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'Henry Kissinger's world view is mandarin-tinted'

'Henry Kissinger's world view is mandarin-tinted'

Henry Kissinger's world view is mandarin-tinted, says Shashi Tharoor.

Congress MP from Kerala Shashi Tharoor Congress MP from Kerala Shashi Tharoor
Henry Kissinger's book <em>On China</em>
On China

By Henry Kissinger
Allen Lane/Penguin
Pages: 608
Price: Rs 899

Henry Kissinger is arguably the most famous diplomatic elder statesman in the world: winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State to US Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, now highly-paid international business consultant and author of fat volumes of reflections on world affairs, he occupies an exalted place in the international firmament. I have had the privilege, for some years in New York, of benefiting directly from his conversational wisdom, appearing with him on American television, appreciating his intelligence and charm even when I probed him on his inconsistencies about India. He was the architect of Nixon's notorious "tilt" against us in 1971 and is now a leading advocate of close relations with New Delhi. (I have never quite adjusted to calling this venerable giant "Henry".) Yet his most signal achievement remains the one that first thrust him onto the world's consciousness - the secret mission to China in 1971 that paved the way for Nixon's historic visit to Mao Zedong in Beijing and the Sino-American rapprochement that transformed global geopolitics for decades to follow.

On the 40th anniversary of that extraordinary breakthrough, Kissinger has published On China, a volume devoted to his understanding of that complex civilisation, whose "singularity" he describes in an opening chapter before taking the reader on a detailed and somewhat laboured journey from ancient Chinese history through more recent times into the new millennium. It is simultaneously an effort to explain China to the world and to burnish his own credentials as the architect of America's opening to China and its principal interpreter of that country thereafter.

Henry Kissinger, Ex-US Secretary of State
Beijing retained its characteristic willingness to adjust to changes in alignments of power and in the composition of foreign governments: Henry Kissinger
The book marries recent historical scholarship with Kissinger's own insights gleaned from over 50 visits to China - most as the Chairman of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has profited quite handsomely from the author's relations with the Chinese leaders he praises so lavishly in this volume. The result is a combination of potted history, selective memoir, informed analysis and secondhand theorising about Chinese national characteristics.

Kissinger's prose is replete with genuflections to the Chinese people and their "subtle sense of the intangible", as he seeks to "explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order". Thus he makes much of the Chinese fondness for playing weiqi, a complicated game of encirclement far different from the West's (and presumably India's) preference for chess.

In an eight-page account of "the Himalayan border dispute and the 1962 Sino-Indian war", which is far more sympathetic to the Chinese version of events than the Indian, Kissinger describes the Chinese strategy as "the exercise of weiqi in the Himalayas". China's war with Vietnam in 1979 "resulted from Beijing's analysis of Sun Tzu's concept of shi - the trend and 'potential energy' of the strategic landscape".

If that kind of thing gives a dash of local colour to the book, it is not devoid of the more familiar magisterial Kissingerian pronouncements on world affairs. "Foreign policy must define means as well as objectives," he intones (and you can almost hear those gruff Germanic tones), "and if the means employed grow beyond the tolerance of the international framework or of a relationship considered essential for national security, a choice must be made." That choice "cannot be fudged," he adds. In the case of China, his choice is clearly beyond fudging: he loves the place.

The book is understandably Americacentric, and Kissinger writes from the point of a view of an American Sinophile. Both Washington and Beijing are capitals of countries that consider themselves exceptional. "American exceptionalism is missionary," Kissinger writes. "It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world." China's exceptionalism, on the other hand, is cultural: China does not seek to impart its ways to other countries, but it judges "all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms".

America's democratic values are, in his view, a dispensable distraction. Kissinger's unvaryingly sympathetic accounts of China's history and evolution omit any moral judgements of Chinese conduct, aggression or human rights abuses. (Aside from excusing China's behaviour in 1962, the 1979 invasion of Vietnam is explained away as an effort "to preserve the strategic equilibrium in Asia".) Kissinger is unembarrassed to display a soft corner for the Chinese leaders he has met (and whom, as we know from released transcripts, he flattered somewhat more egregiously than his own accounts suggest).

Zhou Enlai conducts "conversations with the effortless grace and superior intelligence of the Confucian sage". Mao he reveres as "the philosopher king." Kissinger acknowledges that in the eyes of some, "the tremendous suffering Mao inflicted on his people will dwarf his achievements", but "if China remains united and emerges as a 21st-century superpower", most Chinese will regard him like the emperor Qin Shi Huang, "whose excesses were later acknowledged by some as a necessary evil".

This amorality is of a piece with the unsentimental pragmatism that he admires in the Chinese as well. 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 judgement."

Kissinger amply returns the favour. On the Tiananmen Square massacre of dissident protestors in 1989, Kissinger writes that the Chinese "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". As for himself, Kissinger balances his shock at the killings with his appreciation of "the Herculean task Deng Xiaoping had undertaken… to remould his country: moving Communists towards acceptance of decentralisation and reform [and] traditional Chinese insularity toward modernity and a globalised world". And, he adds tellingly: "I had witnessed his steady efforts to improve Sino-American ties."

How will these ties evolve, towards cooperation or conflict? Evoking a prophetic memorandum written by a British imperial official, Eyre Crowe, in 1907, about the inevitability of conflict with Germany, Kissinger expresses concern about the emergence of a "Crowe school of thought" in the United States, which sees China's rise "as incompatible with America's position in the Pacific". Coupled with those who see Beijing's conduct as incompatible with American democracy, such thinking could cause both countries to "analyse themselves into selffulfilling prophecies".

Arguing that a close and cooperative United States-China relationship is "essential to global stability and peace", Kissinger repeats his traditional and oft-iterated preference for "a rebalancing of the global equilibrium", calling for a "co-evolution" by China and the US to "a more comprehensive framework". He envisions the emergence of a "Pacific community" with China, paralleling the Atlantic community that America has created with Europe, under which both countries would "establish a tradition of consultation and mutual respect," making a shared world order "an expression of parallel national aspirations".

This sounds alarmingly like the "G-2 condominium" that some Washington strategists would like to see run the world of the 21st century - and it doesn't leave much room for the rest of us. In the American argot that its most famous immigrant habitually eschews: Thanks, Henry, for your mandarin-tinted view of the world - but we ain't buying.

The reviewer is Congress MP from Kerala and a former UN diplomat


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Published on: Jul 21, 2011, 12:00 AM IST
Posted by: Navneeta N, Jul 21, 2011, 12:00 AM IST