On January 6, the DPRK claimed to have conducted its first thermonuclear weapons test, a military exercise that would be its fourth nuclear test since its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. Perhaps ironically, North Korea justified its actions with references to national sovereignty, the central premise of the very Westphalian world order it defies. “This test is a measure for self-defence the DPRK has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country,” the government announced afterward. Yet the ruling family’s Communist trappings obviously contradict the very notion of statehood.
North Korea is not alone, of course. As Kissinger points out in World Order, major nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China repeatedly invoke Westphalian principles in a subterfuge undermining the international system. Russia and China seek to rebuild their historical empires while rhetorically trafficking in the language of raison d’état. Saudi Arabia and Iran foster jihadist projects with civilizational aspirations while fully leveraging their political status as nation-states to do so, whether covertly or overtly.
And, as Kissinger points out, the United States itself paradoxically joins the ranks of Westphalia’s critics. From a US perspective, the genius and success of the Westphalian system—its procedural, almost amoral pluralism—stands quite at odds with the American liberal philosophical inheritance and unique historical experience. The US has struggled from its conception with an ambivalence about world order: which takes precedence, a pluralism of states with divergent political systems or the seemingly self-evident universalism of democracy and human rights? US foreign policy is a pendulum swinging between answers to the dilemma.
This fundamental ambivalence defines the US position in the contemporary open, rules-based international order, of which the US is both the chief architect and great skeptic. G. John Ikenberry at Princeton argues that the US resembles an Hobbesian sovereign with Lockean characteristics—the arbiter of the post-1945 world order because of its power but the world’s champion of freedom because of its history. For Ikenberry’s “liberal Leviathan,” or what Jefferson called the “empire of liberty,” multilateral institutions are indeed instruments for American hegemonic interest. But unlike other empires, the American interest pulses with respect for human dignity. The result is a world order based on a conception of legitimacy forever teetering between national sovereignty and individual freedom.
As North Korea’s test demonstrates, that order is changing. While the post-Soviet unipolar world evolves into a multipolar one with competing centers of gravity, the Western notion of legitimacy—and Western power—no longer dominates the international system. The so-called emerging BRIC nations, the “Asian Tigers,” the Arab Islamic world, and other global regions with little or no philosophically liberal roots pose, at best, alternatives to the American liberal order. At worst, they seek to directly subvert it.
The great political project of the twenty-first century will be, not conquering those systems, but cooperating with them to avert deadly great-power competition and to pursue common goals of security, peace and prosperity. As Kissinger remarks,
A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time. … The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various [global] regions, and to relate those regional orders to one another. … The goal of our era must be to achieve that equilibrium while restraining the dogs of war.
Perhaps President Obama’s defense on Tuesday of liberal internationalist achievements, such as the Iranian nuclear deal and TPP, is exactly what the President of the United States of America should be saying. Whoever takes his place next January, the world will be a better place if the myopic strongmen dominating the public debate today take a backseat to wise statesmen who, in the spirit of Kissinger, try to balance competing visions of world order to make the world a safer place.