Imagining a world without Henry Kissinger(s)

This month 40 years ago, the world was shaken when President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger paid a historic visit to the People’s Republic of China. The visit was an exploration of the possibility of normalizing what would later become the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

After more than two decades of ideological animosity and Cold War anxiety, both countries decided that it was in their best interests to expand the common grounds between them out of geopolitical and realpolitik (i.e. realist politics) considerations. This game-changing move not only effectively curbed Soviet expansion, but also laid the groundwork for burgeoning trade between two key players on the international stage.

The “Nixon goes to China” event still bears value today: Kissinger’s China strategy illuminates a rough template for US foreign policy to minimize unstable factors that might harm US interests, such as nuclear development in North Korea and Iran.

After more than two decades of isolation, failed policies and deteriorating relations with the USSR, China became willing to move towards co-existence with the West — particularly the US — to balance against Soviet menace. Mainland China suffered terribly following the ideologies and strategies of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); the country became poorer, more insecure and almost completely chaotic as a result.

In declining health, chairman Mao Zedong (in office 1949-1976) was in a protracted conflict with his presumed successor Lin Biao, who later died in a mysterious plane crash. Reform-minded, de facto leader-to-be Deng Xiaoping was under house arrest in Jiangxi. Since at least the onset of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, the Chinese were increasingly suspicious of Soviet regional intentions and fearful of a preemptive Soviet military attack. China’s communist future was left up in the air.

Inside the US, there was a converging geopolitical outlook regarding restraining Soviet power, and the Nixon administration strongly felt the need to cooperate with China since its first day in the White House. In addition to China’s potential role as a counterbalance to Soviet expansion to fundamentally alter the Cold War dynamics, Kissinger recognized that engaging China was intrinsically important, given China’s size and inevitable importance. Not ending the total isolation of China would leave things very dangerous.

Thus, the Nixon-Kissinger team was determined to extend the olive branch to China before there was any commitment on the part of China to work out its internal political squabbles. At the time, China did not promise any economic reforms, rapprochement with Taiwan or a repudiation of its support for leftist national movements in Africa and Latin America. In addition, American experience with Communist diplomacy was based on contacts with leaders of the Soviet Union, who were inclined to turning diplomacy into a test of bureaucratic will; thus, the effectiveness of engaging China was highly uncertain.

Kissinger, who had almost no academic background in China and did not speak a word of Chinese, was determined to act as the “Big Man” to defend and protect his China design from conservative hawks in the national security circle who periodically tried to kill it. After much futile back-channeling efforts, Kissinger finally sealed the deal for Nixon to meet with chairman Mao Zedong and premier Zhou Enlai in the February of 1972.

Kissinger has perhaps a quite naïve vision about China, as far as his interpretation of modern Chinese history in his recently published book “On China” is concerned; yet his insight, courage and naiveté were much-needed to bring US foreign relations to new heights.

It could be very scary to live in a world without Henry Kissinger(s) and where US-China relations are strained. Thanks to Kissinger’s ability and willingness to raise sights beyond the predicament of the day, the US and China did not follow a US-Soviet Cold War-style rivalry path; instead, the Sino-American relationship is at the stage of co-evolution, where the two countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperate when possible and adjust their relations to minimize conflict.

Geopolitics drove the US-China détente; it could do the same between Washington and Pyongyang and between Washington and Tehran. In my previous column, I discussed the willingness on the part of North Korean leaders to normalize bilateral relations with the US in the face of expanding and intensifying Chinese leverage in the region. Engagement with North Korea will not only strengthen US influence in East Asia, but also avoid a potential nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. Likewise, a similar path can be pursued to advance US-Iran relations. Both Iran and the US want stability in the region, the end of terrorism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and the reincorporation of Iran into the international community.

However, in the American-Iranian scenario, Kissinger’s China strategy falls short in one critical aspect: while Mao was ready to open China’s door to the US, Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei is not. To the contrary, Khomenei believes that the U.S. will not cooperate with Iran until he is overthrown. In light of this, the US needs to halt covert operations to destabilize Iran in both words and deeds, and the US president should identify an intermediary that Khomenei trusts to convince him that it is advantageous and safe for Iran to explore diplomatic possibilities with the US.

In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” German philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that the world would embrace perpetual peace in one of two ways: by human insight or by conflicts and catastrophes so devastating that humans are left with no other choice. We are at such a juncture, and the existence of Kissinger-like figures makes a difference in which path we take.

Shiran is a senior. You can reach her at sshen1@swarthmore.edu.

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