Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: On China

On China

On China, by Henry Kissinger: History of Chinese diplomacy by the master of Realpolitik. An arrogant know-it-all but he was there. A-

From On China, by Henry Kissinger:

Open quote 
Just as there are no great cathedrals in China, there are no Blenheim Palaces."

Henry Kissinger was there at the beginning, when the great freeze in China/US relations ended. He prepared the way for Nixon to go to China after a generation of virtually no official contacts. Kissinger has been involved ever since, a trusted intermediary between the Chinese and US governments, despite having no official portfolio. That's what makes this history so valuable. Kissinger's first hand accounts of relations with a rising powerhouse in Asia could be written by no one else.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: A-

Kissinger is an expert on China, but more so, he's an expert on international diplomacy. Reading one of his books (I recommend Diplomacy, a 300 year history of diplomacy centered on Europe) is like watching a childhood game of "Risk" being played for real by adults. You won't learn much about art or literature or economics or social studies, but you will learn a lot about national interest and one way to play the game of international relations. National interest for most countries in most eras means security, power, and prosperity. By Kissinger's rules, national interest trumps promotion of human rights, democracy or free enterprise, even the prevention of and/or ending wars. Aligning the national interests of two great powers like the US and China is a delicate game that Kissinger loves to play ... and tell about.

There's no better historian than Kissinger in explaining not just what happened, but why, and from a first person perspective. That history runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom. During the Cold War, Americans considered China as much of a threat as the Soviet Union. Americans fought the Vietnam War in part to keep "Red China" from toppling dominoes across southeast Asia. In On China, Kissinger reveals how the US and China had a de facto alliance against the USSR from the 1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American and Chinese leaders jointly worked behind the scenes to smooth national passions on both sides during the occasional crises that arose. Not even the war in Vietnam interfered with the de facto alliance. Since the end of the Cold War, the motivation for the de facto alliance has changed, but it's as strong as ever. The US realizes that China is on its way to being an economic powerhouse. Its internal stability and good relations with the international community are vital to the peace and prosperity of the entire world.

You don't have to like Kissinger to admire his talent. And you don't have to agree with every move he makes to learn something about China, the Chinese mindset, and the way forward for America in a world where China plays an increasingly important role.


"'If China remained closed, then the doors would have to be battered down.' All of China’s diplomatic maneuvers and abrupt rejections only delayed an inevitable reckoning with the modern international system, designed as it was along European and American lines. This reckoning would impose one of the most wrenching social, intellectual, and moral strains on Chinese society in its long history."

"In Mao’s interpretation of history, the Confucian order had kept China weak; its 'harmony' was a form of subjugation. Progress would come only through a series of brutal tests pitting contradictory forces against each other both domestically as well as internationally. And if these contradictions did not appear by themselves, it was the obligation of the Communist Party and its leader to keep a permanent upheaval going, against itself if necessary."

"Mao added a novel dimension to power politics, one for which I know of no precedent. Far from seeking the support of either superpower -- as traditional balance-of-power theory would have counseled -- he exploited the Soviet-U.S. fear of each other by challenging each of the rivals simultaneously."

"That China and the United States would find a way to come together was inevitable given the necessities of the time. It would have happened sooner or later whatever the leadership in either country. That it took place with such decisiveness and proceeded with so few detours is a tribute to the leadership that brought it about."

"Hanoi fought only for its own national account. And a unified Communist-led Vietnam, victorious in its second war in 1975, would turn out to be a far greater strategic threat to China than to the United States."

"Peaceful development, Dai stresses, is a task for many generations. The importance of the task is underscored by the suffering of generations past. China does not want revolution; it does not want war or revenge; it simply wants the Chinese people to 'bid farewell to poverty and enjoy a better life'"

On China, by Henry Kissinger, is available from the Richardson Public Library in Kindle format.

No comments: