The New Realpolitik: Henry Kissinger, ISIS, and American Empire
The re-emergence of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his latest book, “World Order,” has prompted accolades and resentments from across the political spectrum. “World Order” is realism re-emerging in a time of American idealistic, “moral” foreign policy. Kissinger campaigns once again for the Westphalian model of world peace in which nation-states draw borders, balance power, demonstrate mutual respect for sovereignty and work to manage conflict, and peace, accordingly.
Kissinger’s realism and humility, as Time magazine’s Walter Isaacson emphasizes in his Sept. 6 overview of the book, are probably in order for a nation constantly intruding violently in a multitude of conflicts under the guise of democracy, human rights and policing morality. But while a dose of realism is certainly needed in the U.S., Kissinger’s realism is missing the slap-in-the-face reality that strategies and borders drawn by elites with the intention of creating world order and peace are fundamentally irrelevant in the face of massive determined civil resistance.
For a guy who claims to be a realist, Kissinger sure doesn’t seem to recognize the real conditions nation-states are currently facing. Recent revolutions and movements for change around the world – in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, Asia, the Americas – have brought collective injustices, identity and agency to the forefront of affairs of state, foreign and domestic. We see over and over again that the modern nation-state is no longer nearly as empowered by its monopoly on violence. The existence and security of a nation-state depends now on serving and satisfying citizen needs more than overweening violence or crafting cunning foreign policies. Even discussing world peace and order without including popular demonstrations and civil society is, well, unrealistic. If we want stability, we’re going to have to face real collective injustices on the ground first. That’s where the real power lies, less latent and more real every time it flexes and increases self-awareness.
In his Sept. 6 National Public Radio interview, Kissinger states that the threat of Iran lies with its opportunity to “reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire … in the rebuilding of the Middle East that will inevitably have to take place when the new international borders [are] drawn. Because the borders of the settlement of 1919-’20 are essentially collapsing.” ISIS, however, “is a group of adventurers with a very aggressive ideology. But they have to conquer more and more territory before they can become a strategic, permanent reality.” That’s Kissinger’s realism – power comes with permanence and territorial conquest, and this stable control is determined by elite border-drawers with strategic interests.
What new realists know is that territorial control and monopolized violence are outdated forms of power. Motivated, disciplined people with a collective grievance are the most genuine threat to nation-state stability and security. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” demonstrated this threat when their study of 323 maximal goal campaigns (overthrowing dictatorships or authoritarian regimes) found that nonviolent people power movements were twice as likely to succeed as violent insurgencies.
With this kind of knowledge, Iran is less threatening because it’s not just a permanent territory full of “mad mullahs” who can tell people where and when to fight and with which weapons. Iran is full of, well, Iranians. Real people who value education, use gadgets, share photoshopped memes and wear jeans; people who have collective efficacy and, realistically, more capacity to rein in any disruptive behavior (especially when it comes to the mutually assured destruction of even one 'tiny' nuclear war) as any Westphalian-inspired model. ISIS is full of empowered people too, but its overreaching violence will inevitably be its downfall when Syrian and Iraqi people take control (if the U.S. would stop bombing them, of course.)
Kissinger should, but fails to, realize the irony that borders – whether those of a regional or geographic nature or those along identity or political lines – are collapsing in the MENA region for one major reason: the people who live within those borders know they had no part in drawing them and are continually recognizing that they can now take part. This makes the Westphalian world order model of elite border drawing even more unrealistic. When will Western-European elites learn that people aren’t going to continue to just follow orders, to build the walls and live within them that the elites desire?
Advocating international governance and respect for law is fine if we take consensus, cultural sensitivity and civil society needs into consideration. But if world leaders want real peace and order, borders and sovereignty, they need to recognize their real dependence on civil society and that they cannot achieve either order or peace without our full and valued consent. That’s the new realpolitik.