The Penguin Press, 2011
When Henry Kissinger first came to office, China was poorer than Africa, convulsing under the Cultural Revolution, and at risk of a massive, nuclear-equipped invasion by the Soviet Union.Today, as the country appears poised to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, America’s elder statesman reflects on China’s present through the lens of the past.
Kissinger’s latest book, On China, is a tour d’horizon through modern Chinese diplomatic history.At 600 pages, the book is long-winded. But it is worth a read nonetheless to hear meditations on the nature of politics and diplomacy from the master himself. Addressing Mao Zedong’s failed attempt to maintain China in a state of permanent revolution, Kissinger writes, “Once revolutionaries seize power, they are obliged to govern hierarchically if they want to avoid either paralysis or chaos. The more sweeping the overthrow, the more hierarchy has to substitute for the consensus that holds a functioning society together.” (Readers of Kissinger’s previous works will notice some of these aphorisms have been recycled, but they are no less applicable here.)
Kissinger is even funny at times. Elaborate descriptions of the often rarified world of diplomacy, with its elliptical and minutely worded back-and-forth, are punctuated by anecdotes, including a hilarious description of American diplomats sprinting after fleeing Chinese emissaries at a Warsaw fashion show, shouting their request for a meeting in Polish.
In other parts, the master of negotiation tears apart diplomatic gobbledygook with a few pithy phrases. For example, he comments on Stalin’s request for the assurance of Mao’s loyalty by saying: “If a partner is thought capable of desertion, why would reassurance be credible? If not, why would it be necessary?”
Most of the historical narrative is conventional, though a few revisionist junctures provide food for thought. Kissinger argues the Sino-US raprochement was inevitable in the context of the Soviet threat. He writes that China decided to enter the Korean War long before American forces charged past the 38th parallel, because the goal was to deny the US a psychological, rather than simply territorial, victory. China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam was not merely a bloody stalemate, he says; it was a demonstration that when push came to shove, the Soviet Union was unwilling to go to war for its allies.
This book is not perfect. At times Kissinger essentializes China and interprets modern policy according to obselete cultural criteria. The notion that China conducts foreign relations according to latent historical impulses has seduced other historians – in When China Rules the World, for example, Martin Jacques argues that modern China is trying to re-subject its trading partners to the old imperial tribute system. Certainly culture, in particular China’s haggling culture, is relevant and plays a role in diplomacy. But the fundamental dividing line on foreign policy is not between China and other countries, but between modern and pre-modern ways of thinking about history and nationhood.
The most important dynamics and concepts in China’s foreign relations today – nationalism, sovereignty, free trade, and communism – are all 19th century European imports. The logic of China’s diplomacy, including the very idea of a Chinese nation-state, is uniquely modern, not uniquely Chinese. Part of the problem the Qing dynasty had dealing with the West was that the very concept of modern diplomacy, tied as it was to the concept of a “national interest,” was alien. That China had a national identity, as opposed to a dynastic one, was a modern idea.
Regardless, this is a minor quibble in a masterful work. Kissinger ends on a positive note – while significant obstacles remain, he says adroit diplomacy can and should allow the US and China to cooperate to build a better world.
In an age of mounting American unease about being supplanted by a rising China, the author’s concluding policy prescriptions give reason for comfort. But the most important takeaway from On China is that if the US wants to maintain its place in the global pecking order, it would do well to keep producing foreign policy minds like Henry Kissinger.