World Order by Henry Kissinger, book review: An elder statesman answers his critics


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The Independent Culture

On my summer reading list was the late Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It's written as an indictment, of the sort that might pass muster in a war crimes prosecution.

The former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State is accused of responsibility for prolonging the Vietnam war, massacres in East Timor and Bangladesh, and assorted political assassinations. Accompanying Hitchens' anger is his frustration at the lauded, celebrity status afforded to Kissinger.

In his new book, Kissinger does not address Hitchens or his many critics directly, but World Order which is sub-titled Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, could serve as a philosophical defence against their charges. It's easily forgotten that Kissinger, now 91, was a Harvard academic before turning to statecraft and "realpolitik", the 19th-century European diplomatic stratagem with which he became closely identified and its most famous modern exponent. For World Order draws on historical analysis to support what could be termed the Kissinger doctrine.

As he makes clear, Kissinger's ideal template for diplomatic relations is that most pragmatic of accords, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War. So prolonged was the conflict that the protagonists had long since forgotten what it was they were fighting for – was it political or sectarian or both?

The solution was to put the actual differences to one side, to recognise state sovereignty. The point about Westphalia and why it matters, says Kissinger, is that's also where we find ourselves today: "a multiplicity of political units, none powerful enough to defeat all the others, many adhering to contradictory philosophies and internal practices, in search of neutral rules to regulate their conduct and mitigate conflict."

But the world still needs statesmen to apply authority. There is a type of national leader, Kissinger asserts, who is head and shoulders above the rest – those supermen who strike out on their own, are tough but humane, defer to the past while trying to build the future, are not scared of using force but ultimately want to achieve a lasting equilibrium between states.

Not only could this description apply to Kissinger himself, and provide the rationale for those actions that so riled Hitchens, but it could also be taken as a dig against Barrack Obama. Kissinger pulls back from being directly critical of the US regime, but makes plain his belief that the US should assume hegemony, and that by implication, compared to figures in the past (including Kissinger himself), its current president has fallen short.