Tag Archives: realism

Review of “On China,” by Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger is the famous American diplomat. His new book, On China, is a fine history of the “Central State” focusing on the late Qing and early Communist periods. On China is destined to be assigned reading in graduate schools for years, because of its fine application of “realist” thinking to the survival of a strong country facing a multitude of high-tech strategic rivals. On China is clearly aimed at the informed political class: professional analysts, thoughtful policy professionals, and opinion makers. The narrative of On China appears to be distorted, either because of Kissinger’s focus on his own time period, his keen insight on what to clarify on what to clarify and what to obfuscate, or both. This is most notable in his incorrect depiction of Deng Xiaoping‘s political standing, as well as the near- complete absence of discussion of the KMT or the contemporary Communist Party.

On China is a good book for anyone interested in how the most radical and dangerous of Communist states managed to position itself in the winning anti-Soviet coalition with a minimum of leadership turnover or domestic discontent. Aside from hints as to Kissinger’s own thinking, however, it contains little new as far as history goes. Kissinger’s purpose is not to write a history. It is to write an introduction to Reality.

The Decline of China and Lessons for the United States

The reaction that many foreign policy teachers will have when reading On China book is, “I hope my students are familiar with the arguments in this book!”The two most striking are Kissinger’s view of the late Qing dynasty’s foreign policy, as well as China’s participation in the Third Vietnam War. Most scholars view both late Qing Diplomacy and the Third Vietnam Wars as failures, where China paid a grievous price for a worsening of relations with its neighbors. Kissinger argues that both of these were calculated triumphs: the late Qing, faced with being surrounded by enemies each of whom was stronger that China, nonetheless maintained regime survival and territorial integrity (more or less) for as long as possible. In other words, the Qing accepted defeat after defeat in vertical, short-term scenarios and were playing to survive in a long-term, horizontal scenario.

As Kissinger writes, “[The Qing] judged that it befell the court’s ministers to repeat what the Middle Kingdom’s elites had done so often before: through a combination of delay, circumlocution, and carefully apportioned favors, they would sooth and tame the barbarians while buying time for China to outlast their assault.”

The Empire of the Great Qing

Kissinger also views the the war between China and Vietnam as a success. He repeatedly uses the Chinese phrase “touching the buttocks of the tiger” to demonstrate how China discredited the Soviet Union’s security guarantee. Kissinger also repeatedly uses the phrase “Indochinese Federation” to refer to Vietnam and its satellite states (Laos and Cambodia), and argues that China’s attack in Vietnam may have prevented Thailand from being the next country to be conquered.

In all time periods China’s strategic situation was basically the same: the country faced high-tech and potentially hostile powers whose interests were a combination of geostrategic expansion and trade. Whether the high-tech enemies were Mongol light-cavalry, Russian gunpowder brigades, or British gunboats, China cleverly used diplomacy to maneuver around its enemies. Indeed, the historic strategic situation of China appears identical to that of Byzantium, as described by Lars Brownsworth in his popular work.

Kissinger’s purpose is clear: the historical position of the Middle Kingdom will soon be shared by that other “central state,” the indispensable nation — the United States of America. The Qing example demonstrates how a superpower can maintain its own national and cultural continuity as long as suicidal decisions do not occur in close order, as they finally did under the disastrous Dowager Empress. Likewise, China’s policy against Vietnam aggression shows how a superpower can use calculated attacks on the client of a rival to maintain the peace.

Kissinger relays some now-famous advise from Deng Xiaoping, which is often considered to be Deng’s version of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” line:

Observe carefully, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.

Kissinger continues with Deng’s secret explanation of his advise — advise which Kissinger clearly wants U.S. leaders to understand and appreciate:

Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.

The Nature of Chinese Communism

Like the Chinese news agency (or any good editor, for that matter), Kissinger argues his point not so much by stating an opinion but limiting what facts he shares. This is most obvious on the time period that he focuses on. Later in the book, however, Kissinger’s power of selecting facts appears to fail him, and he makes statements that are simply untrue.

I think this is intentional.

The greatest hope for peace in our day is probably a United Front between the Chinese KMT on Taiwan and the Chinese Communists on the mainland. That both the Chinese mainland and “Chinese Taipei” are governed by pro-business, pro-trade, patriotic, and mildly corrupt regimes which share a common history is amazing. Yet the KMT regime is nearly absent in the book, which serves as a problem for anyone wanting to understanding China’s “near abroad.” This is especially frustrating in places where Kissinger seems to almost bring it up, like in this transcripts:

MAO: Our common old friend, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, doesn’t approve of this. He calls us Communist bandits. He recently issued a speech. Have you seen it?

NIXON: Chiang Kai-shek calls the Chairman a bandit. What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai-shek?

ZHOU: Generally speaking we call them Chiang Kai-shek’s clique. In the newspapers sometimes we call him a bandit; we are also called bandits in turn. Anyway, we abuse each other.

MAO: Actually, the history of our friendship with him is much longer than the history of your friendship with him.

Misstatement replaces silence later on, however. For instance, consider this:

Deng’s Reform and Opening Up was designed to overcome this built-in stagnation. He and his associates embarked on market economics, decentralized decision making, and opening to the outside world — all unprecedented changes.

Kissinger is probably right about the first and last element in the list, but definitely not the second. Indeed, the disasters that Mao is most associated with — the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutions — were examples of distributed decision making in extremis. Indeed, Mao often appears to be used the term “Left” to mean distributed and “Right” to mean bureaucratic, which leads to the obvious conclusion that, at least as far as decentralized decision making went, Deng did not so much replace statistics” with sensible goals and measures. At the same time, Mao’s Leftward tilts toward distributed decision making were unsuccessful, and so in between revolutions Mao relied on “Rightist” governments led by Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, and Deng Xiaoping.

Mao was willing to sacrifice the lives of 100 million Chinese to build a Leftist future of distributed decision making for China. He was willing to experiment and try new things, at an unfathomable cost in death and destruction, to do so. But in between attempts, when disorder threatened to do away with his power, Mao used Rightist bureaucrats to recharge — to set up the next stage.

Just as Kissinger teases us by raising the issue of the KMT, but not relating it to the Communists, Kissinger also teases the reader here, too. Kissinger writes:

[Mao] stressed his personal goodwill to Nixon, both personally and because he said he preferred dealing with right-wing governments on the grounds that they were more reliable. Mao, the author of the Great Leap Forward and the Anti-Rightest Campaign, made the astonishing remark that he had “voted for” Nixon, and that he was “comparatively happy when these people on the right come to power” (in the West, at least).

The Right are reliable bureaucrats. Mao’s statements is no more shocking that the view of the Soviet Union presented by Tom Clancy: menacing, dangerous, rational, and painfully boring.

(To tie this in with a recent book I read, Lord of the World, under Mao’s use of the terms, the British Communist Party would have been a Right-wing government, while the order established by Pope Sylvester would have been a left-wing movement.)

The effect Kissinger’s silence is compounded by the very next thing he offers, a transcript between Nixon and Mao, in which Kissinger allows the reader to think the line about DeGaulle is a laugh-line, instead of an elaboration of Mao’s view of the Right and the Left:

NIXON: When the Chairman says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.

MAO: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.

NIXON: And General DeGaulle.

MAO: DeGaulle is a different question. They also say that the Christian Democratic party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.

DeGaulle was a “different question” not because the French were quirky, but DeGaulle was unpredictable, and (liked Mao) viewed his government as a dangerous tool and was willing to sacrifice entire provinces to preserve the national essence. The Republicans, the Tories, the CDP, and even the Soviet Communists, however, were lifeless, bureaucratic automatons.

Kissinger tantalizes the reader with parallels left unstated. For instance, Kissinger traces the use of the phrase “peaceful evolution” as first described by John Foster Dulles as a method of ending the Communist threat, then to Deng Xiaoping as identifying a threat to regime survival, then to Warren Christopher as a goal of the United States. But Kissinger writes:

The heir of Mao’s China was advocating market principles, risk taking, private initiative, and the important of productivity and entrepreneurship… Deng’s advise was that China should “be bolder,” that it should redouble its efforts and “dare to experiment”: “We must not act like women with bound feet. Once we are sure that something should be done, we should dare to experiment and break a new path… Who dares claim that he is 100 percent sure of success that he is taking no risks.”

But Deng’s statement is almost word-for-word a copy of Mao’s rhetoric at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. Indeed, both Mao in the late 1950s and Deng in the early 1980s were attempting to weaken the power of central bureaucrats in the economy. Indeed, it was Mao who first recognized the enormous economic potential of experimenting peasants: “As is clear to everyone, the spontaneous forces of capitalism have been steadily growing in the countryside in recent years, with new rich peasants springing up everywhere and many well-to-do middle class peasants striving to become rich peasants.”

A Love to Learn

On China‘s a good book. Kissinger, deservedly, has a very high reputation. So I truly wonder if the problems and omissions in On China are by accident or design. For instance, in the epilogue Kissinger writes:

In all of China’s extravagant history, there was no precedent for how to participate in a global order, whether in concert with — or in opposition to — another superpower.

But this is simply wrong! China and Russia are both successor states to the Mongol Horde. Russia was the first state that China recognized as “sovereign.” Russia had a de facto embassy in Beijing for centuries before any other westerners were even allowed to live in the city. Kissinger even explicitly refers to the history of the three-way continental politics between Russia, Turkestan, and China in in a footnote:

The story of Qing expansion in “inner Asia” under a series of exceptionally able Emperors is related in rich detail in Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005).

So what’s going on?

The answer is that On China is not really a memoir, or a history book, or a country guide. It is a tool to teach foreign policy. Kissinger is following his advise. Quoting a Qing official:

In your association with foreigners, your manner and deportment should not be too lofty, and you should have a vague, casual appearance. Let their insults, deceitfulness, and contempt for everything appear to be understood by you and yet seem not understood, for you should look somewhat stupid.

and quoting Confucius:

Love of kindness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by foolishness. Love of knowledge, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by loose speculation. Love of honesty, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by harmful candour. Love of straightforwardness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by misdirected judgment. Love of daring, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by insubordination. And love for strength of character, without a love to learn, find itself obscured by intractability.

So it is pointless to go on — to challenge Kissinger’s statement that Mao followed Confucius, or Kissinger’s lowballing of the death figure in the Great Leap Forward, or Kissinger’s statement that Deng Xiaoping lost control of the press in the early 1990s, or any of the weird statements that Kissinger makes.

The purpose of On China is learning. While the audience is people who want to learn about China, the intention is to teach Americans international relations.

Kissinger uses the term “reality” 27 times. The 27 instances 27 quotes by Kissinger, which contrast “Reality” with idealism, misapprehension, chaos, hope, friendship, disappointment, expectation, and so on. The purpose of On China is to focus the reader on Reality, and not on the fluffery which so often get in the way.

On China‘s a brilliant book, and succeeds at its goals.

Against Amoral Realism on Taiwan

Taiwan: The Tail That Wags Dogs,” by Michael Turton, The View from Taiwan, 26 July 2006, http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2006/07/taiwan-tail-that-wags-dogs.html.

Later today I will be going on my third Greyhound voyage this month. The first was from Omaha, Nebraska, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the second was from Fort Wayne to Nacogdoches, Texas. Now I am going to The Good Life, Nebraska, possibilities…endless. But before I go, something more serious:


Flag of Democracy

Below is an excerpt from an attack on a report by Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt (retired), of CNA. Admiral McDevitt wrote a report, Taiwan: The Tail That Wags Dogs, for the National Bureau of Asian Research. McDevitt pushes the same fear of Taipei’s influence that some other strategists do, so I am grateful to Michael Truton of The View from Taiwan of highlighting the reports rhetorical slights-of-hand.

An except:

Instead, Taipei’s new guidelines accepted the PRC as the legitimate government of the part of China that Beijing controlled. This move effectively nullified the underlying premise of the 1972 Shanghai Communique that “Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that it is a part of China.” As Harry Harding has stated, “Taiwan basically abandoned the vision of one country, one legitimate government that had been pursued by Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, and for that matter Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.” The 1991 Guidelines for National Reunification softened the political blow of backing away from the old formulation of “one China” by stating that the ROC still envisioned a “one country, one system” future but only when the PRC had become”democratic, free, and equitably prosperous”—just like Taiwan.

This move effectively nullified the underlying premise of the 1972 Shanghai Communique that “Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that it is a part of China.”

Whoa! McDevitt does not add that prior to the Shanghai Communique the US position was that the status of Taiwan was undetermined (the ethically, democratically, and politically appropriate position). McDevitt does not add that Shanghai Communique was a memorandum of understanding among two governments about the status of Taiwan, neither of whom was the legitimate owner of the island, and none of whom consulted its people about its disposition. If don’t get the consent of those whose lives and property you dispose of, you are hardly in a position to complain if they later decide your plans are worthless. But then the Czechs were not invited to Munich either….

In other words, Taiwan democracy is not the problem here. The problem is that the original plan to sell out Taiwan to China failed to take into account the wishes of the people of Taiwan, and policymakers are now paying the price for their urgent need to enjoy that feeling of Playing God with Other People’s Lives. It was easy in 1972 to anticipate that the Taiwanese would take steps to avoid being annexed by China if given democracy, as that was known to both the Chiang government and to US policymakers (lobbying for Taiwan independence began in the 1960s, and there were numerous public and secret reports that gave accurate accounts of the island’s political attitiudes). McDevitt represents a foreign policy establishment that resembles a man who becomes infuriated that the marriage he arranged for his daughter to make himself rich has been rejected by her.

Essentially, this analysis simply blames the people of Taiwan for the errors of US foreign policy decisionmakers. Had the US maintained its original position that “the status of Taiwan is undefined”, it would currently have a great deal more strategic flexibility and it would still retain the moral high ground. It would not be locked into the clearly unacceptable goal of “pushing Taipei into a unification dialogue in order to bring an end to Washington’s 50-year security obligation.” Kissinger, not Taipei, trapped Washington in this moral and political nightmare where it has to sell out a democratic state to an authoritarian dictatorship.

Read the whole thing. The Mandate of Heaven is also impressed.

Growing American International Relations

International Politics 1

How is International Relations an American discipline?
– rational choice emphasis (‘rationalism”)
– calcuated cost/benefits (outcomes and ratios)
– also likely responses of others
– implies realism

instrumental science: suggests science is a tool to further human domination
critical theorists: Western social science extends that domination to other humans

(but not Eastern philosophy — tdaxp?)

(state premption, localization, lack of professionalism as roadbloacks to practical instrument social science
– compare to development of “useless” general aesthetics as developed field i n Europe)

Western/Newtonian/Cartestian/American/Anglo-Saxon worldview
– destruction, creationism, mechanics, individual
– blogospheric: tdaxp link?

Many prominent “American” IR Realists are European
– Hertz, Kissinger, Brezinski, Morganthau
– some non-realist ones two (Hoffman)

“The Great Debatein International Relations”
Idealists (emphasis on ability to reform humanity) v. Realists (emphasis on unchanging state of main)
(idealism as similar to dadaism?)
(idealism after WWI, realism before and after)
(realism as “default” position”)
(what about non-state realism?)

also: Science (focus on quantitative method) v. Tradition (focus on law and history)

Dependency Theory – from Latin America in the 1970s
– blunted by East Asian (ROK, ROC, SING, HK) growth

Ways / Causes of growth of IR
– Professionalization (verticalization)
– Interdisciplinary Borrowing (horizontalization)
(but isn’t verticalization a horizontalization an effect, not a cause?)
– Events (but what did similar events not inspire growth elsewhere)
– Demands (but why demands?)

Is social science more politics driven than hard sciences?
More “progress” in hard sciencess