The ‘Mechanics of Global Order’ – A Different Kind of World Ordering

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Congress of Vienna 1815

I was reminded recently of the enormous influence of the nonagenarian Henry Kissinger.  My colleague from Brazil, Oliver Stuenkel, author of the blog Post-Western World reviewed Henry Kissinger’s most recent book, World Order. His review of the 2014 book caused me to look back at my notes on this book and then to drag from my University library his 1994 book, Diplomacy. Obviously quite laconic when it came to titles – don’t forget On China – Kissinger has been the most detailed – and THE contemporary deep thinker – both as an academic and a diplomatic practitioner – when it comes to articulating the contemporary global order and its inner workings. Kissinger has been enormously influential since at least his  A World Restored (Kissinger’s Ph.D. thesis originally) published in 1954.  And of course, his diplomatic practice in the Nixon and Ford administrations remains central to US foreign policy behavior and critique.  Today, he is still consulted by many in Washington for his views on US foreign policy – see his and George Shultz’s review of the Iran nuclear deal –  and in particular US diplomacy toward China.

It is worth spending a moment identifying a difference, or two that appear between the two books. Though these volumes carry quite distinct titles, both are in fact concerned with global order. The most evident difference is the lengthy examination of the Peace of Westphalia in his most recent work with mention but little examination of the emerging state system in Diplomacy. It is evident in World Order, however, that Kissinger wants to establish contending world order models – he describes in some detail the Chinese and then Islamic world order models – and as a result he spends greater effort at articulating the origin and evolution of the Westphalian state system, which Kissinger argues has become today’s universal model of world order.

There are of course many global order insights from these volumes.  It is quite notable, for example,  that Kissinger, soon after the event, saw that the unipolar moment following the Soviet Union’s demise would in fact fail to make the United States more powerful though most were busy glorying in the unipolar moment.  As he wrote in Diplomacy:

The end of the Cold War has created what some observers have called a ‘unipolar’ or ‘one-superpower’ world. But the United States is actually in no better position to dictate the global agenda unilaterally than it was at the beginning of the Cold War.  America is more preponderant than it was ten years ago, yet ironically, power has also become more diffuse. Thus, America’s ability to employ it to shape the rest of the world has actually decreased.

And the equally insightful assessments in World Order.  But in the end the heart of the two books appears to carry the same dramatic flaw that undermines Kissinger’s examination diplomacy and global order.  

Robert D Kaplan writing on Kissinger and his major examination of diplomacy,  saw Kissinger foreign policy as:

Even if the technology of war had changed, Kissinger implied, the task of statesmen remained the same: to construct a balance of fear among great powers as part of the maintenance of an orderly international system — a system that, while not necessarily just or fair, was accepted by the principal players as legitimate. As long as the system was maintained, no one would challenge it through revolution — the way Hitler in the 1930s, categorized by the thirty-year-old Kissinger as a “revolutionary chieftain,” did.

Two things arise from this Kaplan analysis.  The first acknowledges a commonplace view that Kissinger was/is, in the parlance of international relations, a Realist – focused on national interest and the distribution of power among the great powers of the time.  Kissinger’s analysis is replete with examination of the balance of power. But this view of  Kissinger is not without its detractors most recently the examination of Kissinger by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson.  Examining Kissinger’s policies, Ferguson who is about to publish the first volume of his biography of Kissinger argues that analysts have failed to understand that Kissinger is not in fact a classic realist. Rather, according to Ferguson, Kissinger is a form of idealist:

First, even if Kissinger was never an idealist in the tradition of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who sought universal peace through inter­national law and collective security, he was not a realist. Kissinger rejected Wilsonian idealism because he felt that its high­mindedness was a recipe for policy paralysis.

Instead Kissinger adopted, according to Ferguson, an historical approach founded on: the self­-understanding of nations – a strong historical approach; a willingness to act even peremptorily  rather than bearing the cost of inaction;  and a diplomacy willing to choose between choices that in fact often were both evil.  Kissinger, says Ferguson, believed that directing foreign policy requires a choice of the lesser evil rather than remain frozen between the two evil courses.

But the second point of analysis that is described by Kaplan, and that bears examination, is Kissinger’s  failure to understand completely in the first book and largely  in the second  what I call the ‘mechanics of global order’.  Kissinger, realist or not,  seems to suggest that global order, as mentioned earlier, is driven by the balance of power among the great powers of the moment.  Now, to be fair that is not completely the case for Kissinger in World Order. There is reliance on a concept where Kissinger appears to ‘open a space’ beyond just power and the balancing required of the great powers. Unlike his earlier Diplomacy he acknowledges something more, though to be fair A World Restored spend a great deal of time beyond just power. In this later volume, as he did in the first, Kissinger argues the centrality of power and the balancing required of the great powers, of course but he invokes however, ‘legitimacy’ and its exercise by the great powers in sustaining world order.  This in my opinion is a return by Kissinger to a larger ‘Order’ theme. As a result, in examining the long peace set in motion by the European Concert following decades of war in Europe, Kissinger declares:

Traditional diplomacy had brought about a century of peace in Europe by an international order subtly balancing elements of power and legitimacy.  In the last quarter of that of that century, the balance had shifted to relying on the power element.  The drafters of the Versailles settlement veered back to the legitimacy component by creating an international order that could be maintained, if at all, only by appeals to shared principles – because the elements of power were ignored or left in disarray. (p. 83)

What is evident, however, is that in any one of the systems of order that Kissinger describes in his World Order book the following is true:

Any one of the systems of order bases itself on two components: a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others. A consensus on the legitimacy of existing arrangements does not – now or in the past – foreclose competitions or confrontations, but it helps ensure that they will occur as adjustments within the existing order rather than as fundamental challenges to it.  A balance of forces does not in itself secure peace, but if thoughtfully assembled and invoked, it can limit the scope and frequency of fundamental challenges and curtail their chance of succeeding when they do occur. (p.9)

Unlike most International Relations experts, there is far more than a hint of something other that balance of power in the literature. And here the diplomatic historians have insights that have been ignored largely by their IR cousins. Diplomatic historians examining – admittedly the European state system only – saw that global order was not just a product of power but also was defined by legitimacy established through the efforts of a diplomatic concert.   One diplomatic historian in particular, Paul W. Schroeder, one of the notable diplomatic historians of the late twentieth century and into our own century, at various times tried to move the international relations narrative from a singular Realist presumption of power in an anarchic world of global order to a world alternating between a multi-state world seeking ‘power’ and one that sought instead to create a world order built on principles, norms, rules and diplomatic behavior of  ‘order’.  As Schroeder wrote in 2010 in the edited volume of History and Neorealism:

… the response of units to this condition of anarchy is not, never has been, and never will be an essentially simple straightforward struggle for power for purposes of survival and security, and cannot even for theoretical purposes be reduced to this.  The response to anarchy instead is and always has been profoundly dialectical and developmental. The same structure of anarchy that compels units that wish to survive and flourish in the international system to engage in a perennial quest for order.  … The state of anarchy that impels constantly to be on their guard against one another likewise drives them with equal force to engage in a perennial quest for order. (p. 81 )

This dialectic operates, according to Schroeder, in the following way:

The dialectic applies equally to suspicion and trust.  The state of anarchy that impels states constantly to be on their guard against one another likewise compels them to try to devise various ways – rules, norms, practices, conventions,  institutions – that enable them rationally and prudently to trust one another (i.e., to be able to rely on and make reliable calculations about one another, engage in common practices and performances with some measure of predictable response and reciprocity, and pursue some means of cooperation with one another). Without that minimal kind of trust, as someone has said, one could not even get out of bed in the morning, much less engage in international politics. (p. 81)

For Schroeder surveying the history of international relations, or at least the multi-state system born with the Westphalia agreements and slowly expanding outward, the global, or at least the European order, operated in the following manner:

The thesis in a nutshell is that the structural anarchy of international politics  (as earlier defined) simultaneously generates both a struggle for power and a quest for order; that both are constants, always present and interacting, dialectically related and separable.  I further contend that while each can predominate at different times and over different periods, over the centuries the struggle for power has remained basically cyclical and unchanging, while the quest for order has constantly changed and developed, becoming more complex and growing stronger and more prominent. (p.83)

Indeed, Schroeder suggests that order, or what I call, the mechanics of global order operation ‘concert diplomacy’  “… could conceivably become over time the dominant partner in the dialectical relationship.” While Schroeder describes a tight gyre of ‘power’ with ‘order’, a little like a helix it seems to me, in fact, that international order has in fact not displayed such a dialectic as much as a exhibiting rather a see-saw between power and order, depending on the revolutionary powers present in the international order. But no matter which best describes the mechanics of global order, concert diplomacy has emerged repeatedly in international relations.  Examining concert diplomacy, Richard B. Elrod back in 1976 in “The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System” in World Politics described its heart as:

One more thing is clear. European relations during the era of concert diplomacy were characterized by a sense of security, a respect for the public law of Europe, a recognition of a commonly accepted standard of conduct, and a willingness to keep one’s own conduct within those limits, that was unknown both to earlier and to later period. … Through concert diplomacy the great powers were reminded of what constituted responsible international conduct. The Concert possessed a surprising capability to persuade sovereign states to observe those limits. (p.170)

Starting with the Concert of Europe and over the last two hundred years concert diplomacy evidently has become increasingly institutionalized and concerned not just with international politics but with global economics as well, especially as the interstate system has become dramatically more interdependent and globalization of the interstate system became increasingly apparent.

The enormous influence that Kissinger held, and holds, over the practice and analysis of international relations – at least as it has been interpreted by IR experts has limited efforts to examine global order as something more than power.  The dominant examination by structuralists and Realists has left little room for something other than power.  And power analysis leaves little room for emerging powers or middle power diplomacy.   There is not much to be said about the G20 and many other Informals.  This is a world determined by the China’s and the US.

Periodically, therefore, in these posts I am going to describe and analyze, a different world of global order than the one described, or at least inferred, in World Order.




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