Henry Kissinger was not only the first official American emissary to Communist China, he persisted in his brokerage with more than 50 trips over four decades, spanning the careers of seven leaders on each side. Diplomatically speaking, he owns the franchise; and with “On China,” as he approaches 88, he reflects on his remarkable run.
To the degree that Washington and Beijing now understand each other, it is in good measure because Kissinger has been assiduously translating for both sides, discerning meaning in everything from elliptical jokes to temper tantrums. At every juncture, he has been striving to find “strategic concepts” that could be made to prevail over a history of conflict, mutual grievance and fear. As President Nixon’s national security adviser, then secretary of state for Nixon and Gerald Ford, and since 1977 as a private interlocutor extraordinaire, Kissinger has been unwaveringly committed to surmounting what he considers the legitimate Chinese resentment of American interference in their internal affairs and Americans’ distaste for China’s brutal suppression of ethnic, religious and political dissent.
The surprise buried in his lumbering review of Sino-American relations is that the much ballyhooed Nixon-Kissinger journeys to China in 1971-72 turned out to have been the easy part. “That China and the United States would find a way to come together was inevitable given the necessities of the time,” he writes. “It would have happened sooner or later whatever the leadership in either country.” Both nations were exhausted from war (Vietnam, clashes on the Soviet border) and domestic strife (antiwar protests in Nixon’s case, the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s). Both were determined to resist Soviet advances and so could quickly agree to make common cause. The menace of Moscow took the leaders’ minds off confrontations in Vietnam and Taiwan and quelled their ritual denunciations, whether of international imperialism or Communism. They decided that the adversary of my adversary was my pal, and for more than a decade that was fruitfully that.
But that was a different time. China finally escaped from Mao Zedong’s mad doctrine of perpetual revolution and from the enfeebling nostrums of central planning; it became an industrial powerhouse. The Soviet Union and its empire collapsed. And the United States, feeling supreme, began promoting democracy with missionary zeal even as it grew dangerously addicted to foreign oil, goods and credit. The radical shift in the balance of power turned China and the United States into mutually dependent economic giants, but it left them without an overarching strategic design of partnership.
It is to demonstrate the need for such a design that Kissinger reviews the ups and downs of Sino-American relations, reaching even into ancient Chinese history to define national characteristics. (He finds it apt that the Chinese like to play “wei qi,” or “go,” a protracted game of encirclement while we play chess, looking for control of the center and total victory.) Kissinger draws heavily on much recent scholarship and on notes of his trips to Beijing to celebrate the pragmatism of Mao’s successors. He says they are content to remain within their restored historic frontiers, willing to await a peaceful reunion with Taiwan, and most determined to continue their remarkable economic growth and to eradicate China’s still widespread poverty. He is less confident about America’s capacity to sustain a steady foreign policy, noting that “the perpetual psychodrama of democratic transitions” is a constant invitation to other nations to “hedge their bets” on us.
As students of Kissinger well know, he has long considered democracy to be a burden on statecraft — both the clamor of democracy within the United States and our agitations for democracy in other lands.