World order from a Western and an Islamic Perspective (Part 1)

A Critical Review of the Book World Order, written by Henry Kissinger
19 February 2024
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Nabi Sonboli

A Critical Review of the Book World Order, written by Henry Kissinger


Henry Kissinger was perhaps the most influential thinker on American foreign policy and its allies over the past few decades. Understanding his thinking about world order, Islam, and Islamic order can help us better understand the US and European foreign policies toward the Middle East and Iran. Even the roots of European and US support for Israel in the current war in Gaza can be found in this book.

The article is actually being a critical review of parts of Henry Kissinger book’s on World order, which he wrote in 2014. The study reviews the author's views in the introduction, the conclusion, and chapters on Islamic order, the Middle East, and Iran. Where it has been written “Opinion”, it is a summary of Kissinger’s’ writing and the rest is my evaluations and views about his ideas and understandings.


World order challenges: Opinion

There has never been a real world order, says Kissinger in the introduction. The current order is the result of the Westphalian Peace that took place four centuries ago. In the peace of Westphalia, many civilizations and countries were either not present or unaware of it. This order had two main bases: non-intervention and balance of power.

In the peace of Westphalia, China was regarding itself as the center of world order and the rest to be barbaric. Between Europe and China, there was an Islamic insight into the world order, according to which world sovereignty with divine law dominates Dar al-Harb and unites everyone. In the United States, it has gradually prevailed that if everyone follows the principles that America follows in the administration of their society, world order and peace will naturally come true. Therefore, the task of foreign policy is to spread common principles. In his view, the weakness of the Westphalian system was that there was no answer to the issue of how to produce legitimacy. When the United States accepted world leadership, it added freedom and democracy to the elements needed for peace and order and tried to evolve the Westphalian order.

According to him, of all the concepts of order, only some of the Westphalian principles, including sovereignty, non-intervention, and balance of power, are globalized, and a network of legal structures and international organizations strives to contain world anarchy, maintain free trade, keep the stability of the international financial system, and restrict the use of war.  He goes on to say that every international order is challenged by two currents: a movement that seeks to redefine its legitimacy and a movement that seeks significant change in the balance of power. There are now both movements: China and Jihadists.

Kissinger considers the renovation of the international system as the main challenge facing statesmen. In his view, the world order alone is not accessible by any country, and the Westphalian order based on existing facts requires modernization. The essence of statesmanship is creating balance between legitimacy and order.


World order challenges: Critical View

First, Kissinger's view is naturally Eurocentric, and he considers Europe as the starting point of order. There was both a pre-Westphalian non-intervention and a balance of power. Almost at the same time as religious wars were going on in Europe in the 16th to 18th century, west Asia also was engaged in religious/ geopolitical wars between Iran and the Ottomans from the 16th to 19th centuries (from Safavid to Qajar), and to end these wars, the negotiations and contracts were signed. Safavid referred to Europe to create a balance of power against the Ottomans, before that some Europeans turned to Moguls to create balance against Muslims, even when the Arabs attacked Iran, Iranians tried to get support from China to create a balance against Arab Muslims. 

Second, there was basically no need for other civilizations and countries to attend the Westphalia conference because the conference was on peace in Europe and ending the war between them. What was new in Westphalia was not sovereignty and non-intervention but the concept of border. There were frontiers, not a border, among empires in imperial international system. Wars also occurred mainly on the frontiers, and this trend is still ongoing. Modern lines of confrontations like Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine …are mostly located on or close to old frontier lines.

Third, Kissinger introduces the American order as a democratic order that was formed as an inspirational city over the hill. The United States was not formed on the basis of a democratic order but by killing millions of Indians over three hundred years and violating all agreements with the Indian tribes. In this order, democracy was limited to part of the white population, not all of them. After the acceptance of the Western world leadership, the United States also supported many dictatorship governments and intervened in many democracies. The US and its allies attacking Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya and withdrawing from many international agreements under Bush and Trump were nothing more than a violation of Westphalian values and principles.

Fourth, one of the reasons Kissinger mentions for the collapse of the international order is that an emerging power may not accept the role given to it by the existing order. Investigating the positions and voting behavior of governments in international organizations shows the opposite. While the emphasis on sovereignty and non-intervention has always been emphasized by China, Russia, Iran, India, and other southern countries, selective intervention in other countries and the weakening of sovereignty under various pretexts in US and European voting behavior is very observed. Kissinger's main emphasis is on the danger of Islamism and China for international order, but he was still alive that Russia's invasion of Ukraine challenged the Westphalian order in Europe.

Fifth, Kissinger insists that no country alone is able to create an international order, but he does not develop the theory of an inclusive world order. The US and Europe do not appear to be interested in and willing to accept and engage other actors in the new order based on Westphalian principles. The global mobilization against Russia in Ukraine, the comprehensive support of the Palestinian genocide in Gaza, the formation of QUAD, AUKUS, and the Corridor of India and Europe, and other coalitions against China and Iran, are consistent with the balance of power, but inconsistent with the and inclusive world order. When we define the order at the global level, exclusive approach does not work.

On the other side, Russia, China, and Iran, also follow the same logic. Creating Shanghai, forming BRICS, China Road- Belt Initiative (RBI) Project, Russia's Eurasia Economic Union, and so on is nothing but an attempt to balance power against the US and Europe. Therefore, if we measure the behavior of countries with the indicators of the emphasis on sovereignty, non-intervention, and balance of power that Kissinger considers as one of the basic principles of Westphalian order, Iran and China's behavior are more consistent with these principles than the behavior of the US, Europe, and even Russia. Russia emphasizes the principles of Westphalian order in theory, but in practice, Russia's behaviors towards Georgia and Ukraine are not in line with these principles.

Nabi Sanboli, a senior expert at the Institute for Political and International Studies

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)


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