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Kissinger admits he was wrong on Ukraine — what about Taiwan?

At 99, Henry Kissinger is a living demonstration that you’re never too old to learn new things — or to unlearn wrong old things. The former secretary of state has implicitly acknowledged that he dramatically misjudged Russia, its war against Ukraine, and the qualities of Ukraine’s leaders and population.

After Vladimir Putin described the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its repressive empire as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” suggesting it should be reconstituted, Kissinger urged America to “show greater sensitivity to Russian complexities.”  

After Putin invaded Georgia, Kissinger stated that “isolating Russia is not a sustainable long-range policy.” Then, when Putin seized eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Kissinger urged Kyiv to adopt neutrality between Russia and the West: “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other.”

In May 2022, he told the Davos Economic Forum, “Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome. Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante. Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”

He explained what he meant by “the status quo ante … the borders existing where the war started on 24 February. Russia would disgorge its conquests thence, but not the territory it occupied nearly a decade ago, including Crimea. That territory could be the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to Kissinger’s suggestion: “It seems that Mr. Kissinger’s calendar is not 2022, but 1938, and he thought he was talking to an audience not in Davos, but in Munich of that time. By the way, in the real year 1938, when Mr. Kissinger’s family was fleeing Nazi Germany, nobody heard … then that it was necessary to adapt to the Nazis instead of fleeing them or fighting them.”

Zelensky’s aide, Mykhailo Podolyak, was even more scathing: “Unfortunately, even after 10 months of war, Mr. Kissinger did not understand anything … neither the nature of this war, nor its impact on the world order. The recipe that the former secretary of state calls for, but is afraid to speak out loud, is simple: appease the aggressor by sacrificing part of the territory of Ukraine with guarantees of non-aggression against other Eastern European states.”

In July 2022, Kissinger responded to the criticism: “I did not say that territory should be given up. I just implied that it should have a separate status in any negotiations.” He said eastern Ukraine and Crimea should be treated differently “because of their significance to Russia beyond the dispute of the current crisis.”

While praising Zelensky’s leadership, Kissinger questioned his global vision: “He has not expressed himself about what the world will look like after the war with the same clarity and conviction with which he has led the pursuit of the war.”

In fact, Zelensky has offered his vision of what Ukraine will look like after the war — whole, free and democratically independent. As for the larger world, he has said it will be measurably safer when Russia’s aggression is defeated.

On Jan. 17, 2023, at another Davos conference, Kissinger began a partial retreat, saying that NATO membership for Ukraine, which he had long opposed, would be an “appropriate outcome. … The idea of a neutral Ukraine under these conditions is no longer meaningful.”

Zelensky diplomatically noted last week, “I’m glad Mr. Kissinger changed his mind.” He politely refrained from saying that Ukraine had changed his mind for him.

So, while Kissinger has been wrong for 30 years regarding Russia and the former Soviet republics, he has been on the wrong side of history regarding China and Taiwan for a half-century. 

His errant path started with his negotiation of the Shanghai Communique, the original sin of U.S.-China relations. Kissinger has written that unless the Taiwan question was at least partially resolved to Beijing’s satisfaction, President Nixon’s historic 1972 pre-election opening to China would not have been possible.

Kissinger saw his task as giving China as much as he had to, without totally alienating America’s pro-Taiwan/anti-China conservatives. The formula he and Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai devised was for each side to state its position on Taiwan and other issues.

China made its usual emphatic claim that Taiwan belongs exclusively to the People’s Republic of China. The U.S. side, decorously, did “not challenge” the Chinese position and merely “acknowledged” it.

That choice of ambiguous terminology, open to contrary interpretations, sent China and the United States in quite divergent directions. Beijing — self-interestedly, and predictably — has asserted ever since that Washington agreed with its position, which it called the “one China principle.”  

Ever defensively, the U.S. maintains that “acknowledging” Beijing’s position is not the same as agreeing with it, and that “not challenging” its claim as the sole governing authority of China does not concede that Taiwan is part of that “one China.” Washington holds firm that Taiwan’s future can only be decided peacefully and by the government and people of Taiwan.

But the complexities and nuances of Washington’s argument escape many people. Foreign governments and populations are more likely to equate “acknowledgement” with “agreement” and to conflate the one China “policy” and the one China “principle.”

Kissinger himself has blended the concepts to Beijing’s advantage, gradually adopting China’s position as his own. At the Asia Society in 2007, he warned Taiwan to get serious about coming to terms with Beijing on its future because “China will not wait forever.”  

It was consistent with his quip when Mao Zedong said during their 1972 talks that Beijing could wait 50 or 100 years to take Taiwan. Kissinger said he was surprised that China “would wait that long.” Xi Jinping, sharing Kissinger’s impatience, is preparing to act using Mao’s lower number.

As he has partially done regarding Russia and Ukraine, Kissinger should correct his flawed judgment regarding China and Taiwan, which has already proved him wrong with its sustained democratic viability.

Kissinger’s latest book on historic world leaders includes Richard Nixon, whose opening to China Kissinger was glad to join, and then to perpetuate regardless of Beijing’s behavior. Yet, he has refused to follow Nixon’s reassessment of China’s unchanged hostility: “We may have created a Frankenstein[’s monster].”

Nor does Kissinger heed Nixon’s 1994 wisdom that China and Taiwan “are permanently separated politically.” It is late — but not yet too late — for Kissinger to change his blemished record. To enhance deterrence, which failed in Ukraine, he should support an unequivocal U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China aggression China-Taiwan tension Henry Kissinger Henry Kissinger Russia Taiwan independence Ukraine war Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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