Kissinger’s World Order

Tarek Osman
Friday 1 Dec 2023

In his book “World Order”, Henry Kissinger divided the world geographically but analyzed it culturally.

 

The book is a journey comprised of a series of “reflections”, that takes us - the readers - from the moment that the world’s powers agreed on “an order” to organize international relations —the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years War— through to our current time (2014 when the book was published .. importantly before the US-China relationship has evolved, in the 2020s, into a nascent strategic confrontation).

The objective of the journey in the book was not to argue that any “order” is superior to another but to put forward the idea that “an order” is needed for the world to avert a descent into chaos.

Perhaps this is the reason Kissinger devoted the last section of the book to the impact of modern communications, the Internet, and particularly social media, on social relationships, societal cohesion, and state sovereignty. Although Kissinger did not say it bluntly, his thinking was clear – and he made it clearer later on in work he did with key figures in California’s Silicon Valley – that he saw new media’s evaporation of barriers between societies, and their gradual changing of individuals’ sense of belonging, as potentially threatening to political, economic, and social stability. They erode the notion of “order” as he perceived it.

Many might regard Kissinger’s views as those of an old man, belonging to a bygone era.

Reading this chapter in “World Order”, Kissinger certainly comes across as a man whose worldview was shaped by nineteenth and twentieth-century socio-politics, rather than by the revolutions in communications and the impact that revolution has had on social dynamics, in the past 25 years.

But to my mind, this anchoring in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gives his views wisdom that ought to be reflected upon, even if the pace of technological change renders many of the details in his arguments increasingly obsolete. The underlying logic matters, even if the details are no longer relevant.

The main message of “World Order”, however, was not about the future of social interactions, but the future of states’ interactions: Kissinger’s bread and butter.

In discrete chapters, he dissected how the American, Chinese, European, Indian, Islamic, Japanese, and Russian views of world order had developed. His approach was consistent; he identified the formative and transformative experiences that each of these societies had gone through; he paused at the roles played by key historical figures; and he delved into what he thought, are the unique features of these cultures.

His points were almost always grounded in history, merging the past with the recent present, all in a measured, almost cautious language. Kissinger seemed highly mindful to offer insights and assessments, rather than judgements. His flows—the links he made between the historical experiences, the leaders’ roles, the cultural heritages, and the traumas that these different communities’ had experienced—were logical and graceful. But they were selective.

In each of the chapters, Kissinger picked and chose what he saw as important historical experiences, the individuals worth mentioning, and the challenges that merited reflection. This is the nature of personal assessments. But it’s crucial to remember that other observers might well choose different historical episodes, leaders, and traumas.
Also, the underlying ingredients of these cultural “order” assessments were incomplete – which is a byproduct of subjectivity. No book would analyze all the features, formative and transformative trends, and key milestones and traumas of any culture, let alone several.

Often, however, Kissinger seemed to be looking from a very high ground, or even flying over the cultures he looked at.

From high above, he saw large mountains and grand valleys in the cultures’ terrains. Important, and indeed often formative, historical and cultural features. But in many cases, a majority of the people of the culture in concern have been – mentally and emotionally - living far away from these features Kissinger focused exclusively on.

Some of what was formative decades, and often centuries, ago, have with time become a mere background – and often distant backgrounds whose influence over the present has been minimal.

And yet, it is in this subjectivity – and in the disagreements many readers would have with it – that the mental dialogue between Kissinger and his readers would be animated.

Kissinger’s reflections were also distinctly American. For an observer of Kissinger’s stature, it was surprising that his views did not have the detachment expected from someone with his command of history and long experience in international affairs. And actually, often his Americanness came across as a bit old-fashioned.

Whereas most modern American strategists imbue their narratives with serious examinations of US foreign policy since the end of World War II, Kissinger’s reflection on America’s view of “world order” lacked any real criticism of the legacy of America’s projection of power in the last seven decades.

Contrast this with Kissinger’s discussion of the Chinese perspective on world order. He drew upon his assessments of Chinese history, culture, and power structure in his previous book On China. His arguments and tone were respectful, acknowledging the weight and burden of China’s colossal experience in shaping its view of “world order.”

But in reflecting on its trajectory in the twentieth century, he was frank, laying blame when and where it was due, most notably on Mao Zedong’s disastrous socio-economic policies that had led to the great famine and loss of millions of lives.

Kissinger did the same with other nations’ experiences, such as India’s adherence for many decades to a statist socialist model that stifled Indian entrepreneurship under the weight of a gigantic and lethargic state structure. And so his analysis of America’s experience of the last seven decades, by comparison, often seemed at best charitable and at worst disingenuous.

Kissinger’s presentation of Islam’s view of “world order” was intriguing. He anchored it on a distinction made by some Islamic scholars of Dar Al-Silm (the abode of peace, Islam’s own lands) and Dar Al-Harb (the abode of war, the rest of the world). He used this distinction as the launching pad to dissect why Islam, in his assessment, has never—and will never—accept any other “order.”

At the beginning of the chapter on Islam, Kissinger made a subtle caveat that the view he picked represents only one of many that have shaped Islamic thinking and engagement with the world.

The caveat was admirable and correct. But it did not answer the question of why he had chosen that specific view to represent the Islamic perspective, despite the existence of many other rich and diverse perspectives on Islam’s place in the world that scores of Islamic schools of thought had produced over the past fourteen centuries, and especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The likely answer is that Kissinger chose a school of Islamic thinking that reflects, in his view, the most potent force in the Islamic World at the moment. If true, it means that Kissinger regarded militant Islamism as the ones representing a majority of Muslims today and that is likely to shape Islam’s engagement with the world, at least in the foreseeable future.

Interestingly, Kissinger also made a distinction between the Islamic perspective and the Iranian one. I suspect that this was driven by two factors. The first was his fascination with “cultures.” The Persian civilization is beguiling; it entails a unique view of the world, placing Iran at the center of the civilized world, and measuring others’ refinement through their proximity to Persianness.

The second reason was probably Kissinger’s own experience. Throughout the 1970s, Kissinger was the architect of America’s relationship with Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He got to know the man, his family, his history, his country, and what drove his worldview.

Though Kissinger later became relatively close to Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, his experience in dealing with the Shah and Iran was much longer, more intense, and arguably more personal than any of his dealings in the Arab World.

And yet, these two factors, even if true, fail to acknowledge that the Islamic civilization is an amalgamation of various cultures and worldviews, including that of Iran. Actually, the Persian culture was arguably the strongest within the Islamic World in the first two centuries after the emergence of Islam, and so its imprint on the Islamic civilization was major and lasting.

In his view of the Islamic World, Kissinger was not an alarmist. His thesis was more subtle. At its core, there is the assumption that the Islamic World has been slowly being driven, by Muslims, out of the modern international system – a message that serious minds who culturally belong to the Islamic world must reflect upon.

Despite the disagreements many readers would have with various aspects of this book, “World Order” merits reading and reflecting upon - especially that now Henry Kissinger has passed, for this book will probably be regarded as his last overarching view of key currents that are shaping the world at a moment of a delicate transition to a new Cold War.

*Tarek Osman is an author, essayist, and broadcaster.

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