world order henry kissinger

Written by Syed Yasir Abbas Shah 12:47 pm Book Reviews, Published Content

World Order by Henry Kissinger

A book sought by CSS aspirants and students of international relations, Henry Kissinger’s World Order sets the stage by addressing the evolution of the state as a permanent and fundamental entity in conducting international relations. He puts light on the significance of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) in the first institutionalising international order among states. In so doing, Kissinger deftly explains the role of the state and its enduring legacy in structuring relations between and among the states.
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About the Author(s)
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Mr Syed Yasir Abbas Shah is an undergraduate student of English literature and linguistics at Gomal University, Dera Ismail Khan. He has an interest in democracy, international relations, and South Asian politics.

The Author

Henry Kissinger, the author of World Order, served in the US Army during World War II and subsequently taught history at Harvard University for twenty years. He also served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under Richard N. Nexon and Gerald Ford. Moreover, he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Medal of Liberty, among other awards.

Peace of Westphalia (1648)

In World Order, Henry Kissinger states that a century of sectarian conflict and political upheaval across Central Europe ushered in the Thirty Years’ War. He says, unlike other landmark agreements such as the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15 or the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Peace of Westphalia did not emanate from a single conference.

The Catholic powers, including 178 separate participants from different states constituting the Holy Roman Empire, gathered in the Catholic city of Münister. Nearly thirty miles away, in the mixed Lutheran and Catholic city of Osnabrück, Protestant powers gathered. He writes that both powers laid the foundation stone of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

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Kissinger argues that the Peace of Westphalia became a cornerstone in the history of nations as the elements already existing were much more complicated. Under this treaty, the state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was termed as the building block of European order and the concept of a state was established. Each state was given the sovereignty to choose its own domestic structure.

Henry Kissinger writes that this led to the system of international relations where diplomacy, including the stationing of resident representatives in the capitals of fellow states, was designed to regulate relations and promote the arts of peace. He further explains that if a state accepted these basic prerequisites, it could be recognised as an international state able to maintain its own culture, politics, religion, and domestic politics, protected by the international system from outside forces.

He argues that with the end of the universal Church as the ultimate source of legitimacy and the weakening of the Holy Roman Emperor, the ordering concept for Europe became the balance of power. With all its intricacies, the balance of power was thought to be an improvement over the exaction of religious wars. 

The Spread of Islam

Henry Kissinger writes that in the sixth century B.C., the Persian Empire emerged on the Iranian plateau and tried to unite heterogeneous African, Asian, and European communities into a single, organised international society. This society was ruled by a Shahanshah, or “King of Kings.”

He states that by the end of the sixth century A.D., two great empires presided over much of the Middle East: the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire, with its capital in Constantinople and practising the Christian religion (Greek Orthodox), and the Sassanid Persian Empire, with its capital in Ctesiphon, near modern-day Baghdad, which professed Zoroastrianism. 

In 602, Persion’s invasion of Byzantine territories ushered in a 25-year-long war. He says both empires fought to the best of their abilities. However, the Byzantine empire defended its territory and a state of peace prevailed in the region. Ultimately, he argues, this led to the victory of Islam. The author states that in western Arabia, far from the control of any empire, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers started to gather strength.

He argues that as the Byzantine and Persian empires dismantled each other, Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers framed a polite, composed Arabian Peninsula and embarked upon a voyage to replace the existing faiths of the region, particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism-with the religion of one and only God, Islam. He puts forth that an unprecedented wave of expansion and the rise of Islam proved to be one of the most consequential events in history.

Kissinger writes that following the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 632, Arab armies spread Islam as far as the Atlantic coast of Africa, to most of Spain, into central France, and as far east as northern India. Alternatively, carried by merchants and conquerors, in the regions of Central Asia and Russia, parts of China, and most of the East Indies, Islam gained ground as the most dominant religion. 

In World Order, Henry Kissinger further states that Islam’s fast growth across three continents turned out to be the faithfulness of its divine mission. Islam, driven by the conviction that its expansion would unite and bring peace to all humanity, became a religion with a multiethnic superstate and a new world order.

Putting light on the structure of the Islamic world, Kissinger states that the regions where Islam swayed were conceived as a single political unit: dar al-Islam, the “House of Islam,” or the realm of peace. Moreover, he writes that the Dar al-Islam was governed by the Caliphate, an institution defined by rightful succession to the political authority that the Prophet had exercised.  

Iran: A Nuclear State

Henry Kissinger argues that the modern balance of power can be reflected through the scientific development of a society. He says that America’s nuclear monopoly was challenged in 1949 when the Soviet Union attained its first nuclear weapon. American presidents and the United Nations Security Council denounced Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons and demanded that Iran abandon its quest for nuclear weapons.

However, Iran did not heed the UN and the US, and instead focused on its nuclear arsenal. Kissinger unearths that Iran possessed 130 centrifuges when the negotiations commenced in 2003. At the time of writing World Order, Henry Kissinger says that Iran had acquired approximately 19000 centrifuges. Moreover, in November 2013, Iran disclosed that it had seven tonnes of low-grade enriched uranium.  

The author states that the Iranian negotiators told their opponents that they would not back down from pursuing their nuclear arsenal even if they were attacked. Kissinger elaborates that Iran viewed its nuclear programme as one facet of a larger struggle for regional order and ideological dominance. In November 2013, Iran agreed to a qualified, temporary suspension of enrichment in return for the lifting of some of the international sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.

He puts forth that if Iran abandons its military nuclear program, the West’s relationship with Iran could return to normal. Furthermore, he states that the desire of Iran’s geostrategic rivals—namely Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—to attain or purchase their nuclear programmes will become irresistible. Nevertheless, the author points out that the United States should develop good relations with Iran based on the Westphalian principles of nonintervention.

The Asian World Order

Kissinger narrates that there has been no common religion in Asia, as there is in the West. He says that Asia is home to different religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Moreover, there was no common empire in Asia comparable to that of Rome. He argues that the political and economic structures of Asia show the region’s complex tapestry.

Furthermore, he explains that a large Muslim population exists across Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and a sizeable Muslim population in India, China, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines. Kissinger argues that Asian countries maintained a European balance of power system during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.

Asia, with the exception of Japan, fell prey to the international order induced by colonialism and was not an actor in it. The author writes that although Thailand sustained its liberation, unlike Japan, it was too weak to take part in the balance of power as a system of regional order. He further explains that China’s large territory kept colonisers at bay, but it could not maintain its domestic affairs.

He says that Asia’s prosperity and economic dynamism came into view with the rise of Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. He writes that Japan opted for democratic institutions and surmounted those of Western nations. The writer states that in 1979, under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese model of governance proved transformative for China and the world. 

Additionally, Kissinger argues that in Asia, states are regarded as the fundamental units of international and domestic politics, in contrast to the Middle East, where almost all states are threatened by militant challenges to their legitimacy. He further states that the doctrine of the Westphalian model of international order was followed by the majority of Asian nations.

Kissinger states that for the people who lay at the crossroads of two or more imperial powers, the way to emancipation was often to side with more than one sphere as a nominal subordinate. He writes that in Asia’s historic diplomatic systems, the monarchy was termed as an expression of divinity or a kind of paternal authority. The author quotes the example of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which paid tribute to both Japan and China for a time in Northeast Asia.

He further illustrates that in the northern hills of Burma, the tribes maintained their de facto autonomy by paying allegiance to both the Burmese loyal court and the Chinese Emperor. Kissinger also puts forth the example of Nepal, which for centuries masterfully maintained its diplomatic order between the ruling dynasties in China and those in India. Lastly, he quotes Thailand, which prevented colonisation altogether by maintaining cordial ties with all foreign powers at once.

America: A Goodwill Ambassador

Kissinger narrates that no country has played such an important role in structuring the international order as the United States. The author argues that America’s foreign policy was based on the conviction that its domestic principles were self-evidently universal. He illustrates that America, for Thomas Jefferson, was not merely a superpower but an “empire of liberty.”

He adds that because it was surrounded by two great oceans, the United States could treat foreign policy as a series of episodic problems rather than a permanent enterprise. He further states that diplomacy and force were considered distinct levels of activity, each following its own autonomous rules. The author writes that America followed the Westphalian principles and the balance of power.

Kissinger says that where Europe contended with itself by maintaining security through equilibrium, America cherished dreams of unity and governance, enabling a redeeming purpose. He draws upon the American Declaration of Independence which declared its audience to be “the opinions of mankind.” He adds that America sided with alliances not to secure a concept of an international order but to serve its national interests.

The author quotes John Quincy Adams: “[America] does not go abroad looking for monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher of all freedom and independence. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Thus, the writer says, the United States was not merely a country but an engine of God’s plan and an example of world order. Moreover, he states that American policy did not limit itself to neutrality; it felt its obligation to translate its universal moral relevance beyond its geopolitical role.


In the concluding chapter, Henry Kissinger states that the contemporary pursuit of world order will need a coherent strategy to set up a concept of order within the different regions and to relate these regional orders to one another. He argues that these targets are not necessarily identical; the victory of a radical movement might bring order to one region at the expense of other regions.

He puts forth that a world order of states emphasising individual dignity, participatory governance and cooperation in accordance with agreed-upon principles can bring about the true world order. Kissinger believes that a meaningful American role will be philosophically and geopolitically compulsory to overcome the obstacles of the contemporary world. However, he argues that world peace cannot be achieved by any single country.

To accomplish a bona fide world order, he adds, its elements, while preserving their own values, need to develop a second culture that is global, structural, and juridical. At the same time, he explains, this would mean the modernisation of the Westphalian principles, keeping in view the contemporary realities.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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