Print Edition - 2015-03-22  |  Free the Words

Interrogating Kissinger

  • Why Henry Kissinger’s World Order must be read with suspicion
- Abhinawa Devkota
Interrogating Kissinger

Mar 21, 2015-

While flipping through the pages of Henry Kissinger’s World Order, one is bound to exclaim if one of the greatest living apologists for power politics and a hardnosed defender of realpolitik, has had a recent change of heart. He no longer sounds like the Kissinger of On China, which, among other things, delineated the great swerve that China made: a tactical partnership forged with the United States to challenge any future belligerence on the part of the Soviet Union subsequent to Sino-Soviet border clashes. Rather, World Order begins with a longish discourse on the topics of justice and legitimacy, which reads, considering the reality that we live in, like the futile attempt of a starry-eyed teenager to resurrect an ideal world in his dreams.

But then, this is Kissinger and that alone warrants that that the book be read thoroughly before coming to a conclusion.

Confounding Westphalia

Kissinger’s definition of world order and his musings on justice and legitimacy are firmly based on the postulates of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). He defines world order as “the concept held by a region or civilisation about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world.” According to Kissinger, any successful world order must stand firmly on the twin pillars of legitimacy and power. Legitimacy “defines the limits of permissible action” and balance of power “enforces restraint where rules

break down.”

From then on, the book ventures into examining multiple civilisations and parallel world orders to measure them against the European order. Predictably, they all stand miserably against the Kissingerian paradigm; they are all outshone by his lodestar.

Islam doesn’t fulfill the Westphalian criteria. From the days when the Bedouin warriors first planted the flags of Islam in three continents to the times of Sayyid Qutb and Ayatollah Khomeini, the unforgiving, inflexible, and universalist diktats of the religion, which is at once a “religion, a multiethnic superstate, and a new world order,” have always fallen short of the values the treaty so cherishes.  

Similar is the case with the Chinese and Japanese versions of world order. Japan—with its emperor, a mediator between heaven and earth—and China—the once-upon-a-time fabled Middle Kingdom which viewed itself as “the sole sovereign government of the world” and whose emperor ruled “all under heaven”—stand short of

his yardstick.

American ambivalence

Then comes the US, which, according to Kissinger, has become an “ambivalent superpower” post-Cold War, vacillating between the extremities of Rooseveltian “realism” and Wilsonian “idealism”. It has become a country torn between the halcyon ideals so adored by its founding fathers and the brutal present, unsuccessfully trying to balance both to its detriment. The only solution to this quandary: tip the balance in favour of realism.

Surprisingly, Kissinger’s views on American ambivalence seem to chime rather well with the patronising ethos that the Americans hold vis-à-vis their relationship with the world, according to which “the beacon on the hill” has poured in much light to illuminate the benighted world around it to no avail, and that the civilising efforts of Uncle Sam have now become a thorn in its own flesh, a challenge to its own status quo, as forces far baser and evil are trying to override its authority.

Or is it?

Suddenly, we’re confronted with what is probably the most contentious issue of our times: the role of the US in the world we live in. And it doesn’t take much effort to divine the skillful manipulation of history that’s going

on here.

If one is to single out the most dominant ideological strain that has determined the course of American foreign policy post the Second World War, and post Cold War as well, then it is realism, thorough and unbridled realism. Wilsonian ideals, it seems, were buried not long after the president’s death. And while the country has always tried to portray itself as a patron saint of liberty and justice, records speak otherwise.

America’s bonhomie with the oil-rich emirates of the Middle East, it’s persistent reluctance to act against the government of Israel which, for me, runs the largest open-air concentration camp in its own backyard, it’s suspicious apathy towards the Arab Spring (which was brutally suppressed by the dictatorial regimes of the countries where it took place) and, not to forget, it’s nefarious covert operations carried out on a magnificent global scale (the hacking scandal in particular), all go on prove that US foreign policy has hardly changed since the days when it toppled democratically-elected governments in countries like Iran (1953), Indonesia (1958), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Brazil (1964). Cold War or no Cold War, Uncle Sam seems to have a rapacious appetite.

Keeping promises

In the presence of all these facts,

it’s not hard to see why the US has devised this narrative of victimhood on the altar of its own uncertainty, and why American foreign policy pundits like Kissinger are advocating it: this ruse works as an effective smoke screen for the US to shield its frailty and mistakes. In other words, the argument that it is fighting for liberal, democratic values is a façade behind which America hides its cruel intentions.

But despite all these shenanigans, the US remains a world leader.

And even though world politics is becoming more and more complicated, given the rise of regional superpowers and the increasing technological parity between them and the US, there seems to be no power capable of clinching the title from the US anytime soon. But if the hegemon wants to maintain its status quo, there is one thing that the Treaty of Westphalia can teach. The enduring charm of the treaty lies in the honesty with which the participating countries observed its tenants. Until now, America has mostly disappointed the world by letting its ambitions override its principles. Let’s hope it learns to keep its promises.


 Devkota is with the Post’s features section


Published: 22-03-2015 08:05

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