On 27 May this year, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Diplomat Extraordinaire and former Secretary of State, known to be the most knowledgeable living expert on foreign relations, turns 100. He is known for his strategic wisdom and penetrating perspicacity, and his sage advice to leaders across the world over the past several decades has been chronicled in journalistic tomes around the world. Additionally, Dr. Kissinger’s book Diplomacy has acted as a beacon to the world of contentious international relations. At his age he is preparing his next two books – on artificial intelligence (ai) and the nature of alliances. Although his voice has slowed down, he remains as bright as a tick.
The latest issue of The Economist carries an excellent article on Dr. Kissinger on the subject of how to avoid a third world war. The Economist reports: “ Mr Kissinger is alarmed by China’s and America’s intensifying competition for technological and economic pre-eminence. Even as Russia tumbles into China’s orbit and war overshadows Europe’s eastern flank, he fears that AI is about to supercharge the Sino-American rivalry. Around the world, the balance of power and the technological basis of warfare are shifting so fast and in so many ways that countries lack any settled principle on which they can establish order. If they cannot find one, they may resort to force. “We’re in the classic pre-world war one situation,” he says, “where neither side has much margin of political concession and in which any disturbance of the equilibrium can lead to catastrophic consequences.”
Dr. Kissinger attempts to clarify perceived inadequacies of analyses of some academics and pundits who posit that China is intent on world domination and says: “They say China wants world domination…The answer is that they [in China] want to be powerful,” he says. “They’re not heading for world domination in a Hitlerian sense,” he says. “That is not how they think or have ever thought of world order.” To end the quotations from The Economist I must add “Mr Kissinger sees the Chinese system as more Confucian than Marxist. That teaches Chinese leaders to attain the maximum strength of which their country is capable and to seek to be respected for their accomplishments. Chinese leaders want to be recognised as the international system’s final judges of their own interests. “If they achieved superiority that can genuinely be used, would they drive it to the point of imposing Chinese culture?” he asks. “I don’t know. My instinct is No…[But] I believe it is in our capacity to prevent that situation from arising by a combination of diplomacy and force.”
Geopolitics in the context of the world powers is polarized and convoluted at best. China believes that the United States wants to put it down and The United States goes on the basis that China wishes to dominate the world and obviate the global influence of The United States. At the other end of the spectrum lies Russia and its invasion of Ukraine where Russia claims that NATO expansion to the East threatens Russia’s interests and that nothing is off the table, implying the possibility of tactical nuclear attacks which will in all probability escalate into a full-scale war. To this melting pot are vast technological strides including information technology which act as catalysts to a US-China confrontation and represent, in Dr. Kissinger’s words a “pre-world war situation”. The world is rife with politics without policy where in the Far East the issue of Taiwan looms, and in the West, the issue of how to reach a solution to the war in Ukraine is getting cloudier by the day.
The first step could be to start with Cicero’s ancient aphorism Inter arma enim silent leges – a maxim, which translates as “In times of war, the laws are silent”. In the 21st century, this maxim, which was purported to address the growing mob violence and thuggery of Cicero’s time, has taken on a different and more complex dimension, extending from the idealistic synergy between a rules-based international order and its adherence to established law in instances of confrontation to the overall power, called “prerogative” or “discretion” of sovereign States to violate established principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter.
The enduring conflict between misguided strategy, impulsive diplomacy and the rule of law is at the heart of this maxim. In modern usage it has become a watchword for the erosion of civil liberties during internal and external strife. The implication of Cicero’s aphorism is that civil liberties and freedoms are subservient to a nation’s integrity and sovereign right.
What seems to be required now is what Dr. Kissinger calls “hard diplomacy” coupled with coercive hard power that would likely obviate mutual destruction. In this context a hard look at history is essential, garnished with a strong dollop of collective leadership between a somewhat hapless but well meaning United Nations, a determined NATO and the countries concerned. The history of mankind has proved that it is part of human nature to learn from past experience. That having been said, we have also acted with foresight in situations where we could not build on past experience. When we look at the history of international relations, we see that we have acted with foresight, as a result of which we have brought about major changes to the international legal system by reacting to past disasters.
The United Nations was built on the failure of the League of Nations which was set up as a reaction to World War 1. The failure of the League of Nations was that its Covenant, although intended to prevent the recurrence of atrocities of 1914, failed to outlaw war but merely provided procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Creators of the United Nations learnt from this mistake and wrote into the Charter of the UN the principle of collective security. The UN Security Council, on behalf of the entirety of UN member States, was empowered by the Charter to take decisive action against delinquents. However, this has never worked in practice when it was most needed. For example, the Security Council was literally impotent during the height of the Cold War. The Security Council has not taken or enforced military action against delinquent States nor has it received military assistance from member States to implement the powers ascribed to the Security Council by the UN Charter. The reactions of the Security Council have allegedly been sporadic and reactive, authorizing member States to take action on its behalf, which has prompted one commentator to say that the Council has not acted or functioned as a constitutional framework for a peaceful world but rather as a fire department reacting to emergencies as they rise.
Common ground must be discussed with an aim at compromise. At the heart of the goal must not be the triumph of hard power but the preservation of the principles of the United Nations Charter. Perhaps a new world order is needed, and we need giants such as Dr. Kissinger to live on and help us achieve it.