Book Review: World Order by Henry Kissinger

‘Magisterial’ and ‘epic’ are all words that come to mind to describe Kissinger’s magnum opus, written in 2014 when he was 91. Certainly a book that begins a consideration of the modern international order with a detailed analysis of the Thirty Years War deserves that description – but what is more impressive, is that Kissinger then goes on to consider similar seminal moments in the history of other nations, including China, Russia, the US and the Islamic world.

As the book’s full title makes clear – World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History – Kissinger’s fundamental aim is to explore how, in a globalised world, different nations and nation-groupings, with different aims and degrees of (and willingness to exert) power are to relate to each other in an ordered way. By considering the history, political treatises and traditional diplomatic relations, he looks at how the natural assumptions varies dramatically, with obvious consequences for international organisations such as the UN.

If this sounds somewhat ‘Clash of Civilizations’-esque, it’s not. Kissinger, as one might expect, is concerned not with cultural differences between people’s, but with realpolitik – with international relations being directed towards preserving the integrity and achieving the aims of the state, whilst avoiding acts of catastrophic destruction such as total war. This can be achieved in a number of ways, which have different pros and cons, but it is not obvious whether they are compatible, nor which the world as a whole will adopt.

Kissinger is at his most interesting both when tracing the histories of his different nations and when discussing how these traditions manifest in sometimes surprising ways today. In particular, he points out that the way in which Asian nations interact today – with an emphasis on national sovereignty and explicit statements of acting in the national interest – is actually far more Westphalian than modern Europe, which is doing something new in creating the EU. Meanwhile the western emphasis on promoting human rights and democracy – even when this means intervening in other country’s internal affairs – is the complete opposite of the Westphalian tradition, which had at its heart the principle of respect for and non-interference in the internal matters of other states (cuius region, eius religio)- the necessary solution to a religious war that had devastated central Europe. Instead, it is the direct descendant of America’s City on the Hill tradition, a reflection of a dominant power without comparable rivals in its sphere of influence thanks to the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine.

I picked up the book due to its author: Kissinger is one of the iconic characters of the Cold War and few of his contemporaries are even alive, let alone writing statesmanlike books on international geopolitics. This is someone who had an inside seat at some of the biggest geopolitical events of the last half century, and who personally brought about shifts such as the US-China rapprochement. In his 90s, his insights are no less lucid, and he writes with a clear, intelligent and easily accessible manner, conveying complex ideas in a style that is easy to read. Furthermore, because his canvas is international relations, and the long-term interactions and balance of power, the book is not appreciably diminished by being written before the Trump/Brexit era and, indeed, helps to put such events in perspective.

Overall, a highly recommended read for anyone interested in history or geopolitics – it can be bought by clicking on the link below.