Books Reviewed

A review of On China, by Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, author of thirteen books in his long and distinguished career, has written another—and a long one—about China. The subject is large enough to allow Kissinger to speak of it in his many voices—professor, historian, businessman, advocate, memoirist, diplomat—but the sound of his two main voices is far from harmonious. The historian uses language to clarify, to explain, to parse, to define; the diplomat uses it to obfuscate, to conflate, to produce not clarity but consensus. "Ambiguity," Kissinger writes, "is the lifeblood of diplomacy." In life, both voices have their proper place, but employing both at the same time or moving back and forth between them can be grating. Confucius, China's greatest sage, well understood this dilemma, and so he argued for a single mode of expression, "the rectification of names":

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

-The Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, [James Legge's translation]


It is not until the book's epilogue that we discern Kissinger's main concern. "Does history repeat itself?" he asks. The history that haunts him is the pre-World War I rivalry between Germany and Britain, when rising Germany challenged the status quo in general and Britain's primacy within it. The result was the West's worst catastrophe since the fall of the Roman Empire, and the former secretary of state and national security advisor is right to worry that something comparably disastrous, this time originating in the East, could result from the United States-People's Republic of China (PRC) rivalry.

If the epilogue had been the prologue, the reader would have been primed to expect that Kissinger—one of the most acclaimed diplomats in the history of our country—would lay out a well-reasoned strategy to avert this grim possibility, but none is forthcoming. He rejects the creation of an anti-China coalition and he also opposes what he calls an ideological crusade. Instead, he suggests the creation of a Pacific Community built on the shared interests of both countries and expresses the hope that these will emerge over time. But his discussion of how we might get there is perfunctory. In fact, his stance is in stark opposition to the Chinese worldview that he has presented in the preceding 500 pages. There, the Chinese are shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik and Weltpolitik; they think deeply, unemotionally, and above all strategically about world affairs. Thus the transformation required for Kissinger's vision even to begin to take hold in Beijing is substantial. How can it happen? Why does Kissinger, renowned for Spenglerian rumination and Bismarckian calculation, think that it is even imaginable? Why does our country's supreme realist flirt with Wilsonian idealism?

A strategy that can carry us forward must be more than a reworking of that spawned by George Kennan's canonical 1947 article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct"; Kennan's world and ours are very different. But in On China's 500-plus pages Kissinger might at least have tried to create something as powerful and enduring as Kennan's 15-page masterpiece. He did not.

Kissinger launches a search for the sources of PRC conduct with a 200-page capsule history of China, especially its practice of strategy and diplomacy. This is a prelude to his secret arrival in Beijing in 1971 to arrange for President Nixon's startling 1972 visit there. Here, the memoirist takes over from the historian and he describes what happened and what followed. He continues the story after 1976, now as a private citizen. Today, age 88, he has yet to retire. Instead, he is a marvel of stamina, still working to inject himself into the conduct of United States-China relations. His fine narrative style and his gift for epigrammatic expression, hallmarks of his brilliant memoirs of his service in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, have not left him as he recounts these unceasing efforts.

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But the deficiencies of this book—as history, memoir, and policy prescription—begin to appear in its first pages. Kissinger sees China as uniquely connected to its ancient tradition, a "singularity," as he calls it. He is impressed that Chinese officials invoke events and stories of centuries ago to elucidate the contemporary scene. He ascribes to China's old texts of strategy and politics a near-talismanic quality. Of course, we could say this about ourselves, for we start our religious education with the Old Testament and our education about strategy and warfare with Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War. As for military tactics themselves, the Second Punic War's Battle of Cannae is still taught at West Point. But to pass too quickly over the intervening centuries is to miss what makes the modern West tick. Similarly, in China the challenge is to understand how modern thought and experience, with which the PRC is now thoroughly suffused, interacts with inherited wisdom, how Western-created things like republicanism, Communism, human rights, rule of law, television, skyscrapers, neckties, constitutions, video games, professional basketball, and Facebook are driving the country's future.

Moreover, Kissinger's view of China's grand strategy across the centuries is one-dimensional and static. The rise of the PRC's naval power alone should tell him that Alfred Thayer Mahan has joined Sun Tzu on the Chinese strategists' required reading list. Today, the PRC's strategic doctrines are wide-ranging and ecumenical, for today they must cope with new contrivances like nuclear weapons and new places like cyberspace. That aside, even before the West arrived, China's homegrown strategic concepts changed frequently, especially during the many centuries when non-Chinese ruled the country. For one telling example, Kissinger completely misses the profound change in the 18th century—the creation of a huge multiethnic, transnational, empire—which became China as we now know it. This transformation is a key to understanding how today's PRC operates both at home and abroad.

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How does this new incarnation of "China" differ from what preceded it? The last dynasty to rule from Beijing, the Qing, (16441912) was not Chinese at all, but the creation of Manchus, an inner Asian people. After they established control of the "China" that had been governed by the Han Chinese Ming dynasty (13681644), the Manchus continued to enlarge their empire by conquering Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and other places. In Manchu dynastic practice, the emperor displayed a sinified face to his Chinese subjects but, even so, he did not pretend either to them or to his non-Chinese subjects that he was himself Chinese. The enlargement of the Manchu empire was therefore not understood at all as the enlargement of "China" but as the expansion of the Manchus' imperial portfolio. Accordingly, Qing emperors never tried to sinify newly-conquered peoples but instead respected their traditions.

The Qing dynasty collapsed in 1912 and was replaced by a Republic of China that immediately claimed the entire Manchu empire as its own. "China" in 1912 was now twice the size that it was when the Manchus arrived in 1644. For a century now, first the Republic of China and then the People's Republic of China, have pursued the coercive sinification of non-Chinese peoples, only a small fraction of the total population, but inhabiting about half the area of the country. Decades of violence, intimidation, co-optation, and bribery have yet to produce success. "Splittism"—the PRC's preferred term for the non-Chinese regions' desire for the genuine self-government the PRC's constitution promises them—remains the government's fundamental strategic preoccupation because it is the regime's main structural vulnerability. The PRC leaders Kissinger encountered when he showed up in Beijing in 1971 had already prosecuted wars in Tibet and Xinjiang, and ever-more expensive repression continues today.

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As he recounts his discussions with Mao Zedong and the PRC's first premier, Zhou Enlai, Kissinger is at pains to stress how these men embody the great tradition of Chinese stratagem and diplomacy. In this, he is not the first man to confuse cunning with wisdom. He says Mao is a brilliant and subtle thinker, but how could he possibly conclude that? Mao's domestic policies had turned the PRC into a basket case and his foreign policies had totally isolated the PRC, bringing it to the brink of war—possibly nuclear war—with both the USSR and the United States simultaneously. In this, Mao was mimicing the disastrous policies of the Manchu court which, in 1900, declared war on the ten greatest powers in the world and brought the country to the brink of dismemberment. The United Sates had reasons of its own for rescuing the PRC from the calamitous consequences of Mao's genius; a clever Mao did not trick Nixon into it. At the best, Mao may be credited with finally recognizing the need to try something else by repudiating his alliance with the USSR, once the cornerstone of the PRC's foreign policy—but why Kissinger's worshipful appreciation of Mao as strategist?

Kissinger's embrace of Zhou Enlai as an exemplar of the best tradition of Chinese statecraft and as a consummate mandarin is even more distressing. China's history is filled with the real thing—brilliant and humane officials who told the truth to the emperor and paid with their lives. Zhou does not belong in this high company. If Zhou had held a position in the Third Reich comparable to the one he held in the PRC, the Nuremberg Tribunal would have sent him to the gallows, as it did the cosmopolitan, witty, urbane, and multi-lingual Joachim von Ribbentrop. Yet Kissinger's studied obtuseness about his interlocutors permits him to enlist Deng Xiaoping, one of Mao's most egregious enforcers and enablers, as a character witness for Zhou. For all that he wrought after 1978, Deng, as one of Mao's main Gauleiters, was criminally complicit in the millions of deaths that Mao caused. To be sure, we are used to the fact that regimes of the Left receive a pass when it comes to such crimes, but Kissinger, once upon a time a stalwart in the political and cultural wars, was not then in the habit of issuing them.

If Chinese strategy is, as the author describes it, a seamless blending of the internal and the external, we should also expect a discussion of the connection between the two in today's PRC. But Kissinger passes over the strategic implications of its political system, one in which 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party struggle every day to hold onto their unshared political power in a country of 1,340,000,000. In today's PRC, strategic policy—that is, the amalgam of domestic and foreign policy—exists solely to preserve the Communist Party's monopoly on power. In this, its flexibility is limitless. Mao readily reversed two decades of PRC foreign policy and, after that, Deng Xiaoping completely remade domestic society. They did what they had to do, that is, what History instructed them to do. Although in the process the party's once world-shaking ideology has been reduced to self-parody and risible mumbo jumbo, the party—in old Maoist parlance—still controls the gun, and that is what matters. Demonstrators in Tiananmen Square learned this in 1989, and many others have learned it since.

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Meanwhile, the party is pressed on many fronts. The PRC is surrounded by nuclear-armed states; it has no real friends in the world; its vaunted diplomats do not know how to build coalitions; around the world, its reach exceeds its grasp. At home, problems proliferate: rampant corruption; urban and rural social disorder; speculative bubbles; capital flight; epidemics of the physical and mental illnesses of modernity. The party itself is no longer home to high-morale cadre, but is filled with hustlers. At its summit, it has become a multi-family dynasty in which "princelings" inherit their fathers' political power and the access to money that goes with it.

The PRC's grand strategy is thus driven by the party's well-founded insecurities. The government wants and needs a world that is safe for one-party dictatorships, just as the United States wants and needs a world that is safe for constitutional democracies and free societies. But Kissinger fears that focusing on the nature of the PRC's domestic regime will undermine peaceful relations, even as his own vision for a Pacific Community will remain chimerical so long as the PRC is controlled by a Communist Party that cannot abide even a discussion of the possibility of sharing power. This explains why no one in the United States agonizes over the rise of India. No American imagines that peace with democratic India is problematic. From this perspective, human rights and the rule of law are not mere preferences; they have profound strategic implications.

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Since On China appeared in May, many readers have complained that its shortcomings are somehow the product of the author's personal failings. But a better explanation is an existential one. The emerging Asia-centric world is unfamiliar terrain. Kissinger, like the rest of us, is not as surefooted when he tries to apply what he has learned about a world driven for centuries by intra-European rivalries to a world that will now be driven by intra-Asian ones. Just as in this past decade we discovered that what we thought we knew about combating Bolshevism did not readily translate into combating Islam-based radical ideologies in West Asia, we are learning that intellectual capital we inherited from the 20th century yields even smaller returns farther east.

We once learned about European totalitarianism, the old USSR, and Eastern Europe from fine teachers and great scholars—Adam Ulam, Richard Pipes, Hannah Arendt, and others—who were products of those places. Americans prominent in the conduct of U.S. relations with that part of the globe—Kissinger, of course, and also Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright—were even born there.

Today, America needs to learn about Asia, not Europe, and it is from the East, not the West, that our teachers now come. A scan of faculty rosters in university catalogues shows how teaching about China in the United States is increasingly the province of people who, in one way or another, are products of the Chinese world. What does this imply both for China studies and for U.S.-China relations? The United States ambassador to the People's Republic of China is today, for the first time, a man of Chinese heritage. His "old world" is in the East and not in the West, and this cannot be inconsequential. Is there any way to compare how a product of the old European empires thinks about America's connection to his forebears' home to how a scion of the Manchu Empire thinks about the same thing? In the 20th century, the European-Americans who developed our country's Atlantic strategy were determined to save Europe from itself. In the 21st century—the Pacific Century—the Americans who will help rescue China from the PRC may be those who, because of their own unique heritage, are best prepared for the task.