“The USA and World Peace after the Presidential Election” Address to the Inaugural Nobel Peace Prize Forum

Oslo, Norway

I am honored to have been invited to participate in this first Nobel Peace Prize Forum. And I am delighted to share it with my friend Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose life and career in our adopted country have so closely paralleled my own.

This occasion, in this tradition-laden room, inspires both nostalgia and gratitude. Nostalgia for the moment when, in October 1973, I was informed that I had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The news reached me in the Situation Room of the White House at a meeting about the latest eruption of war, between Egypt and Syria on one side and Israel on the other. The setting was ironic, but the news provided an inspirational call to duty.

After much thought, I decided very reluctantly not to come here to receive the prize. The controversies over the Vietnam War had not been stilled by the agreement that ended it a few months earlier. I did not want to risk marring the international community’s most important celebration of the cause of peace by providing an occasion for demonstrations.

So even if a bit late, allow me to say how grateful I am that the Nobel Committee has given me another opportunity to address its audience.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize invariably occurs in circumstances short of global peace. That very gap provides inspiration to persevere after the ultimate goal of diplomacy: to transcend the ordinary rhythms of conflict with extraordinary visions of harmony.

The title assigned to this lecture, “The USA and World Peace after the Presidential Election,” can be interpreted in two ways: to call attention to the appearance of a new and heretofore unfamiliar American President; or to use the end of the American electoral process as a reference point for reflection on the nature of peace. Let me say a word about both interpretations.

No doubt, the President-Elect is a personality for whom there is no precedent in modern American history. And his campaign included rhetorical elements challenging patterns heretofore considered traditional. But before postulating an inevitable crisis, an opportunity should be given to the new administration to put forward its vision of international order. The international debate should be over evolving American strategy, not campaign rhetoric.

By the same token, the new administration, as it seeks to take the country from where it is to where it has never been, will confront two unavoidable aspects of leadership: the exploration of heretofore undiscovered possibilities has inevitable limits in the possible and the claims of the historic. The choice is not between the ideal and the real, but in their synthesis.

In that spirit, I will concentrate my remarks on the structure of peace any president will encounter in seeking to shape the contemporary world.

Is peace to be identified with the ending of specific wars? Or is the ultimate goal of peace to establish and maintain a structure of international order?

In 1973, when I first encountered the Nobel Prize institutionally, the word “peace” meant the ending of the Vietnam War as a prelude to forging a set of workable relationships among the nuclear powers, which could bring the Cold War to an end and shepherd into existence an enduring peace.

In time, these objectives were more or less achieved. The Vietnam War was ended—first by agreement, then ultimately by conquest. And the Cold War did come to an end. By the 1990s, a new structure of global peace seemed to be emerging. In America, there was talk of a “peace dividend.” In 1989, a widely-discussed article titled its inquiry into whether we had arrived at “the end of history” with a question mark. When the book with the same title was published in 1992, the question mark was gone.

Today, a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, “peace” signifies in one sense the globalization of the European concept of world order. Europe’s unique contribution to the concept of peace goes beyond an armistice between warring states to institutions and rules which moderate the fluctuations of history with structural requirements. No other civilization has undertaken a comparable enterprise. Three general principles formed it: international law, the balance of power, and the concept of sovereignty. The horrors of the Thirty Years’ War led the Dutch jurist-diplomat Grotius to produce one of the world’s most consequential books. The Law of War and Peace inaugurated the concept of international law and set rules to the conduct of states. International law was reinforced by the evolution of the concept of the balance of power, which strove to maintain international order in such a way that a quest for hegemony always faced exorbitant risks. Legitimacy would curb the desire to upset the international system, while the balance of power would foil the capability to do so. The concept of sovereignty completed the design by proscribing the domestic structure of states as a target of international politics.

By the turn of our century, a rules-based system had come into being, accessible to peoples everywhere. Its symbolic expression has been the UN General Assembly’s over 190 sovereign member states.

Unfortunately, the structural basis of this international system is now under stress. And it has deteriorated largely because of the actions of its own membership.

It has become fashionable to declare the existing world order as outmoded and national sovereignty as a concept whose time has passed. In the age of instant communication, of long-range missiles, and of massive population movements, global issues—it is said—would best be addressed by global non-governmental organizations. The concept of soft power has emerged as a retreat from the balance of power and from the enforcement mechanisms of the international order.

Under these conditions, extreme nationalism has grown, paradoxically, as an alternative global system. A kind of isolationism has emerged leaving “the rest of the world” to fend for itself, for better or for worse.

The rejection of the international state system finds its most challenging expression in a radical religious ideology being used to justify the most extreme uses of violence to serve its quest to replace the state by a universal caliphate.

Finally, in many areas of the world, the rules-based system is under attack as a product of “the West” and therefore an alien imposition.

These trends are threatening the modern state system. Unilateral action is on the rise. Sovereign borders are becoming ambiguous, ignored, or violated. The equality of states is beginning to yield to regional hierarchies. The fear of a nuclear weapons conflagration eased with the end of the Cold War and the achievement of treaty obligations that would reduce nuclear arsenals and strengthen non-proliferation. Now, however, “loose nukes,” rhetoric about tactical nuclear use, the modernization and miniaturization of warheads, ever-greater missile ranges, and the apparent acceptance of new threshold nuclear powers all have put the established structures for international decision-making at risk of being overwhelmed. Vast humanitarian disasters are occurring, notably in Syria and Africa.

The parlous condition of the international system is symbolized by the latent competition between four visions of world order—the European-Westphalian, the Islamic, the Chinese, and the American. Consequently, none enjoy universal legitimacy. Each model is tempted to maneuver for regional or global advantage. A struggle between regions could be even more destructive than the struggle between nations has been.

By the same token, four scenarios emerge as possible catalysts for large-scale conflagration and as subject for the quest for peace:

First, a deterioration of Sino-American relations whereby the two countries tumble into the so-called “Thucydides Trap,” which history has set for every incumbent power and the rising power challenging it;

Second, a breakdown of relations between Russia and the West growing out of the paradox of mutual incomprehension between parallel cultures;

Third, a continuing weakening of European strategic relevance because of the loss of a sense of global mission; and

Fourth, an escalation of conflict in the Middle East in a competitive quest for hegemony between Sunni Arab states and revolutionary Iran. These are the challenges the American President, in concert with likeminded global leaders, will be compelled to seek to overcome.

Much of the contemporary discussion stresses the overriding role of the national interest. And indeed, foreign policy has to begin with a clear conception of the national interest. At the same time, in our interconnected world, the national interest must be connected with and limited by a vision of world order. Technologically advanced countries in particular need to develop joint ways to limit the impact of their scientific effort on each other and the world. The United States, China, and Russia have a special obligation to prevent nuclear weapons from becoming conventional, by acquiescing in their use in the hands of third countries to which proliferation has been tolerated. Of special concern must be the evolution of artificial intelligence into machines capable of autonomous self-learning and communication, potentially making humanity the victim of its own invention. Is it conceivable that the originators of colonialism will wind up being colonized by their own technological creations?

At the core of many of these issues is the ambiguity over what constitutes the legitimate entity on which world order is based. Is that unit still the state? Should it be? If not, what is the procedural basis for a new international order?

The overriding virtue of the present order is that no equally effective or inclusive alternative system is available. The deepest challenge to our period is to adapt the Westphalian system or to renovate it. For on the other side of the existing structure, chaos looms.

For America, this would require a recognition that the world faces not so much a specific crisis as a tectonic shift in the global structure; for China, that eminence is to some extent both relative and conditional; for Russia, that the respect it seeks must allow for truly sovereign structures along its borders; and for Europe, that diversity is a circumstance, but policy needs a sense of direction—indeed, a vision.

The statesman will forever be tempted by the pressures of the moment to set aside his obligations to the world’s long-term future. But the calling offers as well insight into perils unprecedented in the history of mankind. Drift will multiply their complexities. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant predicted the coming of universal peace either by human insight or by catastrophes of such magnitude that no other choice remained. This prospect has grown only starker in the intervening centuries.

A last personal word: as an immigrant, I came to know America as a beacon of hope for the oppressed. As a soldier, I saw America’s role in overcoming the scourge of a war against world order. In university, I reflected about the impact of the lessons of history on the exceptional circumstances of America. As a consultant and a policymaker, I have had the honor to participate in various ways in America’s quest for a structure of peace. Some hopes were unfulfilled; a few proved unrealizable, even counterproductive. But the overriding quest for peace and stability has dominated all the American Presidential administrations I have studied and known. Many of the contemporary structures of peace have had either American support or an American origin. I hope and believe that, in the decades ahead, the United States will continue to fulfil its history of building world peace.