Monday, October 20, 2014

World Order by Henry Kissinger

Plain cover, deep interior

Old yes, but a master-student
Henry Kissinger has been a public official (National Security Adviser and Secretary of State), a private consultant, and a college professor. At age 91, Kissinger has donned his professorial hat to take the student on a grand tour of international relations. But this IR course doesn’t start with the world of today. Professor Kissinger recognizes the deep roots of history, and he begins with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). There in time and space begins the tour, moving through the establishment of the European balance of power international system, the French Revolution, the Congress of Vienna (about which he wrote a definitive work), and through to today. After Europe, he takes us on historical and contemporary tours of China, Russia, the Middle East (especially Iran), India, and the rest of Asia. Only then does he turn his attention to the U.S., which he dubs the “reluctant superpower”. He comments extensively on the growth of balance of power political perspectives first promoted on the world stage by Theodore Roosevelt, and the international idealism (and institutionalism) of Woodrow Wilson. The two traditions sit uneasily (and sometimes alternatively) as guiding principles of U.S. foreign relations. Kissinger notes the tension and ambiguity that the two traditions represent. He notes that Richard Nixon, who would seem the epitome of an international realist in power, chose to hang a portrait of Woodrow Wilson in his White House. Nixon heard the song of idealism even if he did not answer it. 

For all of the revealing history and perspective, I found Kissinger’s remarks about technological changes addressed to the present and immediate future some of the most interesting insights of the book, contained in his chapter on “Technology, Equilibrium, and Human Consciousness”. (Pretty hip for someone publishing at age 91!) Whatever one’s judgments about Kissinger’s actions as an office holder, one cannot question his credentials as an unparalleled master teacher of the system. 

My have only two brief criticisms. First, he slights political economy. We do live in an increasingly interdependent world, although some want to ignore this. To what extent this has affected and will affect international actors doesn’t receive much (if any) scrutiny. Second, he doesn’t peer into the future and the possible repercussions of climate change or perhaps a new global pandemic (I don’t think that Ebola is a likely candidate, but something new could be). How resilient is this system? He talks about the challenges in terms of the current alignments and threats, but I think that this ground is shifting. Nuclear weapons are a huge concern, but an unlikely threat if the current system remains intact. But if the current system breaks down, then  . . . . 

I’m keeping this review short because there are already some fine reviews out there: former Secretary of State (and possible future president) Hillary Clinton, Ian Bremmer (Eurasia Group president and author), and Amitai Etzioni (GW prof & public intellectual) to list three that I found useful.

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