The Problem With Kissinger’s World Order

Is there any hope for global cooperation in this new world of interstate and tribal conflict?

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
HBO Documentary Screening Of "Bobby Fischer Against The World"
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24: Henry Kissinger is interviewed during the HBO Documentary screening of "Bobby Fischer Against The World" at HBO Theater on May 24, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)

I spent the last week immersed in geopolitical conflict, but not in eastern Ukraine or the South China Sea. No, I was at NYU Abu Dhabi, one of the least conflictual places on Earth, at a Brookings Institution conference titled “International Peace and Cooperation in an Age of Global Competition.” The 40 senior policymakers and thinkers from the United States, Europe, and emerging countries largely agreed that we have entered a new world — one which looks very much like the old world — characterized by growing conflict between states.

A few of us bridled at the premise. Someone — I think it was me — said that the return of state conflict was a gift to the foreign policy boys’ club, which in recent years had been bemused by the rise of non-state actors, popular uprisings, and “soft” issues like climate change. Suddenly the realist world of international relations theory has come back from the dead. (See Walter Russell Mead’s 2014 piece in Foreign Affairs, The Return of Geopolitics.”) The world has turned hard.

The problem with my gibe is that while it is true that non-state forces, and above all the Islamic State and al Qaeda, are responsible for many of the worst conflicts in the world, it is also true that major states, including Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (and the United States), are prepared to use coercion and force — often in those same conflicts — in a way that has not been true for generations. We do live in an increasingly geopolitical world. So I began to examine the sources of my resistance.

I am sorry to say this, but Henry Kissinger has me nailed. Kissinger has long lamented Americans’ unwillingness to accept that global affairs consists essentially of a remorseless struggle for advantage among states. In his recent book, World Order (see my quite laudatory review in the Wall Street Journal here), Kissinger writes that American leaders from the time of Woodrow Wilson have envisioned foreign policy as a teleological struggle for justice rather than a “permanent endeavor for contingent aims.” American foreign policy has thus remained “unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.”

That is one part of the story; the other part is recent events. The suppression of state competition in the aftermath of the Cold War, the sudden appearance of dangerous non-state actors, and the rise of a new set of global issues gave those who instinctively recoiled from the zero-sum formulations of power politics a reason to feel that the realist model had become archaic. Indeed, it was George W. Bush who made the decisive break with state-centric thinking. In his 2002 National Security Strategy, Bush declared that America was no longer chiefly threatened by powerful states but by “shadowy networks of individuals.” Foreign policy required changing the insides of states, rather than state behavior.

Of course, that didn’t work out very well. Barack Obama came to office promising to call off that campaign — but not in the name of a restored realism. Obama believed that the salient issues were not interstate but global. Those collective goods required an unprecedented degree of cooperation. What was most appealing about Obama — at least, I thought so at the time — was his belief that these global goods constituted a new form of national self-interest, and might be argued for as such. It was globalism, not terrorism that had superseded the old order. “The pursuit of power,” Obama declared, “is no longer a zero-sum game.”

Alas, it must be admitted that he pronounced this fine sentiment in Russia, a place where the zero-sum game often qualifies as a best-case scenario. As I pointed out in an article earlier this year, Obama soon learned that other states — at least outside of that Kantian garden known as the European Union — did not want to be summoned to their better angels. Obama was right about the supreme importance of the global issues, but he was wrong about the pursuit of power. What’s more, he had offered this transaction at precisely the moment when the states whose cooperation he needed, above all China and Russia, were, for very different reasons, adopting an increasingly bruising path of confrontation. Obama was slow to accept this; so, I now see, was I.

Yet the world we now live in is scarcely a Kissingerian one. State relations have become more conflictual than they were a decade ago; but states, collectively, are much weaker than they were, far less able to control the forces of popular discontent, cultural fragmentation, resource scarcity, environmental degradation. And the United States, for all its preeminence, no longer has either the will or the capacity to reassure allies or scare off adversaries as it once could. “World order” looks increasingly like a chimera. A good deal of the aggressive state meddling, above all in the Middle East, is an attempt to control the chaos prompted by these fissiparous forces.

Look at Libya. The storm that rages over Libya was unleashed not by aggressive neighbors but by the collapse of a hated authoritarian leader who had so hollowed out the state that nothing save tribal and local identity could fill the vacuum. Sub-state and sub-regional actors are now tearing the country to bits. But the two main Libyan factions also have external patrons — Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey and Qatar. Or look at Yemen, where Saudi Arabia seems bent on carrying out a proxy war against Iran. Conflict among Sunni states, or between Sunnis and Shiites, keeps the pot boiling in the region’s failed states, and makes efforts at mediation all but futile.

In short, recognizing that we live in a world of rising geopolitical conflict does not mean scanting the forces that transcend states or flourish within them — including the demand of ordinary people for a better life than their government now affords them. Statecraft now means confronting, or at least recognizing, both problems at once. One of the global issues Obama identified from the outset of his tenure was the problem of failed and fragile states. That problem only seems more urgent today. There will be no long-term answer to the conflicts in the Arab world until these states achieve at least a minimal threshold of legitimacy. But neither will there be an answer without the kind of muscular diplomacy that persuades neighbors to stop fishing in troubled waters.

The Brookings conference was off the record, but I don’t think I’m violating any confidences in saying that speakers were much more convincing on “Global Competition” than they were on “International Peace and Cooperation.” The mood was, in fact, not far from despair. Virtually everyone, Western and non-Western, craved more “American leadership,” but there was nothing like a consensus about what this meant. Should Washington be drawing a line in the South China Sea, supplying weapons to Kiev, or egging on the Saudis and the Emiratis as they shadow-box with Iran? Or does leadership require “strategic patience,” an Obamian phrase that speakers invoked both admiringly and pejoratively? Should the imperative of confronting revisionist states trump the need for cooperation on global goods? As Steven Walt recently asked, are we prepared to sacrifice Chinese cooperation on climate change in order to stare them down over the Spratly Islands?

We know what answer the Republican hopefuls for 2016 will give. Geopolitical conflict may not be a gift to foreign policy professionals, but it’s a treasure chest for the GOP. We’ll be hearing for the next year and a half about how Russia, China, and Iran left tire treads on Barack Obama. We’ll be hearing from Dr. Kissinger about world order. One thing I will say for Hillary Clinton, a hard person who has long preached the merits of the soft issues, is that she will be better positioned to refute these simple-minded arguments than anyone else out there.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.