Farewell to the Nation-State

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Whatever you think of Henry Kissinger, you have to admit: the man has staying power. With a new book — "Does America Need a Foreign Policy?" — on the shelves, Kissinger is once again helping to shape American thinking on foreign relations. This is the sixth decade in which that statement can be said to be true.

Kissinger's new book is terrific. Plainly intended as an extended tutorial on policy for the new American Administration, it is full of good sense and studded with occasional insights that will have readers nodding their heads in silent agreement. A particularly good chapter on Asia rebukes anyone who unthinkingly assigns to China the role once played by the Soviet Union as the natural antagonist of the U.S.

But for all its virtues as a tour d'horizon of the challenges facing Washington, Kissinger's book can be read in another, and more illuminating, light. It is, in essence, an extended meditation on the end of a particular way of looking at the world: one where the principal actors in international relations are nation-states, pursuing their conception of their own national interest, and in which the basic rule of foreign policy is that one nation does not intervene in the internal affairs of another.

Students of international relations call this the "Westphalian system," after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended Europe's Thirty Years War, a time of indescribable carnage waged in the name of competing religions. The treaties that ended the war put domestic arrangements — like religion — off limits to other states. In the war's aftermath a rough-and-ready commitment to a balance of power among neighbors took shape. Kissinger is a noted scholar of the balance of power. And he is suspicious of attempts to meddle in the internal business of others. In a book that drips with devastating, if understated, contempt for the Clinton Administration and all its workings, nothing provokes Kissinger's ire more than America's "humanitarian" interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Yet Kissinger is far too sophisticated to attempt to recreate a world that is lost. "Today," he writes, "the Westphalian order is in systematic crisis." In particular, nation-states are no longer the sole drivers of the international system. In some cases, groups of states — like the European Union or Mercosur — have developed their own identities and agendas. Economic globalization has both blurred the boundaries between nations and given a substantial international role to those giant companies for whom such boundaries make little sense. In today's world, individuals can be as influential as nations; future historians may consider the support for public health of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to be more noteworthy than last week's United Nations conference on aids. And a whole raft of institutions are premised on the assumption that intervention in the internal affairs of others is often desirable. Were that not the case, Slobodan Milosevic would not have been surrendered last week to the jurisdiction of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The consequences of these changes are profound. Kissinger is right to note that globalization has undermined the role of the nation-state less in the case of the U.S. (Why? Because it's more powerful than anyone else.) Elsewhere, the old ways of thinking about the "national interest" — that guiding light of the Westphalian system — have fewer adherents than they once did. Not long ago, the national interest of, say, the Netherlands could be defined by a necessity to protect Dutch blood and soil. It would be absurd to imagine that the modern Dutch think that way now. For a sensible Dutch government, it makes sense to define the things that really matter in terms of the international opportunities available to its companies, and in the commitment to global environmentalism that its citizens apparently avow.

As more governments start to think along such lines, Washington risks looking like an outlier. When the U.S. asserts a self-centered policy on, say, missile defense or global warming, it is speaking a language that many others now consider archaic. (Not all: remember China.) In fact, even in America, the old ways of thinking about foreign policy are visibly under threat. It is American-led NGOs who have argued loudest for humanitarian intervention and for elevating the environment into an issue of foreign policy. Perhaps most interestingly, 25 years of mass immigration to the U.S. — the bulk of it from Latin America and Asia — may make it harder for tomorrow's policymakers to forge a defined national interest than it was for the men who shaped Washington's thinking after World War II. All of which is a long way of saying that Kissinger's next book should not be about the rest of the world — but his own country.