Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the nations of the world have been wondering: "What is the question that governs international relations?"
World Order, the new book by éminence grise Henry Kissinger, doesn't attempt to directly answer that question, much to its credit. Instead, it explores the origins of the modern nation-state and other parallel but radically different (and still quite relevant) methods for organizing power-to-power relationships on the world stage.
The US and Europe, Kissinger argues, operate on a system born of the Treaty of Westphalia, which concluded the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48. The treaty enshrined the modern concept of independent states pledging non-interference in each other's domestic affairs and a (often precariously maintained) balance of power.
Meanwhile, many Islamic leaders are still oriented toward a division between the Dar al Islam (the Islamic world, traditionally led by a caliph) and the Dar al Harb (or "house of war"), the non-Islamic part of the world that must be pacified or subjugated. This is particularly relevant with the rise of the Islamic State (the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
And the historical Chinese perspective, focused on the primacy of the Chinese "Middle Kingdom" and the concentric and progressive irrelevance of the world's other peoples and powers, certainly seems to be reflected in the long game of foreign affairs now being played out in that country's restive western regions and on the disputed islands of the Pacific.
Kissinger's clear, clean writing and thoughtful historical analysis result in a book that makes broad, meaningful arguments without either devolving into abstraction or getting bogged down in a mire of historical minutiae. Immerse yourself in "World Order" and it quickly becomes clear why so many existing challenges in the world of international relations seem intractable – it's because many of the major players are using different and largely incompatible schematics for organizing the world.
Some of the fun of "World Order" – and it really is a treat to gallivant through history at the side of a thinker of Kissinger's caliber – comes from the author's consistent referencing of the Kissingers of the past. From Cardinal Richelieu to Klemens von Metternich to the fourth-century Indian minister Kautilya, the book is studded with a rogue's gallery of shrewd, realist, brass-knuckles strategic thinkers.
At its best, "World Order" shines a light on eternally relevant questions of politics and statescraft. But at its worst, it suffers from blinders imposed by modern-day political concerns. This yields things like an eight-page section on Saudi Arabia that omits any mention of women (whose situation has long-term bearing on the health and progress of that important Arab state) and describes the situation of foreign workers as combined "in a mosaic held together by the bond of Islam and respect for traditional authority" (many others, including the group Human Rights Watch, would describe their situation as near-slavery.)
But should the United States, for example, jettison its extremely useful alliance with the Saudis because of human rights concerns? That contradiction lies not merely at the heart of "World Order," but at the heart of foreign affairs since the dawn of history. A nation might oppose an oppressive, wretched regime and make conditions in that country – or the region as a whole – substantially worse as a result.
Or a nation might work with that regime on the grounds of incremental strategic improvement and yield nothing more than decades of torture and repression, the tiny scraps of progress eventually to be completely undone by a coup or revolution.
Understanding when to play ball with evil and when to fight it is a vital and complicated question. Kissinger – not without evidence or precedent – often decides in favor of constructive engagement instead of principled opposition.
But Kissinger's realist leanings and substantial sangfroid evaporate when he turns his attention to the past dozen or so years of Iraqi history. Within a few pages, he lauds the invasion of Iraq, claims to have opposed the nation-building/insurgency phase of the debacle (whether the United States should simply have toppled Saddam and simply left a nation in ruins is a question fit for another book entirely), and then credits George W. Bush for sticking to the very nation-building disaster disowned paragraphs earlier.
The apex of this flurry of self-justification blames a combination of public opinion and a feckless Barack Obama for ending the American part of the Iraq adventure before some sort of undefined favorable outcome that could have been achieved with more blood and treasure.
Notably absent are telling details like the De-Ba'athification of post-Saddam Iraq, a decision that poured gasoline on the fire of insurgency – exactly the sort of idealism-before-realism blundering that Kissinger spends the rest of his book astutely identifying and rebuking.
All of this is to say that Kissinger is Kissinger: spellbinding, convincing, but often in the dedicated service of a power or powers that a reader may or may not want to throw in with. "World Order" is a book best read with eyes wide open. But on those terms, it is certainly a book worth reading.