The Buzz

Kissinger's Words of Warning

Henry Kissinger has been on the scene for many decades, and still his analytical depth remains as rare today as when he served as national-security adviser and secretary of state. Consider his recent Washington Post article in which he warns of the dangers inherent in overthrowing the Westphalian system that emerged in Europe after the devastation of the Thirty Years' War.

As Kissinger notes, the 1648 Westphalian treaty separated international from domestic politics to prevent extranational dynastic forces from overrunning areas they wished to control. This represented a limitation, not an expansion, of the role of force by substituting "the preservation of equilibrium for the forced conversion of populations."

This system soon spread to other areas of the world—and served as a stabilizing force among nations. But now this venerable approach to international relations is under attack, including from America. Says Kissinger: "The diplomacy generated by the Arab Spring replaces Westphalian principles of equilibrium with a generalized doctrine of humanitarian intervention"—meaning a perceived imperative to topple regimes that violate fundamental human rights. It’s problematic that this interventionism focuses primarily on Middle Eastern nations, most of which (excluding Turkey, Egypt and Iran) are not natural nation states but rather artificial entities created by Western colonial powers at the end of World War I.

Kissinger captures the problem here in two incisive sentences: "Regime change, almost by definition, generates an imperative for nation-building. Failing that, the international order itself begins to disintegrate."

Kissinger warns against the growing agitation for interventionism in Syria to end the brutal Assad regime. And he concedes that the United States has strategic, as well as humanitarian, reasons to want that regime out. But the humanitarian rationale isn’t likely to sustain U.S. popular support long enough to make it work, and the strategic rationale probably isn’t of sufficient magnitude to justify another war. As Kissinger writes, "In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath." Just so, which is why America’s leaders should heed this smart warning.