Henry Kissinger’s still got plenty new to say about foreign policy

tags: Henry Kissinger, World Order

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University.

Thirteen years ago, just three months before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Henry Kissinger published a book with the provocative title Does America Need a Foreign Policy? His new book, World Order, might justly have been subtitled: “Does America have a foreign policy?” It is no longer controversial (as it once was) to point out that President Barack Obama is no master strategist. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just eight months after his inauguration as President, he has been responsible for a succession of foreign policy debacles, including the “reset” of relations with Russia and the “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia. Then there is the woeful incoherence of his administration’s policy towards Egypt, lending support first to a revolution against its ally Hosni Mubarak, then to a Muslim Brotherhood government, and finally to the bloody military coup that overthrew that government. Consider, too, the President’s abject failure to enforce his own “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, justified with the declaration in September last year: “America is not the world’s policeman”. Or reflect on the hubris of his breathtaking statement in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick last January: “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now”. Nemesis struck just two months later, in the form of the Russian annexation of Crimea. 

The nadir has been the President’s U-turn over Iraq and Syria in response to the atrocities perpetrated by the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS), notably the beheadings of American and British hostages. Having won election in 2008 as the man who had not supported the invasion of Iraq, and having pledged to end the American occupation there and in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, Obama now finds himself using American air power against a Sunni organization that had previously been fighting against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – whose downfall he himself has repeatedly advocated. The American and European Left heaped opprobrium on George W. Bush for his invasion of Iraq. But at least Bush had a strategy. President Obama told reporters on September 4 that “We don’t have a strategy yet” , referring to the specific challenge posed by IS. Those words may yet prove to be the epitaph of his presidency. 

Henry Kissinger does not dwell in detail on Obama’s record of strategic incoherence in this magisterial meditation on the international system. Yet it is not too difficult to read between the lines that this book has been inspired at least partly by dismay at the amateurism of the past six years and dread of the risks inherent in the strategy-less approach. In an arresting passage, Kissinger asks: “Where, in a world of ubiquitous social networks, does the individual find the space to develop the fortitude to make decisions that, by definition, cannot be based on a consensus?” With “presidential campaigns . . . on the verge of turning into media contests between master operators of the Internet”, he writes, there is a danger that “the candidates’ main role may become fund-raising rather than the elaboration of issues. Is the marketing effort designed to convey the candidate’s convictions, or are the convictions expressed by the candidate the reflections of a ‘big data’ research effort into individuals’ likely preferences and prejudices?” It is unlikely that these two questions were prompted by the campaigns of either John McCain or Mitt Romney, presidential candidates who took foreign policy positions with scant regard for focus groups. In their 2012 debate on foreign policy, Obama mocked Romney with the carefully crafted line: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back”. The foreign policy of the 1980s might, for one thing, offer rather more effective ways of dealing with Vladimir Putin. 

Kissinger’s starting point is that we are living through the end of an American world order that reached its zenith in that decade – “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance”. Not only have Americans lost their faith (or interest) in such a definition of world order. Three other ideal types are now competing with it: a post-Westphalian European order (the allusion here is to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia), which Kissinger defines as “a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power”; an Islamic order based on the ideal of “one empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world” (in the words of the fifteenth-century Sultan Mehmed II); and a Chinese order with its roots in the imperial tradition of “harmony under heaven”. 

Or, rather, these were once alternative concepts of world order. The real trouble is that the Europeans, the Muslims and the Chinese of today, like their American counterparts, have embraced corrupted versions of their own traditions. Whereas Americans are almost paralysed by a false dichotomy between “idealism” and “realism” – a “congenital ambivalence”, in Kissinger’s striking phrase – Europeans have “set out to depart from the [Westphalian] state system . . . and to transcend it through a concept of pooled sovereignty . . . [while] consciously and severely limit[ing] the element of power in [their] new institutions”, thereby mistakenly “identifying its internal construction with its ultimate geopolitical purpose”. At the same time, “jihadists on both sides of the Sunni–Shia divide tear at societies and dismantle states in quest of visions of global revolution based on the fundamentalist version of their religion”. As for the Chinese – and East Asians generally – they have jettisoned earlier conceptions (the Middle Kingdom and its tributaries) in favour of a kind of hyper-Westphalian system of aggressively competing nation states, a model Kissinger regards as fundamentally inapplicable to Asia.

Read entire article at The Times Literary Supplement

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