A REVIEW OF HENRY A. KISSINGER'S 'ON CHINA'
"Mao dominated any gathering; Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition; Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating. Mao thought of himself as a philosopher; Zhou saw his role as an administrator or a negotiator. Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents".
Henry A. Kissinger, On China (2011).
"Whatever the qualities of Soviet Leadership, its training is eminently political and conceptual. Reading Lenin or Mao or Stalin, one is struck by the emphasis on the relationship between political, military, psychological and economic factors and the insistence on finding a conceptual basis for political action and on the need for dominating a situation by flexible tactics and inflexible purpose. And the internal struggles in the Kremlin ensure that only the most iron-nerved reach the top....As a result, the contest between us and the Soviets has had many of the attributes of any contest between a professional and an amateur: even a mediocre professional will usually defeat an excellent amateur, not because the amateur does not know what to do, but because he cannot react sufficiently quickly or consistently."
Henry A. Kissinger, "Reflections on American Diplomacy." Foreign Affairs. (October 1956).
Former American Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger's new book, On China, has received voluminous reviews and attention. The reviews, especially on this side of the Atlantic has been positive overall, even if few commentators are either unimpressed, much less convinced by Kissinger's apologia for the human rights record of the regime in Peking 1. Nor has the fact that Kissinger failed to disclose to readers his three decades of lucrative consulting work dealing with the leadership of the PRC, gone unnoticed. Not that per se, Kissinger's ultra-gingerly treatment of the PRC leadership a direct consequence of his business ties with every PRC leader from Deng Xiao-ping to Hu Jintao. Whatever else one may say about Kissinger and his views and past-policy dealing with the PRC, corruption is far from being the prime reason for Kissinger's behavior & viewpoint as it relates to China. Au fond,as the two above Kissinger quotes, one from 1956 and one from 'On China', show is that for reasons which are difficult for myself to explain fully, the former Secretary of State has never quite disengaged himself from his admiring if deeply mistaken view of the PRC's early leaders. For lack of a better description, one can only label it as 'Hegelian', in the sense of Hegel's 'world historical' view of Bonaparte in the aftermath of the battle of Jena. A point of view which confuses and obfuscates as much as it illustrates. Indeed, there are passages in Kissinger's book, as they relate to Mao and his involvement with the 'Great Leap Forward' as well as the 'Cultural Revolution', which clearly ring the 'weltgeschichte' bell. The fact that these musings are at best nonsensical, and at worse can be read as a form of exculpation for mass murderers (Mao, Chou et. al.) seems to have passed by most American reviewers by (not thankfully British ones) 2. With this mind-set it is not that surprising that as Margaret Macmillan, William Burr and other have pointed out in recent years, Kissinger and Nixon both came away mostly empty-handed from Peking in terms of the original diplomatic desiderata (mostly Vietnam-centric) for their rapprochement with the PRC 3.
Given the above background, it is not very surprising to find out that Kissinger has a very specific view of the future of Sino-American relations. As per Kissinger, notwithstanding the difference political and cultural make-ups of the two countries and their almost completely opposed views on such issues as Human Rights, the fact is, pace Kissinger that the two powers would best endeavor to overcome such differences in the hope of avoiding the worst:
"Neither the more triumphalist Chinese analyses nor the American version—that a successful Chinese "rise" is incompatible with America's position in the Pacific, and the world—have been endorsed by either government, but they provide a subtext of much current thought. If the assumptions of these views were applied by either side—and it would take only one side to make it unavoidable—China and the U.S. could easily fall into an escalating tension.
China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America's weight in international diplomacy. The U.S. would try to organize China's many neighbors into a counterweight to Chinese dominance. Both sides would emphasize their ideological differences. The interaction would be even more complicated because the notions of deterrence and preemption are not symmetrical between these two sides. The U.S. is more focused on overwhelming military power, China on decisive psychological impact. Sooner or later, one side or the other would miscalculate.
The question ultimately comes down to what the U.S. and China can realistically ask of each other. An explicit American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed—in part because China is an indispensable trading partner for most of its neighbors. By the same token, a Chinese attempt to exclude America from Asian economic and security affairs will similarly meet serious resistance from almost all other Asian states, which fear the consequences of a region dominated by a single power.
The appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship is less partnership than "co-evolution." It means that both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests" 4.
The problem with this point of view, a problem which is overtly present in Kissinger's entire oeuvre as a 'historian' is that it neglects to take into account the true wellsprings of Chinese foreign policy 5. At the bottom, Chinese foreign policy is fundamentally shaped, just as the foreign policy of the Kaiserreich after the fall of Bismarck in 1890 was shaped, not by axioms of 'eternal' bases of the so-called 'Middle Kingdom,' but by contemporary-based primat der innenpolitik. Peking's current rulers, like Bulow, Hohenlohe and Bethmann, are obsessed with not being viewed as 'weak-willed' and 'unpatriotic' by its public and outlets which can be said to express 'public opinion', in a bureaucratic, authoritarian state. That and not any ahistorical, essentialist nonsense explains Peking's recent militaristic bombast over say Tibet, the South China Seas, and last years conflict with Japan. Much the same can be said about Peking's policy vis-`a-vis Formosa. If and only if, the leadership of the PRC, is changed by some internal disturbance or reform process, can we expect to see a more rationale, unemotional and peaceful foreign policy coming out of Peking. Until then, expect more of the types of roller-coaster foreign policy 'mood swings' from the PRC which the world has been subjected to in the last few years. Which is not to gainsay the fact of course that Kissinger is correct in noting that whatever their other faults, the ruling elite in Peking has no real wish to either succeed the USA as 'hegemon', or even to aggressively push-out the Americans from the Pacific-Orient region. And similarly, there is no reason to unnecessarily quarrel with the PRC, if this can be at all avoided. If indeed, China's rulers wish to be good 'stakeholders' in the current international system, then by all means let us endeavor to make that possible. With that being said, it behooves American and Western policy-makers to avoid a newer and costlier version of the Nixon-Kissinger policy of needless concessions to a ruthless and basically hostile ruling clique in Peking. Unlike the case of Bulow's Kaiserreich, such concessions will net us nothing, certainly not good-will merely a demand for more of the same from the rulers in Peking.
1. For American reviews, see: Max Frankel,"Henry Kissinger on China." The New York Times. 13 May 2011, in www.nytimes.com; Bret Stephens, "A Diplomat looks East." The Wall Street Journal. 12 May 2011, in www.wsj.com;
Brantly Womak, "Henry Kissinger's 'On China.'" The Washington Post. 3 June 2011, in www.washingtonpost.com; Jonathan Spence, "Kissinger and China." The New York Review of Books.9 June 2011, in www.nybooks.com.
2. See: Jonathan Mirsky, "What Henry Saw." The Literary Review. June 2011, in www.literaryreview.co.uk; Jasper Becker, "On China by Henry Kissinger -a Review." The Guardian.21 May 2011, in www.guardian.co.uk.
3. Margaret MacMillan, Nixon and Mao: a week that changed the world. (2007); William Burr, The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top Secret talks with Bejing and Moscow. (1999).
4. Henry A. Kissinger, On China, op. cit.
5. One of the essentials aspects of the Kissingerian oeuvre is that per se, he is not, notwithstanding the subject matter of his first book (A World Restored) an academically trained 'historian'. At least not a historian in the empiricist, Rankean sense of the term. Kissinger's view of the craft of history is one closer to pre-Rankean 'historians', such as Arnold Toynbee, Spengler and even Hegel (nota bene: Kissinger's dissertation was not for Harvard's Department of History, but that of its Departmet of 'Government'). For whom 'history' is made of timeless and unchanging variables (AKA exactly the idea behind the 'eternal Middle Kingdom' view of China's foreign relations). The fact that history and its interpretation is forever being changed and changed again, is something for which Kissinger apparently has no idea of. Hence it is not at all surprising that the concepts of 'Primat der Aussenpolitik' and 'Primat der Innenpolitik' singularly fail to make a appearence in any of Kissinger's writings in the last fifty-five years. Nor that the causation of the Great War had many more reasons than merely the fact that England and its allies failed to 'integrate' into the international system, post-Bismarckian Kaiserreich. Id est. Fritz Fischer and his school.