Whose world order?

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world_orderWorld Order by Henry Kissinger. New York: Penguin Press, 2014 374 pp. $36.

Long ago, I was on track to become a political scientist. Then, Israel happened, and I became a journalist. I have no regrets, having enjoyed writing and editing for many publications, in the Jewish state and the United States including, of course, Washington Jewish Week. But reading the brilliant analysis in Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, I can’t help but think about the road not taken.


World Order, one of the most conceptually exciting books I have read in years, is the kind of “big-picture” analysis in which the former secretary of state is at his best.

The world order during the past 350 years owes its existence to the European Peace of Westphalia, the 1648 treaty that ended the partly religiously inspired Thirty Years War, Kissinger writes.

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It has been based on states being sovereign in their own territories, pursuing their interests and keeping the peace through a balance of power. If one state became too powerful and threatened the peace, the other states would band together to keep the potential troublemaker at bay.

Of course, there were competing ideas about how the world should be run. Specifically, the Chinese, Arabs and Americans had different visions.


But because the European powers were dominant militarily and politically until the 20th century, the European-derived system held sway.

However, this system was dealt severe blows by World War I (“The balance of power system collapsed with the outbreak of World War I because the alliances it spawned had no flexibility, and it was indiscriminately applied to peripheral issues, thereby exacerbating all conflicts”), and even more by World War II, in which ideology became the predominant factor in world affairs.

With Europe in decline, other actors emerged with different ideas of world order.

One was the American vision, which, writes the former Harvard scholar, included a “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.”

More destructive of the Westphalian system has been the rise of militant Islam, whose adherents reject the idea of independent, sovereign states. Traditionally, all areas where Muslims rule or hold sway over tribute-paying, non-Muslims are known as dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, or the realm of peace. All other lands are seen as dar al harb or the realm of war. “Islam’s mission was to incorporate these [latter] regions into its own world order and thereby bring universal peace,” the scholar notes.

Since the 1920s, he writes, there have emerged in the Muslim world two approaches – “those who have sought to enter the new state-based ecumenical order” and those “who see themselves as engaged in a battle over succession to universal authority within a stringent interpretation of the traditional Islamic concept of world order.”

So how do these differing perceptions affect the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Two political leaders – Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat – tried to negotiate peace “based on Westphalian principles – that is, between peoples organized as sovereign states, each driven by a realistic assessment of its national interests and capabilities, not absolutes of religious imperatives,” the author writes. The two paid with their lives for their efforts.

“The conflict of two concepts of world order is embedded in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to Kissinger. Israel is a Westphalian state, but most of the other Middle Eastern countries “view
international order to a greater or lesser degree through an Islamic consciousness. … The issue comes down to the possibility of coexistence between two concepts of world order, through two states – Israel and Palestine – in the relatively narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

The chapter “The United States and Iran” may be the most interesting in the book. Nuclear negotiators be warned: the Shia brand of Islam authorizes “ ‘prudential dissimulation’ in the service of the interests of the faithful,” Kissinger notes.

He sees the different worldview of the Iranian leaders as complicating relations with the West.

For years, Westerners believed that a change in policy “might open the door to reconciliation.” But that has not been the case. “Under the ayatollahs’ concept of policy, the dispute with the West is not a matter of specific technical concessions but a contest over the nature of world order.”

Iranian leaders have stressed that peace will come when there is “global submission to correct religious [Shia] doctrine.”

Whatever its other merits, World Order is no literary masterpiece. Kissinger’s writing style is ponderous, occasionally bordering on the impenetrable. On more than one occasion, I found myself rereading sentences or even paragraphs.

But the ideas in the book sparkle. If you want to gain a good understanding of world politics, at least from Kissinger’s “realistic” vantage point, World Order is worth the effort.

Aaron Leibel is WJW’s copy chief.  His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at https://www.createspace.com/4601609, at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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