Kissinger begins by returning to the tension in Europe between the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the French Revolution. He next turns to Islam and the Middle East. He follows his scrutiny of the Ottoman Empire and Islam with a study of China’s rise and its implications for its neighbors. But his most extended thoughts are reserved for what he sees as America’s ambivalence about its status as a superpower. He traces the rise of the United States from Theodore Roosevelt down to today, discussing his own tenure in the Nixon administration to explore the unresolved tensions in U.S. foreign policy between isolationist and crusading instincts. Throughout, he aims to reconcile American universalist aspirations with the stark reality of competing powers intent on protecting and projecting their own visions and concepts of order.
Nowhere was the concept of order more fragile than in Europe for much of its history. As Kissinger observes, in contrast to China and the Islamic world, where political contests were conducted to control an established order, Europe never enjoyed a single, fixed identity. It was always a geographic expression. The closest it came to unity was in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Imperator Romanorum. But the Carolingian Empire succumbed to its fissiparous tendencies almost as soon as it had been formally established. Charlemagne never made a serious attempt to rule the Eastern Roman Empire. Nor did he recapture Spain. The Habsburg Empire tried to re-create the idea of European identity, but its monarchs were never really more than Europe’s leading landlords. Charles V was thus unable to vindicate the universality of the Catholic Church. Bowing to reality, he signed the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which recognized Protestantism by sanctioning the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, or “whose realm, his religion”—a principle that essentially amounted to a premodern version of spheres of influence. To be sure, the name Holy Roman Empire lingered on for centuries. Its formal existence prompted Voltaire to quip that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
FOR ALL his emphasis on structural factors, Kissinger does not scant the importance of individuals in history. He points, for example, to Cardinal Richelieu as a statesman whose fundamental insight was that the state should be the basic unit of international relations. Its lodestar should be the national interest—not a ruler’s family interests or the demands of a universal religion. In essence, Richelieu commandeered the state as an instrument of high policy. His motto was: “The state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never.”
Richelieu’s insistence on the centrality of the state was codified at the Peace of Westphalia, which terminated the Thirty Years’ War and which occupies a good deal of Kissinger’s thinking about international relations. Kissinger makes many illuminating points about Westphalia and emphasizes that the peace it established continues to have profound implications for the present. Though the seventeenth-century representatives of the warring European states employed pious phrases about a “peace for Christendom,” their true aim was to create stability through balancing rivalries. The Thirty Years’ War may have started as a battle of Catholics against Protestants, but Kissinger aptly remarks that it rapidly devolved into a “free-for-all” of constantly shifting alliances. The treaty’s most profound innovation was to affirm that the state, not a dynasty or empire, was the basic structure of European order. All were granted equal treatment in protocol, from new powers such as Sweden and the Dutch Republic to older, more established ones such as France and Austria. Kissinger underscores that this set the basis for the international order that exists down to this day:
The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point and drew a variety of multiple societies, each accepted as a reality, into a common search for order. By the mid-twentieth century, this international system was in place on every continent; it remains the scaffolding of international order such as it now exists.
The Peace of Westphalia may be attacked as a system of cynical power manipulation, Kissinger writes, but it actually represented something else—the attempt to ward off dominance of a single country by establishing a balance of power.
It was even flexible enough to allow for the integration of rising powers. Consider Prussia. An army in search of a state, Prussia was something of a Johnny-come-lately on the European scene. It was Frederick the Great who established the House of Hohenzollern as a great power during the Seven Years’ War. Despite being abused by his capricious father—Lord Macaulay wrote, “Oliver Twist in the parish workhouse, Smike at Dotheboys Hall, were petted children when compared with this wretched heir apparent of a crown”—he surprised his contemporaries by transcending his early woes to become the archetypal benevolent despot, establishing Prussia as a European power without attempting to dominate the Continent. Westphalia, in other words, worked.
THE MOST potent early challenge to the Westphalian system came from revolutionary France. The revolution of 1789 morphed into a militant ideological persuasion, a crusading international movement that demonized its adversaries. The French revolutionaries scorned the notion that an international order with clearly demarcated limits of state action should have any purchase. In 1792, the members of the National Convention passed a decree stating that France “will accord fraternity and assistance to all peoples who shall wish to recover their liberty,” an idea that may sound harmless enough but soon led to a series of wars. The revolution, writes Kissinger,
demonstrated how internal changes within societies are able to shake the international equilibrium more profoundly than aggression from abroad—a lesson that would be driven home by the upheavals of the twentieth century, many of which drew explicitly on the concepts first advanced by the French revolution.
Order was restored at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. But there another messianic vision emerged. Czar Alexander I was convinced that he could usher in a new world order—a “Holy Alliance” of princes that forswore sordid national interests and sought to create a new international brotherhood. He espoused a great melting pot of nations: “There no longer exists an English policy, a French, Russian, Prussian, or Austrian policy; there is now only one common policy which, for the welfare of all, ought to be adopted in common by all states and all peoples.”
Alexander’s eupeptic sentiments prompt Kissinger to deliver the sternest rebuke he can offer, which is that they represented a “Wilsonian conception of the nature of world order, albeit on behalf of principles dramatically the opposite of the Wilsonian vision.” In the end, the Congress created three institutions to establish peace: a Quadruple Alliance consisting of Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia; a Holy Alliance to neutralize domestic threats to the legitimacy of the monarchies; and a Concert of Europe, which provided for regular diplomatic conferences among the heads of governments.
Nationalism, the revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War and the unification of Germany ensured that the arrangements forged by Europe’s magnificoes in 1815 did not last. Kissinger perceptively notes that the shift from Metternich, who was focused on preserving the principle of legitimacy, to Bismarck, who was intent on amassing power, acutely displays the breakdown of the European order. Both are often viewed as conservatives, but Bismarck is probably best viewed as a radical conservative, at least in his formative incarnation. Unlike Metternich, Bismarck sought to demonstrate that conservatism could be annealed to nationalism. But Bismarck was aware of Germany’s limits. He may have created an empire, but he did not seek to displace the British Empire or to humiliate France. After the unification of Germany, his main object was to preserve the peace, which he did. His epigones in the Wilhelmstrasse, by contrast, did not.
After World War II, the division of Europe into two hostile camps meant that the western half largely sought to subsume its identity, partly by identifying with the United States, at least when it came to its military defense, as well as by aiming for economic unity within its bloc. With the end of the Cold War, Europe has striven to define a separate, independent identity. Kissinger worries that the Continent’s pursuit of soft power may have become an end in itself, thereby creating an imbalance of power at a moment when other regions of the globe are pursuing hard power. He suggests that Europe finds itself uneasily suspended between a past it seeks to overcome and a future that it has yet to define. But even as it searches for a new order, Europe, he concludes, has evolved into a society united by the laudable ambition to sequester moral absolutes from political endeavors.
THE CONTRAST with the United States, we are told, could hardly be starker. America fused distrust of established institutions with a crusading spirit. For Thomas Jefferson, America was an “empire of liberty.” It was, he wrote, “acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our own society.” The first president to assign America a role as a world power was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt sketched out a vision of America as the guardian of the global balance of power and, by extension, the international peace. In Kissinger’s view, “This was an astonishingly ambitious vision for a country that had heretofore viewed its isolation as its defining characteristic and that had conceived of its navy as primarily an instrument of coastal defense.” Kissinger makes clear his admiration for Roosevelt. He believes that had Roosevelt been president during World War I, the conflict would have been terminated much more quickly. A negotiated peace would have left Germany defeated but indebted to American restraint. But it was Woodrow Wilson, of course, who gave full flower to the proselytizing persuasion. Rather than seeking to restore a balance of power, Wilson wanted to “make the world safe for democracy”—a goal that was as laudable as it was impractical. Speaking at West Point in 1916, Wilson told the graduating class, “It was as if in the Providence of God, a continent had been kept unused and waiting for a peaceful people who loved liberty and the rights of men more than they loved anything else, to come and set up an unselfish commonwealth.”