Book Review: Henry Kissinger’s World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History contains essential lessons for understanding the strategic choices faced by Russian and American policymakers as they address the changing world order.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gestures during a birthday reception for his 90th birthday in Berlin, Germany, June 11, 2013. Photo: AP

World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History presents thoughts on foreign policy from arguably the most important American diplomat of his generation, Henry Kissinger. Now in his nineties, Kissinger has had extensive time to reflect on the principles employed to construct a world order for great modern civilizations and powers. As a result, this book may be the most important work to come from an experienced statesman since George Kennan’s Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy. For anyone attempting to understand the shifting world order, the book offers several essential lessons.

While many in the West see the Westphalian principles that advocated sovereignty of nation-states and emerged after the Thirty Years War in Central Europe as universally applicable, Kissinger points out there are alternative perspectives held by dominant states and civilizations concerning just relations and global power distribution. One important feature of Kissinger’s work is that he includes the European, Russian, Islamic, Japanese, Indian, and Chinese international order principles that are not necessarily compatible with the Western ones.

Kissinger devotes a great part of this work to these major civilizations and states and presents the historical origins and the foreign policy principles present within each group. The consensus for the Western dominant system is eroding and the world order that will emerge is dependent on the contention between these alternative international visions. 

For example, the Chinese see themselves as possessing the sole legitimate government and all other countries as following the lead of China. In foreign relations, China seeks to dominate psychologically rather than militarily or economically and expects other nations to accept this hierarchy. It is not possible for the Westphalian principles to remain if the Chinese model were to become dominant globally.

Cyber technologies and their impact on decision-making 

Kissinger’s book also looks at the implications of cyber technological advances on the world order. He argues that the Internet has perilously changed our understanding of truth as it is losing its universal character. Because both statesmen and the public are adversely affected, it will become more difficult to form the correct perspectives necessary to appropriately respond to international events.

One major drawback is that the Internet diminishes conceptual judgment and creates artificial expectations that there is an immediate solution to every problem. This complicates and endangers the role of future leaders who are overwhelmed with instant facts and constant access to global information.

Ironically, today’s technological advances may hurt the new generation of statesmen who will be less equipped to stand alone and make difficult decisions to guide nations through new challenges. The very technology that is a sign of industrial proficiency and human advancement may unintentionally damage future leaders, as they will be increasingly unprepared for their task and less able to respond to the changing world.

Unpragmatic foreign policy

Kissinger’s World Order also shows why great powers so frequently adopt foreign policies in one region that seem to contradict their cultural principles as well as undermine their work in another territory.  Kissinger addresses this riddle by identifying the doctrines these states follow as they react to the global environment. The inconsistency is only apparent as leaders apply their strategic approach simultaneously to regions that require them to behave pragmatically in achieving their goals. As statesmen focus on advancing their interests, they may appear to further policies that ultimately contradict cultural or even strategic welfare. 

Dr. Henry A. Kissinger (middle) at a New START Treaty meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 18, 2010. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

These guidelines explain and justify foreign policy behavior that appears to be contradictory and, because it is inconsistent, amoral. For example, there was a time early in the Syrian crisis when the United States was using drone attacks against Al-Qaeda groups in Yemen; however, when the targeted individuals travelled to participate in the military campaign against Syria's President Bashar Assad, they received U.S. arms and training.

Kissinger’s work illuminates the pragmatic principles guiding this incongruous action—simultaneously arming and striking the same individuals depending upon their location. The author also provides context to address Russian action in places such as Abkhazia and Chechnya that likewise appears contradictory. Why would the Russian army repress and violently expel their Orthodox brothers and give their territory to a Muslim minority and then violently suppress another Islamist nationalist movement in the same region? 

Russia used Chechens to ethnically cleanse Abkhazia and when these veterans returned home and sought a similar political freedom, they were confronted with even greater violence than that used to target the Georgians. While such policy may seem true when examined solely through strategic thinking, Russia’s real vulnerability is cultural and such tactical victories produce negative long-term consequences to its identity, thereby making the Russian civilization less attractive to its own people. 

Kissinger's long-term strategy and its weakness

Finally, in his book Kissinger seeks to create a coherent, long-term strategy and then apply it pragmatically in the international environment. A significant weakness in Kissinger’s work, however, is his inability to actually assess the negative impact a pragmatic policy has on domestic morale and foreign allies. If a state has no permanent friends, only constant interests, why would another country make sacrifices for it if it could be dismissed as the international environment changes? 

If one reconsiders the American policy that both armed and attacked Al-Qaeda members depending on their geographic location, the United States appeared hypocritical and its behavior generated opposition within its military and from Sunni allies. If a country acts for strategic interests alone, it becomes unattractive and does not generate respect or a commitment to sustain it. While pragmatic policies may enhance a state’s immediate security, the consequences frequently undermine something more valuable and difficult to replace, a citizen’s self-identification to his government and the willingness to make long-term sacrifices for his country. 

As more states follow this paradigm, there is a potential to damage their civilization as pragmatism takes away the cultural norms that hold a society together and weakens social consensus. Perhaps Kissinger’s approach is partially responsible for the inability of the American public to sustain a lasting commitment to specific regional conflicts. If there is not an organic connection between a state’s foreign policy and its cultural norms, the pragmatic approach may have unintentional consequences that damage a nation and ultimately destabilize, rather than strengthen, the state. That should be a warning to both Russian and American foreign policy leaders as they reorient their strategic approaches for a changing world order.