Kissinger’s World: Israel and Iraq

Glimpses of ‘world order’ in the mind of America’s top ‘expert’

By Mark Hager.

Published on January 13, 2016 with No Comments


Since leaving government, Henry Kissinger has lapsed back to his earlier career as foreign relations historian. In his latest work, ‘World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History’, he purports to analyze prospects for a peaceful world order today and obstacles to it. Early in the book, he offers a sketchy account of early modern European diplomatic structures, which he describes as a kind of provisional world order among leading nation-states. He then moves through 19th to 21st century events so as to ruminate about current possibilities and challenges. As he does so, his over-hyped standpoints on world order grow ever blurrier, while his text verges more and more tediously toward defense of his own career and judgments. All this makes for poor value as history, but what did you expect?

Kissinger describes his provisional model for world order as the ‘Peace of Westphalia’: an enduring consensus supposedly emerging upon termination of the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) with its intricate struggles among rival royal/aristocratic families and competing states, overlaid by Catholic-Protestant animosities. What Kissinger sees emerging from that desperately needed peace was consensus that: 1) nationstates are the most legitimate political entities in world affairs, not transnational empires nor minor principalities, much less family dynasties or religious faiths; 2) sovereign nation-states should be left free of outside interference in ordering their own political and socio-cultural arrangements; 3) ‘ideology’ like religious creed should be excluded as ground for armed conflict, which should be confined to ‘real’ like matters wealth, territory and military advantage; and 4) a ‘balance of power’ should prevent – through military coalitions among states if need be – emergence of any single dominant power. Kissinger characterizes this supposed ‘Westphalian’ order as a peace-serving consensus on ‘pluralism’.


Where does one begin pointing out the obfuscations in this Kissingerian model of ‘world order’? The best start I can make in a short piece is to list some of the major conflicts that wracked Europe during Kissinger’s supposed ‘world order’ between the mid-17th and early 20th centuries: three Anglo-Dutch wars; the Franco-Dutch War; the Franco-Spanish War of Devolution; the War of the Augsburg League; the two so-called ‘Northern’ wars; three Austro-Turkish wars; the War of the Quadruple Alliance; the wars of the Spanish, Polish and Austrian successions; the Seven Years War; the seven or so ‘French Revolution’ and ‘Napoleonic’ wars; the insurrectional nationalist uprisings in Italy, Hungary, Greece, Poland and Germany; the Crimean War; and the Franco-Prussian War. What Euro-centric ‘world order’ could Kissinger be talking about?

Of course, Kissinger does not claim that his ‘world order’ guarantees perfect peace. But it blocks any single power from gaining persistent hegemony through ‘balance of power’ coalitions among weaker players against the strongest at any moment. It is, of course, a strategic commonplace at all times and forever that the weaker will tend to join forces against the stronger. (See Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.) On such banality rests Kissinger’s great reputation as scholar and statesman? Kissinger’s ‘Westphalian system’ is little more than a figment of imagination.

What Kissinger conjures as the ‘Westphalian system’ supposedly involves ‘realism’ as opposed to visionary world-transforming ideology; ‘sovereignty’ of nation-states declining to interfere with one another’s internal political and social arrangements; ‘international law’ as developed and enforced by voluntary compliance and collective recognition among nationstates; ‘human rights’ as the norm for how governments should treat their citizens and the norm by which the international community should evaluateevents; and ‘pluralism’ among value  systems favoring mutual accommodation rather than armed fanaticism. How nice.

Never mind that some of these components sit very uneasily with some of the others. Something like this Westphalian order somehow proceeds from Europe out into the wider world, pulling its disparate players by the hair into benign embrace. OK, as Kissinger concedes, this sometimes involved counter-Westphalian European colonialism. Embarrassing to be sure, but with the close of all that we have the wide world aligning itself more or less along Westphalian principles at least incipiently: realism, sovereign nationstates, international law, human rights, pluralism: the new day struggling to dawn. There is a nemesis, however: ideology, religion, fanaticism, utopianism and rights-denying absolutism, wrapped up in a nasty sausage: What shall we call it? OK, just tossing it out there: how about ‘Islam’? Westphalia and Islam confront each other in today’s Middle East, according to Kissinger. With torturous logic, he somehow conveys this confrontation as the deep logic and wisdom of America’s catastrophic positions and interventions in the ‘greater Middle East’.

Put as Kissinger describes it, who but Islamists could fail to favor ‘Westphalia’ over ‘Islam?’ Nor should we deny that America from time to time embodies aspects of ‘Westphalia’ and that the Middle East has spawned alarming contagions of ‘Islam’. But Kissinger’s bipolar grid skates past the true nature and complexity of crises besetting the region and consistently finds merit in US commitments and interventions that turn out disastrously and confound aspirations for peaceful order. Let’s glance quickly at what he says here and elsewhere about two key crises.

On Israel and Palestine, Kissinger maintains that, “Israel is by definition (italics mine) a Westphalian state”, (and “its principal ally”, the United States is “a steward and key defender of the Westphalian international order”). Meanwhile, Palestinians represent “Islamic consciousness” as a contending concept of world order. This tells us all we really need to know about the conflict in question and about proper US allegiance. Forget about grievances and drivers of conflict like Israel’s West Bank occupation, fearsome use of firepower, and constrictions on Palestinian rights and livelihoods. No, it is Palestinians, seeking to establish their nation-state, who are counter-Westphalian, while Israel, blocking such a nation-state and maintaining its occupation in defiance of international law, takes a bow as the good Westphalian player: ‘by definition’?


There may indeed be a rising Islamist cast to Hamas, but might this not owe something to Israel’s prolonged intransigence? And true, Palestinians could perhaps advance their agenda as well as peace by conceding Israel’s quibble about recognition as a ‘Jewish’ state. (Even Kissinger notes that an ethnically defined ‘Jewish’ state comports poorly with ‘Westphalian order’.) Meanwhile, however, his imposition of the Westphalia-versus-Islam construct on the conflict quickly flies over ground-level Palestinian concerns and touches down predictably with ongoing US carte blanche for Israel.

It is supposed to be an axiom of ‘Westphalian order’ that states respect one another’s internal sovereignty and refrain from outside intervention. Yet Kissinger earnestly supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, pretty clearly an outside intervention infringing Iraq’s sovereignty. This contradiction makes hash of Kissinger’s purported allegiance to Westphalia and his characterization of the US as a good Westphalian player. Kissinger now seems to recognize that, by destabilizing Iraq, the invasion sowed chaotic violence and plunging living standards, not peaceful order. Such an outcome was, of course, predicted by many at the time of the invasion. Kissinger indicates that knowing what we know now he would not have supported the invasion. He now says that he approved the invasion to remove Saddam as a ‘security’ threat by purportedly possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but that things went sour when the US stayed too long after Saddam’s ouster to engage in nation-building. Aside from overstating the consensus at the time, obviously erroneous, that Saddam possessed WMD, Kissinger’s latter-day account fails to explain how any such WMD could seriously threaten the US. It also forgets that democratic nationbuilding was an often-emphasized rationale for invading Iraq from the beginning, in addition to knocking out WMD. There is an American vision of bringing liberal democracy to all people every bit as ideological and ‘un-‘Westphalian’ as Islamic visions of world order. Many Americans cannot see this because it is the very lens through which they view the world. This is especially true of American foreign policy elites, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Many fail to grasp that even if it might be optimal that everyone live under liberal democracy (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: sex, drugs and rock & roll?), efforts to install it, especially by force, can be deeply self-defeating, not to mention deeply destructive.

In contrast to what he now suggests, Kissinger stood strongly for ongoing US military action in Iraq long after learning that WMD were absent and long after it was clear that the US was deeply engaged in ‘nationbuilding’. In 2005, he urged ongoing commitment in order to fight jihadi forces, not seeing that occupation would inevitably fuel those very forces. In 2007, he voiced strong support for Bush’s military ‘surge’, supposedly ensuring self-sustaining orderly democracy but capable of doing so only as long as troops remained in place. In 2008, he opposed scheduled withdrawal and recommended prolonging America’s military footprint, though by then the post-Saddam government had clearly signaled intent to require US withdrawal. So much for Kissinger’s ‘Westphalian’ sovereignty.


A graduate of Harvard Law school living in Pelawatte with his family, Mark Hager consults on complex legal and writing challenges.


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