Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger was an indictment of the sort that might pass muster in a war crimes prosecution. The former US Secretary of State is accused of prolonging the Vietnam war, massacres in East Timor and Bangladesh, and assorted political assassinations.
In his new book, Kissinger does not address Hitchens directly, but World Order could serve as a philosophical defence against such charges. It’s easily forgotten that Kissinger, now 91, was a Harvard academic before turning to statecraft and “realpolitik”, the 19th-century European diplomatic stratagem with which he became closely identified.
World Order draws on historical analysis to support what could be termed the Kissinger doctrine.
Kissinger’s ideal template for diplomatic relations is the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War. So prolonged was the conflict that the protagonists had long since forgotten what it was they were fighting for - was it political or sectarian or both?
The solution was to put the actual differences to one side, to recognise state sovereignty. The point about Westphalia and why it matters, says Kissinger, is that’s also where we find ourselves today: “A multiplicity of political units, none powerful enough to defeat all the others, many adhering to contradictory philosophies and internal practices, in search of neutral rules to regulate their conduct and mitigate conflict.”
But the world still needs statesmen to apply authority. There is a type of national leader, Kissinger asserts, who is head and shoulders above the rest — those supermen who strike out on their own, are tough but humane, defer to the past while trying to build the future, are not scared of using force but ultimately want to achieve a lasting equilibrium between states.
Not only could this description apply to Kissinger himself, and provide the rationale for those actions that so riled Hitchens, but it could also be taken as a dig against Barrack Obama. Kissinger makes plain his belief that compared to figures in the past (including Kissinger himself), the current US president has fallen short.
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