How many authors could title their book simply World Order without sounding utterly presumptuous? Henry Kissinger still plays in a league of his own. For admirers and critics alike, he is more than just a former U.S. secretary of state and previous national security adviser. Some see him as the quintessential wise man of U.S. foreign policy; others, as a diehard realpolitiker hanging on to yesterday’s world; and still others, as a perennial bête noire. To all, he remains larger than life. And regardless of how one views Kissinger, his new book is tremendously valuable.

To call World Order timely would be an understatement, for if there was one thing the world yearned for in 2014, it was order. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and allowed jihadist groups to threaten the stability of the entire region. In Asia, an economically resurgent China has grown more assertive, stoking anxiety among its neighbors. In West Africa, the Ebola pandemic has nearly shut down several states. And even Europe, the most rule-bound and institutionalized part of the world, has seen its cherished liberal norms come under direct assault as Russian President Vladimir Putin reclaimed military aggression as an instrument of state policy.

Even more ominous, the traditional guardians of global order seem to have become reluctant to defend it. Following long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States and other Western powers are suffering from intervention fatigue, preferring instead to focus on domestic concerns. And the rising powers have so far proved either unwilling or unable to safeguard international stability.

Yes, Mr. President? Kissinger in the White House barbershop, January 1972
Alfred Eisenstaedt / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images

Enter Kissinger. A strategist and historian by training, he takes the long view. The core of the book is his exploration of different interpretations of the idea of world order and competing approaches to constructing it. Kissinger opens the book by defining the term “world order” as “the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world.” As he is quick to point out, any system of this kind rests on two components: “a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others.”

Kissinger’s world, it turns out, is not just about power derived from economic wealth and military might but also about the power of ideas—although for him, the ideas that matter most are those of the powerful. In his view, traditional notions such as sovereignty and non­interference still reign supreme, having buttressed the international system for almost four centuries. Today that system is very much in flux, however, as powerful actors promote alternative ways to order it, from theocracy to autocratic capitalism to borderless postmodernity. But only the prevailing structure, Kissinger argues, fulfills the two main objectives of world order: legitimacy and a balance of power. Among the book’s many messages, then, perhaps the clearest of all is a warning: do not dispose of an organizing principle if there exists no ready alternative that promises to be just as effective.


For Kissinger, today’s international system owes its overall resilience to the astuteness of seventeenth-century European statesmen. The modern state system emerged in 1648 after a century of sectarian conflict, when the bitter Thirty Years’ War brought together representatives of the European powers to establish the Peace of Westphalia. The treaties they concluded codified the idea of sovereign states as the building blocks of international order. A century and a half later, at the Congress of Vienna, in 1814–15, diplomats such as the French envoy Talleyrand and the Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich explicitly spelled out the principle of balance of power as a way of managing the international system. In recounting these events, Kissinger is on his home turf. Although some contemporary historians and political scientists might object to his idealization of Westphalian institutions, one of Kissinger’s gifts is a knack for revealing the relevance of historic structures to present-day politics.

There are limitations to that exercise, of course: Western ideas about states and politics have been foisted on other regions ever since colonial times, and they still compete with other, older visions of order and power that cannot be ignored. This is particularly true in the Middle East. Thus, the book examines the enduring impact of the Shiite-Sunni schism on the contemporary Muslim world and the emergence of secular states there after the Westphalian system expanded beyond Europe. Today, the regional order—still composed of European-style nation-states—is threatened by transnational political Islam, in the form of both political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. The latter’s rise illustrates a new danger, according to Kissinger: a “disintegration of statehood into tribal and sectarian units” that risks tipping the region into “a confrontation akin to—but broader than—Europe’s pre-Westphalian wars of religion.”

Kissinger’s survey of the Middle East also takes in the relationship between the United States and Iran, a rivalry that pits the putative guardian of the liberal world order against a state that has deliberately placed itself outside of that system. Kissinger traces the tradition of Iranian statecraft back to the Persian empire, emphasizing how Iran has always aspired to be more than just a normal state in the Westphalian sense, struggling to “decide whether it is a country or a cause.” This tradition heavily influences multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Kissinger suggests that the United States should foster cooperative relations with Iran based on the principle of nonintervention. Where constructive diplomacy is not enough, however, the United States should employ balance-of-power politics to cajole Iran into cooperation, using alliances with the region’s Sunni powers as leverage. The outcome 
of Washington’s current attempt at rapprochement with Tehran might determine “whether Iran pursues 
the path of revolutionary Islam or 
that of a great nation legitimately 
and importantly lodged in the 
Westphalian system of states.”

Asia is another region where Western concepts of world order have long competed with indigenous visions. Even the very idea of an Asian region is itself something of a Western import: prior to the arrival of modern Western powers in the fifteenth century, none of the region’s many languages had a word for Asia, and their speakers shared little sense of belonging to a single continent. Kissinger pays particular attention to China and goes to great lengths to distill the traditional Chinese worldview, which posited that the country was not one power center among many but the “sole sovereign government of the world,” where the Chinese emperor ruled over “all under heaven.” According to Kissinger, the rise of China in the twenty-first century comes with refrains of these traditional views, as Beijing searches for a synthesis between its ancient tradition and its new role “as 
a contemporary great power on the Westphalian model.” He warns that China and the United States hold incompatible views on democracy and human rights but stresses that the two countries share a common interest in avoiding conflict. Indeed, World Order suggests that U.S.-Chinese relations may be less risky than China’s relations with its Asian neighbors. East Asia, he reminds readers, is a region where “nearly every country considers itself 
to be ‘rising,’ driving disagreements 
to the edge of confrontation.”


Kissinger is at his most interesting when considering the country he knows best: the United States. World Order offers some pointed commentary on the current debate in Washington over the United States’ proper role in the world. But Kissinger is no mere pundit, and his analysis rests on a deep exploration of two competing strands of thought that have historically shaped U.S. foreign policy: the pragmatic realism of President Theodore Roosevelt and the liberal idealism of President Woodrow Wilson.

Although Kissinger sometimes couches his views in abstract terms, it is easy to comprehend what he thinks of President Barack Obama’s critics, who blame the president for not offering enough leadership. Pointing to a number of wars with far-reaching goals that the United States first waged and then had to abandon midstream, Kissinger does not hide his skepticism over idealistic enterprises that fail to recognize the limits of U.S. power, leading to disappointments, if not full-fledged foreign policy disasters. “Critics will ascribe these setbacks to the deficiencies, moral and intellectual, of America’s leaders,” he writes. “Historians will probably conclude that they derived from the inability to resolve an ambivalence about force and diplomacy, realism and idealism, power and legitimacy, cutting across the entire society.”

Even though Kissinger strongly takes the side of restraint in the ongoing tug of war between the Rooseveltian and Wilsonian impulses in U.S. foreign policy, he acknowledges the important role that liberal values play, too. “America would not be true to itself if it abandoned this essential idealism,” he writes. And although he recognizes Washington’s special role as a defender of Western norms, Kissinger also emphasizes that “world order cannot be achieved by any one country acting alone.” The European powers remain the United States’ most natural partners, and Kissinger stresses that they all are best served when they cultivate their relationship, working not only to maximize the overall level of Western influence in world affairs but also to restrain one another’s worst impulses.

Kissinger is certainly right to warn of the excessive self-righteousness that democracies sometimes demonstrate. But he is perhaps too skeptical of some more recent forms of liberal internationalism. He argues, for example, that the “responsibility to protect” doctrine—which holds that a state forfeits its sovereign right to noninterference if it fails to protect its population from mass atrocities, requiring the international community to act on this population’s behalf—could destabilize the international system. But liberal societies devised this principle in order to prevent ruthless leaders from manipulating and making a mockery of Westphalian norms in their efforts to escape punishment for abusing their own people. On balance, applying the doctrine properly would do more to protect the liberal order than to undermine it.

Although he might take issue with such thinking, Kissinger acknowledges that it will become increasingly difficult for Western democracies to pursue policies that undercut their basic commitment to liberal values. And he points out that long-term stability based on oppression is an illusion, as the Arab revolts of 2011 demonstrated. The coming decades will see plenty of argument over this basic dilemma, as Western powers weigh how much liberalism is too much—or too little.


As far as Kissinger is concerned, nation-states are still the main players in the international system. Neither international institutions nor nonstate actors play an important role in his book. In this view, not all that much has changed since 1814, when the European powers convened in Vienna to forge a sustainable system that, minor outbreaks of violence aside, preserved peace on the continent for a century. Nor is today much different from 1914, when the same major powers drove Europe over the cliff, unleashing a major war that became the first truly global conflict. Kissinger’s notes of caution, repeated throughout the book, serve as a warning for those who think that humanity has nearly overcome the old patterns of power politics and state rivalry.

That message is particularly pertinent for the EU, whose most enthusiastic cheerleaders promote it as the vanguard of a borderless, post-Westphalian world. The EU has without a doubt fundamentally transformed Europe: rising right-wing nationalism notwithstanding, young people in EU states tend to identify with both their home countries and the union as a whole. However, it would be imprudent and dangerous to expect the rest of the world to eagerly follow Europe’s lead. Although regional integration projects are advancing elsewhere, the breadth and depth of the European experience may remain unique. Europe, the birthplace of the Westphalian model, might be ready to move on. But the rest of the world isn’t—and, Kissinger argues, that’s for the best. As he puts it, “Westphalian principles are, at this writing, the sole generally recognized basis of what exists of a world order.”

But Kissinger is fully aware that the international system is influenced by factors other than great-power politics and that there are other powerful sources of order and disorder—most notably the global economy, the environment, and technological change. However, some of these factors take a secondary role in Kissinger’s work.

The broad reach of globalization and the resulting degree of complex interdependence come with new challenges. For instance, the spread of capitalism and free trade has lifted millions out of poverty but has also generated unsustainable degrees of inequality. And the economic interdependence produced by globalization acts as both a stabilizing and a disruptive force, encouraging growth but also expanding the reach of economic shocks. Such interdependence has changed the politics of coercion, as Western states now commonly use their economic power to force other countries to comply with international rules. This strategy might not always produce good results, but it has brought Iran back to the negotiating table and remains the only option the West has available for pressuring Russia to change course 
in Ukraine.

World order will also be subject to climate change, a phenomenon that is largely man-made but that lies outside policymakers’ control. It is too late to prevent climate change from affecting the lives of billions of people—a fact that can cut both ways when it comes to global stability. An environmental catastrophe could bring the world together, just as the devastation of World War II compelled countries to forge a more durable international system, create the United Nations, and establish the Bretton Woods institutions, which have functioned fairly well since 1944. Alternatively, a climate crisis could magnify existing tensions, undermine global governance, and further erode the capacity of weak states to responsibly administer their own territories.

When it comes to technological change, it is obvious that Kissinger does not feel completely comfortable in this brave new world. He recognizes that the Internet has enabled many of the contemporary era’s great achievements, but he faults it for giving rise to a less substantive, more cursory way of thinking about the world’s true complexity. “Knowledge of history and geography is not essential for those who can evoke their data with the touch of a button,” Kissinger writes. “The mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook.” He likens today’s digital optimists—those who believe that cyberspace can solve the world’s most pressing problems—to the naive Wilsonian idealists of a century ago.

Younger analysts tend to have a different view, of course. And although Kissinger’s skepticism is well intentioned and not unjustified, it is indisputable that new technologies have already fundamentally changed the practice of diplomacy and statesmanship. Today’s diplomats must be prepared to speak to a global audience and to constantly contend with an international media circus. They must be both hard-nosed negotiators and global communicators: tweeting Talleyrands, ready to defend their interests in the real world and the virtual world alike. Most notably, recent cyberattacks and hybrid warfare have demonstrated that cyberspace has already become a battlefield on which familiar concepts such as deterrence and even defense need to be defined anew.

Kissinger’s secret wish might be to stage a Congress of Vienna for the twenty-first century. And although world politics is complicated by a host of factors that don’t fit easily into the Westphalian model—transnational identities, digital hyperconnectivity, weapons of mass destruction, global terrorist networks—Kissinger is still right to insist that the management 
of great-power relations remains of paramount importance. Indeed, there should not need to be another Thirty Years’ War to provide the impetus for a new Westphalian peace and a world order that is at once legitimate and reflective of the new geopolitical realities. Kissinger’s book is a gift to all of those who care about global order and seek to stave off conflict in the twenty-first century. No one else could have produced this masterpiece.

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  • WOLFGANG ISCHINGER is Chair of the Munich Security Conference. He served as German Ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2006 and German Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2006 to 2008.
  • More By Wolfgang Ischinger