On August 30 The Wall Street Journal published a long and interesting article by Henry Kissinger, excerpted from his new book World Order. The doyen of the U.S. foreign policy establishment argues that the existing global order is in crisis and that America should take a leading role in shaping a new one. His overall diagnosis of the current condition is right in principle, but there are numerous problems with Kissinger's analysis and recommendations.
“In the decades following World War II, the U.S. – strengthened in its economy and national confidence – began to take up the torch of international leadership and added a new dimension,” Kissinger writes. “A nation founded explicitly on an idea of free and representative governance, the U.S. identified its own rise with the spread of liberty and democracy and credited these forces with an ability to achieve just and lasting peace”:
The years from perhaps 1948 to the turn of the century marked a brief moment in human history when one could speak of an incipient global world order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional European concepts of statehood and balance of power. But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order. These reservations are now becoming explicit, for example, in the Ukraine crisis and the South China Sea. The order established and proclaimed by the West stands at a turning point.
This summary of the half-century during and immediately after the Cold War is controversial at best. America’s “taking up the torch” started in 1947, and not with the Marshall Plan, which Kissinger may have had in mind by citing 1948. It started with the Truman Doctrine, which was the foundation of America’s transformation into a superpower with global commitments. The creation of NATO in 1949 and the decision to intervene in Korea in 1950 were further key landmarks in that process, which represented a response to the well-founded perception of the Soviet Union, in the late 1940’s, as an aggressive, expansionist power. George Kennan’s assessment of Moscow’s intentions in the Long Telegram of 1946 was essentially correct, contrary to the revisionist argument still popular in academia that Stalin was acting defensively.
The American response in 1947 and thereafter had little to do with “the spread of liberty and democracy,” or the quest for a “just and lasting peace.” The policy of containment was a traditional balance-of-power reaction to Stalin’s acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of pursuing the spread of “progressive humanity.” In resisting the threat of a great power based on global ideology that blended religion and politics, and whose impetus to expand was impervious to appeasement, America was not guided by any “idealism.” Truman and Acheson, and all of their successors, were not squeamish about supporting dictatorial, oppressive, and/or corrupt regimes all over the world, in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, and in Latin America.
Contrary to Kissinger’s implications, the paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy that occurred after 1947 was based on an abiding commitment, not to the creation of a global order in America’s own image but to the limited goal of coping with the adversary in the Kremlin. American resolve helped stabilize the world. From the armistice at Panmunjom in 1953 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the communists inspired and funded countless insurgencies and “national liberation movements” all over the world – Malaya, Cuba, Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Nicaragua etc. – but they refrained from outright military onslaughts across the Cold War divide.
It is true, as Kissinger says, that “vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order” in the decades since the end of the Cold War. The trouble is that “the Western concept of order” after 1991 was in reality a made-inside-the-Beltway global disorder. The relentless expansion of NATO and the quest for its “new role” (the bombing of Serbia in 1999), the promotion of color-coded revolutions, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intervention in Libya, and the fanning of the civil war in Syria have had invariably disastrous consequences for the countries concerned, for regional and global stability, and for the pragmatically articulated security interests of the United States. The “reservations” of those refusing to acquiesce are not “becoming explicit” only now in the Ukraine crisis and in the South China Sea. They were in evidence in Venezuela in 2002, in South Ossetia in August 2008 and in general Sisi’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt in 2013.
“Europe has set out to transcend the state and craft a foreign policy based primarily on the principles of soft power,” Kissinger goes on, “[b]ut it is doubtful that claims to legitimacy separated from a concept of strategy can sustain a world order. And Europe has not yet given itself attributes of statehood, tempting a vacuum of authority internally and an imbalance of power along its borders.” This is plain wrong. There is an excess of arbitrary bureaucratic authority within the European Union, which bears a major share of responsibility for the current “imbalance of power along its borders” (meaning Ukraine). The balance of power – manifested in stability – did exist along “Europe’s” eastern borders until last winter. It was wantonly disrupted by the joint project of Brussels and Washington to bring Ukraine into their orbit.
“At the same time,” according to Kissinger, “parts of the Middle East have dissolved into sectarian and ethnic components in conflict with each other; religious militias and the powers backing them violate borders and sovereignty at will, producing the phenomenon of failed states not controlling their own territory.” This has not been some spontaneous process which unfolded independently of the will of the promoters of “the Western concept of order,” as one may conclude from Kissinger’s words. It happened decisively (albeit not exclusively) due to their proactive acts. The rise of the “Islamic State” would not have been possible without the Iraq war and the Western policy of helping “the opposition” in Syria. Libya would not have been the failed state it is today without NATO’s 2011 intervention.
Interestingly for the realist of yore, Kissinger then suggests that “contemporary structure of international rules and norms, if it is to prove relevant, cannot merely be affirmed by joint declarations; it must be fostered as a matter of common conviction.” He warns that the alternative is “an evolution into spheres of influence identified with particular domestic structures and forms of governance. At its edges, each sphere would be tempted to test its strength against other entities deemed illegitimate. A struggle between regions could be even more debilitating than the struggle between nations has been.” As it happens, those “spheres of influence” already exist in the Eurasian Union, in the emerging Russo-Chinese alliance, and in BRICS. Denying that reality and seeking a global order based on “common conviction” could produce struggles undoubtedly “more debilitating than the struggle between nations has been.”
Kissinger sees the alternative in “a world order of states affirming individual dignity and participatory governance, and cooperating internationally in accordance with agreed-upon rules,” which sounds nice, but which is not different – in terms of proclaimed intentions – from the global chaos based on “the Western concept of order” which we have today. Kissinger is entirely right to warn that “the celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions' histories, cultures and views of their security,” but then he proceeds to assert – disastrously – that “even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained.”
That “affirmation” could be a good thing, but only if it takes non-imperial forms. “America’s exceptional nature” arguably can be invoked even to resist to urge to shape some future global order, in the name of the authentic principles of a Republic, not an Empire (as per Buchanan's book title of 14 years ago). The historic, republican America is indeed “exceptional” in that her political tradition has been fixated on the dangers of centralized state power, on the desirability of limited government at home and non-intervention in foreign affairs. The affirmation of America’s true “exceptionalism” can be focused on the revival of genuinely self-governing local polities based on ethnic and cultural commonalities; but I fear that is not what Henry Kissinger had in mind.
It is remarkable that after all these years Kissinger remains either unaware of or indifferent to the deep moral, and spiritual crisis of the Western world. The fact that a man of his stature and influence does not consider the possibility that we are at the edge of a cultural, rather than geopolitical abyss is disturbing. His notions of exceptionalism, in whatever context, are inseparable from the melancholy realities of today’s America.