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What We’re Reading: Feb. 6, 2018

What We're Reading

|February 13, 2018

Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.

On China
By Henry Kissinger

Will the United States and China fight World War III? That is the question that Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser, poses in his 2011 book on the Middle Kingdom. Kissinger’s book is nothing if not eclectic. It is equal parts history, memoir and policy memo, with some philosophy sprinkled in for good measure. The writing is lively and clear, if overtly deliberate: The entire book is essentially a crescendo for the epilogue, in which he concludes that no, the United States and China are not destined to go to war.

The first chapters of the book rehash some key moments in Chinese history. Kissinger is not interested in the broad scope of Chinese history; readers interested in historical depth would do better to seek out Jonathan Spence’s work. Rather, these introductory chapters seek to lay out some key tropes to which Kissinger will frequently return. He begins by establishing a basis for understanding Chinese exceptionalism – the idea that China sees itself as important and unique. He also shows why China has such a deep and abiding suspicion of outside powers: For over a century, various European powers, the United States, Russia and Japan all took advantage of China.

But Kissinger is at his best when explaining the fundamental differences in Chinese and Western strategic thinking. I have encountered many people who think of China’s foreign policy as fundamentally immature – a colleague of mine once remarked that China would soon become the world’s dominant power if only it developed a tradition of realpolitik.

But Chinese strategic thinking, for geographic and historical reasons, has always differed from that of the West, and as Kissinger will later show, the United States’ inability to peer through the lens through which China sees the world (and vice versa) is one of the biggest impediments to a peaceful coexistence.

Two of the ways in which he illustrates this point are worth mentioning. First, Kissinger contrasts the Chinese strategic game of wei qi with chess, its Western analogue. According to Kissinger, wei qi is about “strategic encirclement,” while chess is about controlling the center of the board. Kissinger moves from there to a close textual reading of Sun Tzu, the Chinese equivalent of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who articulated the concepts of the center of gravity and the decisive point. This, Kissinger notes, is anathema to Sun Tzu. Clausewitz focuses on defeating the enemy on the battlefield. Sun Tzu focuses on positioning one’s self so perfectly as to obviate the need for battle in the first place. Clausewitz will say things like, “If we desire to defeat the enemy, we must proportion our efforts to his powers of resistance.” Sun Tzu would rather attack an opponent’s strategy than its armies and cities. Kissinger returns to this idea throughout his narrative, and uses it to explain the seemingly contradictory foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China, with which he had intimate experience.

His experience comes through in the book. Kissinger was one of the key figures in the transformation of U.S.-China relations that, to paraphrase Zhou Enlai, shook the world. It was Kissinger, after all, who took a secret trip to China in 1971, and in so doing laid the groundwork for then-President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972. The details of how, when and where Kissinger met with Mao, Zhou, and other key Chinese figures from the revolutionary period are enthralling for history nerds, but in some ways, Kissinger’s reflections on this time period are his least insightful. The closer Kissinger was to the action, the less trenchant his powers of observation.

Indeed, Kissinger’s recounting of his various meetings with Mao and his subsequent psychoanalyses of Mao are interesting but not nearly as consequential as Kissinger’s description of Deng Xiaoping, a figure who you can make the case was just as important as Mao and who was the father of the China that exists today. It was Deng who opened up the Chinese economy, discarded chaos as a leadership principle, and, despite overwhelming power, thought a peaceful transition of power to the next generation of rulers was in China’s best interest. It is hard not to feel Kissinger’s immense respect for Deng, and it is hard to come away from this book without developing a similar respect for Deng’s abilities and resilience.

But the climax of the book, and indeed the reason for the book’s existence, is the epilogue. Kissinger begins the epilogue by questioning the oft-made comparison between U.S.-China relations and U.K.-Germany relations on the eve of World War I. Kissinger makes it clear that he thinks the comparison is faulty, but even so, for the benefit of the reader, he traces out the argument behind the comparison, which seems nearly contradictory. In Kissinger’s own words, if the U.S. and China were to fall into the kind of zero-sum trap that the U.K. and Germany did, it would look something like this: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy. The United States would try to organize China’s many neighbors into a counterweight to Chinese dominance … Sooner or later, one side or the other would miscalculate.”

That is essentially a summary of U.S.-China relations since Kissinger published his book. China is pouring resources into its navy and into area-denial capabilities such as anti-air missiles and underwater mines. China is attempting to pick off U.S. allies in the Pacific, and whether with One Belt, One Road, environmental issues, or its stall tactics on the North Korea issue, Beijing has sought to undermine the worth of a U.S. security guarantee. Meanwhile, the U.S. is helping to resurrect a budding alliance of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia focused on containing China’s growing power. Seven years after the fact, Kissinger’s optimism seems misplaced.

“Seems” is the operative word there. As readers of GPF know, we are skeptical of the inevitability of China’s rise. China’s domestic issues, particularly its economic inequality and the underdevelopment of its interior provinces, will preoccupy China in the coming decades, preventing it from supplanting the United States. On this point Kissinger agrees, noting somewhat presciently that what conflict will develop between the U.S. and China will be primarily economic and social, at least for as long as China’s internal inconsistencies prevent it from projecting the kind of power abroad that would bring it into a strategic confrontation with the United States (which we expect to be quite a long time).

This is where Kissinger disagrees. He thinks China can overcome these issues. There’s something downright befuddling about Kissinger’s recommendation for the future of U.S.-China relations. To prevent China and the U.S. from sliding into a mutual antagonism, Kissinger writes about the need for a concept of a Pacific Community, a region which the U.S. and China would help rule together and ensure peaceful development for all. It is strange to read one of the most famous practitioners of realpolitik in U.S. history make a case for a utopian sounding vision of the eagle laying down with the dragon. This is not the type of strategic realignment Kissinger oversaw when China and the U.S. allied against the Soviet Union in 1972, when a shared enemy brought two erstwhile enemies together. Instead, it seems almost like wishful thinking, and forces one to ask whether Kissinger really believes what he says.

Thus is the contradiction of a man like Kissinger, so attuned to the impersonal forces that govern the affairs of nations and yet so invested in the role of the individual statesman to tame those very same forces. The overall narrative of Kissinger’s book betrays the inner contradiction, at once faithful to the depersonalized cycles of Chinese history and fastidious about relaying the statements and personalities of individuals like Mao, Zhou, Nixon, Deng and, of course, himself. It is Kissinger’s professed hope that such individuals can intervene in U.S.-China relations, and through stable leadership and sharp insight bring the bilateral relationship back from the precipice. But individuals can only build levees. Eventually, inevitably, inexorably, the tide always comes in.

Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis

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