Courtesy Penguin Books

For more than two years, we've been speaking of the threat to the liberal world order, shaken to its core by the rash of new autocratic-minded governments, and, most importantly, a change of heart by its creator and leader — the United States.

But this summer, I realized that I could know a lot more about what the world order actually is. On my bookshelf all this time, unread, was World Order, by Henry Kissinger, secretary of state and national security adviser to presidents Nixon and Ford. Over the last couple of weeks, I've dug in.

It's a rich history, starting in the 17th century. Though published in 2014, it foresees the rise of Trump, or someone like him, linking it to the explosion of social media:

  • "Presidential campaigns are on the verge of turning into media contests between master operators of the Internet."
  • As more and more discourse happens in snippets on social media, "can democracy avoid an evolution toward a demagogic outcome based on emotional mass appeal rather than the reasoned process the Founding Fathers imagined?"

A hyper-troubling thread is Kissinger's description of the bedrock of U.S. power from the beginning, and especially since World War II — its claim of moral high ground. Always, Americans have argued that other countries sought their cold, hard state interests, while the U.S. was foremost about values.

Before America First became the mantra, Kissinger warned against it:

"Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power."

Fun fact: In the end notes, we see that, typically, Kissinger has eyes deep in the White House. Schuyler Schouten, his research associate on this book, is special assistant to Trump and associate White House counsel.

Go deeper with the FT: Henry Kissinger — 'We are in a very, very grave period.'

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