By MICHIKO KAKUTANI for the nytimes.com
Published: May 9, 2011
It’s been four decades since President Richard M. Nixon sent Henry A. Kissinger to Beijing to re-establish contact with China, an ancient civilization with which the United States, at that point, had had no high-level diplomatic contact for more than two decades. Since then the cold war has ended; the Soviet Union (a threat to both China and the United States and a spur to Sino-American cooperation) has come unwound; and economic reform in China has transformed a poverty-ridden, poorly educated nation into a great power that is playing an increasingly pivotal role in the globalized world.
Henry Kissinger Archives/Library of Congress
Zhou Enlai, left, and Henry Kissinger in Beijing in 1971.
By Henry Kissinger
Mr. Kissinger’s fascinating, shrewd and sometimes perverse new book, “On China,” not only addresses the central role he played in Nixon’s opening to China but also tries to show how the history of China, both ancient and more recent, has shaped its foreign policy and attitudes toward the West. While this volume is indebted to the pioneering scholarship of historians like Jonathan D. Spence, its portrait of China is informed by Mr. Kissinger’s intimate firsthand knowledge of several generations of Chinese leaders.
The book deftly traces the rhythms and patterns in Chinese history (its cycles of turning inward in isolationist defensiveness and outward to the broader world), even as it explicates the philosophical differences that separate it from the United States. Each country has a sense of manifest destiny, but “American exceptionalism is missionary,” Mr. Kissinger says. “It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world.”
China’s exceptionalism, in contrast, he says, is cultural: China does not proselytize or claim that its institutions “are relevant outside China,” yet it tends to grade “all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms.”
Lurking beneath Mr. Kissinger’s musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, “Diplomacy,” is also a sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. It is a book that promotes Mr. Kissinger’s own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Mao’s ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of more recent American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.
Some of the more revealing exchanges between Mr. Kissinger and Mao have already appeared in the 1999 book “The Kissinger Transcripts,” taken from the nongovernmental National Security Archive. Those documents show that Mr. Kissinger employed a good deal more flattery in his wrangling with foreign leaders than his personal accounts might suggest. A lot of the backstage maneuvering in the Nixon White House’s dealings with China will similarly be familiar in outline to readers of Margaret MacMillan’s “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” and William Bundy’s “Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency.”
When it comes to talking about Chinese leaders he has met, Mr. Kissinger, the hardheaded apostle of realpolitik, can sound almost starry-eyed. His sympathy for these leaders is not that surprising, given his descriptions of them as practitioners of the same sort of unsentimental power politics he is famous for himself. This approach, he says, enabled China, “despite its insistent Communist propaganda, to conduct itself as essentially a geopolitical ‘free agent’ of the cold war,” making a tactical partnership with the United States in order to contain its fellow Communist country, the Soviet Union.
This sort of pragmatic self-interest on China’s part, Mr. Kissinger says, has continued. After 9/11, he writes: “China remained an agnostic bystander to the American projection of power across the Muslim world and above all to the Bush administration’s proclamation of ambitious goals of democratic transformation. Beijing retained its characteristic willingness to adjust to changes in alignments of power and in the composition of foreign governments without passing a moral judgment.”
Regarding the brutal crackdown on dissidents by the government of Deng Xiaoping at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Mr. Kissinger says that the American reaction left the Chinese puzzled: “They could not understand why the United States took umbrage at an event that had injured no American material interests and for which China claimed no validity outside its own territory.”