It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a half millennia, and to bring China’s past full circle in order to illuminate the present. In form, the book is highly idiosyncratic, for it is not exactly a memoir, or a monograph, or an autobiography; rather it is part reminiscence, part reflection, part history, and part intuitive exploration.
To borrow a current phrase, it is a “hybrid vehicle,” and a more accurate title, it seems to me, would have been something like Variations on a Theme in China. If we keep that in mind as a working subtitle, then we can see how the book follows six sequential themes: China’s early history, China’s inadequate attempts to modify the imperial system of the later dynasties, the formative years of Maoist consolidation, Kissinger’s own experiences while orchestrating President Nixon’s 1972 China visit, China’s later cycles of “opening up” and repression under Deng Xiaoping, and a surprise final section that ingeniously links pre–World War I British and German expansion to some of the current problems facing the United States and China today.
For Henry Kissinger, ancient China was a subtle place. That in turn led to its special resonance in the present: “In no other country,” he writes, “is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event,” as Mao often did in discussing policy matters. And Mao “could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions.” How could it not be so? For “Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy.” “Strategic acumen” shaped China’s earliest international policies; and to support its central position it could call on a remarkable series of potential followers and aides.
A good example was the Chinese scholar known in the West as Confucius, who taught by citing examples to a small group of loyal and dedicated students. They reciprocated by drawing on their conversations for practical examples that could create a legacy on his behalf—forming a canon that Kissinger describes as “something akin to China’s Bible and its Constitution combined.” Whereas in the Western world “balance-of-power diplomacy was less a choice than an inevitability,” and “no religion retained sufficient authority to sustain universality,” for China foreign contacts did not form “on the basis of equality.”
Kissinger’s reflections about the Western and Chinese concepts of strategy lead him to posit a stark distinction, one in which “the Chinese…
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