The challenge of our time: how to assure world order

Andrew Sheng says Kissinger's insights can help us find a way out of the fog of uncertainty

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 11:38am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:44am

We live in a world of grave uncertainty. Because we are confused by too much volatile information, we rely on experts to interpret for us how to understand history and how to read the future. Former US secretary of state and Harvard academic Dr Henry Kissinger is well positioned to fill that role. His new book, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, is in my view, the definitive book on national security, geopolitics and statecraft for the 21st century.

In 1972, US president Richard Nixon, with the advice of Kissinger, undertook a masterstroke in 20th-century diplomacy by opening up to China to counterbalance the threat of the Soviet Union. Within two decades, the Soviet empire collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A quarter of a century later, the US-China rapprochement propelled China to become the world's second-largest economy, but the US now considers China a rival, creating cold war version 2.0, with a strange mix of competitors and allies.

World Order is an instant classic - a tour de force through diplomatic and imperial history of how Rome, Britain and the US rose to become No1. The US did so through superior geography, technology and the legacy of democratic rule of law forged from the ashes of European internecine wars. It is the heir to the European imperial tradition, and defends it with the world's most sophisticated military.

The North Atlantic alliance comprises US, Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. They account for 18 per cent of the global population, 38 per cent of the landmass, but actually the bulk of the oceans.

But the unipolar situation is only temporary, because of the rise of the non-North-Atlantic economies in terms of population and GDP. Kissinger warns his countrymen that as the dominant superpower, America is forever ambivalent as to its strategic choices. It can either impose its own moral values on the rest of the world or play a balancing act between its enemies and friends, to maintain its superior position.

America has to choose between being principled (about its democratic ideals) or being practical to follow the classic British skill of "divide and rule". It cannot afford to do both. By drawing the lines of "friend or foe" starkly in moral terms, the US is in danger of isolating itself, because its allies may not always agree on every issue.

However powerful America is, it cannot alone turn back the tides of change from demographics, religion, globalisation and technology.

The reality is that with the exception of the US, which is open to immigration and global talent, its strongest allies - Europe and Japan - are ageing fast. The 600 million in the North Atlantic alliance will have to confront at least three waves of billion-class competition. Behind 1.3 billion Chinese are 1.3 billion Indians and another 1.6 billion of the Islamic faith from West Africa to Indonesia.

Once these economies consume resources per capita like the average American or European, a clash will become inevitable.

As Kissinger pointed out, the dilemma is not just how to deal with conventional warfare and the nuclear arms race, but also how to cope with guerilla warfare, terrorism and cyberwarfare. Realistically, America cannot single-handedly fight simultaneously three fronts in Eastern Europe, turmoil in the Middle East and nuclear tensions in the East Pacific.

Kissinger is most prescient and insightful in looking at how technology has changed the global game. A single terrorist can access technology and know-how through cyberspace, biotechnology or drones.

The world is run today on the basis of nation-states, but the system is being changed by non-state players, such as Islamic State and other movements that are rewriting the old colonial boundaries by sheer force of arms. To maintain world order, the US not only has to contend with demographics and technology, but also the effects of climate change.

If the second world war was fought over oil (Germany reaching for Romanian oil and Japan trying to access oil in Burma and Indonesia), a third world war will be about water and food insecurity. First, the wars in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq stem partly from water stress. Islam has spread fastest in failed states where current regimes cannot provide security, jobs, food and water for the growing population. Second, the clashes at borders with illegal migration are due to population pressures, as well as the search for jobs and opportunities. Economic refugees from North Africa are moving into Europe, changing its demographic and political balance. That migration will accelerate with climate change.

The new order is unclear, because non-state players such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda do not play by Westphalian sovereign-state rules.

This is a time for national and global leadership exactly when politics is petty and parochial. Statesmen like Kissinger deserve our respect because he warns us of the need for new lenses and new tools for new challenges.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective