The real politics of realpolitik

Updated: 2011-06-03 08:13

By Lin Jing (China Daily)

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 The real politics of realpolitik

On China spans both Kissinger's four decades as an adviser to the White House and China's millennia of history. Provided to China Daily

 The real politics of realpolitik

Kissinger (left, first row) on his 1971 visit to China. Provided to China Daily

The real politics of realpolitik

Henry Kissinger's new book, On China, purports to tell all. But does it? Kelly Chung Dawson, Yan Yiqi and Lin Jing report.

If there is something to offer clues as to how the world's two largest economies should handle their relations, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger's new book, On China, is that thing, Chinese and Western critics say.

Shi Qiping, a Phoenix TV commentator in Hong Kong, says: "Kissinger is a legendary figure. In the past, he has made many constructive suggestions, some of which have actually changed history to some degree.

"Back in the United States, he has gone through the presidency of 10 presidents, from (John F.) Kennedy to today's (Barack) Obama. In China, he has also witnessed the leadership shift of four generations. That experience helps him better understand the current global situation and where the world is heading."

At the same time, the book points out the potential risks of future Sino-US relations, which have also raised some concern.

"In this book, Kissinger says that right now China and the US are walking toward two extremes," Shi says. "The huge gap between these two extremes would make a new round of Cold War or even war unavoidable. This should have enough attention from both countries and even the whole world."

Hong Kong commentator Kwok Yat-ming says: "In his new book, Kissinger makes a conclusion that if a new round of Cold War breaks out between China and the US, it will impose negative influences on the development of a whole generation on both sides of the Pacific Ocean."

Kwok says Kissinger is fully aware of this as a senior US statesman. And it is unlikely the Obama administration would neglect it.

In the four decades since Kissinger's 1971 visit to China to re-establish contact after years of estrangement, much has changed in the global power structure.

China emerged from a painful isolation to become an economic powerhouse; and the US has been forced to re-examine its role in a world that has Westernized rapidly even as it becomes less Western-centric by the day.

In his new book, Kissinger explores the shifting relationship between the two nations, a tentatively pragmatic friendship the former secretary of state under president Richard Nixon shaped over 40 years in his various roles as a White House adviser.

Despite his contributions, Kissinger argues the Chinese character - both in regard to foreign policy and culture - is tied to a history that preceded its relations with the US by several thousand years. Understanding the key differences between how each nation has been molded is crucial in navigating a tricky alliance that was always inevitable, he argues.

China and the US approach strategy in the same way their most popular games do, Kissinger writes. Weiqi, or go chess, is known in the US as the 2,000-year-old Chinese game and "teaches the art of strategic encirclement". Western chess promotes the "concepts of 'center of gravity' and the 'decisive point'."

"Chinese negotiators use diplomacy to weave together political, military and psychological elements into an overall strategic design", Kissinger writes.

"(American diplomats) feel an obligation to break deadlocks with new proposals - unintentionally inviting new deadlocks to elicit new proposals".

Kissinger's key role in forging the two countries' relationship has never been disputed, and his nuanced understanding of both cultures is evident everywhere in this ambitious, sweeping book.

On China spans both Kissinger's four decades as an adviser to the White House and China's millennia of history. It has been received positively by the Western media, which seem to acknowledge his expertise and experience.

Brett Stephens of The Wall Street Journal writes: "Nobody living can claim greater credit than Mr Kissinger for America's 1971 opening to Beijing ... and for China's subsequent opening to the world. So it's fitting that Mr Kissinger has now written On China, a fluent, fascinating and sometimes infuriating book."

Newsweek's Niall Ferguson wrote: "On China, Kissinger's new book, is a reminder of why our leaders still want to pick his brains." At 88, "he remains without equal as a strategic thinker", he continues.

"The most profound insights of On China are psychological. They concern the fundamental cultural differences between a Chinese elite, who can look back more than two millennia for inspiration, and an American elite, whose historical frame of reference is little more than two centuries old."

Several readers have pointed to the similarities between China's political philosophy and Kissinger's own espousal of realpolitik - the belief that politics should be dictated by practical and material factors rather than ideological or ethical objectives.

"When it comes to talking about Chinese leaders he has met, Mr Kissinger, the hardheaded apostle of realpolitik, can sound almost starry-eyed," The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani writes.

"His sympathy for these leaders is not that surprising, giving his descriptions of them as practitioners of the same sort of unsentimental power politics he is famous for himself."

In fact, it is this sympathy that has garnered the book's main criticisms from a media that takes issue with Kissinger's reluctance to criticize China on the subject of human rights.

"In this book, Chinese leaders never sound unreasonable, but always sensible and pragmatic, unlike the Americans, who make unreasonable demands and have confused ideas about democracy and human rights," the Guardian's Jasper Becker writes.

"(Kissinger) gratefully accepts whatever the Chinese leaders tell him at face value."


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