World Order and Democratic Development

This little essay is occasioned by reading Henry Kissinger’s 2014 book, World Order (Penguin).

It’s amazing to think that until he was drafted into the army for World War II the summit of Henry Kissinger’s ambition had been to become an accountant! It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good. And equally amazing to think that he published this book in the tenth decade of his life! His intellectual vigor and depth of insight are astounding.

I appreciate his clarity about the subject of the book:

World order describes the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world. [p. 9]

And I find myself very thoroughly in sympathy with what I take to be his central points:

To strike a balance between the two aspects of order—power and legitimacy—is the essence of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself. [p. 369]

To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. [p. 373]

I’m not quite so consistently admiring, however, regarding some of what he says in the middle portions of the book, for even Kissinger’s erudition has its limits and often he does not know what he does not know.

Kissinger of course is the most noted diplomatist since Bismarck (though he’d rather be compared, I suspect, to his dissertation subject, Metternich). But before that he had been a political science scholar specializing in IR — international relations. Indeed, he made significant contributions to developing the field in the ferment following World War II, aided by his command of German. Like other IR specialists he sought general lessons regarding relationships between states in the study of history. In his time (and to a lesser extent still today) this meant the history of Europe since 1648, marking the end of the terrible Thirty Years War and the negotiations in two cities of the German state of Westphalia that set the terms of peace. He refers repeatedly to the “Westphalian order” which he avers was expressed in the peace agreements and has governed the nature and relations of sovereign states ever since. In particular, the Westphalian order is taken as having fixed the concept of sovereignty, which is central to IR theory. This story was for long taken as absolutely correct by IR specialists and to a large extent still is. But deeper historical research over the past half century has shown that it’s largely an a-historical fiction, conjured by 19th century historians in an effort to rationalize the then-existing order. This is laid out quite clearly, for instance, in the widely read article,

Osiander, Andreas (2001): “Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth.” In International Organization 55 (2), pp. 251–287. 

As Osiander shows, the actual peace treaties address scarcely any of what are taken to be the principles of the “Westphalian order.” The concept of sovereignty, in particular, took more or less its modern form only in the mid-19th century when the Industrial Revolution — and particularly its revolutions in transportation (railroad and steamship) and communications (telegraph and mechanized, high-volume printing) — joined what had previously been relatively isolated and self-contained small regions into integrated markets coextensive with political states, leading to the emergence of nationalism and the nation-state. Only in this environment, so different from that of two centuries earlier, could a “Westphalian order” truly emerge.

The fundamental principles of this order, as Kissinger sees them are [p. 3]

  • It relies on a system of independent states.
  • Through their independent and separate pursuit of their own concerns and interests these states act to check each other’s external ambitions through a general equilibrium of power.
  • Each state is assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each acknowledges the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrains from challenging their existence.

In his view, this is set of “Westphalian” principles of order is purely a practical accommodation to the reality of the Europe of nearly four centuries ago, not founded on any unique moral or scientific insight. Other principles of order, he emphasizes repeatedly, are entirely possible; why should they not emerge from experiences other than that of 17th century Europe, and why should they not be equally valid?

But really the principles emerged not from the wreckage of the Thirty Years War but instead from the situation of Europe of the mid-19th century. And the European situation of that time was very strongly shaped by the forces of industrialized communications and transportation, which are now taking a deep grip across much of the non-European world. Will these forces not tend to drive the huge stretches of the world which are developing so rapidly in our time to accept some variant of the “Westphalian order” for much the same reasons that the West did a century and a half ago? That is, if national consciousness is growing more powerful in these countries and if their economic and administrative structures are becoming more tightly knitted together, why won’t they and their neighbors come to regard one another as more distinctly sovereign? And why won’t their increasing wealth and integration make them both more satisfied and formidable, decreasing propensity toward interstate conflict? In such a light it seems as if the “Westphalian order” is a good deal less particularistic and idiosyncratic than Kissinger makes it out to be.

What about the various traditional visions of international order that Kissinger sees in other societies? I don’t know all that much about political and social history and current philosophy in many of the regions he discusses. But I am pretty familiar with those of China and Japan and can see that here too there are significant gaps in his knowledge which, as I see it, lead him to some questionable generalizations. While I expect these societies to retain identifiably distinct characters for a very long time to come, at a deeper level I think that Kissinger underestimates the extent to which the Japanese already see things in a framework very similar to those of Western nations, and that to which the Chinese are moving in that direction.

This impression is strengthened by other social science research, especially that summed up in

Inglehart, Ronald; Welzel, Christian (2009): “How development leads to democracy. What we know about modernization.” In Foreign Affairs 88 (2), pp. 33–48.

The authors elaborate on the theme in

Inglehart, Ronald; Welzel, Christian (2010): “Changing Mass Priorities. The Link between Modernization and Democracy.” In Persp on Pol 8 (2), pp. 551–567.

Based on massive analysis of worldwide survey data collected from hundreds of thousands of respondents over nearly five decades, Inglehart and Welzel [2010, p. 563] conclude

Economic development tends to bring enduring changes in a society’s values that, at high levels of development, make the emergence and survival of democratic institutions increasingly likely.… [C]ertain modernization-linked mass attitudes are stable attributes of given societies and powerful predictors of effective democracy.

At the same time they caution [2009, p. 33] that

It is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place.

In essence, Inglehart and his collaborators have shown, growing up with a sense of economic and personal security tends strongly to lead to development of persistently tolerant values that are strongly conducive to democracy. And democratic government is a shared aspiration in most lands. As people feel more prosperous and secure, they become more likely to embrace and even demand democracy.

Some will scoff that the Trump Administration has stopped democracy in its tracks, right here in its American homeland. The question is addressed in

Inglehart, Ronald; Norris, Pippa (2017): “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties. The Silent Revolution in Reverse.” In Perspect. polit. 15 (2), pp. 443–454.

Looking at data from both the U.S. and Europe, Inglehart and Norris pick out several strands in the currents of populist authoritarianism. One problem is that particularly in the U.S. the sense of economic security has been declining for many as economic gains have gone almost exclusively to those at the very top of the income distribution, while institutions of mass economic security, such as stable long-term employment, guaranteed pension benefits, and Social Security, have withered or come under deliberate political attack.

The problems of economic security probably have not been great enough to account for the democratic reversals by themselves, but the influxes of immigrants and refugees over the past few decades have at the same time powerfully activated xenophobic responses. As authoritarian populists in all the major democracies early discovered, xenophobia is the open road to electoral success in such circumstances. As a result, progress toward democratic development is stalled or even in retreat through much of the developed world.

This is probably not a permanent situation, however. A combination of demographic and realistic factors seem likely to blunt and even reverse the effectiveness of xenophobic scare tactics, leaving the issue of income distribution. This is powerfully affected by government action, which in most of the West is at least somewhat sensitive to the political process. Assuming that authoritarians do not in the meantime manage to wrest the levers of political control entirely from the hands of the populace it is likely that eventually there will be at least a partial reversal of policies that so markedly favor those already at the top of the income distribution, leading to at least some leveling in the distribution of economic benefits. (The issues here are complex and critical, of course, and I want to explore them at greater length, but at another time.)

Assuming a recrudescence of democratic development, impelled not by ideology but by socioeconomic fundamentals, we can reasonably expect a growth and spreading of embrace of concepts of international order among the increasingly democratic states of the developed world. While statesmanship will no doubt have ample scope in this, it will principally be an organic development, a natural product of the interaction of democratic states.

But what of the undemocratic, undeveloped world? Will democracy spread everywhere, solving the problem? Unfortunately, the prospects do not appear bright. The kinds of intensive and extensive long-term opinion survey results that underpin the analyses of Inglehart and his collaborators have been much more difficult to obtain from these areas but based on limited work in Islamic lands it appears that the socioeconomic support for democratization, while progressing, has a very long way to go in these areas. [See forthcoming Inglehart, Ronald: “Changing Values in the Islamic World and the West. Social Tolerance and the Arab Spring.” In Mansoor Moaddel, Michele J. Gelfand (Eds.): Values, political action, and change in the Middle East and the Arab Spring. New York: Oxford University Press.] This is likely to be at least equally true in most other undeveloped areas.

In these circumstances I see little near-term prospect for development of a world order that has truly universal support. While this is unfortunate, prospects do appear reasonably favorable over the next few decades for the spread of a concept of international order enjoying wide support in the states that dominate in terms of economic power and military potential.