Henry Kissinger’s World Order and the Question of Universal Values

In our time, the quest for world order will require relating the perceptions of societies whose realities have largely been self-contained.  The mystery to be overcome is one all peoples share—how divergent historic experiences and values can be shaped into a common order.1

Two weeks into the year and I’ve already found a finalist for my “Best Books of 2015” entry: Henry Kissinger’s World Order.  The book is a richly written, thought-provoking meditation on the structure of the international system from the world’s preeminent scholar-statesman.  You won’t find a critique of it here.

Before jumping down the rabbit hole of this thought experiment, I thought it might be helpful to recap the distinguishing characteristics of the current world order, highlighting its structure and its norms.

Defining the Current World Order

The current international system, and the norms that it puts forward, are a byproduct of Europe’s unique historical evolution, particularly the Thirty Years’ War.  In brief, the Westphalian Peace (1648) established the core principles of the system as follows:

  • The state is the principal unit of political organization;
  • Each state retains sovereignty over its own territory (with the corollary principle of noninterference); and,
  • Each state is free to choose its own form of governance and religion.

Similarly, the norms of the current order are a function of the unique world outlook that has emerged from European and U.S. history.  The most important distinguishing characteristics being:

  • The separation of the temporal from the spiritual worlds;
  • Classical antiquity’s focus on the primacy and dignity of the individual; and,
  • The Enlightenment’s embrace of reason and interchange as the means by which individuals can come closer to knowing truth.

The Tension Among “Universal” Values, World Order and U.S. Power

The values we designate as “universal” are, indeed “universalizable,” in contrast with tribal or other ethnically or religiously restrictive values that limit their reach and confine their benefits to members of a particular group.  But “universalizable” values are not necessarily universally held.  Nor are they “natural.”2

There’s a difference in cultural perspective, in the sense that we believe our values are relevant to the entire world, and the entire world are aspirant Americas.  As a result, there’s a strong missionary spirit in American foreign policy.  Chinese believe that their values are exceptional but not accessible to non-Chinese.  And, therefore, the Chinese concept of world order is one in which their importance is recognized and respected by other countries.  We are both challenged to modify our historical approach.  It’s a new experience for both countries.3

The latter-day Maoists, whose influence had faltered before Mr. Xi [Jinping] came to power, have also been encouraged by another internal document, Document No. 30, which reinforces warnings that Western-inspired notions of media independence, “universal values” and criticism of Mao threaten the party’s survival … Their favorite enemies are almost always members of China’s beleaguered liberal circles: academics, journalists and rights activists who believe that liberal democracy, with its accompanying ideas of civil society and rule of law, offers the country the best way forward.4

For the purposes of this thought experiment, I would submit that the incipient feelings of disorder result from the tension among the concept of “universal” values, the legitimacy of the current international system, and the distribution of power.  The crux of the issue is that values—more than a calculated assessment of national interests—have driven U.S. foreign policy decisions for at least the last 25 years, particularly decisions regarding the use of military force.5

Paradoxically, in its attempts to make the world a safer, more orderly place, and in the quest to see its norms more broadly adopted, the United States has flouted the rules of the system (e.g., sovereignty) and the values it promulgates (e.g., torture).  It was ever thus, one might argue; or, as Thucydides recounted in the Melian Dialogue, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The irony, of course, is that the cooption of states into the current system has been a core pillar of U.S. grand strategy—the quest to “forge a world of liberty under law.”6  A further irony is that the United States met success in this endeavor.  As G. John Ikenberry recently argued in Foreign Affairs, “[China and Russia] embrace the underlying logic of [existing global rules and institutions], and with good reason.  Openness gives them access to trade, investment, and technology from other societies.  Rules give them tools to protect their sovereignty and interests.  Despite controversies over the new idea of “the responsibility to protect” (which has been applied only selectively), the current world order enshrines the norms of state-sovereignty and nonintervention.”7

Indeed it does; though Ikenberry’s tapdance around the more intrusive elements of “the responsibility to protect” doctrine was an artful dodge.  To add weight to his view that the current system has merit, it may be worth reading one world leader’s thoughts on the utility of the current system, penned as the United States was weighing military action—in contravention of international law, state sovereignty and the doctrine of noninterference—to enforce its “universal” values in Syria in 2013:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter.  The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades …

We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.  We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.  The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.  Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council.  Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.8

Who, one might ask, made these comments?  Why none other than Vladimir Putin.  Were they hypocritical?  Absolutely.  Did they come from the leader of a country with an odious human rights record?  You be the judge.

Regardless, the judoist demonstrated two keen insights.  First, he appealed directly to a sovereign country’s citizens rather than its political leadership (something the United States does routinely); and second, his dispute with U.S. policy hinged upon the fulcrum of U.S. grand strategy.  He used the rules of the current international system to paint the United States as the non-status quo power.  All hypocrisy notwithstanding, one wonders: might this one day come to be seen as a pivotal moment in the evolution of world order?

From Activist to Exemplar

We are [so] proud of our guarantees of freedom in thought and speech and worship that, unconsciously, we are guilty of one of the gravest errors that ignorance can make—we assume that our standard of values is shared by all humans in the world.9

The other part of what I’ve learned on this is you can’t force the United States’ value system and our values and our standards and our structures and our institutions down anybody’s throat … And we make huge mistakes when we think we can go around and make many USAs all over the world.  It just won’t work, never has worked.10

If, indeed, rising—or reemerging—world powers’ leaders are bought into the current order, it would seem safe to assume that it’s likely not because they all share the West’s “universal” values, but rather because they believe the system’s tenets of sovereignty and noninterference enable their countries to participate in a rules-based order in which they can pursue their national interests.  In this respect, the system possesses legitimacy, and its rules serve to balance power where the military balance does not.

Now if the premise of this thought experiment is true—that the United States imposes its norms whilst violating the rules of the system it claims to champion—then it would suggest that the United States could restore a degree of order through its own actions (or inactions).  One approach might be to pivot from being an activist toward being an exemplar.  Perhaps adherence to the principles of sovereignty and noninterference—a policy of international restraint—would contribute to order and catalyze domestic renewal; perhaps this is a topic for another time.

The ideals and values that connect the current world order to the West’s past have merit and are “universalizable.”  But to believe that we have reached the end of history and realized our ideals in our time seems a bit adolescent; and the notion that the United States has discovered the one true value system for everyone everywhere seems a tad arrogant.  Perhaps respect for other countries’ cultures and historical experiences is warranted; perhaps a modicum of humility is in order.

As the final part of this thought experiment, I would submit that in a time when digital communications and information technology make it possible for just about anyone just about anywhere to discern a yawning gap between U.S. policymakers’ rhetoric and the realities of American life, a global perception of American hypocrisy can become a strategic liability.

World order, then, might just begin at home.

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1 Henry A. Kissinger, World Order (Penguin: 2014), pg. 10.

9 Dwight Eisenhower, quoted in John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford University Press: 2005), pg. 128.

10 Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, as quoted in Andrew Tilghman, “Hagel says Marines will return to maritime roots,” Military Times, 14 January 2015.


2 responses to “Henry Kissinger’s World Order and the Question of Universal Values”

  1. Favorite Books of 2015 | Un Passaggio Avatar

    […] book inspired a post of its own (see: Henry Kissinger’s World Order and the Question of Universal Values), but interested readers may also wish to peruse this blog’s pieces on Entropy: The Defining […]

  2. joec Avatar

    Mike, I intuitively trust your judgement so I will read the book. It will not be easy for I have a deep-seated dislike for Kissinger. You had to be there in the late 60’s and early 70’s to understand. I will return to your analysis after i have made some headway.

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