Kissinger: what he meant for China and the world

To admire the likes of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Churchill or Kissinger you have to be an Aristotelian, a Machiavellian, a Churchillian or a Kissingerian. All three men had their varied reasons for popularity and the greatness they achieved in their lives but one thing common about all of them was their pursuit of academics. I read the work of Kissinger a lot and he helped me in making sense of the world in which we live. He died few days back at the age of 100. The man had an obsession with power and order and as per his critics this undying obsession of the man with power and order was at the cost of humanity. He was a concepts constructer, a creator of strategies and a builder of realities. At his prime in the 60s and the 70s, he served in the administrations of President Nixon and President Ford as US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor respectively.

Three big policy choices that the US made during this period are attributed to Kissinger’s strategic concept and his strategy. The three distinct components of his strategy were: seeking and reviving transatlantic alliance with western Europe, including alliance with the three great European powers France, Germany and England; giving fresh impetus to détente and seeking opportunities of cooperation with Soviet Union, bringing China back in the balance of power by breaking the Sino-Soviet partnership; and seeking to draw the US closer to each party than they were to each other. If I correctly remember Kissinger’s last visit and his last diplomatic engagement, though unofficial, was with President Xi Jinping during his China visit. I even recall the Chinese President lending assistance to this old diplomat to walk. A gesture that in many ways reflected the Chinese thanks and gratitude to a person who cleared Chinese path to global access and global participation and engagement — I call it China’s rebirth.

What China achieved in three decades it did not achieve in the previous three centuries and in many ways the achievements of China reflected the four conceptual beliefs that Kissinger always had — belief in the importance of history; problem of conjecture; benefits of preemption; and the costs of inaction. The crucial changes that came in China could not have come without a critical juncture in their history and that critical juncture was the death of Mao Zedong. When China needed leadership, Chairman Mao provided it, it even needed a revolution and they didn’t have one but two revolutions, first after 1958 in the form of ‘the great leap forward’ to industrialise itself as Mao planned to double the steel output in the country to catch up with the steel productions of Britain. With no feasible means of achieving this target, scrap metal had to be found and people even burnt their pots and pans and even the agricultural tools, hoes and plows to meet the targets. Famine followed and resulted in the death of an estimated twenty to forty million people. This failed Mao policy created a change of heart in another great Chinese leader — Deng Xiaoping who was a very successful general during the revolution. In 1961, in a conference he said, “no matter the cat is black or white if it catches the mice, it’s a good cat.” Meaning that, it did not matter whether the policies appeared communist or not, China needed policies that would encourage production so that it could feed its people. Chairman Mao anticipated another threat and considered that those mulling to create capitalist society were threatening the Chinese communist society and in response he announced the ‘cultural revolution’ to crush those in authority who were encouraging people to take the capitalist road. Deng Xiaoping was jailed, Red Guards were formed across the country and members of the communist regime were used to purge opponents across the country, wrecking both the economy and the human lives.

Then came the critical juncture. Chairman Mao died in 1976. The gang of four — Chairman’s wife Jiang Qing and her three close associates who were great supporters of cultural revolution and the resulting repression — were determined to continue with Mao’s revolutionary policies. But with Mao gone there was a tussle between those with different visions and different beliefs. The turning point was Chinese Premier Hua Guofeng’s coup against the gang of four who within the month of Mao’s death arrested them and set Deng Xiaoping free. The story of China’s rise begins with Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power and a paramount leader in China from 1978 to 1989. Two things are very important to understand in this short and compressed period of Chinese history. Firstly, China would not have experienced the economic growth in Deng Xiaoping’s time had the devastation and human suffering not been caused by the great leap forward and the cultural revolution, as it was these revolutions that caused the sufficient demand for change. Secondly, it was not just the critical juncture in the form of Chairman Mao’s death that came in the lives of the Chinese but also the removal from power of the gang of four that cleared the way for the implementation of alternative policies to move the Chinese nation forward.

The writings of Kissinger qualified much of the change that took place not only in China but rest of the world. About leaders Kissinger said, “The problem of democratic age is that people tend to prefer charismatic leaders over crafty statesmen.” About foreign policy he believed, “there is no such thing as foreign policy, there is only a series of moves that have produced certain results that they may not have planned to produce.” He believed that there is not only right or wrong but many shades in between and one must understand the problem of conjecture with the asymmetric payoffs. I remember most for Kissinger’s contribution in making us understand what world order is and why it is in such a great mess today. He defined it as a concept held by nations and civilisations, conceptualised by the nature of its just arrangements and distribution of power applicable to the entire world. World order, he suggested, rests on two components — set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action; and balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others. Seen in the light of Kissingerian definition of world order, the Israeli military action in Gaza is a classic example of why this order is in a mess today and why countries like Russia and China talk about substituting it.

Lastly, my favourite Kissinger quote is: “Period in high office consumes intellectual capital, it does not create it.” RIP Henry Kissinger!

Published in Other View , December 3rd, 2023.

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