Why is Kissinger so reverential and nostalgic about China?
In the last chapters, retracing the years since he left office, Kissinger still tries to plant himself center-stage—and still pays tribute to Chinese leaders whom he portrays operating on a lofty plane well above the mundane concerns of ordinary politicians. As he compares visits to China today with those of four decades ago, he emphasizes the subtlety of the government's diplomacy, even though some of its recent actions concerning the South China Sea and even Norway (which gave Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize) seem more heavy-handed than subtle. "What has not changed significantly," he marvels, "is the meticulous preparation, the complexity of the argumentation, the capacity for long-range planning, and the subtle sense of the intangible."
Meanwhile, the Chinese people are determinedly civic-minded and public-spirited in Kissinger's portrait: "Among the many extraordinary aspects of the Chinese people," he writes, "is the manner in which many of them have retained a commitment to their society regardless of how much agony and injustice it may have inflicted on them." This is a romantic stereotype that dates back to the 1970s, when China was first opening up, and visitors would report that if they left a used razor blade in a hotel room, a hall attendant would rush down the hall to return it to them. It is out of touch with today's China, where private interests often overwhelm wider social loyalties. Not a few Chinese people fear for the safety of their food, health, or pensions precisely because of the society-be-damned greed of others who pollute, dilute, or cheat.
Kissinger's account will have no trouble passing muster with any Chinese vetters, and thanks to an increasingly affluent middle-class readership in China, that spells a potential for lots of book sales. But there is another, more charitable interpretation of Kissinger's interest in a Chinese readership. He seems increasingly anxious about where the United States and China are headed and is eager to prevent any future confrontation. In his epilogue, he recounts how the rise of Germany in the 19th century led to World War I and examines the possibility that this history may repeat itself with the rise of China. He warns about nationalistic Chinese "triumphalists" who believe the United States is in decline. And he frets about Americans who want to build up military power for what they believe to be an inevitable conflict with China.
Kissinger has been trying to convey his views to American audiences for nearly a half-century. He has generally succeeded in persuading other American presidents and secretaries of state not to stray too far from the path he set in the 1970s. This time, it appears, he seeks to reach a mass Chinese audience as well with a plea for continued cooperation with the United States. Although Kissinger admits to a degree of pessimism about the chances for success, he still offers hope: "Every great achievement was a vision before it became a reality," he writes. His own view of China, however, is now four decades old, and these days new the leaders of a more assertive China seem to be taking the country further and further away from his vision. Kissinger long ago created a new reality, but now his edifice is crumbling. Perhaps it's no wonder he's nostalgic.
James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Obamians.