I both agree and disagree with Henry Kissinger’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on the collapse of the post-war order among states:
The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies. In the decades following World War II, the U.S.—strengthened in its economy and national confidence—began to take up the torch of international leadership and added a new dimension. A nation founded explicitly on an idea of free and representative governance, the U.S. identified its own rise with the spread of liberty and democracy and credited these forces with an ability to achieve just and lasting peace. The traditional European approach to order had viewed peoples and states as inherently competitive; to constrain the effects of their clashing ambitions, it relied on a balance of power and a concert of enlightened statesmen. The prevalent American view considered people inherently reasonable and inclined toward peaceful compromise and common sense; the spread of democracy was therefore the overarching goal for international order. Free markets would uplift individuals, enrich societies and substitute economic interdependence for traditional international rivalries.
This effort to establish world order has in many ways come to fruition. A plethora of independent sovereign states govern most of the world’s territory. The spread of democracy and participatory governance has become a shared aspiration if not a universal reality; global communications and financial networks operate in real time.
The years from perhaps 1948 to the turn of the century marked a brief moment in human history when one could speak of an incipient global world order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional European concepts of statehood and balance of power. But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order. These reservations are now becoming explicit, for example, in the Ukraine crisis and the South China Sea. The order established and proclaimed by the West stands at a turning point.
I agree that a dramatic change is in progress. However rather than a crisis I think it more a revelation that the emperor has no clothes. I agree that the idea of sovereign states has been under assault and I think our tolerance and even furtherance of it has been a strategic error.
I think that the existence of the Ukraine is an example of the weakening of the idea of the state as any construction of an indefensible state is whether that state is Ukraine or Iraq or Pakistan (Pakistan has been called an example of a government without a country). Our use of drones is an example of the weakening of the state. Our treating NGOs as states and ignoring the transgressions of the states that harbor and finance them weakens the state. When we issue threats against another state for that state’s actions within its own borders it may be an expression of our human concern but it’s a violation of that state’s sovereignty and a weakening of the state even if we don’t intend to make our threats good.
I disagree with his assessment of the situation in the South China Sea. I think it’s bad for us and bad for our allies but it’s the inevitable consequence of a rising China and our insistence on weak allies. Perhaps it’s naive of me but I continue to be less concerned about China than Dr. Kissinger appears to be. I think its own internal contradictions which it has yet to be able to confront successfully will prevent it from threatening us to any greater extent than we’re willing to allow it to threaten us.