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review: non-fiction

Early in 1971, operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency and Chinese Nationalist secret police stole linens from a hotel room where Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai had stayed outside China. Not long afterward, as an eventual U.S. Senate report told the head-shaking tale, the agents paid an Italian neo-fascist group to equip a CIA-trained dog named Kelly with a remote-controlled bomb, have Kelly sniff the sheets for the scent, and in due course set the diligent German shepherd off to trot up to Zhou's party when he appeared on the street during a diplomatic trip to Paris. Fortunately for Kelly, Zhou, Henry Kissinger and most of the rest of us, the CIA aborted the plot at the last minute when the trip was cancelled.

At the same moment Kelly was to come at him, tail wagging and bomb ticking, we now know, the Chinese premier had already arranged for then-national security adviser Kissinger's historic secret flight from Pakistan to Beijing in July, 1971, the epic opening to China that shaped much of the close of one century and the start of another.

Obviously, not even the White House at its Machiavellian worst could have approved the assassination. But then Kissinger and president Richard Nixon were scheming their consummate diplomatic coup de théâtre in their usual obsessive secrecy, plans kept as much from their own government as from any foreign state. And the CIA and Chinese Nationalist secret police down the line, trying routinely to kill Zhou since 1955, never got the memo on Great Power triangular diplomacy, because there was none. A detonating dog, of course, could have changed history, and almost certainly would have cost us the advent of this remarkable book. As Kissinger well understands, statesmanship can be a close-run thing.

On China is an event in the culture of U.S. foreign policy. As he has in the past, both bureaucratically and literarily, the former White House adviser and secretary of state has brought genuine seriousness and intellect to a realm dominated, especially with his ever-more-mediocre successors, by sound-bite shallowness. Washington policy-makers have difficulty writing their reflections, it is said, simply because they never reflect. In his eighth book since leaving his sensational tenure at the centre of world events from 1969 through 1976, Kissinger is yet again the exception.

The ambition here is impressive, with sweep and scholarship to match, nothing less than Kissinger's own Long March across the cadence and chaos of modern Chinese history, endeavouring to understand how such an immensely rich and complex culture sees and relates to the outside world in a maelstrom of imperial decay, national turmoil and ideological upheaval, the rise and fall and rise of the most populous people on Earth rescued from inscrutability (always the excuse for Washington's ignorance and blundering) by a sensitive, penetrating appreciation of the ancient paradox of tradition and change, the insular and the international.

With his own scholarly background principally in European history, Kissinger obviously owes a debt to Western authorities on China such as Jonathan Spence, his old Harvard colleague John King Fairbank and others who took on these daunting depths before him - though he commands a credential none of them enjoyed. Much of this history he has seen intimately, has made in part himself in his remarkable diplomatic introduction to China in multiple missions for two presidents, and in a constant involvement with Chinese affairs over the past 35 years out of office as a renowned consultant on global politics.

It is a further education, the broadening of a sometimes narrow Eurocentric mentality, that is nothing less than extraordinary in public figures at his level - and, it cannot be said too often, an erudition unimaginable in the lacklustre lot who have followed Kissinger under administrations of both parties. What is on display in these pages goes to the heart of the United States' predicament in the early 21st century, the curiosity, sensibility and intellectual rigour about another society that are the essentials of intelligent foreign policy anywhere on the planet, and that have gone missing in action in Washington for decades.

Not least, he has written On China with a liquid grace that happily surpasses the old Kissinger as much as his connoisseur's awareness of a non-European world. He might not be a great writer, he used to joke with his White House staff, but his prose required a great reader. No more. Simply the same thoughtfulness the author applies to his new passion.

Still, for all the laudable achievement and singular place in the genre, there must be the usual cautions about Kissinger's irrepressible self-promotion, part of the chemistry, after all, of how he got to Beijing to begin with. Some of the best of his first-hand portraiture of Chinese leaders suffers from an old mirror-mirror-on-the-wall impulse. A sometimes doddering, cryptically elliptical Mao "dominated" gatherings, while the elegant Zhou "suffused" them with the mastery of a "Confucian sage." The admiration is hardly accidental. "Electric, quick, taut, deft, humorous" - his memoir described Zhou in terms much as he imagined himself, the Chinese premier a statesman with whom he "shared," as Kissinger put it with no false modesty, "a powerful intellectual analysis."

There are also some stunning non sequiturs when the author ventures from pondered history to the tumult of the recent past with a regime whose subtlety he sees as a kind of exoneration. Kissinger is "shocked" by the brutal repression of Tiananmen Square, yet "unlike most Americans," saw it somehow explained by the Herculean efforts by Deng Xiaoping, a "doughty little man with the melancholy eyes," to drag his backward colossus of a country into globalizing decentralization and reform. He is even ready to suggest that Mao's doctrinaire madness of the 1960s, sacrificing millions to beat the old China into revolutionary compliance, was "a necessary evil" for the nation's unity and superpower status in the next century.

When the grand canvass of culture and power is done, when the last tête-à-tête realpolitik has been recalled, the limits of this elite history are rather too stark. In his new-found sensibility, as in his foreign policy, with its decidedly mixed results worldwide, Kissinger is at his best in the old diplomacy, the settling of suitably vague relationships, boundaries of all sorts, the contours of statecraft. He was, and remains, much less adept in the messy human realities of global politics, the headlong social and economic unfolding just outside the government ministry, and which classical diplomacy is invariably late to see, much less understand.

Thus the book's omission of all-too-timely subjects crying out at the climax of its sensitive survey: the issues of the United States' enormous debt, of China's growing military challenge, of the crude 2011 crackdown of a shaky, ever-fearful dictatorship of party princelings who make the old Soviet Communists look like raging populists. It takes a strong dose of analytical realpolitik to correct for Kissinger's often rhapsodic view of a high-tech mandarinate - direct or indirect clients, after all, of Kissinger Associates - in the process of losing the mandate of heaven in either Confucian or Marxist terms, a fate from which not even Wal-Mart or Google can save them.

But then, all the more reason for welcoming Kissinger's informed plea for context, patience, mutual respect in the fateful relations between America and China in the decades of their inevitable power rivalry ahead. To deal with the technocratic party princelings in their remnant moment, as with their post-communist successors, it is hard to imagine Washington doing better than to start with the earnest if still self-adoring wisdom of the diplomat who started it all.

Roger Morris, who served on the National Security Council staff under presidents Johnson and Nixon, is an award-winning historian and biographer, whose work includes books on Richard Nixon, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Henry Kissinger.