Henry Kissinger is still brilliant — and still wrong about China

Henry Kissinger is still brilliant — and still wrong about China
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This past week at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, Henry Kissinger’s former associates met to discuss “Kissinger on Kissinger,” an oral history by the former secretary of State.

The tribute by former China ambassadors Stapleton Roy and Winston Lord was meant to focus on “the brilliance of this man [as] one of the great diplomats in American history.” They proclaimed the tenure of President Nixon’s national security adviser a veritable golden period, a model of foreign policy practice that all diplomats — and presidents — should aspire to follow.  

As they see it, the “conceptual brilliance of the Nixon-Kissinger era” — the president as strategic thinker, his adviser as masterful tactician charged with implementing the presidential vision — cannot be replicated today, and certainly not by the Trump administration.

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Lord, who accompanied Kissinger to all his key China and Vietnam meetings, said his achievements “are lasting, and helped form the architecture we’re working within today,” implying an inherently positive legacy. Lord and Roy cited four examples of foreign policy successes. Nixon’s opening to China naturally headed the list; two of the others, détente and Vietnam, were intimately related to that initiative. (The fourth dealt with the Middle East.)

But the reprise of Kissinger’s diplomatic feats suffers from historical myopia. Roy asserted, for example, that “The breakthrough to China … really was a turning point in the Cold War,” inducing Moscow to enter Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and that “SALT paved the way to détente that ultimately … brought down the Soviet Union.”

In fact, however, the détente period brought heightened Cold War tensions, Soviet global advances, and a near-nuclear confrontation during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was Ronald Reagan who confronted  “the Evil Empire” a decade later, turned that momentum around and caused a Soviet downfall that Vladimir Putin has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Roy’s claim about Kissinger’s second great China-related achievement — Vietnam — is even more astonishing: “They negotiated an end to the Vietnam war that, in retrospect, [is] looked at as a disastrous end. But ... the agreement that was reached in 1973 was on U.S. terms because the key Vietnamese demand throughout the negotiation had been that there could only be an agreement if we got rid of the South Vietnamese government. And the U.S. side would not cave in on that subject.”

How does Roy explain the disaster that followed? “Agreements cannot be implemented effectively if you don’t have the domestic support for doing that.”

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Did Kissinger just learn that elemental diplomatic lesson after Saigon collapsed under North Vietnam’s inevitable full-scale invasion? Or, as a seasoned realist and erudite historian, didn’t he already know it at the time and sign South Vietnam’s death warrant anyway?

At a State Department appearance on Sept. 29, 2010, Kissinger was asked about his much-quoted statement that the agreement was intended to present South Vietnam with a “decent interval” between America’s exit from the war and Hanoi’s final push to conquer it. His answer: “We could not commit ourselves for all eternity to maintain a government against all conceivable contingencies. So, in that sense, the decent interval phrase has a meaning. But when you see what we did and how we acted and how important I thought it was that, even in the last months, we did not look as if we were simply throwing a frenzied people to their fate.”

For his work on this doomed exercise, Kissinger accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. His North Vietnamese interlocutor, Le Duc Tho, was a co-awardee but spurned the prize. He may have been mindful of Patrick Henry’s words on the eve of the American Revolution: “Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, peace!’ but there is no peace.” Hanoi knew there would be no peace in Indochina until the North Vietnamese Army’s tank divisions, not some pajama-clad guerrillas, had conquered South Vietnam. It would insult Kissinger’s brilliance to suggest he did not know it too.

If Kissinger used the decent interval stratagem to get North Vietnam to drop its demand that the U.S. formally abandon support for South Vietnam, it would be consistent with the parallel abandonment of Taiwan when Kissinger told Mao Zedong he was surprised that China’s forcible takeover could be deferred as long as 100 years. Kissinger warned Taiwan in 2007 that “China will not wait forever.”  

Contrasting the Kissinger-Nixon gold standard with Trump’s approach to diplomacy, Lord said “this administration has no sense of strategy at all, where it’s going. It’s the most extreme example of acting on impulse, bluff, phony deals, narcissism.”

But Lord may be confusing tactics (or tweets) with strategy. The Trump administration is confronting China multidimensionally — on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea — as no predecessor ever did. Lord concedes that Trump’s seemingly erratic course has made some gains, but he still considers the tactical twists and turns as strategic “mismanagement.” Yet, the underlying policies Trump is pursuing reflect the overall coherent U.S. approach laid out in the National Defense Strategy.

Nixon’s strategic vision was that “China must change,” and he regretted years later that it had only grown more powerful: “We may have created a Frankenstein[’s monster].” Contrary to Kissinger mythology, his vision was not strategic but transactional — our concessions to China would temper Soviet hostility and give us a “graceful exit” from both South Vietnam and Taiwan. That it failed on all counts is of no great concern to Kissinger; there would be other transactions with China over the ensuing decades.

Trump and his national security team are moving closer than anyone ever has to advancing Nixon’s goal of a healthily changed China that can live within “the family of nations” without “nurtur[ing] its fantasies, cherish[ing] its hates and threaten[ing] its neighbors.”

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.