Review: World Order

Secretary's state of nations


By Henry Kissinger
Allen Lane, £25

Every few pages in Henry Kissinger's grandly titled World Order comes a fact that slaps the reader in the face and shifts the way you think about global politics. For instance, according to the former Secretary of State, each year between 1552 and 1917, Russia expanded by the equivalent land mass of many European states (100,000 square kilometres). This, he uses to illustrate his view that imperial expansion lies at the heart of Russian identity. Thus, Russia's pattern of statecraft has remained consistent from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin.

This extraordinary book is full of such gems, which drive along an ambitious narrative of world history in a highly entertaining way. The result is readable enough to act as a school set text and yet full of such insight and knowledge as to make it essential reading in foreign ministries across the world.

One foreign policy model is Cardinal Richelieu, French king Louis XIII's chief minister, whose approach Kissinger characterises as follows: "The indispensable element of a successful foreign policy is a long-term strategic concept based on a careful analysis of all relevant factors." In addition, Richelieu insisted that a good international statesman must know where this strategy is leading and why. What's more, "he must act at the outer edge of the possible".

It is difficult not to apply these principles to the present-day Middle East and ask which western leader has grasped them. Where is David Cameron's long-term strategic concept? Does President Obama know where his new-found strategy is leading and why? And when has Benjamin Netanyahu ever acted at the outer edge of the possible?

But the book ends with a humble recognition of the limits of human understanding when it comes to the complexities of international affairs: "I know now that history's meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared."

Kissinger's conceptual starting point is the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and ushered in the age of the nation state. He traces the globalisation of this model of state building to its present-day existential crisis where large populations find themselves in what he calls "zones of non-governance". The list is terrifying: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan and Somalia.

The conclusions in World Order are all the more striking for the clarity of the writing. Europe, says Kissinger, "finds itself suspended between a past it is seeking to overcome and a future it has not yet defined". Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the outlook is bleaker still: "If order cannot be achieved by consensus or imposed by force, it will be wrought, at disastrous cost, from the experience of chaos."

World Order does not make for comfortable reading but it is a challenge to anyone, especially politicians, to discover more and declare a little less.

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