World Order and Canada in the Great Power Game 1914 – 2014

By Henry Kissinger
By Gwynne Dyer

In 1648 the Thirty Years War officially came to an end with the treaties now collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia. The Peace is usually credited with inaugurating the modern European state system: a pluralistic order made up of independent sovereign states, their relations regulated by a set of neutral rules and maintained by a balance of power.

While admitting that “no truly global ‘world order’ has ever existed,” renowned diplomat (and controversial Nobel Peace Prize winner) Henry Kissinger sees this Westphalian system as the model for what “passes for order in our time,” with Europe now being just one regional unit in a new global edition.

The global Westphalian system forms the backbone of Kissinger’s analysis in World Order, as he looks at the historical development and future prospects of today’s most important regional players: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States (South America and Africa are scarcely mentioned).

Given Kissinger’s expertise and experience, one expects more than World Order delivers, though its shortcomings are not unexpected from this author.

The regional background briefs are good, and there is a surprisingly insightful chapter on the impact the Internet may have on politics, but much of the analysis of contemporary historical events comes with a clear political slant.

To take one specific example, from among many: “Before the ayatollahs’ revolution, the West’s interaction with Iran had been cordial and cooperative on both sides, based on a perceived parallelism of national interests.” Given the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddegh, in a British and American coup d’état in 1953 that is indirectly adverted to a page earlier, this is a little hard to swallow.

More frustrating, however, are the mushy platitudes that the great “realist” slides into when offering prescripts in full Olympian mode. “Order always requires a subtle balance of restraint, force, and legitimacy. . . . Wise statesmanship must try to find that balance. For outside it, disaster beckons.” Such generic advice tells the would-be diplomat nothing.

Canada, which has never been a superpower, isn’t even listed in the index of Kissinger’s book, and there are only a couple of references to it in the text, both of which come from people who treat it as a bit of baggage to be claimed by America’s manifest destiny. Nevertheless, Canada has been, and continues to be, a player on the world scene, as Gwynne Dyer chronicles in his study of Canada in the Great Power Game.

While it presents itself as a study of Canada’s role in foreign wars from 1914 to 2014, the dates are a bit misleading. If Kissinger’s seminal historical moment was the Peace of Westphalia, Dyer’s is the First World War: “the most profound trauma in Canada’s history,” and an event that has always had a special place in our national imagination and sense of collective identity (as anyone acquainted with Canadian fiction can attest).

As a result of this historical emphasis, most of Dyer’s book is set in the first half of the twentieth century, with little time spared on current affairs (Stephen Harper, for example, is mentioned only once). His closer look at the myths and realities of Canada at war reveals a lot, but one still wishes he had spent more time in the present, and looking ahead.

On the matter of the great game, where Kissinger is interested in the balance of power, Dyer is focused on “critical systems”: inherently unstable conditions subject to catastrophic failures. For Dyer, managing the critical system of international diplomacy should rightly fall under the purview of the United Nations – a body Kissinger has little to say about but which Dyer thinks has managed global affairs pretty well.

The standard for diplomacy can’t be perfection. All political systems are temporary, and every age is an age of disorder. We will never put an end to war, but through the operation of a global balance of power and institutions like the UN we have been to avoid major conflicts for over half a century.

Complex systems, however, do break down. Given the fragility of our current civilization – its interconnectedness, dependence on advanced technology, overpopulation and environmental problems, and increased capacity for destruction – perhaps the best we can hope for is a soft landing when the world order falls apart again.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 25, 2014.

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