2 August 2017

Henry Kissinger: Chaos and order in a changing world

By Dr Henry Kissinger

Lady Thatcher was one of the most significant leaders of our period. Decisive, effervescent, courageous, loyal, she was dedicated to shaping the future rather than following the recommendations of focus groups.

I first met her in the early 1970s, when she was serving as Minister of Education in the Cabinet of Edward Heath. At our first meeting, Mrs Thatcher conveyed her disdain for the then conventional wisdom that political contests were about winning the centre. For her, leadership was the task of moving the political centre towards defined principles rather than the other way around.

In implementing this philosophy, she generated over a long career a new political direction in her society. She did so by a combination of character and courage: character because the seminal choices demanded by the political process are usually taken in a very narrow passage; and courage to go forward on a road not travelled before.

Margaret Thatcher displayed these attributes articulately in the Findley address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, the site of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 50 years earlier. She put forward challenges which, in their essence, are even more urgent today:

  • Should Russia be regarded as a potential threat or a partner?
  • Should NATO turn its attention to “out of area” issues?
  • Should NATO admit the new democracies of Central Europe with full responsibilities as quickly as prudently possible?
  • Should Europe develop its own “defense identity” in NATO?

Two decades after Lady Thatcher’s prescient address, the transatlantic world faces another set of issues of comparable nature. The world order the West created to end its Thirty Years’ War in 1648 was based on the notion of sovereignty of states secured by a balance of power between a multiplicity of entities. It now confronts concepts of order drawn from different historical and cultural experiences and involving visions of continental or universal religious dimensions. So the long-term issue becomes whether these issues are to be resolved by the maxims of the nation-state or new, more globalised concepts, and with what consequences for the future world order. Let me do so by adapting Lady Thatcher’s challenges to our circumstances.


The Russian challenge—Lady Thatcher’s first question—today focuses on Ukraine and Syria but reflects a deeper alienation. Stretching with eleven time zones from Europe along the borders of Islam to the Pacific, Russia has developed a distinct conception of world order. In its perennial quest for security along vast boundaries with few natural demarcations, Russia has evolved what amounts to a definition of absolute security, which verges on absolute insecurity for some of its neighbours.

At the same time, Russia’s geo-strategic scale, its almost mystic conception of greatness, and the willingness of its people to endure hardship have helped over the centuries to preserve the global equilibrium against imperial designs by Mongols, Swedes, French, and Germans. The result for Russia has been ambivalence—a desire to be accepted by Europe and to transcend it simultaneously. This special sense of identity helps explain President Putin’s statement that, “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Putin’s view of international politics is often described as a recurrence of 1930s European nationalist authoritarianism. More accurately, it is the heritage of the worldview identified with the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, as exemplified in his 1880 speech at the dedication of a monument to the poet Pushkin. Its passionate call for a new spirit of Russian greatness based on the spiritual qualities of the Russian character was taken up in the late 20th century by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Abandoning his exile in Vermont to return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn, in his book On the Russian Question, called for action to save the Russian people who had been “driven out” of Russia. In the same spirit, Putin has railed against what he has interpreted as a 300-year-old Western effort to contain Russia. In 2007 in a Dostoevskyan-like outburst at the Munich Security Conference, he accused the West of having unjustly exploited the troubles of post-Cold War Russia to isolate and condemn it.

How should the West develop relations with Russia, a country that is a vital element of European security but which, for reasons of history and geography, has a fundamentally different view of what constitutes a mutually satisfactory arrangement in areas adjacent to Russia. Is the wisest course to pressure Russia, and if necessary to punish it, until it accepts Western views of its internal and global order? Or is scope left for a political process that overcomes, or at least mitigates, the mutual alienation in pursuit of an agreed concept of world order?

Is the Russian border to be treated as a permanent zone of confrontation, or can it be shaped into a zone of potential cooperation, and what are the criteria for such a process? These are the questions of European order that need systematic consideration. Either concept requires a defense capability which removes temptation for Russian military pressure.


Lady Thatcher’s query regarding out of area issues concerns in our day primarily China and the Middle East. China has launched its “Belt and Road Initiative” as a grand design with political, economic, cultural, and security implications from the East China Sea to the English Channel. It evokes memories of a lecture to the Royal Geographic Society in 1904 by Sir Halford Mackinder, who described the Eurasian Heartland as the geo-strategic pivot of the globe.

By seeking to connect China to Central Asia and eventually to Europe, the new Silk Road will in effect shift the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Eurasian landmass. The road traverses an immense diversity of human cultures, nations, beliefs, institutions, and sovereign states. On it lie other great cultures—Russia, India, Iran, and Turkey—and at its extremity the nations of Western Europe, each of whom will have to decide if they will join it, cooperate with it, or oppose it, and in what forms. The complexities for international politics are as staggering as they are compelling.

The “Belt and Road Initiative” is being put forward in an international strategic environment that has been Westphalian, defined by the West’s philosophy of order. But China is unique, transcending the dimension of the Westphalian state: it is at once an ancient civilisation, a state, an empire, and a globalised economy. Inevitably, China will seek adaptation of international order compatible with its historical experience, growing power, and strategic vision.

This evolution will mark the third transformation of China in the last half-century. Mao’s brought unity, Deng’s brought reform, and now, President Xi Jinping is seeking to fulfil what he calls “the Chinese dream”, going back to the late Qing reformers, by realising “the two 100s”. When the People’s Republic of China enters its second hundred years in 2049, it will in Xi’s definition be as powerful as, if not more powerful than, any other society in the world and have the per capita GDP of fully developed countries.

In the process, the United States and China will become the world’s two most consequential countries both economically and geopolitically, obliged to undertake unprecedented adaptations in their traditional thinking. Not since it became a global power after World War II has the United States had to contend with a geopolitical equal. And never in China’s millennia-long history has it conceived of a foreign nation as more than a tributary to it, the Central or “Middle” Kingdom.

Both countries think of themselves as exceptional, albeit in fundamentally different ways: America sees spreading its values and system to other countries as part of its mission; China historically acted on the premise that the majesty of its performance would motivate other countries into a hierarchy based on respect.

In both countries, there exists many opinions about how to reconcile these differences of perspective —whether by the maxims of the nation-state or by new, more globalised concepts, some of which President Xi’s “Chinese dream” exemplify. For both societies — and the rest of the world — their co-evolution is a defining experience of the period.

What will the role of Europe be in such a world? As part of the Atlantic world or as an entity redefining itself and autonomously adjusting to the fluctuations surrounding it? As a component of a transatlantic arrangement? Or as a differential entity whose elements participate in a historic balance of power model? What kind of world order will depend on how transatlantic and “Road and Belt Initiative” concepts are synchronised?

The Middle East

In Eurasia and along Russia’s borders, world order is challenged by the consequences of consolidation. Around the periphery of the Middle East, it is threatened by the turmoil of dissolution. The Westphalian-based system of order that emerged in the Middle East at the end of the First World War is now in a shambles. Four states in the region have ceased to function as sovereign. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have become battlegrounds for factions seeking to impose their rule.

Across large areas of Iraq and Syria, an ideologically radical religious army, Isis, has declared itself a relentless foe of modern civilisation, seeking violently to replace the international system’s multiplicity of states with a single Islamic empire governed by Sharia law. In these circumstances, the traditional adage that the enemy of your enemy can be regarded as your friend no longer applies. In the contemporary Middle East, the enemy of your enemy may also be your enemy. The Middle East affects the world by the volatility of its ideologies as much as by its specific actions.

The outside world’s war with Isis can serve as an illustration. Most non-Isis powers—including Shia Iran and the leading Sunni states—agree on the need to destroy it. But which entity is supposed to inherit its territory? A coalition of Sunnis? Or a sphere of influence dominated by Iran? The answer is elusive because Russia and the Nato countries support opposing factions. If the Isis territory is occupied by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or Shia forces trained and directed by it, the result could be a territorial belt reaching from Tehran to Beirut, which could mark the emergence of an Iranian radical empire.

The Western calculus has been complicated by the emerging transformation of Turkey, once a key moderating influence, from a secular state into an ideologically Islamic version. At once affecting Europe by its control over the flow of migrants from the Middle East and frustrating Washington by the movement of oil and other goods across its southern border, Turkey’s support of the Sunni cause occurs side by side with its efforts to weaken the autonomy of the Kurds, the majority of whose factions the West has supported heretofore.

The new role of Russia will affect the kind of order that will emerge. Is its goal to assist in the defeat of ISIS and the prevention of comparable entities? Or is it driven by nostalgia for historic quests for strategic domination? If the former, a cooperative policy of the West with Russia could be constructive. If the latter, a recurrence of Cold War patterns is likely. Russia’s attitude towards the control of current Isis territory, sketched above, will be a key test.

The same choice faces the West. It must decide what outcome is compatible with an emerging world order and how it defines it. It cannot commit to a choice based on religious groupings in the abstract since they are themselves divided. Its support must aim for stability and against whatever grouping most threatens stability. And the calculation should include the long term and not be driven by the tactics of the moment.

If the West stays engaged without a geo-strategic plan, chaos will grow. If it withdraws in concept or in fact—as has been the temptation over the past decade—great powers like China and India, which cannot afford chaos along their borders or turmoil within them, will gradually step into the West’s place together with Russia. The pattern of world politics of recent centuries will be overthrown.

Whither the Atlantic Alliance

These trends involve two implications for the Atlantic Alliance. Insofar as the upheavals on the continents threaten the balance of power, they represent a threat to security. But they also challenge the West to contribute to the building of a new world order. Article V of the Nato Charter defines what must be preserved; it cannot be the end product of Atlantic policy.

NATO was formed in 1949 to protect its members against direct assault by the Soviet Union. It has evolved since into a network of nations combining in various dimensions to react to internationally destabilising situations. But Nato has been more precise in its original objective than in its evolution; it is clearer about its defensive commitments than its role in contributing to world order.

Conceived as a deterrent to a threatening Soviet Union in the process of increasing its arsenal of nuclear weapons to supplement its numerically superior land forces, Nato has been both a legal obligation and an expression of the joint determination of the free nations of the West to enhance their values.

A tradition of American leadership resulted because the American nuclear arsenal has been the ultimate counterweight to Soviet military power. As the decades went by, the Alliance turned increasingly into a unilateral American guarantee rather than an agreed strategic concept relevant to the evolving world.

Lady Thatcher’s concept of the Atlantic Alliance was very different from current realities. She described it as in essence comprised of “America as the dominant power surrounded by allies which generally follow her lead”. This is no longer fully the case. The United States is not leading in the Thatcher mode, and the mindset of too many Europeans is to explore alternatives.

The realities of population, resources, technology, and capital assure a decisive global role for an involved America and a militarily engaged Europe. It will not, however, come about without an agreed strategic and political concept

In today’s rapidly changing world, Nato must engage in a permanent reexamination of its goals and capabilities. The shift in the structures that comprise the contemporary world order should impel Nato and its members to ask themselves: What changes other than the control of the territory of its members will it seek to prevent, and by what means? What are the political goals, and what means is it prepared to assemble?

So let me conclude by repeating the challenge Margaret Thatcher laid down in the Findley Lecture two decades ago:

“What is to be done? I believe that what is now required is a new and imaginative Atlantic initiative. Its purpose must be to redefine Atlanticism in the light of the challenges I have been describing. There are rare moments when history is open and its course changed by means such as these. We may be at just such a moment now.”

Lady Thatcher’s quote reflected, above all, an exhortation and the definition of a task. We are at an even more fraught juncture today.

This is an expanded version of remarks delivered by Dr Kissinger to the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security, 2017 in June, as prepared for delivery

Dr Henry Kissinger was former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon