It is hard for anyone born in the 21st century to appreciate the dangers of a nuclear war. Ask anyone born in the second half of the last century and the answer you get will be different. Each age has its own defining insecurities. Much earlier, in late 15th century, the German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer listed war, famine, pestilence and death in a famous woodcut called The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Nearly 150 years after Dürer’s engraving, Europe took a big step toward reducing warfare. In a series of peace treaties signed in 1648, it ushered the modern international system where states and not kings and dynasties became the arbiters of peace and war. Religious wars slowly became history and modern ideas to regulate international relations—equality of states, balance of power, realism and limits to what states could do—took root. Since then, through two World Wars, innumerable small ones and the age of nuclear weapons, this system has survived. Until now that is.

Some weeks ago, a friend asked me if the Westphalian system was fraying. His question was, I guess, prompted the anarchy engulfing the Middle East and the silent refusal of the US from accepting responsibility to do something to arrest that. His fears may also have been actuated by events closer home. I can do no better than point him to Henry Kissinger’s new book World Order which lists and explains at length the reasons for our increasingly anarchic world. The former US secretary of state takes the reader through a tour of all the troubled parts of the world. Except for Latin America, this pretty much includes the entire world. The meat of Kissinger’s story is in Europe. If one is to understand what is happening in the Middle East, the dangers inherent in China’s rise and India’s continuing confusion, one has to start there.

Time plays fantastic tricks on public attitudes. Where caution and healthy scepticism are called for, it breeds complacency. As time elapses, what once appeared to be uncertain ceases to be so in one’s mind. Something similar has happened with respect to the Westphalian system. Truth be told, the pessimistic conclusion about this order is that it was the outcome of a special set of circumstances and a unique culture that made it possible.

The special circumstances were the utter exhaustion of a continent and the relative equality—in size and power—of its constituent states that put paid any universalizing pretensions of individual European monarchs. Those circumstances, however, were by themselves, too, not sufficient to make the new equilibrium permanent. In succeeding centuries, the equilibrium had to be re-established. The emergence of France as the continent’s pre-eminent power during Napoleon’s time; the re-incorporation of a defeated France after Napoleon was vanquished; bringing Russia into the system and a series of other problems tested the Westphalian system down to the end of the second World War. In between there were paroxysm’s that shook the system. The supreme confidence of statesmen that a war in 1914 would be a short affair was one; the inability to let Germany return to the international fold honourably after the end of the First World War was another.

The other, very big, reason for the system’s survival was an elite that, while being separated by nation and dynastic allegiance was unified in its outlook. Two examples are illustrative. Every Russian foreign minister until 1820 was recruited abroad (pages 37-38). Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister at the Congress of Vienna in 1814—the gathering that created the fabled concert of Europe—was born in Germany and did not see Austria until his thirteenth year and did not live there until was seventeen (page 74). In that age, Germany was not a unified country and Austria did its best to prevent that. This circulation of elites meant that matters never got out of hand. This was replicated, in a different form, in the second half of the 20th century in a different way. In Europe and the US, those running the countries went to the same universities and were socialised in the same global institutions.

These conditions are absent today. The contending powers, be they states in the Middle East, India and China, are unbalanced in terms of size and power. Civilizationally they are so different that their elites have dramatically different visions. The situation today resembles Europe on the eve of 1914 and not the calm of diplomats shuttling between Münster and Osnabrück in 1648.

On all these counts, Kissinger’s prognosis is unhappy, if not grim. India, for all its attempts at being a prototypical nation-state has nothing in its ancient traditions that have an idea of an inter-state equilibrium. Kissinger’s discussion of the Arthashastra in this respect is interesting. He notes that, “In Kautilya’s counsel, equilibrium, if it ever came about, was a temporary result of an interaction of self-serving motives; it was not, as in European concepts after Westphalia, the strategic aim of foreign policy. The Arthashastra was a guide to conquest, not to the construction of an international order." (page 197). The inheritors of Kautilya’s legacy have not forgotten this. For the moment, Indian ambitions may be muted; can anyone say with certainty that they will remain dormant in the future?

If India appears bumbling, sample Russia: “Its (Russia’s) policy has pursued a special rhythm of its own over the centuries, expanding over a landmass spanning nearly every climate and civilization, interrupted occasionally for a time by the need to adjust its domestic structure to the vastness of the enterprise—only to return again, like a tide crossing a beach. From Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, circumstances have changed, but the rhythm has remained extraordinarily consistent." (page 50). Ukraine can hardly be called an accident.

If Russia, the exemplar of Oriental Despotism, is an outlier, how about the Lands of Islam? “In the purist version of Islamism, the state cannot be the point of departure for an international system because states are secular, hence illegitimate; at best they may achieve a kind of provisional status en route to a religious entity on a larger scale. Non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs cannot serve as a governing principle, because national loyalties represent deviations from the true faith and because jihadists have a duty to transform dar al-harb, the world of unbelievers. Purity, not stability, is the guiding principle of this conception of world order." (page 122). Yezidi women being sold into slavery by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unceasing quest for religious revolutions is hardly a recipe for equilibrium.

If the Middle East is caught in a time warp, how about China, a would be Rome in the East. Kissinger’s discussion of the Middle Kingdom and its verities is, of course, delicate and for obvious reasons. The man who flew secretly to Beijing in 1972 to bring China into the western fold is unlikely to say that his special country is a problem child. But read his discussion of China and its place in Asia and you will know that equilibrium is not an option for an elite whose guiding vision is to be found in the pre-Qin age and not some vague notions conjured in 1648.

With this catalogue of horrors to be found outside Europe and a North America increasingly in an isolationist grip, global order is indeed a quaint idea. Cultural explanations for international peace and order were once considered racist as they spelt that only Europeans and the Americans could keep the world safe. One can’t be sure if racism has disappeared but the world certainly is more anarchic. Sadly, I have to conclude that my friend may be prescient, as he usually is.

Book name: World Order

Author: Henry Kissinger

Publisher: Penguin Press (2014)

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