Discussion of a new world order has intensified on essentially four occasions during the last 100 years: under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson after World War I, when the League of Nations was born; after World War II, when similar discussions led to the creation of the UN, EEC, NATO and the Bretton Woods institutions; and after the Cold War, when the term was also frequently used. In 2014, discussing a new world order is once again topical in international media and literature. This is because of developments and crises due to which the existing balance has increasingly shifted: the rise of China and India, and many small conflicts in Asia; the decreasing influence of the U.S. resulting from the dynamics of several recent conflicts; the shrinking influence of the EU, caused by internal institutional tensions; the Arab Spring and the subsequent turbulence in a number of Middle East and North African countries; ISIL, Iraq and Afghanistan; Russia’s responses to the “colour” revolutions, the Russo–Georgian War in 2008, and the Ukraine conflict in 2014; an increase in poverty and hunger caused by the economic crisis of 2008, in which developing countries blamed the developed; climate change; cross-border terrorism; and so on.
Never before has the world been so interconnected. But the stronger the mutual dependency, the more explicit the rules need to be. The most likely big question is—is mankind smart enough, for the first time in history, to recognise the need for sufficient change before chaos erupts? Is a new war needed to make those changes? “Well, that’s a very good question,” says Henry Kissinger, now 91, in his interview with Der Spiegel on 13 November 2014.1 He asks whether world order will be achieved through chaos or insight. The former would, of course, be the wiser choice.
The thinking and actions of the grand old man of international relations have been characterised by boldness and a disregard for following standards throughout history. A statesman “must act at the outer edge of what is possible, bridging the gap between his society’s experiences and its aspirations”.2 Consequently, Nixon’s national security advisor secretly visited China, as a result of which Mao and Nixon met and, eventually, relations between China and the U.S. improved. Too much idealism in foreign policy is dangerous, says Kissinger; moral prescriptions that do not aspire to balance lead to crusades or ineffective politics that creates opposition, e.g. the West’s reaction to the Arab Spring. Kissinger has been a realist all his life. World Order, which was published in September, summarises his foreign policy thinking in the context of the modern world.
Kissinger’s starting point is that there is no order in international relations; there has never been. Perhaps the situation came closest to order in 1648 in Europe after the Thirty Years’ War, when the Peace of Westphalia established a prescription according to which every state was given the right to rule over its sovereign territory in a manner suitable for itself, on the condition that it would not intervene in its neighbour’s internal affairs. Every state naturally felt that its own regime was the best and could be the basis for the development of internal organisation in other countries; residents of other states were considered barbarians and their experience in organising their own affairs in a better manner was deemed irrelevant. Kissinger believes that the only realistic way to create any order in the modern world is a global Westphalisation by region. Every region would organise its affairs according to its own rules. This would, however, in his view at least require the ability to relate to the self-perception of other cultural spaces.
Kissinger believes that the West, in particular the U.S., is to be blamed for the imbalance today. He warned the U.S. against the robust exploitation of its hegemonic role which came into being after the Cold War in 1991, recognising that the U.S. should aspire to the balance of power, not to take the mission of “torch bearing”, i.e. spreading democracy all over the world, too seriously. “No state is strong or wise enough to create a world order alone,” he says. From the perspective of a functioning Westphalian system, the central concept of the balance of power includes the idea of moral neutrality, according to which every state organises its affairs on its own, in line with its core values. Kissinger invites the West to think about its “universal” principles and try to match them with other regions’ realities, their history, cultures and perceptions of their security. To create order, it is necessary to create it within regions first and then relate them to each other. A region and sphere of influence should not be hastily considered equal at this point. The reasons lie in Kissinger’s rhetoric: international order can only be cultivated, not established; lasting order can only emerge in combination with freedom; and, lastly (perhaps most importantly), the balance of power should also mean non-interference. Idealism within realism, which does not work in practice? Could be.
Lauri Mälksoo’s writing also resonates with Kissinger’s torchbearer theory: “International law in the form we have inherited from our ancestors is largely a product of European and Western history”.3 Mälksoo argues that Europe has never paid attention to what others think of it; in the case of both the U.S. and Russia, the realisation of Friedrich Martens’ idea can be seen: a state’s internal understanding of law is reflected in its foreign policy.4 Americans are so advanced and so good at internal law that they do not appear to need international law, which seems to be meant more for others. In Russia, however, the law is simply not valued enough; it is primarily an instrument of power and politics.
Spreading democracy was one of the central ideas of Woodrow Wilson, the founding father of idealism in international relations; the second idea, out of which the League of Nations was born, was that world order is secured by efficient institutions. One doesn’t need to look far for examples of the aforementioned surges of idealism and institutionalising effort that have struck mankind following major wars, hot and cold. After the Cold War, the European Union was hit by an institutionalising fever very symptomatic of idealism—it went through a real metamorphosis from the Maastricht Treaty (1993) to the Treaty of Lisbon (2009). Something has not gone entirely right, though, as the European Parliament elections last spring showed—one fifth of MEPs now oppose the EU.
Of course, many positive things have come to the world in the spirit of idealism: a series of important agreements—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990)—in addition to the international institutions which “hold up” today’s world. Kissinger also says that the number of multilateral forums in the world today is almost absurd. Countless common declarations and resolutions do not help—a real common conviction on how to organise things is needed. Current turbulences will not fade away or resolve themselves. There is no single or uniform solution to the world’s problems. Moreover, they are not resolvable, although they may be manageable if we want to manage them.
Francis Fukuyama’s book Political Order and Political Decay, a continuation of his essay “The End of History?” published in 1989 in The National Interest, was released almost at the same time as Kissinger’s book. Back in 1989, Fukuyama argued that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy remained the only form of government that suited modern society in social and economic terms. In his new book, Fukuyama travels through history, summarising developments from prehistoric times to the modern day; he also travels through various countries to prove that his claim of 25 years ago is still valid—liberal democracy is the only system that can ensure the social, economic and political well-being we all pursue. Denmark is a model state for Fukuyama and a number of other development theorists, but the question for others is “how to get to Denmark?”. Political order is ensured by a strong state—strong institutions, their clear accountability, the clear and firm application of the principles involving the rule of law. On the other hand, his pessimistic conclusion is that mankind is not sufficiently developed to create institutions that would ensure the efficiency of liberal democracy in the best possible manner. He cites the government of both the U.S. and the EU as an example of inefficiency. The weaknesses of liberal democracy are caused by internal tensions, not external pressures. The logical conclusion would be: if it is not possible to apply the theoretically best possible governing model within countries, then can it be possible at all on the international level? In any case, the weakness of states is also the weakness of international order, as illustrated by Europe and the Middle East today.
The theory and practice of international relations has been an endless balancing act between idealism and realism since World War II—the values-based, benevolent, tolerant, cooperative part of humanity fighting the selfish, competitive part; Hobbes versus Locke, Morgenthau against Wilson, Kissinger taking on Fukuyama. As much as we already want to live in a future values-based world, where the better, cooperative side of human nature prevails, we are pulled back into the abyss by the darker side of human nature. International politics are values-based as long as no one’s vital interests are involved. One of the leading theorists of realism, Hedley Bull, recognised in his 1977 work The Anarchical Society that there is a constant tension between the forces of order and chaos. The neuroscientific conclusion is that the probability of an individual acting selfishly or selflessly is more or less equal, and depends on the situation.
Kissinger shows us who we are and what is the minimal possible programme of coexistence for mankind; Fukuyama, on the other hand, reveals who we could be.
2 Kissinger, World Order, 2014.
3 Lauri Mälksoo: “Rahvusvahelise õiguse muutuv kaleidoskoop ja Eesti”, in Vikerkaar, 11 November 2014.
4 Friedrich Martens (1845–1909), a legal scientist of Estonian origin active in the Russian Empire, who contributed significantly to modern international law.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.