Review: Kissinger's latest an enjoyable primer on 'world order'

WORLD ORDER. By Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press. 420 pages. $36.

You know a book by Henry Kissinger with the title "World Order" is going to be important. What you might not know is how enjoyable it is. Kissinger has put together an elegant and readable primer on the history of the world. But it is so much more than just a history. He lays out the principals by which to achieve 21st-century world order on a globe full of ideological extremism, ever-changing technology and widely divergent historical perspectives.

In prehistory, the Earth was populated with many independent tribes. They came into contact sometimes to trade but often to fight. There was no "world order" then, and there is none now, Kissinger asserts. It has been the elusive goal of many statesmen to try to create one. Perhaps the most significant landmark on the road to such an order was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By settling the decades-long disputes between the Holy Roman Empire and its adversaries such as France and Sweden, the accord established the sovereignty of states.

"The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European order," Kissinger writes. From this start came long periods of stability based on the so-called balance of power.

It was an imperfect system, of course, and suffered through two massive world wars and many lesser conflicts before evolving into the Cold War era beginning in the late 1940s. Kissinger was born in Germany between those two world wars. Now even the tenuous stability of the Cold War is gone because the sources of world power are no longer bipolar.

The impacts of our exploding technological advances on world order are both direct and subtle, he writes. The establishment of a true world order requires statesmen of courage and wisdom. Kissinger discusses why it is so difficult to find people of wisdom today. He quotes T.S. Eliot who wrote in 1934, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

When we are swamped in information, when answers are not deduced but looked up, it is hard to develop wisdom. Facts are sharp and divisive things without a context in which to embed them and soften their edges. We used to study history and remember the important relationships and interactions. Now we are comfortable with the fact that we can always look them up, according to Kissinger. Insightful historical perspective is lost.

Kissinger can discuss the status of our current dilemmas and predict how they might evolve because of his many decades of studiously observing, and frequently influencing, major events on an international scale. In addition, he has a staff within Kissinger Associates, Inc. that provides the highest order of research and editing capabilities. The result is this important and enjoyable book.

Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer living in Hanahan.