Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kissinger Gazes into the Chinese Mirror

I feel a warm personal relationship with Henry Kissinger and China because he once got me kicked out of a hotel in Kashgar.  Nothing personal, really: apparently the rule is that when the Chinese elite want to move in a distinguished visitor, everybody gets bumped, including the paying customers in the tourist trade.  Still, it puts me in a position to accept Kissinger's street cred as I read his new book on China.  And to appreciate its particular virtues which her perhaps not quite what he might have hoped.

So: if you take time to read Kissinger on China, the chances are that you already know something about China, and are hoping to learn something more about Kissinger's views on China.   At 88, he remains (persists as?) one of the most interesting foreign-policy thinkers of our time (pity about those Cambodians).  And on this, the subject to which perhaps he gave most thought, he doesn't disappoint.

But more than that, what I suspect you get here is a lot of Kissinger on Kissinger.   He's done this thing before of course--three  volumes explicitly billed as memoirs, of course, and half a dozen or so others of foreign policy thinking--including Diplomacy a far more wide-ranging work.  But here he is nearing the end of  his career, meditating on what was surely his most important engagement, perhaps his most important achievement, he cannot possibly help but meditate upon himself as well.

The point struck me early on when I read Kissinger's sketch of Li Hongzhang, who dominated what passed for foreign policy under the decrepit Ming Qing (!!) Dynasty late in the 19th Century.  Here's Henry on Li:

Ambitious, impassive in the face of humiliation, supremely well versed in China’s classical tradition but uncommonly attuned to its peril, Li served for nearly four decades as China’s face to the outside world. He cast himself as the intermediary between the foreign powers’ insistent demands for territorial and economic concessions and the Chinese court’s expansive claims of political superiority. By definition his policies could never meet with either side’s complete approbation. Within China in particular Li left a controversial legacy, especially among those urging a more confrontational course. Yet his efforts—rendered infinitely more complex by the belligerence of the traditionalist faction of the Chinese court ... 
Kissinger, Henry (2011-05-17). On China (Kindle Locations 1159-1164). 
The Penguin Press. Kindle Edition

Okay, I should  not get carried away here--the late 20th Century United States did not face "foreign powers' insistent demands for territorial and economic concessions."    But when Henry says "[a]mbitious, impassive in the face of humiliation, supremely well versed," surely he is thinking of himself?    So also "his policies could never meet with either side's complete approbation"--?  And perhaps most: "controversial...especially among those urging a more confrontational course."    The soundbyte on Kissinger today (fair or not) probably includes the phrase "war crimes."  It's perhaps difficult to recall the shock and impotent rage Kissnger and his boss the Emperor President withstood from their old allies on the right when they so shattered Cold War orthodoxies by establishing as relationship with our great enemy.   The only other betrayal of equal magnitude would be when Ronald Reagan yanked the pins out from under the Neocons by sitting down to chat with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Kissinger never had to play from weakness the way Li dd. He did have (or felt he had) to make deals, and to bear the acrimony.   "But appeasement is also politically risky," Kissinger writes, "and [threatens?] social cohesion.  For it requires the public to retain confidence in its leaders even as they appear to yield to the victors' demands."

Oh, perhaps I overdo here.  Perhaps Kissinger did not understand  he reflection when he wrote about Li; perhaps he merely saw it.  Either way, I suspect we are getting some of Kissinger's self-appraisal here, the taste of a summing-up.  And I'm actually only in the early chapters of the book; I look forward to much more of the same.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I was linked through her by Professor Delong's website.

Just wanted to point out that in the 19th century China was ruled by the Qing dynasty, not the Ming. The Ming's were overthrown almost 200 years before China's humiliations of the 19th century.

Buce said...

Of course. Thanks for the carch.

Ken Houghton said...

"one of the most interesting foreign-policy thinkers of our time (pity about those Cambodians)"

And the Tibetans and Taiwanese who were sacrificed so that this book was possible.

You're "forcing" me to subject my kids to Nixon in China tonight. There are worse fates, as those who believed "SuperKraut" was ever loyal to them have consistently discovered.

Whether it's made all the worse by his being charming in person is left as an exercise.

Anonymous said...

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