[This book review article was published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 78-88.]
BOOK REVIEW ARTICLE
Henry Kissinger’s World Order: Informative -- but a
Window into the Unsettling Thoughts of the World Elite
Dwight D. Murphey
Wichita State University, retired
Penguin Press, 2014
Henry Kissinger is now an elder statesman from whom much is to be expected. World Order is his fourteenth book. Our reviewer finds it full of valuable information, but unfortunately shallow, with an oddly fanciful grasp of several world issues. The significance of the latter may lie in his thinking’s providing a window into the thought processes that now prevail among the world opinion elite. If so, they merit a serious critique.
Key Words: Henry Kissinger, World Order, world opinion elite, historical aspirations for global order, American universality, Islamism, human rights and universal values, fanciful perceptions
It is now so long since Henry Kissinger made his clandestine trip to Beijing to set the stage for Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to confer with Mao that Kissinger has moved from being one of the prime actors on the world stage to one of America’s elder statesmen. In addition to World Order, he has written thirteen books that have discussed a variety of global issues, ranging from an historical analysis of the Age of Metternich, to a review of how the United States became involved in and eventually withdrew from Vietnam, to an account of his years in the White House.
Such a wealth of experience and scholarly achievement justifies our expectation that this book, as with any of his others, will contain much information and profound analysis. World Order doesn’t disappoint on the first of these counts. We will review much of his historical and geopolitical narrative. But at the risk of being seen as the boy who cried “the emperor has no clothes,” we (meaning this reviewer) will be willing, however reluctantly, to point out how greatly the analysis lacks profundity. We will find that Kissinger says many things that don’t hold up under examination. It would seem that the best way to see his fantasies is not just as a revelation of personal idiosyncrasy but as a window into the mindset of the world opinion elite of which he is a part. The significance of this can’t be overstated. If we see the world through a filter of misshapen perceptions, we are not unlike the people who were chained to the wall in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” witnessing not what is real but only shadows on a wall.
Our review of the informational dimension of World Order will look primarily at what it tells us about several of the aspirations for global order that have existed historically. This will lead to an examination of what Kissinger himself hopes for as a coming “world order.” We will critique his views as we go along, and the concluding part of the review will examine additional points, both strong and weak. The book includes much information about the regional histories and issues in Europe, the Islamic swath, and Asia, but it will be necessary to leave that for readers of the book itself.
Aspirations Toward World Order
Although we will see later than Kissinger is quixotic in what he himself desires for an international order, he gives much information about various claims that have been made asserting universal dominion by a given culture or ideology. One of these was “the Confucian concept of international order” that envisioned “a familial hierarchy with China as the patriarch.” After China was fashioned into a single country in 221 B.C., its elite saw China as “the center of world order” and “the sole sovereign government of the world.” Another was found in the European/Christian conquest of Central and South America during its crusading phase in which it “exalted a universal mission.” Under the eventual European colonial system which spread over much of the globe, “Europe represented the dominant concept of world order.” (It is worth noting that Kissinger doesn’t join the now-fashionable condemnation of that colonialism. He recognizes its ugly aspects, but he knows, too, that “its better elements tried to lead a kind of global tutorial,” serving a “civilizing mission.” He observes that in India Britain “saw itself as a neutral observer and civilizing uplifter of multifarious peoples and states,” and notes Britain’s role in leading the global movement to abolish slavery, which we recall had, for so many centuries in virtually all parts of the world, been an accepted part of human social organization.)
Woodrow Wilson’s aspiration to “make the world safe for democracy” saw the League of Nations as a replacement for what Kissinger calls the earlier “concert of powers.” Wilson’s thinking that all aggressive conduct among nations would be outlawed, with an international community coming together to oppose any violations, was reflected in the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928. (Kissinger judges the idea to have been “belied by the experience of history.” We share with him the benefit of hindsight, of course, by knowing of the League’s “impotence” in facing down the many crises of the 1930s.)
As World War II neared its end, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt anticipated optimistically a world order based on “the Four Policemen” – the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China. This stemmed from FDR’s strangely ignorant and perverse assessment of Stalin, one of history’s worst butchers, which is evidenced by his assurance to ambassador William C. Bullitt, quoted by Kissinger, that “I think if I give him [Stalin] everything that I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.” (Years earlier, in commenting on Wilson’s idealism, Theodore Roosevelt had pointed to one of Aesop’s fables that provides just as good a critique of FDR’s make-believe world: TR wrote “I am not willing to play the part which even Aesop held up to derision when he wrote of how the wolves and the sheep agreed to disarm, and how the sheep as a guarantee of good faith sent away the watchdogs, and were forthwith eaten by the wolves.”)
Marxism-Leninism was an ideology seeking universal hegemony, metastasizing through much of the world, creating the challenge to the non-Communist world that continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kissinger gives little, if any, attention to it, however, as a militant ideology. (This omission reflects his “foreign policy realism,” which focuses on state actors such as the Soviet Union and assigns relatively little weight to ideas. The problem, from that point of view, was “Soviet expansion.” Such a perception is relevant today if applied to an assessment of Russia under Putin. One hears talk of “the threat of Russian expansionism,” with the implication that Russia’s actions on its periphery in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and against the Islamic State in Syria, are on par with the Soviet Union and China’s Cold War sponsorship of Communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What is overlooked is that a nation-state without a universalist ideology is something very different from an expansionist totalitarianism.)
Kissinger discusses President Richard Nixon’s vision of world order based on “geopolitical equilibrium.” He quotes Nixon as saying “I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.” This is not greatly different from FDR’s “Four Policemen.” (To have indulged this line of thinking required having arrived at an abstraction above the fray, overlooking the reality of the Soviet Union and Maoist China’s involvement in world revolution. It thought of them as normal countries committed to co-existing in a community of nations. It seems reasonable to suppose that such a conception reflected Kissinger’s “realist” influence on an otherwise strongly anti-Communist Nixon.)
In the quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union, sentiment in the United States has pressed one of history’s most potent claims to universality. Kissinger remarks on this at some length as he narrates the long history of “America’s proselytizing spirit.” The “universality” is expressed by the premise that American values should be extended to and embraced by all peoples. (An interesting thing to note about it, although Kissinger does not himself point it out, is that the “American values” that are to be made universal are not those of traditional American life, but encompass instead the norms set forth by an ever-changing “progressive” ideology. We see this, for example, in the crusading spirit with which America’s leaders and national policy have advanced, say, “women’s rights” and “gay (i.e., homosexual) rights” in places like Afghanistan. These are part of a “human rights” concept that asserts a universality that runs counter to national sovereignties and that in effect de-legitimizes any political or cultural system that does not, as so many don’t, meet its expectations.)
This orientation is shared as much by the European opinion elite as by the American, but it is in the United States that general public sentiment and the leadership of both major political parties have sought to implement it and have come to see the United States as morally obligated to serve as the world’s policeman and social worker. With certain differences in preference as to method, the impulse is shared by both the “neoconservative” and “liberal” sides of American politics (and by a great many benevolent souls within the population). “Not a sparrow falls,” as the saying goes, that is not a call for well-meaning intervention. (In a world of such enormous cultural diversity, in which many practices exist that are repugnant to Americans, this is a tall order. The sentimental impulse is limited only by the hard realities of expense, war-weariness, the infinitude of the demands it makes, and the recalcitrance of cultures that cling, however stubbornly, to their own ways.)
Kissinger’s history of American thinking about universality takes note of President John Quincy Adams’ well-known statement in 1821 that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” In A Republic, Not an Empire, Patrick Buchanan thinks of Adams’ statement as significantly representative of American opinion during the country’s first century. He writes that this amounted to “unilateralism,” which he defines as independence, but not isolation, and that this was the main thrust of American policy until 1898, at which time the United States made a radical change of course, becoming an imperial power through the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Kissinger says incorrectly that “few Americans imagined how different the world order would be after ‘this splendid little war’” [i.e., the Spanish-American War which led to the acquisitions just mentioned and was accompanied by the annexation of Hawaii]. There actually was substantial opposition at the time. But Kissinger is right when he says “the Spanish-American War marked America’s entry into great-power politics and into the contests it had so long disdained.” He says that after Woodrow Wilson a few years later insisted on a global implementation of American ideals, “this has been, with minor variations, the American program for world order ever since.”
The book next considers Islamism, giving much attention to the universalist aspirations of Islam, both historically and in the present. After mentioning Muhammad’s death in 632, Kissinger recounts how “in the century [that followed], Arab armies brought the new religion as far as the Atlantic coast of Africa, to most of Spain, into central France, and as far east as northern India,” all amounting to “an unprecedented wave of expansion [that] turned the rise of Islam into one of the most consequential events in history.” To understand Islam’s centuries-old heritage, it is worth noting Kissinger’s observation that “impelled by the conviction that its spread would unite and bring peace to all humanity, Islam was at once a religion, a multiethnic superstate, and a new world order.”
All did not go well, however, as Kissinger tells us. “Multiple centers of power” came into being, and Muslims broke into the opposing Sunni/Shia branches we know today. Military defeats in France stopped the Muslim advance, and rival monarchies “compounded the doctrinal differences.” Just the same, the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the thirteenth century saw a renewal of “the dream of universal order.”
With this as background, Kissinger moves forward to the present. He says “many Muslims, in many countries the majority, have arrived at less confrontational and more pluralistic interpretations of their faith,” but he believes an “often decisive influence” in “many of the key Middle Eastern states and almost all non-state organizations” is wielded by those who champion an adversarial posture that is “incompatible with [the system of nation-states]… or the values of liberal internationalism.” He cites the 1964 book Milestones by Sayyid Qutb, which was “a declaration of war against the existing world order that became a foundational text of modern Islamism” [our emphasis]. For some operational purposes, this Islamic fundamentalist doctrine crosses the Sunni/Shia divide, even though “Khomeini [in Iran] and his fellow Shia revolutionaries have differed from Sunni Islamists… in proclaiming that global upheaval would be capped with the coming of the Mahdi.” This, Kissinger says, is “the essence of their fratricidal rivalry.”
How, if ever, will the Islamist fervor end? Kissinger opines that “the world [may] have to wait until jihadist pressures fade, as they disappeared earlier in the Ottoman Empire” [and, we might add by way of analogy, as the intense hatreds of Protestants and Catholics became pacified by the exhaustion of the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century]. In the meantime, he calls for “a concerted and forceful international response” to the Islamic State to prevent its “metastasizing.” (One would think that Kissinger’s experience as an international negotiator would suggest to him that the solution for dulling the jihadist fires would be for the moderate Muslims of whom he speaks to come together into a mighty force doctrinally and culturally to marginalize the fundamentalists, of necessity doing so mainly on their own initiative and secondarily through the help of the non-Islamic world. When, however, this reviewer considers that one of his former students, who is from Bangladesh, is under a fatwa sentencing him to death in absentia for converting to Christianity, it becomes clear just how formidable the task of moderating Islamic societies would be. Many Americans wonder whether it is Islam, not just radical Islamism, that is the adversary. There is little honest discussion of this question in the United States because of “political correctness,” but surely it needs to be addressed, because the answer makes a great deal of difference in how this new existential challenge can be faced. If jihadism is just a startling excrescence from an otherwise benign Islamic swath, vigorous action, as Kissinger suggests, to keep it from metastasizing is called for and may be sufficient. If the problem is Islam itself, all attempts to overcome it by action [other than as may be demanded for limited objectives] will be quixotic, since the doctrinal and cultural presence will prevail over a vast area with an enormous population. In such case, the non-Islamic world, if it has the will to survive, will be faced with the need to contain Islam within the Islamic swath itself. This will not be done, of course, so long as “establishment opinion” within both the United States and Europe stays in control and welcomes the influx of peoples that is so rapidly introducing Islam into the West.)
Although Kissinger discusses the various claims to universality we have just reviewed, and adds to that a detailed discussion of much else, World Order is primarily concerned with how a “genuine world order” can be achieved. “The crisis in the concept of world order [is] the ultimate international problem of our day,” so that “a reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time.” (We should pause to note that this supersedes, in his opinion, a number of challenges that others would consider paramount. Several serious thinkers, for example, have placed the threatened “death of the West” at the top of the list.)
Thinking in the tradition of Nixon’s desired “geographical equilibrium,” Kissinger looks to a pluralistic model in which “a concept of order [should be sought] within the various regions” of the world, which would amount to “spheres of influence identified with particular domestic structures and forms of governance.” The task then, he says, is to “relate these regional orders to one another.” Here, Kissinger wants to pair “a recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories and cultures” with a “celebration of universal principles.” Each region is to “maintain its own values” at the same time it “acquires a second culture that is global….” What Kissinger has in mind by this second culture is an allegiance to what he says are “universal norms (such as human rights, due process, or equality for women).” Such norms include “democracy and participatory government,” which he says have become a “shared aspiration, if not a universal reality.” The United States must lead the way, because “America [is] the modern world’s decisive articulation of the human quest for freedom.” The norms are to co-exist with each region’s own local cultures and belief systems.
Unless one abstracts out of the real world, seeking to transcend it with an eye toward a hoped-for future, this duality seems uniquely naïve. Kissinger seeks to “square the circle” by combining what will often be two opposites. Many societies, such as Bangladesh, are committed to ways of life far removed from the “universal norms” of which Kissinger speaks. Oddly, he knows this, as we see when he recognizes that there is often a “flouting of universal norms.” But this doesn’t keep him from positing a “world order” based on each region’s accepting an overlay of “liberal democracy” on top of its often distinctly illiberal or even anti-liberal culture and belief system. This contradiction is evident, for example, in his discussion of China, where he observes that “China rejects the proposition that international order is fostered by the spread of liberal democracy and that the international community has an obligation to bring this about.” While he acknowledges that China is obdurate on the point, he by no means believes that the international community, led by the United States, should back off from its insistence that China adopt the very thing China rejects.
An example of a dual system close to what Kissinger desires, but one that would no doubt be repugnant to him, is Saudi Arabia’s. There, we find, in Kissinger’s own words, “a tenuous amalgam of modern statehood… grafted onto the practice of Wahhabism, perhaps the most fundamentalist version of the [Islamic] faith.” “Modern statehood” isn’t the equivalent of “liberal democracy,” but at least provides some basis for Kissinger to test his duality aspiration. If he can square the circle between Wahhabism and the crusade for women’s and LGBTQ rights, he will have worked wonders.
We have noted previously that Kissinger’s “universal norms” are actually the ever-changing values of a primarily Western opinion elite. In a recent article in this journal, this reviewer introduced the fanciful Dr. Seuss-like term “PeeWOCs” for “the People Whose Opinions Count.” Though this group consists of millions of people, if we include (as we must) those who simply conform their views to whatever is “politically [i.e., ideologically] correct” at any given time, the great bulk of the population constitutes a “silent majority” whose views have prevailed only locally or sporadically. The opinion elite speaks in terms of liberal democracy, but is far from democratic. There is great presumption in its claim to “universal” verities.
We have commented on various of Kissinger’s points, sometimes noting their wisdom but more often spotting their incongruity. Earlier we generalized that many of his insights don’t hold up under examination. To cite these more specifically, here are some:
He says the world “is on its way to the first truly global world order.” No doubt it is becoming global, with trade and communication providing interconnectedness. But “order”? His own narrative about China and radical Islam, among other things, shows the pieces don’t by any means fit together as they would in a jigsaw puzzle.
When he says “the spread of democracy and participatory governance has become a shared aspiration,” what world does he have in mind? He acknowledges that they are “not a universal reality,” but nevertheless thinks he knows the aspiration is there. It would seem that wishful thinking plays an important role in Kissinger’s mental processes.
Commenting about Russia, he says it has had “globe-spanning ambitions.” He cites its “slow, seemingly irresistible expansionist urge” that expanded its territory “on average, 100,000 square kilometers annually from 1552 to 1917.” This shouldn’t roll off the page without provoking at least a moment’s thought. To equate Russia’s historic expansion across Eurasia with “globe-spanning ambitions” is to extend hyperbole to its farthest reaches. The exaggeration is dangerous if its effect is unnecessarily to bring into being a psychology of apprehension over yet another existential confrontation similar to those the world experienced in the twentieth century. Isn’t today’s confrontation with radical Islam enough without manufacturing imaginary ones? The hyperbole will be no small matter if the United States presses the belligerence toward Russia that has been in evidence in some circles recently.
It strikes us as odd when Kissinger writes that “Iran has brought exceptional skill and consistency to bear on its proclaimed goal of undermining the Middle East state system.” What precisely is he thinking of? The Middle East is in a state of chaos, to be sure, with much of its “state system” broken, but it was the United States that invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein without an “end game” that would put the disparate parts of Iraq together; that has spent years attempting “nation building” in Afghanistan without a coherent idea of how to produce a result acceptable to the Pashtuns and other elements indigenous to the country; and that has sought the overthrow of Assad in Syria without more than the most chimerical idea of who would be better. Kissinger prefers to overlook all that and point a finger toward Iran.
Kissinger’s glances back into the twentieth century are equally quizzical. His perception, for example, is purely conventional when he credits President Harry S Truman with a “courageous decision to resist” North Korea’s June 1950 invasion of the south. We can’t imagine that he is unaware of the significance of the Truman administration’s having withdrawn American forces from South Korea (before the North’s invasion) after the Soviet Union had set up the government of North Korea and had created a powerful North Korean People’s Army, a withdrawal that General Wedemeyer warned would lead to an invasion of the south.
He speaks of “the defeat of the Soviet effort to place intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962.” Here, again, he adopts a conventional perception. But it is odd, just the same, to call this a “defeat of the Soviet Union,” since the Soviet Union had manufactured a crisis in which it lost nothing, whereas it gained from the United States a secret agreement (i.e., one kept secret from the American people, but that was of course no secret to the Soviets) by which the United States guaranteed never to invade Cuba and committed itself to dismantling the Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey.
We said earlier that Kissinger’s misshapen perceptions would provide a window into the thinking of the opinion elite of which he is a member. Much of what he says is strictly conventional and in that context, and perpetuates a fictional world that colors our thinking on a great many subjects. The fictions remain the official view long after evidence is known that contradicts them. We see, for example, that Kissinger has no difficulty referring to Lee Harvey Oswald as the Kennedy assassin in Dallas. There is no sign that Kissinger is given pause by the fact that Dr. Charles Crenshaw, who was a member of the medical team attending both JFK and Oswald in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital, revealed 29 years after the event that Kennedy’s wounds were entry wounds, which would mean that the shots came from the grassy knoll and not the sixth floor book depository window behind the presidential limousine. In today’s writing by major figures, such questions are passed over entirely, with the established view simply repeated for all to accept. The result is a fictional veneer which becomes the basis for our understanding and action.
Although there is much else in World Order along a similar vein, there are sensible insights, too. Kissinger has learned the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya enough to realize that if the tribal monarchy in Saudi Arabia were overthrown a bright future wouldn’t necessarily appear: “The United States cannot assume that a democratic opposition is waiting in the wings to govern Saudi Arabia.” He sees the same thing about Syria: “America’s quandary is that it condemns Assad on moral grounds – correctly – but the largest contingent of his opponents are al-Qaeda and more extreme groups….”
As we indicated earlier, readers will find the book full of valuable information, especially in its discussion of regional histories and issues. It is written by an illustrious man and worth reading – if done with an open and questioning mind.
1. Our review of Buchanan’s book appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of this journal, pp. 253-256,
and may be accessed free of charge on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Book Review
54 (i.e., BR54).
2. See the article “March of the PeeWOCs: ‘Queer Theory,’ Its Origins and Implications” in the Fall
2015 issue of this journal, pp. 289-301. It can be accessed free of change at the website identified in
Endnote 1 here as Article 116 (i.e., A116).
3. This is described in much greater detail in former-President Herbert Hoover’s book
Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its
Aftermath, Hoover Institution Press, 2011. See our review of that book in the Spring 2012
issue of this journal, pp. 94-133, especially at pages 114-116. The review is available free of
charge on the website as Article 107 (i.e., A107).
 Our review of Buchanan’s book appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of this journal, pp. 253-256, and may be accessed free of charge on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Book Review 54 (i.e., BR54).
 See the article “March of the PeeWOCs: ‘Queer Theory,’ Its Origins and Implications” in the Fall 2015 issue of this journal, pp. 289-301. It can be accessed free of change at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 116 (i.e., A116).
 This is described in much greater detail in former-President Herbert Hoover’s book Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath, Hoover Institution Press, 2011. See our review of that book in the Spring 2012 issue of this journal, pp. 94-133, especially at pages 114-116. The review is available free of charge on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 107 (i.e., A107).