Responding to Kissinger’s Argument

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry - who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry – who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.  His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face.  Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.

Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant.  So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?

First he notes the nature of the changes taking place.  The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure.   He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions.  The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system.  This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions.   Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue - great powers are focused on stability.  But in our era they are linked - poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue – great powers are focused on stability. But in our era they are linked – poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily.  In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit.    Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny.  Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.

Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states.  For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system.  He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.

I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete.   Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead.  After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world.  It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world.   The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state - a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state – a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order.  Kissinger’s words:

To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?

For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. – Kissinger 

This conclusion seems vague.   It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization.   Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics.  One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work.  The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail.   The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression.   This order could suffer a similar fate.

My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media.   We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will.  But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock.   The world is in motion.

The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization.  The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization.  Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational.   Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance.  Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems.  The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change.   Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.   These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power.   Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people.   Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world.   Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.

 

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