Aaron Friedberg: The Unrealistic Realist

Roundup: Talking About History

Aaron Friedberg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. His latest book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, has just been published by W.W. Norton.

On China
By Henry Kissinger
(Penguin, 586 pp., $36)

Henry Kissinger may be the most influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II, and he is certainly the most prolific. Since stepping down as secretary of state in 1977, Kissinger has written eight books, totaling more than seven thousand pages and several million words. And this is to say nothing of the five books he wrote before attaining high office, and the innumerable articles, essays, and speeches he has produced since. Like the man himself, these works are ambitious, prolix, self-serving, and at times brilliant.

Now there are these six hundred pages on China. Kissinger remains a professor at heart. He still sees himself as a theorist, an analyst, and a teacher, albeit one with a maddeningly obtuse, stubborn, and habitually misguided pupil. For over half a century he has sought to temper, if not to dispel, the idealistic illusions of his countrymen, and to educate them in the harsh realities of power politics. This book may not be Kissinger’s last will and testament, but it does contain a recapitulation of the basic themes and ideas that have been present in his work since his days as a graduate student....

Kissinger’s account of Sino-American relations can be divided into three phases. In the first phase, from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 to the resumption of relations that began in 1969, the two nations were driven apart by ideology. American statesmen, including Dean Acheson, initially hoped that Beijing could be coaxed away from Moscow by emphasizing the threat posed by “Russian imperialism” to Chinese independence and sovereignty. But Acheson’s conception of an alignment “based on national interest, not ideology” was shattered by the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula. Such a possibility “would not be put forward again by a senior American official for another two decades.”

Following China’s entry into the Korean War, it seemed obvious that the West faced an ideologically unified “Sino-Soviet bloc.” Suggestions to the contrary were seen as naïve, possibly even treasonous. Washington’s unyielding anti-Communism was more than matched during the 1950s and 1960s by Mao’s fanatical pursuit of “continuous revolution” at home and his support for world revolution abroad.

When they finally met in 1972, Richard Nixon reportedly told Mao that what mattered was “not a nation’s internal philosophy” but rather “its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us.” As good realists, Nixon and Kissinger were not overly concerned that the hands they shook in Beijing were soaked in the blood of China’s own people. Looking back, Kissinger devotes more attention than in his previous writing to the barbaric madness of Mao’s internal policies, most notably the “Great Leap Forward” that resulted in a famine that took at least twenty million lives, and the “Cultural Revolution” that upended China’s society and all but destroyed its educational system.

But even as he describes the insanity of these domestic experiments, Kissinger retains an odd admiration for Mao’s strategic acumen. In Korea, and again in the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1958, the confrontation with India in 1962, and the border clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969, Mao practiced a form of “offensive deterrence,” first luring in his opponents, then dealing them a sharp and stunning blow. The purpose of these surprise attacks was less to impose a traditional military defeat than to compel the enemy to back down by sending a potent signal of Chinese resolve. Kissinger recounts these maneuvers in loving detail, describing what he sees as a distinctively “Chinese style of dealing with strategic decisions: thorough analysis; careful preparation; attention to psychological and political factors; quest for surprise; and rapid conclusion.”...

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