Kissinger: The World Is in Flux, but Opportunities Abound

1005_Saudia Arabia Yemen Borders
A Saudi tank is pictured at the Saudi border with Yemen April 13. In the present world, the challenge is not disagreements between states, although they still exist, but the emergence of nongovernment areas, Kissinger says. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

This is a shortened version of remarks Kissinger made at the Atlantic Council's Global Citizen Award Ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on October 1. They first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

There is some nostalgia for the Cold War when dividing lines were clear and all we had to worry about was the extermination of humanity in the nuclear war.

But in those days borders were relatively well defined. Conflicts were between states. And the complexities of the modern period had not yet appeared. In the present world, the challenge is not disagreements between states, although they still exist, but the emergence of nongovernment areas.

We have in the Middle East today four countries whose governments are not able to control the territory defined by international law. [That] would be Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In those conditions, non-state organizations appear that can reach beyond their geographic locality but that are not governed by any principle of international law. In fact, many of them pride themselves on a flagrant violation of what the world considers international law.

What makes it even more complex is that there are countries that act both as state and as non-state actors. On the one hand, they claim the participation in the United Nations, the attributes of sovereignty and the general principles of international conduct. On the other, they support non-state organizations that undermine these principles in the various countries.

And so we have not only the phenomenon of state against non-state organizations, but of schizophrenic political units that act as both states and non-state organizations.

And when one looks at the kaleidoscope that emerges there, sometimes it used to be said, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the Middle East today, it is perfectly possible that the enemy of our enemy is also an enemy.  

So the challenge is how one can distill a country of borders out of this complexity. And, of course, the Middle East is not the only unsettled area in the world. The emergence of China, of India, will change the distribution of power in reflecting about international order. So that is a big challenge of our time.

When I first became involved in international affairs, the challenge seemed to be how can one prevent a military aggression across a well-defined line in the center of Europe. And in those days, the recovery of Europe and the cooperation with America was considered sufficient to achieve that objective.

Since then, Europe has developed in a way that would have been unimaginable 40 years ago. Many countries in the whole region have recovered a great degree of economic vitality. And also the problem of sovereignty and the conflict between countries within Europe has been substantially overcome.

But there has been a gap between the economic evolution of Europe and the political evolution of Europe. That the unity of Europe that has been achieved in the economic field has not been matched by a parallel development of either the concept or the willingness to develop a political objective.

And, at the same time, the United States, which was dominant in the immediate post-war period, and which could operate on the principle that many of the problems in Europe were soluble by American economic and political cooperation, now also has to face the issue of its involvement all over the world.

I say all of this not because I will give you an answer but to point out that the Atlantic relationship that was initially developed primarily on military and strategic lines now really has to be extended into a conceptual question. What are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to prevent? And what sacrifices are we willing to make?

Because great things cannot be achieved without some sacrifice of the present for the needs of the future. And when we look today at the challenges of immigration, for example, which bring with it humanitarian needs, but also some reflections of about the nature of what is going to become of this civilization that had evolved in Europe and how it can be combined with the influx that it faces, and how the conditions can be prevented from which this influx arises, we have one of the examples of the challenges, but also the opportunity of our time.  

Henry A. Kissinger was U.S. secretary of state from 1973 to 1977. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, he has authored more than a dozen books on foreign policy, international affairs and diplomatic history. This is a shortened version of remarks he made at the Atlantic Council's Global Citizen Award Ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on October 1.