Misguided sage

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Henry Kissinger talks about his book "World Order" in a pre-recorded interview for CBS News on September 7. Photo: AP/CBS News

The book is replete with oversimplifications and inaccuracies and appears to be a crash course for U.S. politicians bewildered by the complex world around them.

HENRY KISSINGER is 91 years old now. For over 60 years, he has been a towering figure in global foreign affairs discourse, including eight years in the United States administration as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State (1969-77). He has often been a divisive figure, attracting fierce criticisms and fawning praise in equal measure. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in controversial circumstances in 1973. He has defended his record in government most robustly in the shape of a large tome, White House Years, published in 1979. Other books have followed at regular intervals, all of them weighty in size and content. He has also been a successful and high-priced consultant to governments and the corporate sector.

World Order is possibly his final major contribution to foreign affairs, the last roar of a warhorse in decline but still anxious to explain the world to his confused and perhaps disenchanted countrymen, warning them, like prophets of old, of the doom that awaits them owing to their errors and thoughtlessness, and the ways they can achieve the Holy Grail if they would but follow his prescriptions. So far, this effort has been remarkably successful: there has been almost universal applause for World Order, with academics and senior officials (including Hillary Clinton) heaping praise on the book for its historical perspectives, its analyses of the contemporary situation, and the practical advice this sage has given his people.

Survey of civilisations

Starting with the premise that the world order is shaped by the history and culture of specific peoples, Kissinger’s canvas is truly vast in terms of the histories of civilisations he explores, the essences of diverse national characters he identifies, the complex foreign affairs issues he analyses, and the robust pronouncements he makes on all these subjects. At the heart of his tome there is one central idea: the modern state order, developed at Westphalia after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), has provided balance and hence peace to the world in general, while the abandonment of its principles has meant instability, insecurity and ultimately war.

The European powers met at Westphalia, exhausted after their religious wars over the previous century since the Reformation, which had included “total war” against civilian populations which killed a quarter of the population of Central Europe. In this state of near-collapse, they agreed to certain principles that would purportedly guide their future conduct: there would be an acceptance of religious and political diversity, with each political entity enjoying “sovereign” authority in its domain and having its own religious beliefs and domestic structures, with no challenge or interference from outside powers; peace would be maintained in Europe on the basis of a balance of power, with this balance ensuring respect for diversity and enforcing restraint on the conduct of all players in the region. Kissinger is convinced that the principles developed at Westphalia, updated to suit the contemporary situation, need to be applied regionally and globally for world order to prevail and destructive conflicts to be avoided. He then looks at the various challenges that this idea faces.

Kissinger concedes that in Europe itself this model of balance and restraint was rarely universal and was often challenged by new powers that rejected balance and pursued grandiose visions of continental conquest such as those led by Frederick the Great and Napoleon, whose ambitions condemned the continent to prolonged war and destruction. He also accepts that in the diverse world order of today that has a number of significant new participants, it would be useful to examine the wellsprings of their perceptions relating to world peace and security. In this effort, Kissinger is indefatigable.

He launches on a global tour d’horizon that takes him from Islam to Persia, Japan, China and Hindu India, finally coming to rest in the familiar embrace of the U.S. In every case, he provides a thumbnail sketch of the political values, strategy and practices of these diverse civilisations. Thus, Islam’s original division of the world into the “abode of Islam” and the “abode of war” is recalled and imparted a contemporary validity in terms of the thinking of present-day Muslims, both rulers and rebels. China, of course, was the Middle Kingdom, disdaining ties of equality with all foreign entities, until Western military intervention forced it rudely into the modern world. Japan had a similar aversion to foreigners even as it revered its emperor as a descendant of the sun goddess. Kissinger devotes several pages to a discussion of the political mindset formed in India under the influence of two texts—the Bhagvad Gita and Kautilya’s Arthashastra. To understand the Persians, he goes back to the norms and practices of the ancient Persian empires and then swiftly reaches Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and concludes: “In its culture, religion, and geopolitical outlook, Iran has preserved the distinctiveness of its tradition and the special character of its regional role.”

These surveys of history and civilisation are the least satisfactory part of the book. They are replete with oversimplifications and inaccuracies, and appear to be a crash course for U.S. politicians, bewildered by the complex world around them, so that they can take informed decisions pertaining to other countries.

Thus, with regard to Islam, Kissinger repeats the now-discredited idea that Muslim kingdoms could not attain the separation between mosque and state that Christian states achieved in Europe. Even a rudimentary reading of Islamic history reveals a divide between the claims of the sultan and the ulema, and the sustained role of the former in determining matters of state on a secular basis, that is, on the basis of imperial interest and public welfare, rather than with reference to holy texts.

Again, while some rulers may have paid lip service to the idea of establishing a universal authority (the abode of Islam), all of them actually ruled strictly within their own domains, with diverse communities accommodated in government, commerce and culture, and seeking territorial expansion by use of arms in the quest of imperial glory rather than divine salvation. In this approach and effort, Muslim rulers were no different from their European counterparts.

Modern-day Orientalism

Kissinger seems to see non-European cultures with the eyes of his imperialist predecessors whose confusions, fears, temptations and, above all, absolute arrogance have been set out succinctly in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Early in the book, Kissinger notes: “Outside the Western world, regions that have played a minimal role in the [Westphalian] rules’ original formulation question their validity in their present form and have made clear they would work to modify them.” Kissinger seems unable to understand that the positions taken by leaders of the emerging powers are not products of an esoteric mindset shaped by ancient texts and glories recalled, but simply a rejection of the world order that is iniquitous and still dominated by Western interests. Thus, Iran in its interaction with the West is not perverse and non-accommodative of Western interests because it recalls its ancient glories but because of the real experience it has had with Western interventions and depredations, which have left a legacy of deep mistrust of Western motives.

Kissinger is more understanding of China. He notes that China’s participation in the Westphalian structure carries with it “an ambivalence born of the history that brought it to enter into the international state system” and accepts that the international system will have to evolve to prepare the way for a more active Chinese role. However, Kissinger is still surprised that Deng Xiaoping should have said: “Actually, national sovereignty is more important than human rights, but the Group of Seven often infringe upon the sovereignty of poor, weak countries of the Third World.” Kissinger simply fails to note that the West, with its intrusive, prescriptive and hegemonic policies, has itself been the principal violator of Westphalian norms as understood by him insofar as the developing world is concerned.

This lack of understanding is evidenced across the book, but mainly where the Islamic world is concerned. Commenting on the West Asian scenario just after the Cold War, Kissinger says: “[Ruling] elites found themselves obliged to contend with a rising tide of domestic discontent…. Radical groups promised to replace the existing system in the Middle East [West Asia] with a religiously Middle East order.…” No background or context is provided for this development: the author simply fails to mention that it was the U.S., in association with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that had organised the “global jehad” in Afghanistan, giving to jehadi forces their first collective mobilisation and major “victory” in modern times, leading to the setting up of Al Qaeda and the unleashing of thousands of jehadis across the world, whose depredations culminated in the attacks of 9/11 and continue in various forms to this day.

He refers to the Sunni-Shia divide as a “struggle over a millennium”, but fails to mention the active U.S. role in fomenting the sectarian fault line in Iraq as part of the divide-and-rule policies of the occupation. He speaks of the proliferation of non-state actors that have corroded states in West Asia but does not tell us that the destruction of the Iraqi state order was a direct result of U.S. occupation policies, which disbanded the Iraqi army and debarred all those affiliated with the Baath party from government employment, thus destroying the country’s security backbone and depriving the state of its most able and experienced administrators.

The section on Palestine is an embarrassment and compromises Kissinger’s standing as an upholder of realpolitik discourse. While this section analyses the Arab positions on the issue and points to their shortcomings, there is no reference to what Israel can or should do to promote the peace process, no reference to the expansion of settlements, to the change in the historic character of Jerusalem, or even to the barbaric violence that is unleashed periodically on Palestinians. Kissinger’s explanation for the Palestinian imbroglio is ludicrous: that Israel and its ally, the U.S., are Westphalian states, while, “the core countries and factions in the Middle East view international order to greater or lesser degree through an Islamic consciousness”.

Iran and India scrutinised

Kissinger’s other blind spot is Iran: according to him, “Iran has brought exceptional skill and consistency to bear on its proclaimed goal of undermining the Middle East state system and ejecting Western influence from the region.” Later, he writes of Tehran’s “adoption of jehadist principles… with direct assaults on American interests and views of international order”. What an extraordinary set of assertions! One wonders whether this is a pamphleteer or a scholar of global standing. First, in what way has Iran sought to undermine the West Asian state system? Was it not the one aggressed upon by Iraq, with the full support of the Gulf Arab countries and many Western nations? Did any of the latter come to its aid when chemical weapons were used against it? Second, is it a crime to seek to eject Western influence from West Asia or to disagree with the U.S. thinking on West Asian affairs? Finally, what jehadi principles has Iran used to challenge U.S. views on international order? This is prejudice masquerading as scholarship and brings little credit to the fading sage.

Finally, Kissinger advises that Iran “decide whether it is a country or a cause”. This question can be put to most countries in the world that are motivated by larger values, beyond the confines of narrow self-interest. It can be asked of Israel, of India, of China, and above all of the U.S. itself, which after all has a proud tradition of “exceptionalism” in asserting moral values in world affairs. Thus, for Kissinger it is not adherence to a cause that is important, but that the cause must be in conformity with U.S. interests.

With regard to India, while Kissinger is correct when he approvingly quotes Robert Kaplan in describing the Indian subcontinent as “grafted to the Greater Middle East” by ties of religion, ethnicity and strategic sensitivities, he is less convincing when he suggests that India has inherited from imperial Britain an interest in a “special position” in the Indian Ocean region between the East Indies and the Horn of Africa. While it is true that India has a long-term and abiding interest in the security and stability of the Indian Ocean littoral, including the Gulf, its approach is not hegemonic and military in character (as it was in the case of Britain), but is one of partnership with the countries of the region.

With regard to India’s ties with West Asia, Kissinger seems to take a rather limited view, saying: “… over the course of the twenty-first century India has felt obliged to play a growing strategic role in Asia and the Muslim world to prevent these regions’ domination by countries or ideologies it considers hostile.” In fact, India now has substantial ties with West Asia, encompassing energy, trade, investments and security, and the presence of its seven million-strong community. (In fact, in the section on Saudi Arabia, Kissinger inaccurately mentions the presence of foreign communities in the country as constituting “the bond of Islam and respect for traditional authority”. He fails to note that the number one expatriate community in Saudi Arabia is the Indian community, which now numbers nearly three million; other non-Muslim communities present in large numbers in Saudi are Filipinos and Nepalis.)

Kissinger ends the India section with two important points, both correct: one, he envisages the possibility of greater cooperation between India, China and Japan in matters relating to Asian security, and, two, he notes that “India will be a fulcrum of twenty-first century order: an indispensable element, based on its geography, resources and tradition of sophisticated leadership.”

The limits of Westphalia

The best portion of the book, not surprisingly, is the nearly 100 pages devoted to a historical account of the U.S.’ approach to the world order, commencing with the founding fathers and going on to the present times. The modern-day account is the least satisfactory since it attempts to justify two U.S. interventions, which are now widely accepted as follies, if not worse. Regarding Afghanistan, Kissinger speaks of the problem of handling non-state actors, without recalling that it was the U.S. which had used non-state actors to organise the so-called global jehad in that country. With regard to Iraq, Kissinger pays personal tribute to President George W. Bush as the uncompromising upholder of freedom, his only criticism of the President being that the soil of Iraq was not ready for democracy. No mention here of the killing of nearly half a million people, a nation in ruins, and its populace now destroying itself in fratricidal conflict, entirely as a result of U.S. policies.

Kissinger speaks of the U.S.’ “bitter experience” in the region but fails to mention how bitter has been the impact of its flawed and mindless policies on the people whose lives have been ruined, whose societies have been devastated, and who are now condemned to face the wrath of brutal extremists that U.S. interventions have spawned. It is, therefore, a supreme irony when Kissinger concludes his section on U.S. policies with the words: “As an American examines the lessons of its twenty-first century wars, it is important to remember that no other power has brought to its strategic efforts such deeply felt aspirations for human betterment.”

In the complex world of today, with fresh challenges to the world order and the emergence of new players in international affairs, it is unfortunate that Kissinger should have anchored his book in the cloudy and even dubious straitjacket of the Westphalian system. It was a creature of its times, when tired men had come together to call a temporary truce to their fratricidal conflicts. Other than ending the religious contentions emanating from the Reformation, it had little of enduring value; certainly not principles of any significance today. For the next four centuries. Europe remained convulsed in wars owing to the follies, anxieties and vanities of little men masquerading as statesmen, who repeatedly dragged Europe and even their colonies into an orgy of bloodletting restrained by no values or principles, divine or temporal, trampling violently across Europe just as their ancestors had done. Westphalia was not and could not be in the minds of any of them. As Mark Greengrass says in his new book, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, the Peace of Westphalia neither provided collective security nor was the precursor of the politics of balance of power among Europe’s states.

Kissinger’s book has no new idea, only several old ones, many of them wrong. While discussing the Asian regional order, the whole presentation is flawed because it does not include West Asia within the Asian order, a grievous shortcoming given the substantial connectivities between West Asia and the rest of Asia, now seen as a new Silk Road. Kissinger bemoans the fact that international institutions are today nearly non-functional, but he cannot bring himself to suggest the reform of, say, the U.N. Security Council. And, finally, when did the U.S. ever accept the constraints of Westphalia? Its approach to security has been hegemonic, with a propensity to intervene politically and militarily in the affairs of other countries to suit its short-term interests, with no vision or strategy, and no thought of the consequences of its intrusions.

Instead of the past, the sage of realpolitik should have looked to the future and titled his book: The New World Order. He might then have been more in tune with the real world.

Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Abmassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

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