Monday, October 31, 2011

On China by Henry Kissinger

When I was an undergraduate in my class on 19th Century Europe with David Schoenbaum, he assigned us to read A World Restored, Kissinger’s work on the Congress of Vienna that created the post-Napoleonic European state system that lasted until the First World War. Of course, we knew who Kissinger was, as he was then serving as Secretary of State, and before then he served as Nixon’s national security adviser. Since then, I’ve read a big chunk of his book Diplomacy (very interesting, but I got distracted, by another book project. I’m definitely going back). Thus, as you can discern, Dr. K has some credentials with me. But, I thought, isn’t he really an expert on the European state system, you know, Westphalia, Vienna, Versailles, etc.? What does he know about China? I know that he went there to pave the way for the rapprochement led by Nixon, but just another stop on a busy itinerary, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. At age 88, he’s published a very engaging, nuanced book about China’s relation to the world that provides a fascinating and lasting impression. In fact, Dr. K has been to China on over 50 occasions, and he continued to meet with Chinese leaders well after he left office. Thus, we get the insights and thoroughness of a great scholar as well as the insights of a statesman who lived and contributed to much of the history that he discusses.

Dr. K understands Chinese strategic thinking. For instance, think of the Japanese game called “go” as the eastern counterpart to chess in the West. These two games display different perspectives on strategic thinking. After this foray into culture, Kissinger goes deeply into Chinese history in the 19th century, as China comes under domination by the Western powers. He recounts how China begins its long march back to great power status (where certainly it is today). Kissinger documents the Chinese perspective very well (at least from my limited knowledge). Of course, when he becomes a player, things begin to get more interesting in the book and in the world. The great Chinese leaders now come alive under first-hand observation. What a treat!

The final part of the book allows Kissinger to analyze how the future might unfold in light of the past. The historical example most often cited as a precedent for U.S.—Chinese relations is the rise of Germany in the second half of the 19th century and how that challenged Great Britain, the dominant power. Of course, we know that these two leading powers collided in WWI, a huge calamity. Are the U.S. and China destined for a violent encounter as China rises relative to the U.S.? Kissinger gives hope that this precedent need not prove the case. In this discussion, Kissinger shows himself the true statesman and diplomat. Careful and nuanced considerations of national interests, strategic, economic, and cultural (including human rights issues)—all must be carefully weighed, valued, and applied. No, there are not quick and easy answers, but answers, he believes, can be found.

A terrific book (best of the year)? I should also add that I listened to it, and the narrator, who sounded quite American most of the time, pronounced Chinese names as I would expect 1HP to have pronounced them, so this lent an air of authenticity to the reading.

1HP: After you’ve read this book, I would be delighted to share a guest post.

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