Henry Kissinger – World Order (2014)

world order

Kissinger attempts to characterize the history and psychology of whole continents. Very informative, but uneven.

A lofty title. Kissinger starts out with an explanation of what he means by world order. He sounds very academic and it doesn’t make for easy reading. His style is bloated by big words, while he doesn’t really say much. Happily, Kissinger then dives into different regions around the world to explore them. That’s where his ideas get more meat to the bones. In general, his writing style is a bit academically inaccessible. He is too dry, too used perhaps to using Latinized English words to make things sound learned.

We travel first to Europe, and Kissinger shows that he has an enormous knowledge of history, and he knows just how to describe the right trends and momentous events to illustrate his points. It is very impressive how he distills the vast and complicated history of Europe to the most essential plotlines for his story. Here, he describes the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and how important and unique that treaty was. The various powers of Europe had fought eachother into a deadlock and were tired and cynical of fighting. For the first time, they sat together, decided to call each other rightful kings, went home and established embassies in each other’s states.

Basically, it was the first time in history that nations accepted that imperial or religious unity of the world was out of reach, and that it was best to simply accept eachother’s existence. This idea was unprecedented. These little snippets from history are surprisingly relevant for today’s world. We still see areas where people a chasing ideas of universal rule by empire and/or religion, and history shows us how those endless conflicts can still resolve into a balance of power and a change in perspective.

Kissinger moves from one cultural region to the next, Europe, Middle East, Asia and America, and explains how the local balance of power is playing out. His analyses are consistently brilliant, but his choice of topics is uneven. For example, he stops talking about Europe once we reach the 2000s, and doesn’t mention how the EU is in an internal crisis since 2008. But in his chapter about the Middle East, he goes all the way up to the Islamic State. He seems only partly up to date. It also becomes clear that he is really writing for an American audience, and therefore gives a lot of attention to Iran and their nuclear program, while ignoring large parts of the world.

Kissinger’s assessment of the Middle East and Central Africa is particularly chilling. These regions almost touch, and both are experiencing a total breakdown of central government. Rebels, jihadists and tribal groups have overrun these countries. As a result, vast areas of the world have become lawless, with a gaping void stretching from the Congo to Libya and the Middle East. Since the end of the World Wars and the decolonization, the world order of states is collapsing here. Collapsing to a pre-Westphalian order in which factions do not recognize each other but all fight for survival or extinction in a system purely based on fighting power.

Finally, America. Kissinger spends a lot of pages talking about the United States, quoting lots of presidents, but it sounds overly idealistic and unfocused. Specifically, how America’s idea of international order involves a belief in American exceptionalism and as an agent of moral order. This makes the US undertake a lot of peace treaties and support of democracy (and meddling in the affairs of other countries), but it is all quite unmoored from a sense of history and geography of other places. That is why for example the Treaty of Versailles isolated Germany so much, which was both geographically and historically unwise in light of the European balance of power. Also, the fracturing of Iraq into mutually antagonistic states could have been foreseen.

This is why Kissinger wrote this book, to rectify that lack of knowledge. Strangely, though, he still supports the invasion of Iraq, even though this is not in line with the rest of his book. His own deep knowledge of history apparently doesn’t deter him from that, and he sounds very idealistic to the point of stubbornness in this chapter, as if he makes it a personal thing and doesn’t want to follow his own argumentation. Even more strangely, he ignores South America and brushes away the effect of the Vietnam war on Laos and Cambodia, but these places he was personally very involved with during his work for the US, and there is a lot of criticism out there about how his decisions impacted these regions. His final chapter about the digital age is bloated and unimpressive.

World Order still makes for a nice companion piece to the books of George Friedman, who looks mostly at geography, and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, who look at the institutions within countries. All offer sweeping analyses of the world, and why it is the way it is, and why countries and peoples act the way they do. World Order is one of the essential books for understanding the modern world.

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