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Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History
Henry (nee Heinz) Alfred Kissinger, born to a German-Jewish family in Bavaria who fled the Nazis and came to America in 1938, has for the past half century exercised more influence over the theory and practice of foreign policy than anyone else in the western world. Yet, unlike one of his heroes, the 19th-century Prince Metternich, foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire for almost half a century, he held office as US secretary of state and national security adviser for a mere eight years.
It is testimony to his achievements under Presidents Nixon and Ford and to the clarity of his thinking on international relations - abundantly in evidence in this admirable book - that, since leaving public office, Kissinger has been in constant demand as an adviser on international affairs, including informally to several American presidents. I remember in 2002 a senior State Department official furiously scribbling down what I had heard Kissinger say about toppling Saddam Hussein.
In the Foreign Office of the 1970s he was known as 'the wizard of the western world'. We watched bedazzled as he relaxed Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union; started a thaw in relations with Mao's China; negotiated a ceasefire with Hanoi enabling the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam; was on the 1972 cover of Time magazine as its man of the year with Richard Nixon; received the Nobel peace prize the following year; and was frequently seen with beautiful women on his arm, thus putting flesh on his aphorism that power was 'the ultimate aphrodisiac'.
The Labour British foreign secretaries of the time - Jim Callaghan and Tony Crosland - got on with him pretty well. Crosland, a lover of football, discovered that Kissinger shared his passion. When they first met in Britain, Crosland eschewed the more glamorous London clubs and took him to see Grimsby Town, his constituency team.
Kissinger has been a prolific writer. His books fall into two categories: memoirs and accounts of episodes from his career as helmsman of American diplomacy; and those where he stands back and seeks to draw lessons from the sweep of history. World Order falls into the latter category. As such it follows A World Restored (1957) and the magisterial Diplomacy (1994). The Foreign Office would do well to read it from beginning to end.
Common themes run through all his work. One is a belief in realpolitik, that is to say, the conduct of international relations on the basis of pragmatism, not ideology. Kissinger is, in the jargon of political science (let us not forget that he started out as an academic), the doyen of the 'realist' school of US foreign policy, locked in Manichean struggle with the school of 'idealists' and their values-based diplomacy.
This has left Kissinger vulnerable to the charge of amoral cynicism. The American troubadour-satirist Tom Lehrer said that when Kissinger won the Nobel prize, satire died. Kissinger is sensitive to the charge and at various points in World Order stresses that a sound foreign policy cannot be values-free: '. . . the sharp distinction drawn between 'realism' and 'idealism' rejects the experience of history. Idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognise that ideals are also part of reality.'
World Order reviews in sweeping style the forces that over the centuries have governed four great regions of the world: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and the United States. Kissinger devotes by far the greatest attention to America and Europe: the former, because he believes that America, wisely led, still has the power to shape the world for the betterment of mankind; Europe, because it is the cradle of the nation state and of Kissinger's organising principle of power and legitimacy. Order relies on a stable balance of power between states, held in place by the reciprocal acceptance of legitimacy and sovereignty. Getting the balance right between power and legitimacy is, Kissinger says, the essence of statesmanship.
Kissinger finds the apogee of this statesmanship in the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15, which met to rebuild Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Thanks to the skill of the British and Austro-Hungarian representatives, Viscount Castlereagh and Prince Metternich, a new dispensation, marked by a proper balance between power and legitimacy, was put in place that enabled European states to avoid a general war for almost 100 years. The lessons to be learnt from the Congress of Vienna have been a lifelong leitmotif of Kissinger's thinking on contemporary international relations and the nature of statesmanship.
In the final chapters Kissinger often sounds more the idealist than the arch-realist. Since the Second World War America’s calling - its 'exceptionalism' - has been to uphold 'an inexorably expanding co-operative order of states . . . embracing liberal economic systems . . . respecting national sovereignty, and adopting . . . democratic systems of governance.' But today this is a model under challenge as never before - from Putin's revanchism, Islamic jihadism’s contempt for the nation state, dangerous national rivalries in East Asia and a world of economic globalisation in collision with a resurgence of nationalism.
To counter this age of disorder will call, Kissinger says, for the highest standards of American statesmanship. His fear is that the global order may fragment into four regional centres of power - the American, European, Middle Eastern and East Asian - and that there will be an imperfect balance of power and legitimacy not only between these regions but between the component parts of each. It is an essentially pessimistic, Hobbesian vision of the future, in which violence will necessarily play a role until new and more stable balances of power are established.
Kissinger sets out a number of questions that the US must ask itself to define its national interest in crises abroad, especially before embarking on military intervention. To pessimism, one must add a slightly elegiac feel to this book. Perhaps this is because, at 91, Kissinger knows that he will not be around for much longer to help America find the right answers.
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