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5 December 2014, Gateway House

Book review: Writing with an imperialist’s pen

The scope of Kissinger’s book is immense, but it is marred by his prejudices and his arrogant view of non-European cultures. The author’s main premise is that the world is in a state of disorder, but his prescriptions remain unclear

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For his admirers, Henry Kissinger  remains a sage whose advice, based on his wide experience of world affairs and his belief in realpolitik, may have prevented many of the egregious mistakes committed by U.S. foreign policy since that fateful day in September 2001.

To his detractors, Kissinger’s world view is extremely one-sided, and he remains a controversial figure who presided over the bombing of Cambodia, viewed India as an enemy because of his support of Pakistan and as the aggressor in the Bangladesh war of 1972.

Either way, this winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972 and architect of U.S. foreign policy from 1969-1977 is  a complex figure on the world stage, who even at the advanced age of 91 can dominate discussions.

So the reader cannot be blamed for coming to World Order with many preconceptions. The scope of the book, sweeping in its historical references, is certainly immense and may impress some readers, while others will bristle at the book’s one-sided perspective.

Kissinger sets out to explain the current world order through four prisms:

First, and central to the book, is the Westphalian model adopted by a group of exhausted European nations at the end of the 30-year war (1618-1648). Kissinger is a great admirer of the Treaty of Westphalia, which established nation states as the sovereign centres of power that could practice religious freedom without challenge or interference from outside powers. Kissinger’s explanation of the Treaty of Westphalia and the circumstances that led to it are profoundly interesting. The author insists that these principles, with some modifications, can and should be applied to the current global order so as to avoid the present raging conflicts.

“In the Westphalian concept of order,” he writes, “European statesmen came to identify security with a balance of power and with restraints on its exercise.” While the principle is sound, it was more honoured in the name than in the observance:  for example, Napoleon and Frederick the Great both subjected Europe to long drawn-out wars and untold destruction. Russia too rapaciously expanded territory, which “propelled the one-time Duchy of Moscow across the Eurasian landmass to become the world’s territorially largest empire in a slow, seemingly irresistible expansionist urge that would remain unabated until 1917.” Indeed, Russia expanded an average 100,000 square kilometres annually from 1552 to 1917.

But Kissinger is not sufficiently critical of the behaviour of European powers despite the Treaty of Westphalia, which he upholds throughout the book as the model for a new world order with some modifications. Nor does he devote any ink to the manner in which the  treaty was flouted and abused relentlessly by its architects, the European nations, as they set out on their rapacious conquest of the world.

The second prism is an Islamic system based on a wider idea of an ummah, or community. Here the book falters considerably as Kissinger rests his arguments on what appears to be a long-felt prejudice rather than reality. He simplistically pins all the blame for what has gone wrong on Islam’s inability to separate mosque and state; this is a  short-sighted point of view, now largely discredited. The fact is that for large periods of history the role of the sultan and the ulema were clearly divided; the former determined matters of state guided by national interest and public welfare. Kissinger also fails to examine, in his indictment of Islam, the example of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world..

The third prism through which Kissinger views the world is the system established in China on traditional ideas of the Middle Kingdom; Kissinger finds the Chinese system almost entirely self-centred because anyone outside the system was considered a mere barbarian; policy was a matter of collecting taxes for the emperor.

The fourth and final prism is the American order, first articulated by Woodrow Wilson, which came to dominate the world both because of America’s economic superiority in the last century, and because the two great wars of the last century so decimated Europe that it relinquished the Westphalian principles.

Kissinger’s views of non-European cultures are imperialist and even arrogant. His view of Israel as a “victim” state which guards Westphalian principles is blatant in its unreason. He makes no mention of the unyielding advance of Israel’s settlement-building programme. His sweeping dismissal of the Palestinian problem is grating to the reader, particularly when Kissinger states that the Middle East’s current problems emanate from the fact that it views international order through an Islamic consciousness. Iran, to him, is pure perfidy; no mention is made of the role western powers played in the suppression of its home-grown democratic movement.

The chief premise of the book is that the world is in a state of disorder, and the main question it asks is whether America is capable of leading the world out of this disorder.. While warning us that the current state of world affairs is complex, with chaos in the Middle East, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the threat of cyberwar, Kissinger writes: “It must not be assumed that, left unattended, these trends will at some point reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation—or even any order at all.”

With these contradictory realities, is America capable of leading the world? He acknowledges that America has two inherent flaws: shielded by two oceans it has treated foreign policy as an “option”; moreover the nation has been convinced that the ideals it propounds are self-evident in their universal application and lofty enough to be universally admired and emulated.

Kissinger concludes that “a reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time” and warns that “the penalty for failing will be not so much a major war between states… as an evolution into spheres of influence identified with particular domestic structures and forms of governance, for example, the Westphalian model, as against the radical Islamist version.”

But how can the world be so simplistically divided between just two models? Moreover, what is the author’s prescription for reconstructing the international system?  Kissinger is quiet on that subject—perhaps it will be the subject of his next book.

World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Henry Kissinger, Allen Lane, September 2014 

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. 

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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