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In Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon found his foreign minister.
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But no matter the treatment, the results were far-reaching. Nixon and Kissinger opened a new relationship with China, while maintaining support for Taiwan. The Soviets were thrown badly off stride, never to recover, thus accelerating the forces that would destroy the Soviet empire. As for Indochina, Mao would take steps to discourage the North Vietnamese, and Nixon and Kissinger would engineer a successful end to the war. (And had our Congress not lost its nerve, it may well have held.)
As Kissinger puts it, “Nixon’s visit to China is one of the few occasions where a state visit brought about a seminal change in international affairs. The reentry of China into the global diplomatic game, and the increased strategic operations, gave a new vitality and flexibility to the international system.”
In her splendid account of the visit, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Margaret Macmillan cites an old Chinese proverb, reportedly repeated by Zhou Enlai: “The Helmsman who knows how to guide the boat will guide it well through the waves. Otherwise he will be submerged by the waves.”
“Or,” adds Ms. Macmillan, “as Mr. Spock will say aboard his spaceship many centuries from now, quoting an old Vulcan proverb: ‘Only Nixon can go to China.’ “
And perhaps only, one might add, with Henry Kissinger as guide and navigator.
THE TRIP SERVES as the dramatic center of this book, with early chapters on Chinese history, culture, politics and warfare. To impose an intelligible framework on China’s relations with the world, China, Kissinger describes differences in terms of two games—chess, the game of the West, the end of which is “total victory,” putting “the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed;” and the Chinese game of we qi, a game based on “a concept of strategic encirclement.”
Given the historic position of China as Middle Kingdom, a useful analogy, especially when analyzing Korea and Vietnam. Of the Korean War, Kissinger writes that the split between Truman and MacArthur suggested to Asian leaders an “inability to harmonize political and military goals,” which in turn suggested a political “vulnerability to wars without clear-cut military outcomes—a dilemma that reappeared with a vengeance in the vortex of Vietnam.” (And may be reappearing today.)
One of Richard Nixon’s basic goals, writes Kissinger, “was to free American policy from the oscillations between extremes of commitment and withdrawal and ground it in a concept of the national interest that could be sustained as administrations succeeded each other.” And that might have happened, had it not been for Watergate. “At a point when American and Chinese strategic thinking was striving for congruence, the Watergate crisis threatened to derail the progress of the relationship….the destruction of the man who had conceived the opening to China was incomprehensible in Beijing.”
Nor is it much more comprehensible today. In 1993, Nixon reportedly said, “I will be known historically for two things, Watergate and the opening to China…. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but Watergate, that silly, silly thing is going to rank up there historically with [China].”
And that may be the case for as long as an aging generation of journalists and historians with ideological and political axes to grind continue to denigrate him. Still, there are strong signs today that reflexive Nixon haters may be finally on their way to extinction, and a newer generation of historians like Margaret Macmillan is taking the field, free from archetypical preconceptions.
Beyond noting that Watergate “threatened to derail the progress of the relationship [with China] by enfeebling the American capacity to manage the geopolitical challenge,” and the subsequent “collapse of congressional support for an activist foreign policy,” Kissinger devotes only two pages to Watergate’s impact, those focused mainly on the Chinese reaction. At first Mao and Zhou suspected it was all a plot to sabotage the embryonic new alliance. ”Increasingly, however, the Chinese accused the United States of something worse than treachery: ineffectualness.”
Since the Nixon trip, Kissinger writes, he has visited China more than 50 times, holding conversations and discussion with Chinese leaders, and engaging in a life-long study of the country’s history. Both China and the U.S., he writes, “believe they represent unique values. American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China’s exceptionalism is cultural. China does not proselytize; it does not claim that its contemporary institutions are relevant outside China.”
Both countries “have been obliged to overcome their internal ambivalences and to define the ultimate nature of their relationship. What remains…is to move from crisis management to a definition of common goals….The future of Asia will be shaped to a significant degree by how China and America envision it and by the extent to which each nation is able to achieve some congruence with each other’s historic regional role.”
KISSINGER CONCLUDES with a discussion of building a new Pacific community, constructed on many of the guiding policies and principles of the Nixon years, with a historical perspective provided by analogies with 19th and early 20th century England and Germany—as might be expected from a student and master practitioner of balanceof- power statesmanship, and an admirer of Otto von Bismarck.
The U.S. has an enormous stake in the Pacific, where despite the current muddled preoccupation with the Middle East, our national future surely lies. Forty years ago, Kissinger writes, the leaders of our nations were willing “to raise their sights beyond the issues of the day…and to lay the basis for a world unimaginable then but unbelievable without Sino-American cooperation.”
“When Premier Zhou Enlai and I agreed on the communiqué that announced the secret visit, he said: ‘This will shake the world.’ What a culmination if, forty years later, the United States and China could merge their efforts not to shake the world, but to build it.”
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