Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 1 – The New World Order

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the first chapter of his book, called “The New World Order”, which also introduces the book itself.

You can find all available summaries of this book by clicking this link.

Throughout history, each century has witnessed the rise of a dominant nation that shapes international relations according to its values. In the 17th century, France, under Cardinal Richelieu, introduced a nation-state system focused on national interests. The 18th century saw Great Britain promote the balance of power, a concept that influenced European diplomacy for two centuries. The 19th century was marked by Austria and Germany’s significant roles in reshaping European diplomacy through the Concert of Europe and power politics.

The 20th century’s most influential and paradoxical player in international relations was the United States. The U.S. consistently opposed intervention in other states’ affairs while advocating for its values globally. American diplomacy was a blend of pragmatic day-to-day actions and pursuit of moral convictions. Despite its reluctance to engage abroad, the U.S. formed widespread alliances and commitments.

American foreign policy has been characterized by two conflicting views. One is the belief that America should focus on perfecting democracy at home, serving as a model for the world. The other is that America has a duty to actively promote its values globally. Since World War II, the realities of interdependence have generally outweighed isolationist tendencies.

Both American views envision a global order based on democracy, free commerce, and international law. This vision has often been seen as utopian by other societies. However, skepticism from other nations hasn’t dimmed the idealism of American leaders like Wilson, Roosevelt, or Reagan. American foreign policy, underpinned by the belief in liberty, reflects the unique American experience of founding a new society in pursuit of freedom.

Since its entry into global politics in 1917, America’s journey has been marked by its overwhelming strength and belief in its ideals. Major international agreements of the 20th century, such as the League of Nations and the United Nations Charter, were largely influenced by American values. The fall of Soviet communism seemed to validate these ideals. However, this victory presented America with a world of rising nationalism and self-interest, challenging its long-held beliefs.

Now, America cannot withdraw from global affairs nor dominate them as before. It must reconcile its historic perception of its role with the reality of a world where several states of comparable strength exist. America’s lack of comfort with the concept of equilibrium, which is essential in a world with multiple great powers, poses a challenge.

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 highlighted the clash between American and European diplomatic traditions. European leaders aimed to refurbish the existing system, while American peacemakers, led by Woodrow Wilson, proposed a new international system based on self-determination, collective security, and open diplomacy. This American approach contrasted sharply with centuries of European practice.

America’s foreign policy perspective was shaped by its geographical isolation and security, leading to a dismissal of the balance of power essential in European politics. American involvement in world wars was a consequence of the breakdown of this European system. European nations, on the other hand, engaged in balance-of-power politics due to their historical circumstances, where the collapse of universal empire led to a state system requiring either dominance by one or equilibrium among many.

In the West, the balance of power, a rare occurrence in human history, was shaped by Enlightenment thinkers who believed in rational principles balancing each other. This concept underpinned political and economic theories, suggesting that individual pursuits could collectively lead to common good.

After World War I, America emerged as a leading power but refused to play by European rules. During the Cold War, America engaged in an ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, leading to a victory that challenged its traditional understanding of global dynamics.

In the post-Cold War world, the fragmentation of power and globalization are key characteristics. The new international order will include several major powers and a multitude of smaller nations, requiring America to navigate a world vastly different from the isolation of the past century or the dominance of the Cold War. This global landscape presents challenges for all major players in adapting to new realities and reconciling diverse values and historical experiences.

Europe, historically unique for its multistate system, pioneered concepts like the nation-state, sovereignty, and balance of power, influencing international relations for centuries. However, European countries, once key players in global politics, now lack the individual strength to significantly impact the new international order. In response, they are focusing on creating a unified Europe, a complex task with no precedents or clear strategies for global engagement.

Russia, distinct in its historical trajectory, joined the European political landscape later than countries like France and Great Britain. Its diverse cultural influences from Europe, Asia, and the Muslim world, along with continuous territorial expansion, made it an empire distinct from the European nation-states. Russia’s history is marked by massive armies and territorial expansion, driven by a mix of insecurity and a messianic sense of destiny. Throughout history, Russia’s expansive policies often lacked restraint, alternating between aggressive expansion and introspective withdrawal.

Postcommunist Russia is navigating its identity within unprecedented borders, contemplating whether to rebuild its empire, engage more with Asia, or define new diplomatic strategies, especially concerning the volatile Middle East. Its decisions are crucial to global stability but also pose potential risks.

China’s experience with world order is also novel. For two millennia, it maintained a centralized imperial rule, with conflicts typically internal power struggles rather than international wars. Unlike European states, China didn’t recognize the equality of other states, treating outsiders as tributaries. This worldview persisted until the 19th century when European colonialism humbled China, which only recently re-entered a multipolar global scene.

Japan, for centuries isolated, avoided international diplomacy, focusing instead on its unique culture and internal military traditions. The Cold War saw Japan align closely with the United States, but the current complex global environment might prompt Japan to adopt a more independent and Asia-focused foreign policy.

India, emerging as a South Asian power, mirrors European imperial legacies infused with ancient cultural traditions. The British colonization and subsequent independence shaped its modern nation-state identity. India, grappling with domestic challenges and a historically non-aligned international stance, is yet to play a significant role corresponding to its size in global politics.

The emerging world order is unprecedented, involving diverse perceptions and a need to integrate historic balance-of-power principles with modern democratic values and technology. This complexity and the need for early strategic decisions make the formation of a stable international system challenging.

Historically, stable international orders, like those post the Congress of Vienna and World War II, benefited from uniform perceptions among decision-makers. However, the current global order is being shaped by leaders from vastly different cultures and complex bureaucracies, often more focused on administrative duties than strategic vision. These leaders face the challenge of building a multistate system that might not align with Western models, the only historical reference available.

The difference between intellectual analysis and statesmanship is stark in building international systems. Unlike analysts, statesmen face imposed problems, time constraints, and irreversible consequences. Their decisions, based on assessments rather than complete facts, are judged by their impact on peace and management of change. Understanding history’s lessons is crucial but not definitive in contemporary diplomacy, as each generation must discern which historical circumstances are relevant to their unique challenges.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.





One response to “Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 1 – The New World Order”

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