Monday, April 07, 2008

Henry Kissinger - The Three Revolutions

As much as I dislike a lot of what Henry Kissinger believes in, I can't ignore the fact that he is incredibly intelligent and has what some might call an integral level understanding of international politics. This new article, The Three Revolutions, offers a rather comprehensive view of what is happening on the global stage.

Here are the key passages that highlight the three revolutions in question.

Essentially tactical issues have overwhelmed the most important challenge a new administration will confront: how to distill a new international order from three simultaneous revolutions occurring around the globe: (a) the transformation of the traditional state system of Europe; (b) the radical Islamist challenge to historic notions of sovereignty; and (c) the drift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

[Item A] The nations of Europe, having been drained by two world wars, have agreed to transfer significant aspects of their sovereignties to the European Union. Political loyalties associated with the nation-state have proved not to be automatically transferable, however. Europe is in a transition between its past, which it seeks to overcome, and a future it has not yet reached.

In the process, the nature of the European state has been transformed. With nations no longer defining themselves by a distinct future and with the cohesion of the European Union as yet untested, the capacity of most European governments to ask their people for sacrifices has diminished dramatically. The states with the longest continuous histories, such as Britain and France, have been most willing to assume international military responsibilities.


[Item B] While the traditional role of the state in Europe is being diminished by the choice of its governments, the declining role of the state in the Middle East is inherent in the way those states were founded. The successor states of the Ottoman Empire were established by the victorious powers at the end of the First World War. Unlike the European states, their borders did not reflect ethnic principles or linguistic distinctiveness but the balances between the European powers in their contests outside the region.

Today it is radical Islam that threatens the already brittle state structure via a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran as the basis of a universal political organization. Jihadist Islam rejects national sovereignty based on secular state models; it seeks to extend its reach to wherever significant populations profess the Muslim faith. Since neither the international system nor the internal structure of existing states has legitimacy in Islamist eyes, its ideology leaves little room for Western notions of negotiation or equilibrium in a region of vital interest to the security and well-being of the industrial states.

[Item C] These transformations take place against the backdrop of a third trend, a shift in the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Paradoxically, this redistribution of power is to a part of the world where nations still possess the characteristics of traditional European states. The major states of Asia -- China, Japan, India and, in time, possibly Indonesia -- view each other the way participants in the European balance of power did, as inherent competitors even when they occasionally participate in cooperative ventures.

In the past, such shifts in the structure of power generally led to war, as happened with the emergence of Germany in the late 19th century. Today the rise of China is assigned such a role in much alarmist commentary. True, the Sino-American relationship will inevitably contain classical geopolitical and competitive elements. These must not be neglected. But there are countervailing elements. Economic and financial globalization, environmental and energy imperatives, and the destructive power of modern weapons all impose a major effort at global cooperation, especially between the United States and China. An adversarial relationship would leave both countries in the position of Europe after the two world wars, when other societies achieved the preeminence the nations of Europe sought through self-destructive conflict with each other.

What we are seeing in the Middle East is the long-term impact of European colonization coming to fruition. You cannot impose modern political structures on cultures that are primarily tribal in their center-of-gravity and expect it to work. No one really knew that then, but we do now, and yet that is exactly what we are trying to do in Iraq -- it won't work now either.

What we are seeing in the East (not including Japan, really), is the emergence of modernism, more focused on achievement and rational self-interest (capitalism and democracy). Within ten years, by some estimates, China will have a middle class of 500 million people. With wealth comes more desire for autonomy from the state and the desire to be more involved in how the state is run. This same process has been under way in India for more than a decade or two.

In Europe, communitarianism and collectivism are becoming more dominant. This process has also been under way for quite some time. Among many countries, nationalism is fading (unless you are talking about soccer) and there is more of a sense of being a part of a shared community. In some ways, they are still struggling to figure out this should work -- and often failing. Over the next 50 years, the EU will be laying the groundwork for a more egalitarian political structure -- let's hope they get it right.

Kissinger's point is that no one is talking about these HUGE issues in the presidential campaigns. He concludes the article with this series of questions:

No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical. In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, where Europe is stuck in halfway status, where the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and where the nations of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives? What should be the role of Russia, which is affirming a notion of sovereignty comparable to America's and a strategic concept of the balance of power similar to Asia's? Are existing international organizations adequate for this purpose? What goals can America realistically set for itself and the world community? Is the internal transformation of major countries an attainable goal? What objectives must be sought in concert, and what are the extreme circumstances that would justify unilateral action?

This is the kind of debate we need, not focus-group-driven slogans designed to grab headlines.

I agree completely. I find myself agreeing with many of Kissinger's observations the past few years (he is on Charlie Rose quite often). Like him or not, he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation in seeing the big picture of global politics.

On a personal note, one of the reasons I think Barack Obama is the best choice at this point in history is my feeling that he has more tools in his bag than a simple hammer. I suspect that he is capable of approaching different political issues in different parts of the world without resorting to one simple set of ideals.

The problem one faces should dictate the way one approaches it, and I think Obama is the only candidate who is both capable of understanding this reality and able to implement different strategies depending on the situation.

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