What remains of the diplomatic legacy of Henry Kissinger, probably the most charismatic—and easily the most controversial—secretary of state of the 20th century?
The Paris Peace Accords, for which Mr. Kissinger shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 with Le Duc Tho, his North Vietnamese counterpart, quickly foundered on Hanoi’s determination to conquer South Vietnam and Congress’s refusal to help defend it. Détente with the Soviet Union was upended by Moscow’s expansionism and the Reagan administration’s commitment to winning (rather than simply managing) the Cold War. Shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Yom Kippur War charted the course for peace between Israel and Egypt, but now that legacy is also in doubt as Cairo seeks new friends in Gaza and Tehran.
But then there is China. Nobody living can claim greater credit than Mr. Kissinger for America’s 1971 opening to Beijing, after more than two decades of estrangement, and for China’s subsequent opening to the world. So it’s fitting that Mr. Kissinger has now written “On China,” a fluent, fascinating and sometimes infuriating book that is part history, part memoir and above all an examination of the premises, methods and aims of Chinese foreign policy.
By Henry Kissinger
(The Penguin Press, 586 pages, $36)
Mr. Kissinger takes the long view. China is an ancient civilization long convinced of the superiority of its ways, and for most of its history justifiably so. As late as 1820 the Chinese produced some 30% of global GDP, more than America’s share today. Yet supremacy also bred complacency: “In the Chinese version of exceptionalism,” Mr. Kissinger writes, “China did not export its ideas but let others come to seek them.” And come they did: first as amazed visitors but eventually as rapacious colonizers with superior ships and firearms.
What followed was more than a century of humiliation and catastrophe, much of it self-inflicted. Yet even in decline, Chinese diplomats were able to marshal stores of cunning to avert defeat. Antique precepts of “barbarian management” were used to set the “far enemy” against the near one; Confucian self-restraint was pressed into the service of keeping adversaries off-guard. “In your association with foreigners . . . you should have a slightly vague, casual appearance,” the mandarin Zeng Guofan advised his protégé Li Hongzhang in 1862. “Let their insults, deceitfulness, and contempt for everything appear to be understood by you and yet seem not understood, for you should look somewhat stupid.”
Above all, Mr. Kissinger notes, the Chinese pursued a form of Realpolitik fundamentally distinct from Western concepts of strategy. It’s a point he illustrates by comparing chess with the Oriental game of Go (which he calls by its Chinese name of wei qi). Chess, he observes, “teaches the Clausewitzian concepts of ‘center of gravity’ and the ‘decisive point’. . . . Wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement.”
Mao Zedong stood to gain from these concepts when he set out to build a new China by destroying the old. But he had his own methods, and Mr. Kissinger can’t quite seem to decide whether they were brilliant or incompetent. Certainly they were daring: Within little more than a decade of coming to power in 1949, he had gone to war with the U.S. in Korea, cemented Washington’s military alliance with Taipei by bombarding the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu, waged a brief war with India over some Himalayan outposts, and turned the Soviet Union into an avowed enemy.
AFP/Getty ImagesMao Zedong (left) and Henry Kissinger in 1972.
All this succeeded in demonstrating that China was a country that would not be patronized or trifled with. It also meant that by the mid-1960s China was almost completely encircled by hostile powers, a failure of Go strategy if ever there was one. It was only then, and amid the wreckage of the cataclysmic Cultural Revolution, that Mao reached out to the U.S. Mr. Kissinger’s account of his intricate diplomatic minuets with Mao and his deputy Zhou Enlai will be familiar to readers of his earlier memoirs, but it loses little of its force here.
Mr. Kissinger takes his survey through the 1980s reforms of Deng Xiaoping, a far better Go player than his predecessor. As ever, Mr. Kissinger remains baffled by the successes of the Reagan administration—he calls its approach to China and Taiwan “a study in almost incomprehensible contradictions”—and chalks it up to a triumph of Reagan’s winning personality. A better explanation might be that Deng was reassured by Reagan’s arms buildup and tough line on the Soviet Union after a decade of U.S. weakness and self-delusion.
More troubling is Mr. Kissinger’s account of the June 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, which shades into an apology for the regime: “The occupation of the main square of a country’s capital, even when completely peaceful,” he writes, “is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts.” Tempt?
The final chapters of “On China” are its weakest, mixing conventional wisdom about China’s recent economic performance with musings as to whether Beijing will continue to pursue its policy of “peaceful rise” or otherwise become a more belligerent player on the world stage. He hardly seems to consider the possibility that the dreams of 1989 aren’t yet extinguished. Incredibly, there is no mention of the pro-democracy Charter 08 movement, one of whose signatories, Liu Xiaobo, shares Mr. Kissinger’s Nobel credentials and now resides in a Chinese prison. With jasmine flowers being banned in China for fear of their revolutionary fragrance, the omission amounts to more than just a moral error. What a pity for the remarkable legacy of Mr. Kissinger, who did so much to steer China toward its best traditions—and so little to steer it away from its worst ones.
Mr. Stephens is the Journal’s foreign-affairs columnist.
FYI – Mr. Stephens will be in our class tomorrow to discuss USFP, the Mid-east, Iran China, Human rights etc. I though this review might give you some interesting context along with the to articles I handed out in class.