Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
“No truly ‘global’ world order has ever existed,” the late Henry Kissinger acknowledged in his 2015 book “World Order.” “What passes for order in our time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago, at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations.” The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years War by religious partisans and established the paradigm of sovereign states as the bedrock of international relations.
Since the whole planet is now “involved and aware” when it comes to constructing the next world order, even a hardened realist like Kissinger could see that a strategy of maintaining stability though balancing the once clearly delineated national interests of major powers against each other is no longer sufficient or possible in the 21st century.
The challenge in our time is not just forging a deterrent equilibrium among contentious states and their spheres of influence, but managing the interdependence of plural civilizational identities in one integrated world where interests converge at key intersections — from climate to pandemics, financial contagion, controlling nuclear weapons and the impact of artificial intelligence — while diverging elsewhere. None of this fits neatly into the solid sovereign boxes of the past. Indeed, it is manifestly in the best self-interest of rivals to partner with each other when none alone can meet their common challenges.
Kissinger’s remarkable longevity as the star statesman on the world stage made him the symbolic carrier of the Westphalia paradigm well past its expiration date. In a way, his passing clears the conceptual space for the transition to a new paradigm of realism at the planetary instead of the nation-state level.
Still, it is worth learning what we can from Kissinger’s century-long life. When facing an uncertain future, nothing is ever lost from the lamp of experience.
The Mother’s Milk Of Metternich
Personal experience taught Kissinger how the chaos and power vacuum of interwar European disorder led to the descent of the culture of Goethe and Beethoven into the abyss of madness. He lost 13 members of his extended family in the Holocaust. Serving as an American soldier after the war amid the ruins of Hitler’s Third Reich, he witnessed firsthand the deprivations of total defeat an aggressor nation had brought upon itself.
The lesson he took away from this experience was deeply pessimistic: The way to enable societies to flourish is not by reaching for the utopian perfection of human nature but by keeping the peace through constraining the innate temptations of the will to power.
Intellectually, Kissinger’s strategic mind was weaned on the mother’s milk of Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian diplomat who orchestrated a balance of power through the Concert of Europe among the major sovereigns in the 19th century after the continental upheavals of the Napoleonic wars. By agreeing on political boundaries and spheres of influence modeled on the Peace of Westphalia, decades of stability were achieved — until the 1848 rebellions for nationalism and democracy spread throughout Europe, a telling foreshadow of the conflicts during the Cold War that would rage beneath the relatively stable relations between the superpowers.
As a conservative in the Metternich mold, Kissinger disdained destabilizing revolutions and uprisings from the precincts of the dispossessed. A student and steward of the powerful, he was blind to the driving motivations of aspirational movements at the margins that endeavored to assert their own well-being against the order imposed by ruling authorities. They were not on his radar except as disrupters of the power balance at the top he was seeking.
It is here that the moral stains of a brilliant strategic mind are rightly condemned. Kissinger believed “history” was made in the domain of the dominant, not by those in forlorn backwaters like Chile far from the mighty metropoles. Dismissing the struggle there as a minor chess piece in the grand Cold War game, he fostered a coup against the socialist government of Salvador Allende, saying: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
Even more tragically, Kissinger’s myopic vision failed to fathom that dropping more bombs across Indochina than the U.S. did in all of World War II would not force the Vietnamese to yield in their determination for sovereign independence. He came late to the realization that their putative Soviet masters had little influence over the hearts, minds and passions of a people asserting their right to exist as a nation. In the name of salvaging credibility, Kissinger squandered it by staying a course that cost countless lives only in the end to meet America’s first defeat in war, no less at the hands of a peasant army.
Kissinger was a conservative but not a reactionary, as many argue. He sought not to suppress change, but to avoid rupture, which opened a void of authority that would lead to anarchy and chaos more destructive than the subjugations of stability. Kissinger was not a liberal internationalist who believed, absent total war and defeat as in the case of Japan and Germany, that America could remake other societies in its image. He believed in recognizing and dealing with the realities of power as it existed.
In his last book, “Leadership: Six Lessons in World Strategy,” Kissinger distinguished how two types of leaders — the “statesman” and “the prophet” — face challenges differently.
The statesman “tempers” visions of transformation with a realistic understanding of political and economic constraints. Within those constraints, open space for change can be found “by manipulating circumstances rather than being overwhelmed by them.” In contrast, the prophet, or visionary, “treats prevailing institutions less from the perspective of the possible” than from a vision of the imperative to change the very definition of what is possible.
For Kissinger, the best leaders who made the most difference flexibly fashioned an “optimal blend” that successfully navigated constraints to realize new possibilities through evolutionary stability.
In the tumultuous times sure to come during the transition from the solid-state paradigm of national sovereignty to the fluid interdependence of the planetary, this is a wise perspective to bear in mind.
Sprouts Of The Planetary Paradigm
Sprouts of the planetary paradigm that will supersede the order of nation-states are already emerging.
The philosopher Lorenzo Marsili, who heads Berggruen Institute Europe, envisions a lean planetary polity where the capacity to address shared “concrete universals” of common humanity, for example the preservation of the biosphere or access to health, is organized across diverse cultures and even otherwise incommensurate political systems. In practical terms, he sees the shared sovereignty of European Union as a laboratory for this evolving form of governance.
In Noema, we have also written about shifting from the realpolitik for which Kissinger was known to a Gaiapolitik that departs from the old realist school of foreign policy that regards nation-states as the principal actors on the world stage engaged in an endless struggle against others in pursuit of securing their own national interests. In contrast, planetary realism recognizes that the security of each depends inextricably on cooperation and collaboration with others in aligning with the self-regulating ecosystem of the Earth.
In a still deeper sense, the concept of the planetary also entails a departure from thinking of the world in terms of globalization. We now live in a “planetary age,” Jonathan Blake and Nils Gilman declared in a Noema essay. “The ‘planetary’ refers to issues, processes and conditions that span the Earth and transcend nation-states. ‘Global’ and ‘globalization’ are the currently popular terms for describing world-scale issues. But the planet is not the globe: The globe is a conceptual category that frames the Earth in human terms. Globalization, likewise, adopts a fundamentally human-centric understanding of ‘integration’ that has happened over the last few decades — the accelerating flow of people, goods, ideas, money and more.
The planetary, by contrast, frames Earth without specific reference to humans. … The Earth is not ours alone. Worldwide integration is not merely the intentional work of humans. Humans are embedded and codependent with microbes, the climate and technologically enabled emergent trans-species communities.”
One of the key points Blake and Gilman make is that awareness of this embedded condition means planetary governance would not be centered at the global level, but distributed through decision-division to appropriate levels where relevant action needs to be taken. They develop this argument further in their forthcoming book, “Children Of A Modest Star: Planetary Thinking For An Age of Crises.”
Despite growing awareness that national sovereignty is no longer fit for purpose as the basis of world order in the 21st century, the inertia remains strong. The post-globalization resurgence of nationalism we are presently witnessing is only the first movement in the long course of transition ahead. Like nostalgia, the defensive politics of holding onto the past is a function of what is already lost before the next constructive phase that embraces a new way of seeing and thinking.