Hillary Rodham Clinton was the 67th secretary of state.
When Americans look around the world today, we see one crisis after another. Russian aggression in Ukraine, extremism and chaos in Iraq and Syria, a deadly epidemic in West Africa, escalating territorial tensions in the East and South China seas, a global economy that still isn’t producing enough growth or shared prosperity — the liberal international order that the United States has worked for generations to build and defend seems to be under pressure from every quarter. It’s no wonder so many Americans express uncertainty and even fear about our role and our future in the world.
In his new book, “World Order,” Henry Kissinger explains the historic scope of this challenge. His analysis, despite some differences over specific policies, largely fits with the broad strategy behind the Obama administration’s effort over the past six years to build a global architecture of security and cooperation for the 21st century.
During the Cold War, America’s bipartisan commitment to protecting and expanding a community of nations devoted to freedom, market economies and cooperation eventually proved successful for us and the world. Kissinger’s summary of that vision sounds pertinent today: “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.”
This system, advanced by U.S. military and diplomatic power and our alliances with like-minded nations, helped us defeat fascism and communism and brought enormous benefits to Americans and billions of others. Nonetheless, many people around the world today — especially millions of young people — don’t know these success stories, so it becomes our responsibility to show as well as tell what American leadership looks like.
This is especially important at a time when many are wondering, as Kissinger puts it, “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?”
For me, this is a familiar question. When I walked into the State Department in January 2009, everyone knew that it was a time of dizzying changes, but no one could agree on what they all meant. Would the economic crisis bring new forms of cooperation or a return to protectionism and discord? Would new technologies do more to help citizens hold leaders accountable or to help dictators keep tabs on dissidents? Would rising powers such as China, India and Brazil become global problem-solvers or global spoilers? Would the emerging influence of non-state actors be defined more by the threats from terrorist networks and criminal cartels, or by the contributions of courageous NGOs? Would growing global interdependence bring a new sense of solidarity or new sources of strife?
President Obama explained the overarching challenge we faced in his Nobel lecture in December 2009. After World War II, he said, “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace. . . . And yet, a decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats.”
I was proud to help the president begin reimagining and reinforcing the global order to meet the demands of an increasingly interdependent age. In the president’s first term, we laid the foundation, from repaired alliances to updated international institutions to decisive action on challenges such as Iran’s nuclear program and the threat from Osama bin Laden.
The crises of the second term underscore that this is a generational project that will demand a commitment from the United States and its partners for years to come. Kissinger writes that foreign policy is not “a story with a beginning and an end,” but “a process of managing and tempering ever-recurring challenges.” This calls to mind John F. Kennedy’s observation that peace and progress are “based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions . . . a process — a way of solving problems.”
America, at its best, is a problem-solving nation. And our continued commitment to renovating and defending the global order will determine whether we build a future of peace, progress and prosperity in which people everywhere have the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential.
Much of “World Order” is devoted to exploring this challenge. It is vintage Kissinger, with his singular combination of breadth and acuity along with his knack for connecting headlines to trend lines — very long trend lines in this case. He ranges from the Peace of Westphalia to the pace of microprocessing, from Sun Tzu to Talleyrand to Twitter. He traces the Indian view of order back to the Hindu epics; the Muslim view to the campaigns of Muhammad; the European view to the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War (which elicits a comparison to the Middle East today); the Russian view to “the hard school of the steppe, where an array of nomadic hordes contended for resources on an open terrain with few fixed borders.” This long view can help us understand issues from Vladimir Putin’s aggression to Iran’s negotiating strategy, even as it raises the difficult question of “how divergent historic experiences and values can be shaped into a common order.”
Given today’s challenges, Kissinger’s analyses of the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East are particularly valuable.
When it comes to Asia, he notes that all of the region’s rising powers, China included, have their own visions of regional and global order, shaped by their own histories and present situations. How we contend with these divergent visions — building a cooperative relationship with China while preserving our other relationships, interests and values in a stable and prosperous region — will go a long way toward determining whether we can meet the broader global challenge.
In my book “Hard Choices,” I describe the strategy President Obama and I developed for the Asia-Pacific, centered on strengthening our traditional alliances; elevating and harmonizing the alphabet soup of regional organizations, such as ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization); and engaging China more broadly — both bilaterally, through new venues such as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and multilaterally, in settings where regional pressure would encourage more constructive behavior and shared decision-making on matters from freedom of navigation to climate change to trade to human rights. Our “pivot to Asia,” as it came to be known, is all about establishing a rules-based order in the region that can manage the peaceful rise of new powers and promote universal norms and values.
This kind of methodical, multilateral diplomacy is often slow and frustrating, rarely making headlines at home, but it can pay real dividends that affect the lives of millions of people. And without an effective regional order, the challenges multiply. Just look at the Middle East. “Nowhere,” Kissinger observes, “is the challenge of international order more complex — in terms of both organizing regional order and ensuring the compatibility of that order with peace and stability in the rest of the world.”
Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state. He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels. Though we have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past, what comes through clearly in this new book is a conviction that we, and President Obama, share: a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.
There really is no viable alternative. No other nation can bring together the necessary coalitions and provide the necessary capabilities to meet today’s complex global threats. But this leadership is not a birthright; it is a responsibility that must be assumed with determination and humility by each generation.
Fortunately, the United States is uniquely positioned to lead in the 21st century. It is not just because of the enduring strength of our military or the resilience of our economy, although both are absolutely essential. It goes deeper than that. The things that make us who we are as a nation — our diverse and open society, our devotion to human rights and democratic values — give us a singular advantage in building a future in which the forces of freedom and cooperation prevail over those of division, dictatorship and destruction.
This isn’t just idealism. For an international order to take hold and last, Kissinger argues, it must relate “power to legitimacy.” To that end, Kissinger, the famous realist, sounds surprisingly idealistic. Even when there are tensions between our values and other objectives, America, he reminds us, succeeds by standing up for our values, not shirking them, and leads by engaging peoples and societies, the sources of legitimacy, not governments alone. If our might helps secure the balance of power that underpins the international order, our values and principles help make it acceptable and attractive to others.
So our levers of leadership are not just about keeping our military strong and our diplomacy agile; they are about standing up for human rights, about advancing the rights and role of women and girls, about creating the space for a flourishing civil society and the conditions for broad-based development.
This strategic rationale guided my emphasis as secretary of state on using all the tools of foreign policy, even those sometimes dismissed as “soft.” I called it “smart power,” and I still believe it offers a blueprint for sustained American leadership in the decades ahead. We have to play to our strengths. And in an age when legitimacy is defined from the bottom up rather than the top down, America is better positioned than our more autocratic competitors.
Kissinger recognizes this as well. He understands how much the world has changed since his time in office, especially the diffusion of power and the growing influence of forces beyond national governments. International problems and solutions are increasingly centered, in ways both good and bad, on nongovernmental organizations, businesses and individual citizens. As a result, foreign policy is now as much about people as it is about states. Kissinger rightly notes that these shifts require a broader and deeper order than sufficed in the past. “Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just — not only by leaders, but also by citizens,” he writes.
That is true abroad, and it is also true at home. Our country is at its best, and our leadership in the world is strongest, when we are united behind a common purpose and shared mission, and advancing shared prosperity and social justice at home. Sustaining America’s leadership in the world depends on renewing the American dream for all our people.
In the past, we’ve flirted with isolationism and retreat, but always heeded the call to leadership when it was needed most. It’s time for another of our great debates about what America means to the world and what the world means to America. We need to have an honest conversation together — all of us — about the costs and imperatives of global leadership, and what it really takes to keep our country safe and strong.
We have a lot to talk about. Sometimes we’ll disagree. But that’s what democracy is all about. A real national dialogue is the only way we’re going to rebuild a political consensus to take on the perils and the promise of the 21st century. Henry Kissinger’s book makes a compelling case for why we have to do it and how we can succeed.
Read more from Outlook:
Hillary Rodham Clinton was the 67th secretary of state.
By Henry Kissinger
Penguin Press. 420 pp. $36