Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’: a Revision

All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm


[This article was produced in answer to the following question: ‘What notions of world order lay behind the imperial ambitions of the European powers? When and to what extent were they rendered obsolete?’ as part of the course ‘Concepts and Methods’, MSt Global and Imperial History, University of Oxford]


This year, esteemed American statesman and academic Henry Kissinger wrote a personal reflection on international history, falling foul of the victor’s metaphorical tendency to write a veiled account of the course preceding victory. That victory is American domination of international civil society, a system of sovereign states, which he himself played a significant role in. Of the prelude to American hegemony, Kissinger writes a compelling, but fundamentally problematic, thesis: that it was defence of the Westphalian notion of sovereignty that defined world order between 1648 and 1945. There is little doubt that, to a certain extent, nation-state sovereign equality has become the underlying paradigm of contemporary world order, certainly from a political perspective (which this essay focuses exclusively on, as opposed to race, religion etc.). Combined with various concepts of civil and transnational-commercial society, such as those discussed by David Held and Kees Van Der Pijl, international political life could be considered a liberal, semi-ideal and responsible take on the system of equal state-sovereignty conceived in 1648. Kissinger, however, attempts to argue that Westphalian principles have been shaping the entire world system since the end of the Thirty Years War through a perpetual recalibration of the ‘balance of power’, as if the European imperial powers were building a world system of sovereign nation-states before they had even genuinely catalysed their various and varied imperial projects. True, the realist notion of states in international anarchy, most revered by Hans Morgenthau, perhaps did apply to pan-European international relations, especially in the years leading up to the First World War.

Excepting this period in time and space, though, it is difficult to apply the same principles to the entire global system. It seems, instead, that the contemporary hegemony – to some – of the nation state has encouraged some scholars to attempt to objectively trace its rise to dominance, ignoring alternative ideas of international organisation. Kissinger, perhaps hypocritically, suggests himself that there was no European imperial notion of sovereign equality beyond the territorial borders of – perhaps Western? – Europe, and this is an interesting point to begin analysis. It is therefore the thesis of this paper that the European imperial powers in fact sought to build an alternative world order to that of the principles of the peace of Westphalia; that is, a ‘neo-realist’ order, closer to the hierarchical word system discussed by Immanuel Wallerstein – i.e. a structured dynamic dictated by a core group of ‘equal’ or competing states – and that this was rendered obsolete upon the anarchical-competitive crescendo that was the First World War. The subsequent rise of dynamic nationalism, the birth of the United Nations, and the mass independence movements following the Second World War, rendered the structural-realist global dynamic of the imperial power obsolete.

Classical Realism

Positivist, Machiavellian realist concepts produce a vision of a world system in which self-interest, importantly mutually-competing self-interest, governs political life. This manifests in a hegemony of the ‘State’, given that a politically-organised collective is the most effective – to realists, the only – means by which to assert oneself. From this starting point, various concepts arise which give premise to a realist, historical narrative of world order. These concepts, most importantly, include, firstly, the heralding of occasions such as the 1648 Peace of Westphalia as the establishment of modern nation-state sovereignty, and secondly, various instances of ‘balance-of-power’ initiatives. This view is in direct contrast to the liberal focus on the individual as the base unit of international analysis, which develops an argument that non-state actors such as international organisations and private collectives can be equally as powerful as political ones. Separately, historical materialist theory argues that capital, not states or people, drives the world system, highlighting 1492 as the inception of the world economy, and the development of contemporary transnational capitalist classes as a result of capitalist development across the globe.

It is perhaps inevitable for classical realists to argue, if the contemporary world system is one of equally-sovereign nation-states in anarchy, that this is how ‘things have been’ since the world system came into being. Whilst acknowledgement is granted to other, non-European and non-imperial notions of world order, such as the tribute systems of East Asia or the Caliphate of Islam, Kissinger promotes Eurocentric international organisation based on state sovereignty as the global paradigm ad nauseum. To realists, this hegemony grew out of a political landscape that had been the subject of various ‘experiments’, including those of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne, and Charles V. The ensuing Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648, initially between religiously-rivalrous states in the Holy Roman Empire but later including most major European powers, was thus a product of absolute anarchy, and after three decades of bloodshed, the belligerents attempted to institutionalise a system of international norms designed to protect the integrity of a pluralistic European order. This, according to Kissinger, was when the concept of state sovereignty was born, and the history of world order for 370 years since has thus been the history of recalibration and balance.

The key node here is ‘balance of power’, i.e. the maintenance of equilibrium and the limitation of international power poles, for it helps to explain the behaviour of states within this world system. This idea also points to the realist thesis that the European imperial powers sought a world order based, not necessarily on universal equality of power, but on equality of sovereignty. Kissinger points to English, then British, naval expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as an attempt to establish a global position by which the European balance of power might be maintained; and to a certain extent, it could be argued that early European colonialism was indeed based on strategic rivalry between key powers. Fast forward a century to the French Revolution and realist historians find the most potentially destructive force in the then 150-year history  of the Westphalian system. Not only did the liberal-Enlightenment foundations of the Revolution threaten the very notion of state sovereignty as was known at the time, but the subsequent expansion of the French under Napoleon Bonaparte represented a sharp dent in the balance of power across Europe. The, in the end, seven coalitions of states it took to finally defeat the French is realist evidence of a dynamic and cognitive attempt to calibrate an equal balance of power. Such an attempt, it is argued, was made in the interest of preserving a global order based on equal nation-state sovereignty; an order that the French Empire was forcefully attempting to manipulate.

Realists point to further evidence of attempts to sabotage and recalibrate the world system of sovereign equality between states. Russian encroachment on Ottoman land in the Balkans catalysed the Crimean War of 1853-6, in which Britain, France and Sardinia backed the Turks to – as classical realists argue – balance Russian expansionism. The ‘new imperialism’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which saw the simultaneous development of informal economic empire and continued colonisation, could too be conceptualised as collective acts of competitive recalibration. Finally, the amalgamation of various balancing acts culminated in the First World War, which succeeded in restraining the aggressive realpolitik of post-Bismarckian Germany through an Anglo-Franco-Russian alliance. All of these examples could be used as realist evidence to suggest that the underlying principles of the post-Westphalian world were based on the notion of state-sovereign equality, and that the European imperial powers actively promoted this system. In this sense, the idea that nation-state sovereignty has maintained legitimacy and commands respect in international politics, even within collective structures such as the European Union, suggests that this realist conception of world order in fact lives on. To realists, then, European imperial powers could be said to have realised their aim of a world order based on Westphalian sovereignty, perhaps by representing interests globally through the League of Nations and now the United Nations.


There are, plainly, holes in classical realist theory, however, suggesting that revision is required to discern what form of international organisation the European imperial powers sought to build, and thus when it became obsolete. The first is that of a vision of genuinely ‘global’ nation-state sovereign equality. Kissinger admits himself that, certainly pre-1919 and perhaps even throughout the interwar period, there was no evidence that the European imperial powers sought to extend a Westphalian notion of self-determinist sovereignty to the non-Western world. This is most obvious in cases of formally controlled colonies, which were denied sovereign autonomy over their own resources. Even in instances where states retained independence, however, there was little notion of equality. The Middle East is perhaps the greatest example of this, given that neither Persia nor the Ottoman Empire were ever completely nor formally colonised by the standards of some of the lands surrounding them. Despite this, their ability to assume full agency over their affairs was heavily compromised by the European imperial powers, who made significant efforts to treat Middle Eastern states as ‘second’ or even ‘third’ rate entities in the global system. This is evident in examples of fluctuations in attitude of, say, the British towards the Ottomans at the 1876 Conference of Constantinople, where British support was withdrawn for Ottoman sovereign integrity in the Balkans – a contrast to the Anglo-French intervention during the Crimean War. This suggests that, perhaps due to a structural bias, political entities beyond the territorial boundaries of Western Europe were rarely granted the ‘privilege’ of recognition as a sovereign nation-states along Westphalian lines, as, ‘perhaps’, the European imperial powers were.

A second criticism of Kissinger’s world order, however, concerns exactly this: did the ‘universal’ Westphalian system even spread throughout Europe itself? Were the ‘recalibration’ efforts cited in classical realist theory, in fact, not manifestations of differing notions of world order to that of Westphalian sovereignty altogether? For instance, the Napoleonic era could be conceptualised as a node of balancing; it could, likewise however, be interpreted as simply an attempt by Napoleon to assert French hegemony over the European continent. The very fact that the Napoleonic ‘terror’ was so great could, perhaps, suggest that the Westphalian notion of sovereign equality was not as entrenched in global politics as Kissinger claims. From Napoleon’s perspective, his exploits could certainly have been in his own interests, as, for instance, could have the British response. Rhetoric was, perhaps, in defence of world order built on non-interference, but just how far would this philosophy have stretched if British interests had not been threatened? The example of the Middle East is, again, interesting to consider. The landing of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798 alarmed London, given the strategic importance of the Middle East to the land defence of India. The subsequent wars in Europe therefore sought to rid the world of a threat to the imperial interests of the other European powers. This idea suggests that a structural revision to Kissinger’s classical realist theory of world order would provide a more insightful conclusion as to how the European imperial powers envisaged international organisation. This is where the neo-realist ideas of Kenneth Waltz, become relevant, as they describe an unequal world biased in favour of European, perhaps ‘Western’, sovereignty. From this perspective, the realist focus on the state retains its significance, but Machiavellian ‘classical’ realism appears naive.

In this case, the notion of neo-realist world order could perhaps be said to have been rendered obsolete upon the beginning of the First World War. It might be deemed overtly critical, and somewhat reductionist, to arbitrarily label the conflict an ‘imperial war’, but in essence, imperialism ran as a theme throughout, and was a hot topic of discussion in its aftermath. The League of Nations, even if it did play into the hands of the Europeans at times, set in place the foundations for an international society in which all members could participate. The end of the war also brought about a intensification of nationalism in the non-European world, after the continental nationalist era in the previous century, which had produced the German and Italian states. It could be considered that it was from this new fusion of world order post-WWI that the contemporary world of sovereign equality sprang. But, it must be denoted that the structurally-biased world envisaged by the European powers, in which colonies remained subservient, was rendered obsolete by the horrors of the Great War.


Critical scholars might even look beyond this neo-realist revision of a classical framework of world order, and assess what form of translational class structure existed between the European imperial powers. This analysis, however, tends to ignore the legal sovereignty of the nation-state over its own people, and hence it could be concluded that a structural realist account of European imperial world order provides the most rigorous insight into the system at the end of the imperial era of global history. Kissinger’s account may reflect how the Americans, or at least some Americans, observed the world from their Monroe-doctrinated isolationism; but this does not explicitly mean that contemporary world order can simply be transplanted onto history back to the convenient year of 1648. The ‘need’ for international organisations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations, is, perhaps, testament to that.


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