Book Review: ‘World Order’ for Beginners

What better way to start the book reviews for this blog than to cover Henry Kissinger’s ’World Order’. What did he think about international law as a feature of any world order? I had to re-read the book, not because it has been a while since I first read it, but because of its richness and depth. This book is a sweeping summation of Kissinger’s work. I can appreciate his scholarly tour de force in covering all challenges to world order, as well as his writing, despite the fact that Kissinger’s tenure in government is viewed with great suspicion if not malice. I titled this post “’World Order’ for Beginners’ somewhat hesitantly, but I consider this book a good companion for anyone who is studying or at least interested in international law. But a word of caution: this book contains no careless use of words or empty paragraphs. Paying attention will not be a problem, because believe it or not, it is a page-turner.

The Kissinger Thesis

Kissinger’s thesis is as simple as the topic is broad. The Introduction provides in only a few pages a diagnosis of the crisis in which the international order now finds itself. The post-World War II global order was ’an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.’ The world and international law are still premised on this European Westphalian system of world order based on states and sovereignty. However, this system is now under threat, and we are in search of a new concept of world order. The real challenge for the formation of a new world order is diversity and the diversity of views on that new world order, developed within these different regions of the world. It is a contest between those visions that embrace a universal concept of world order, and those that build order on the basis of pluralism and diversity of cultures and identities. In any case, ”[t]he mystery to be overcome is one all peoples share – how divergent historical experiences and values can be shaped into a common order.”

World order ideal: Legitimacy with power and vice versa

The challenges that we face emanate from developments and struggles within the different regions of the world, and which Kissinger explores in the following chapters. Kissinger essentially espouses new version of our current Westphalian system. Why? He thinks that any world order that claims universality is bound to implode because it denies diversity and and will ultimately lead to friction. If I read Kissinger right, he argues in the first ten pages that every and any conception of order is based on a consensus on applicable rules ’that define the limits of permissible action’ (legitimacy) and a ’balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down’ (power). For Kissinger, international law seems to be an equal partner to power. And that goes to the core of my own views about international law: law (i.e legitimacy in Kissinger’s terminology) goes hand in hand with politics, i.e. power. International law works within the context of power and vice versa.

World order struggles: Universalism versus balance of power

The first two chapters on the Europe and European Union are illustrative for the competition between the two basics views of world order, universalism and pluralism. Will we end up with a system based on the reality and practicality of pluriformity? Or will we see a system under a universal vision of order that most probably will have to be imposed on disagreeing regions? From the fall of the universalist Roman Empire to Westphalia to the current EU, Europe has seen and tried both systems. Of course, Kissinger views the 19th century and the Concert of Europe system of more or less institutionalized balance of power, including its demise, as the touchstone for any successful new world order. The Concert of Europe failed because it lost its balance: power became the overriding consideration. But finding a new balance between the two has become more complex because the rise of universalist visions on the world, Asian and Islamic versions in particular. These world views also question the very foundational principles of the existing order.

It is unclear to me whether Kissinger is pessimist or optimistic about the future. What is obvious is that he is critical of the absence or even impossibility of leadership in the digital and therefore fast paced environment. Throughout this splendid summation, one feature of today’s world is mentioned but not involved in Kissinger’s analysis. Economic globalization, and the enabling international legal framework, does not seem to be of any influence on the prospects for any new world order. Interdependence does not seem to lessen the chances of a clash between competing visions. Yet, that does not diminish the significance and relevance of this book. In time, it will be worth another read.

If you have also read the book, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to learn about future book reviews! 

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