in bringing stability to Europe, it was no panacea for peace in the long run. Russia in essence ignored it, expanding its borders every year until 1917, while it ultimately provoked a unified Germany into eventual war in 1914. Further exemplifying the difficulty of rebuilding international order resulting from imbalance of power is the disaster known as the Treaty of Versailles, which set the terms for peace at the end of the First World War that eventually led to World War II. Unfortunately, U.S. isolationism ultimately won out over President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations concept to restore international order. Without U.S. leadership in such an organization, another major war in Europe was inevitable.

In spite of efforts to promote post–World War II international order by establishing organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and International Monetary Fund, a Cold War of differing philosophies supported by military might broke out, pitting U.S. democracy against Soviet communism. The Cold War left both countries vying for the dominant position to dictate and lead international order. Competing multilateral balance of power initiatives such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Warsaw Pact subsequently soon followed. It also set the United States and Soviet Union as opponents in a nuclear arms race, further destabilizing world order.

Kissinger details the trials and tribulations of U.S. strategies during the Cold War period. Although the United States eventually won the war, it has struggled with grand strategy to this day. Examples include the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, an aggressive Russia, nuclear weapons in North Korea and Pakistan, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. At the same time, China rises as not only an Asian power but also an international one while traditional European allies are in decline. Furthermore, China is by default asked to adhere to principles it did not help shape. As applied, the Chinese are “at odds with its historical image of itself.” Finally, Kissinger likens the Iranian revolution that began in 1979 to pre-Westphalia times and commits a significant effort to addressing the disorder in the Middle East (for example, the Arab Spring) and Islamic states in general.

The author underscores the difficult challenge for states to reconstruct international order in today’s environment because they inherently pursue self-interests above all else. For that reason, he asserts that no alliance is permanent. Relationships are becoming more intrinsically mixed, notoriously fragile, and frequently wane—depending on prevailing issues. Kissinger ends by leaving the reader to contemplate contemporaneous problems making the revision of the Westphalia model necessary and problematic. Featured topics include the emergence of globalization (placing economic and political institutions increasingly at odds), cyber technology, the human factor in the information/digital age, and nuclear proliferation. He believes international forums such as the United Nations Security Council, the G7, G8, G20, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation are not conducive, nor comprehensive enough, to tackle the contemporary realities necessitating changes to the international system. This is a challenge for statesmen going forward: revise the world order arrangement or face a fragmented dysfunctional world.

Over the years much has been written regarding the theme of this book. Kissinger’s breadth, depth, and astute understanding of the subject matter are beyond reproach and vividly displayed throughout the book. No other author has ever accomplished such a comprehensive feat in such a judicious and finely distinct way. The historical context that only he can provide is evident with a nuanced flavor that is as readable as it is enlightening. It is readily apparent he brings to bear his entire professional experience in writing this fine addition to his seminal body of work.

The book is a must-read by political science, international diplomacy/relations, public administration, and strategic studies students and scholars, as well as government officials, foreign policy designers, and military leaders. It is also relevant to historians and those with a general interest in the history of states and international diplomacy. JFQ