Henry Kissinger, the extraordinary German-born Jew who bestrode most of 20th-century postwar American foreign policy, has written—at the age of 88—an important book on China, called just that: On China. Who better? At the most basic level, it’s important simply because of who Kissinger is and was: national security adviser and then secretary of state for two presidents (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), the realpolitik author of détente with the Soviet Union, which ultimately led to its dissolution; the high and mighty sherpa who cajoled the United States into recognizing “Red China” after decades of dangerous adversarial pyrotechnics; and the man who negotiated the end of the war in Vietnam, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, he presides over Kissinger Associates Inc., the mother of all international consulting firms, representing everyone from Coca Cola and Fiat and Volvo to (once upon a time) Hollinger Inc., whose former proprietor, Lord Black of Crossharbour (late of Coleman Correctional Center) was a close colleague. It may be fanciful, but I wouldn’t be surprised one day to learn Kissinger was on retainer to the politburo of the People’s Republic of China. As a locally famous consultant at Navigator Inc. of Toronto once said when criticized for taking a consulting fee from a dubious client: “Everyone deserves representation.”
The presiding premise of On China is to provide a detailed strategy on how best Sino-American relations should be conducted in the emerging era, which is a good enough reason to pay attention to such an experienced practitioner. Yet for all his valiant efforts to put a new glaze on well-known views, the inimitable wheeler-dealer of international diplomacy is still pretty easy to find. Although it takes 148 pages to get to it, it wasn’t a surprise to see the fulsome reference to Kissinger’s hero in the first paragraph of chapter six, entitled “China confronts both superpowers”: “Otto von Bismark, probably the greatest diplomat of the second half of the 19th century, once said that in a world order of five states, it is always desirable to be part of a group of three. Applied to the interplay of three countries, one would therefore think that it is always desirable to be in a group of two.”
This is classic Kissinger on two levels: first, it shows how he began pondering the opening to China by dangling before the jaded eyes of chairman Mao Zedong the possibility of outfoxing the Soviet Union through a rearrangement of global “understandings.” Secondly, and possibly more important, it answers the question by implication as to who is “the greatest diplomat” of the second half of the 20th century. As a pertinent addendum to this, it is also unsurprising to learn, from an ancient issue of Games and Puzzles magazine (1973), that the dastardly board game Diplomacy is his favourite, with its dark-sided tendency to encourage duplicity and the betrayal of alliances.
As for the dark side of the Kissinger legacy, it is still a source of lively and often toxic debates, and will be for some time to come. In Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979), author William Shawcross argued forcefully that America’s mismanaged attempt to contain the spread of Communism in Asia actually ended up creating, among other things, that lethal killing machine, the Khmer Rouge. A quarter of a century later, in 2002, the English author and provocateur Christopher Hitchens expanded the negative agenda in The Trial of Henry Kissinger by accusing him of being complicit in a conspiracy to commit murder, torture and kidnapping to further America’s global agenda, not just in Southeast Asia, but also in Chile and the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, even at 88, Henry Kissinger would like to counter this sort of thing and assert his own version of history before he dies. On China, therefore, is a major building block in this ambition. Although much of what he writes has already been covered in his other books—three volumes of memoirs and over a dozen on public policy—this one stands out particularly because of the extraordinary economic advances China has staged over the past two decades. How quickly we have adapted to the reality of this “poor and backward” country becoming a superpower.
This is Kissinger’s big story: the emergence of China and his own role in it. He never forgets his first obligation, “first” at least after positioning himself into the midst of the tale, which is to assert the supremacy of United States policy. Along the way, there are useful insights. The book begins with a brisk romp through a few millennia of Chinese history, all of it gleaned from secondary sources, but at least he has the wit to crib from titans in the field like John King Fairbank, Merle Goldman and Jonathan Spence (occasionally erring into what, pace Lenin, we could label “useful idiots” like the Australian sinologist Ross Terrill and the French fantasist Alain Peyrefitte).
The journey through the longest continuous cultural seam in world history allows Kissinger to highlight the essential, ever-present challenge facing Sino-American relations: the United States remains convinced that its “exceptionalism” is missionary, bringing the American Dream to the world, while the Chinese exceptionalism continues to internalize its cultural and historic superiority behind a metaphysical Great Wall. China does not seek to convert, argues Kissinger, but to control.
When senior Chinese officials bristle at American complaints of human rights abuses and insist that it is “an internal matter for the Chinese people to resolve,” it is not just a dodge, it is a cultural statement. When Americans wonder why the Communist government of China overreacts so brutally and clumsily to tiny little democracy movements or self-help groups like Falun Gong, it is because they do not understand—as all stalwart Chinese Communist officials most certainly do—that a small group of committed, idealistic young people can eventually hold an entire nation to ransom and even take the country over. Just like Mao did.
That said, Kissinger is irritating in the brisk manner with which he can dismiss the enduring dark side of Communist rule. No surviving Chinese leader has yet come fully to terms with the grotesque and murderous brutality of the Maoist regime, and Kissinger’s delight in wheeling and dealing with Mao and Chou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping seems to override any pesky side issues like the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. (In fairness, a whole chapter is devoted to Tiananmen, but it is an exercise to show how local disturbances can unbalance larger issues and are thus “unfortunate.”)
Yet it was Henry Kissinger who kept going back to Beijing and kept the diplomatic game going, and we are surely in a far better place today, with China humming away at capitalist dreams of enrichment, than watching the spectacle of Mao’s attempts to hold onto power through mass campaigns, mass purges and mass murder. In any summation of the man’s career, Henry Kissinger’s positive achievements will surely be seen as crucial. He can stand up in the books beside Bismark and the subject of his doctoral thesis, Prince von Metternich (the Bismark and Kissinger of the first half of the 19th century).
But I can’t leave off here, alas, because I too was in China and Southeast Asia when some of this history was unfolding as a lowly Canadian foreign correspondent. What I saw of American involvement at the time has haunted the rest of my life. I saw the cancer that was allowed to envelop Cambodia, and the havoc of Vietnam under American protection. Yet before I returned to Canada at the end of the 1970s, I saw Communist Vietnam invade Communist Cambodia, and then in short order I saw Communist China invade Communist Vietnam.
This surely was what the slyest foreign policy warrior in U.S. history could only dream of happening, because it so furthered the cause of American ascendancy to have the lot of them at each other’s throats. Even in the wildest game of Diplomacy, this would have seemed improbable. And how did it happen? What was the single crucial factor leading to this wild turn of events? It was the departure of American troops from Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia. Their presence and the “forward” American policy of the day was the only glue holding these vile regimes in their unholy alliance. Everything came unstuck when the Yankees ceased coming. This is not in Henry Kissinger’s engrossing new book.
John Fraser is Master of Massey College in Toronto. From 1977 to 1979, he was the Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent, and is the author of The Chinese: Portrait of a People and Stolen China.