World Order, Henry Kissinger.

Penguin Press 2014

Few figures have played a more prominent role in modern American foreign policy than Henry Kissinger. As national security advisor and secretary of state, Kissinger, together with Richard Nixon, prosecuted the Vietnam War, established official relations with China, rescued Israel with arms supplies during the Yom Kippur War, and pursued a détente policy and arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. Since then he has become, in the tradition of Dean Acheson, a wise man who is regularly consulted for his counsel by foreign leaders and American presidents alike.

At the same time, Kissinger’s prodigious output of essays and books on foreign relations has not slowed. Ever since he stepped down from high office, he has written not only several memoirs, but also a number of histories that are concerned as much with the present as the past. Kissinger takes an old- fashioned approach, which is to say that he seeks to explore historical events to discover guidelines and lessons for contemporary practitioners of diplomacy, a term that itself has come to have a somewhat antediluvian ring to it.

Throughout, Kissinger has been preoccupied by the theme of realpolitik in foreign policy — the belief that a nation must identify and act upon its interests rather than indulge in emotionally satisfying but politically stultifying moral crusades.

It is this conviction that has also earned Kissinger a good deal of enmity both on the left and the right. A minor industry has developed over the past decades devoted to chronicling and exposing Kissinger’s alleged lapses.

On the left Kissinger has long been seen as ruthless and amoral, a corrupter of American innocence. This theme was advanced by Seymour Hersh in The Price of Power and was most recently rehearsed by Princeton University professor Gary J. Bass in The Blood Telegram.

On the right Kissinger has also been decried — as an appeaser during the 1970s who failed to appreciate that the United States had to aim for victory over the Soviet Union. Kissinger was a long-time advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, and, as a member of the Eastern establishment, he was viewed with deep suspicion by the more elemental parts of the Republican base. The buccaneering spirit of Ronald Reagan was more to their liking than the cautious, pragmatic realpolitik espoused by Kissinger.

But today the Republican Party faces something of a split over foreign policy. The neoconservatives first tasted public office under Reagan, then enjoyed more prominent positions under George W. Bush. They suffered a brutal buffeting during the Iraq War, when their reputations came into disrepute. Since then, they have sought to restore their footing in the GOP, which they have largely been able to do, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s revanchism in Ukraine, together with the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East. But at the same time, Senator Rand Paul, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, is offering a divergent approach, one based more closely on the kind of traditional principles advanced by realist thinkers.

Kissinger’s new book World Order thus arrives opportunely. In it he returns to the concern that animated his PhD dissertation at Harvard University and first book A World Restored, in which he scrutinised the attempt of Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich, British foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh, and French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to create a stable and lasting European order. He now focuses on the effort to establish equilibrium among the great powers since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The precepts of Westphalia — most notably the decision that each state was assigned sovereign power over its own territory — are ones that Kissinger believes can be deployed to construct a world order today. His vision is a direct rebuff to the Wilsonian belief, propagated by his neo- conservative and liberal hawk detractors, that American power alone can construct a liberal and democratic order around the globe. Instead, Kissinger pleads for a kind of multicultural tolerance when it comes to international relations.

In Kissinger’s view, though Westphalia has often been maligned as a system of cynical power manipulation, its structure really represented an effort to establish order on the basis of clearly defined rules and limits. “Limited wars over calculable issues,” he writes, “would replace the era of contending universalisms, with its forced expulsions and conversions and general war consuming civilian populations.”

Still, a mighty challenge to this system came in the form of the French revolution, one that Kissinger deems “a new concept of reordering that had not been seen in Europe since the end of the religious wars.” Kissinger singles out Rousseau as the intellectual progenitor of the revolutionaries, a thinker who condemned existing institutions such as property, religion, and civil society as a snare and delusion. He believes that Rousseau’s theories prefigured the rise of the modern totalitarian states in which the “popular will ratifies decisions that have already been announced in staged mass demonstrations.”

In France the revolutionaries saw monarchies as enemies and were convinced that they, and they alone, could create an international crusading movement that would create world peace. The era of total war had arrived. “The concept of an international order with prescribed limits of state actions,” we are told, “was overthrown in favor of a permanent revolution that knew only total victor or defeat.”

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the crowned heads of Europe sought to re-establish the old order in new form. This was a great time to be a diplomat. It took close to a week for a message to be conveyed from Vienna to Berlin. The diplomats had a great deal of leeway and freedom to improvise. Kissinger’s nostalgia for the era is clear. The Quadruple Alliance of Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia was formed. As Kissinger sees it, the Congress came closest to producing a form of universal governance that Europe has ever enjoyed, at least since the formation of the Carolingian empire.

How precisely was it possible to calibrate the equilibrium so beloved of Kissinger? As Kissinger acknowledges, there was a rather large fly in the geopolitical ointment in the form of nineteenth century nationalism. Consider the Habsburg Empire. Its multifarious nationalities became increasingly restive as “linguistic nationalisms made traditional empires — especially the Austro-Hungarian Empire — vulnerable to internal pressure as well as to the resentments of neighbors claiming national links with subjects of the empire.” Metternich, whom Kissinger reveres, attempted to suppress, as far as possible, the warring antagonisms. He was a conservative. Bismarck was not; he was a radical conservative who attempted to harness nationalism in the service of constructing a new German empire, which he did.

Bismarck launched, by hook or by crook, three successive wars to unite the squabbling German states and fiefdoms, defeating Denmark, Austria, and France. He knew his limits and did not want to annex Alsace–Lorraine but lost that battle to the generals. He also established the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, which Kaiser Wilhelm later allowed to lapse, a blunder that helped lead to the Great War that dissolved the House of Hohenzollern. Kissinger perceptively notes that, after Bismarck’s rise, the European order was now based on a Darwinian model of the survival of the fittest. The results were on display in the First and Second World Wars.

European diplomacy is familiar terrain for Kissinger, and he has spent much of his career fending off the charge that he sought to import an alien tradition of realpolitik into the American political system. In assessing the United States and its concept of order, Kissinger makes a number of telling remarks. He draws a sharp distinction between Europe, where the Westphalian system was founded on sequestering moral absolutes from political endeavours, with America, where a “proselytizing spirit was infused with an ingrained distrust of established institutions and hierarchies.” Not surprisingly, Kissinger reserves some of his most acidulous remarks for Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to articulate a program for the renewal of the entire world by transcending not only narrow national interests, but warfare itself.

By contrast, Kissinger lauds Richard Nixon as offering a radically different conception — though Nixon himself was a staunch admirer of Wilson. In a penetrating aside, he observes that Nixon’s solitary nature meant that, in contrast to many of his coevals, he had plenty of time to read about foreign affairs — a “combination that made him the best prepared incoming president on foreign policy since Theodore Roosevelt.” Similarly, Kissinger hails Gerald Ford, who he argues related power to principle in completing the first agreement between Israel and Egypt over disengagement from the Sinai and in supporting majority rule in South Africa.

Kissinger is reluctant to criticise any American president too overtly. Even George W. Bush gets something of a pass. On the shemozzle in Iraq, the most Kissinger will comment is: “what was distinctive — and, in a sense, traditionally American — about the military effort in Iraq was the decision to cast the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as an aspect of a project to spread freedom and democracy.” The whiff of disdain is unmistakable.

A good case could also be made that the ascription of noble virtues to American interventions abroad is, more often than not, something of a pious smokescreen. Few American presidents act upon the supposition that they are simply or merely representing the aspirations of humanity. The venture in Iraq, after all, was initially pitched as an effort to denude the country of its weapons of mass destruction. Only after those weapons turned out to be fictitious was the democracy line firmly advanced by the neo-cons and their liberal hawk fellow travellers.

America will probably always operate on a queasy mix of principle and opportunism. Kissinger himself concedes that America cannot operate solely on realist principles. In his words, “It may turn out — for America and the rest of the world — that if America cannot act in both modes, it will not be able to fulfil either.” The real danger for the rest of the world may be if it doesn’t.

Kissinger’s new book does not offer a prescription for restoring world order, but it does provide a mode of thinking that can help bring it about. It provides an impressive coda to a career that has had more than its share of distinction.