Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" [Part Five & last] by Thomas Riggins

This concludes the discussion of the review of World Order published in the TLS.

We conclude with Ferguson’s opinions considering Kissinger’s views on what the real lessons are concerning world order that we have learned from the practice of American foreign policy since 1945. Basically we learn that American idealism + traditional balance of power = world order (as far as possible). Kissinger writes:

“Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend towards either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.”

This is a rather garbled mess and it is difficult to understand what Kissinger is trying to say.  Ferguson , explicating Kissinger, comments that America’s “bloodiest failures” [bloodiest for the victims not for us by the way] resulted from the US putting moral considerations “above the balance of power.”  The defeats he refers to are those of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Can this be what Kissinger or Ferguson really believe?  If so they do not even have the simplest idea of what morality is. What was "moral" about dropping Napalm, Agent Orange and other chemicals on Vietnamese children?

I can believe that Kissinger is totally amoral and I hope Ferguson has a shred or two of the moral sense here and there.The mass slaughter of the civilian population in both Korea and Vietnam carried out by the US in truly Hitlerian proportions, the war of choice waged by Bush in Iraq and the current droning of women and children in the fields, at wedding parties and funeral processions, the obscene ratio of “collateral damage’’—i.e., murder of innocent civilians, perpetrated by the US in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen where children were deliberately targeted) is the morality of the SS and the Wehrmacht of WW II— it is not an example of “American idealism.”  

I can’t think of any instance in which, since 1945 (or even before)  the US has put moral considerations above realpolitik considerations concerning the “balance of power.” It’s not  just the US. I can’t think of any nation, with the exception of Cuba since 1959, that has done so.

To protect US interests Kissinger proposes a secret treaty with China and uses nineteenth century models (the Treaty of 1839 on the neutrality of Belgium) to put forth deals with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep it it from being controlled by “jihadists.”

For someone influenced by Kant’s Perpetual Peace Kissinger seems to forget that Kant rejected secret treaties as a violation of the rights of the citizens of a state to have sufficient knowledge of their constitution to be able act as free citizens and participate in the social life of their country rather than be used as means instead of as ends by their rulers. No treaty that needs secrecy to succeed is moral for Kant.

Anyway, Ferguson points out these suggestions would only be workable in a broader context both realistic (a workable balance of power) and idealistic. The ideal of preventing a third world war may be more important than avoiding climate change, we are told. There are two things wrong with this. First, even contemplating the need to prevent a third world war is to reveal a subtext that sees China, and perhaps Russia as well, as existential threats to US interests and that the balance of power the US aims at will be weighted in its favor. This is the same old imperialist junk Kissinger has always pushed. Second, climate change poses an existential threat to the whole planet which is just as threatening as a third world war, maybe more so as climate change is happening now and a third world war is a future speculation based on viewing the world through nineteenth and twentieth century lenses by which we can only see the world as dark and blurred.

Kissinger advocates, as he says, “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary reality.” But the contemporary reality is an über-powerful US which basically does what it wants and only gives lip service to the idea of a World Order in which it is not the dominant and all determining power. No “Westphalian” system can be so based. World Order is only possible by a strengthened United Nations in which the US is willing to share power with the rest of the world  and submit itself to universal rules to which all are subject. What could induce the US to do this— to actually put moral considerations on the same level as brute power considerations? 

Kissinger says the next president must answer this basic question; “What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance?”  But this is a question for the American people to answer. Right now they are so divided and kept ignorant of the realty of the world they live in (state secrets, rotten education, semi-literacy, news networks that only spew forth propaganda, crazy religious illusions, you name it) they are incapable of arriving at a consensus. In reality the 1% will continue to answer the question with a president that represents their interests primarily.

But this is the fundamental question. Until the American people unite around their interests, the interests of the 99% (metaphorically speaking) and arrive at a consensus about the sort of country and world they want to live in— one that fosters the well being of all working and laboring peoples and not just the tiny group at the top of society, until then the US will have a foreign policy geared towards war and domination as it has at least since 1945, and the Kissingers of the future  will ensure that there will be no chances of a world order based on human dignity and peace.

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  • This was such a great series on Kissinger. 1973 was the first year I remember as a child and Ford the first President I remember so I missed the fanfare that was Henry. However, it's almost wryly humorous reading the debate over "idealism vs. realism" going on in the mind of Kissinger. The canard of realism has such an appeal to the military mind, an explosive seems so much more tangible and earthy than say human decency, fair play and basic concern for the well being of others. Dynamite has a measurable impact in a way that a sense of well being/self worth couldn't.

    Nobody wants to look the fool publicly, to show concern when shameless disregard is in vogue. It's trendy to be a step above, and moral concern seems out of step when something sexy like balance of powers and political blah blah dominates the news hour. American foreign policy is fractured and schizophrenic, it at once plays the good guy and the "I'm so ashamed we should be doing more to help the poor Ukrainians." The moral sense of which is "what is important to me is important whether or not such attention is invited or not." It's a stalker-like US foreign policy, a bit creepy.

    I'm still in a state of shock over the elementary school in Pakistan that was massacred by the Taliban "freedom fighters" while the Right blathers on stupidly about the plight of capitalism in the Ukraine with on cue tears and sighs between commercial breaks and make-up touch-ups. The enemy to be stalked, harassed, bombed, murdered or tortured in US foreign policy depends on the wave of ambition coursing through the financial district. Communists, Islamists, pro-Russian Separatists, when you dream big whatever wakes you up is a nightmare. Kissinger wasn't alone in his big realpolitik, my generation was doped up with Zbigniew Brzezinski. How Imperialism is considered a New World Order I'm not for sure, the war crimes of George Bush Jr. seem alarmingly familiarly old school European. Interference in the politics of sovereign states mandated by a power capable of carving it's own ethical standards and norms as unrestrained ambition decides is an American foreign policy of which Kissinger is symptomatically both cause and effect. -JL

    Posted by jesse leamon, 02/23/2015 8:38pm (3 years ago)

  • Attacking Wilsonian World Order;
    Kissinger- Ferguson seem to be advocating a free-for-all rogue 19th century foreign policy based on a balance of powers. It is a world order devoid of any supra-national organization powerful enough to enforce world peace. It is funny that neither recognizes that President Obama shares many of their balance of power assumptions, and he works for the 1% to establish U.S. hegemony. However, the power equilibrium that existed before Bush and the neocons decided to invade Iraq is no more. Instead, the Middle East is a sectarian hell hole so confused that no amount of ‘balancing’ will put it together. It is difficult to decide who to balance against whom. Is it the Shia Muslims against the Sunni Muslims, Iran against Saudi Arabia, jihadists against prodemocracy movements? These Middle Eastern potentates, divine rights monarchies, our client states and SOBs are all in serious trouble as they face the threats of fundamentalist jihadists and prodemocracy movements. American imperialism in the Middle East faces powerful forces for change and they want the U. S. out. The only other alternative is to give the UN a larger role, but U.S. commitment to regional hegemony makes that scenario unlikely. The Kissinger and American foreign policy establishment’s vision of world order is the opposite of the Wilsonian vision of world order. President Woodrow Wilson realized if we are to avert another global war, the capitalist nations had to build their relationships on principles other than empire building. The result would be a world “safe’ for bourgeoisie democracy and from radical change. At least that was the hope. Collective security, no secret treaties and alliances, and self -determination for subject peoples, these were Wilson’s answer to Lenin’s “Imperialism; the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Above all else, Kissinger’s American world order lacks basic human morality “in truly Hitlerian proportions,” says Riggins. Kissinger’s idea of a world order based on maintaining U.S. hegemony among contending power blocs, e.g. Chinese or Islamic, is delusional, outdated, and irrelevant in the 21st century. It poses serious threats to global peace and stability, and is a serious attack on the Wilsonian vision of world order. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 02/23/2015 8:18am (3 years ago)

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