Thinking Aloud: Henry Kissinger on World Order

Sept. 16,  2014 by Darius 

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see former US National Security Advisor, Secretary of State and basically architect of all US foreign policy in the 1970s Henry Kissinger talk about his latest (and probably last) book World Order.  On the whole, though it was definitely worthwhile to see a big piece of foreign policy history, Kissinger’s remarks were not terribly revealing.  I’ve shared some of his more interesting comments below.

  • According to Kissinger, the greatest problem facing the world today (and for at least the last three years, the time he spent writing this book) is the collapse, or absence, of world order. He decried the “missionary impulse” of 20th century American foreign policy, in which the US got into unnecessary engagements abroad due to the misguided idea that it was its duty to uplift the rest of the world.  Instead, Kissinger said that the US must properly understand its role in international events – which is not the same as always having to lead international events.  He pointed out that of the five wars the US has fought since WWII, only one has ended with US objectives being met.
  • Kissinger regards the emergence of ISIS (which he dealt with only sparingly in his book) as somewhat inevitable. According to Kissinger, ISIS is the result of three distinct upheavals.  The first is a general backlash against authority.  The second is the old Sunni-Shia split in the Muslim world.  The third is a backlash against borders essentially drawn between French and British colonial possessions, meaning the peoples of the area have no real sense of national identity.
  • Kissinger felt that the US has not succeeded in meeting the rising challenge of China. Instead, the US has been skillful in solving short-term problems with China but has not succeeded in forging a new pattern of relationship with China.

Reflecting on the US domestic situation, Kissinger noted that democracy did not evolve to deal with foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, democratic leaders today must constantly justify their decisions to the public, which makes it difficult to formulate effective policy on long-term and big-picture geopolitical challenges.

My favorite of Kissinger’s remarks, because it applies to so many situations facing the US, was, “It’s hard to be a great country if you’re not willing to give up some of the present for the future.”

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