To whom should we look for guidance, in the toils of our Afghan perplexities? Well, obviously, the Duke of Wellington. So at any rate Henry Kissinger thinks. Don’t go imagining this has anything to do with the Indian empire, either. Ten minutes into our conversation he remarked that policymakers should be thinking … Belgium. Yes, Belgium. Pausing for a moment between observations delivered with a rumble so basso that it automatically sounds profundo, the Doctor waited to see if the history professor would get it.
And suddenly I sort of did. Never mind the weird vision of the Hindu Kush relocated to the Flemish mud, both have been states that have never quite been made; theatres of contending languages and faiths, doormats for unscrupulous neighbours – the Scheldt! the Meuse! Waziristan! “Throughout the 18th century and earlier,” Kissinger resumes, like a patient tutor, “armies had marched up and down through Flanders.” As indeed they had, triggering appalling, endless wars. What was Wellington’s answer, at the dawn of Belgian independence in the early 19th century? Internationally agreed neutrality. “It lasted for 80 years.” We should be so lucky, the Doctor implies, with Afghanistan.
At 87, Henry Kissinger, who has an epic and, in some places, surprisingly moving book out on China, is history, but certainly not in the sense of past and gone. Quite the opposite. In his office at Kissinger Associates in midtown Manhattan, he invites me to sit on his left, advising that one eye no longer works as well as it should. But there is precious little evidence of much other infirmity. The wavy hair is snowy, the broad face is more lined but the analytical mind is still razor-keen, delivering serial judgments at a steadily thoughtful pace; the reflections of an old magus, Yoda rescripted by Machiavelli. Kissinger lives, technically, in Manhattan and Connecticut but his real abode seems to be in a Parnassus of classical statecraft, where, on a daily basis, Bismarck tips his hat to Metternich while a somnolent Talleyrand, from beneath powdered wig, winks knowingly at Zhou Enlai.
There are good and not so good aspects of this lofty perch from which he surveys the panorama of national foibles. On the one hand, the Olympian prospect enables Kissinger to see the bigger picture. On the other hand, a lifetime’s immersion in the studious formalities of official business, the diplomatic obligation of wariness, has planed his conversation smooth of the knots and scuffs of the human condition. In the China book, though, human reality is very much present in his warts-and-all portraits of Mao and Zhou, Deng and Ziang Zemin. Kissinger chuckles deeply, as if gargling with pebbles, when he remembers the aged Mao, not going gentle, declaring theatrically that “God will not want me,” or insisting that he wanted to be “cursed”, to prove that even at the end he was imperially potent enough to provoke fear and rage.
I have tried my best not to like Henry Kissinger for the usual Nixon-Cambodia-Chile reasons, but more than once I’ve been comprehensively disarmed. Seventeen years ago I was assigned the review of his book Diplomacy, which I anticipated would be an eye-opener about the culture of the craft; the ways in which momentous decisions can turn on picayune matters of ostensibly trivial protocol. I had in mind the lengthy debate, at once absurd and weighty, over the shape of the table in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. Were there not telegrams whose poor wording triggered disaster? Cocktail party fiascos that had turned into international incidents? Instead, Diplomacy turned out to be a fairly conventional but elegant narrative of 19th-century foreign policy; the statecraft of the grandees of European power. In its way it was just fine: often illuminating, especially about Bismarck, on whom Kissinger had done much research at Harvard, and the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which had been the centrepiece of his A World Restored, still the best thing on its subject. I said as much in the review, while regretting the missing sociology of diplomatic practice.
A week or so after the review appeared the phone rang. The courteous voice was deep, dark and German. Oh sure, I thought. Two days earlier a mischievous friend had impersonated Kissinger on the phone convincingly enough to dupe me into believing I was being berated for the review, before I got wise to the trick. When a second call came, I was on the verge of answering with my own, pretty good, Nixon impression before realising, in the nick of time, that this was, in fact, the actual Doctor, expressing a polite mystification about the sort of book I had wanted him to write and asking me if I would consider explaining more fully in person? After the deep breath I thought, hell, why not? At the front door of his apartment, I told myself: this might be a bad idea, but it was too late. With one hand Kissinger (rather than the expected Manhattan flunky) hospitably opened the door and – this was the moment of disarmament – with the other dropped a dog biscuit into the open and appreciative mouth of a floppy hound. Wars have been averted with less.
Disconcertingly, nearly 20 years later, Kissinger remembered the incident (his memory remains prodigious), continuing the Schama-Disarmament programme by telling me that he’d tried to incorporate some of the insights I had wanted in his new China book. Caught off balance by the light touch of the flattery, I recalled that I had indeed noticed passages that dealt with the display of Chinese power as a kind of cultural performance: the banquets, the toasts, the exquisite calibration, inherited from imperial precedents, as to how and when foreign envoys might be admitted to an audience with The Chairman. Without this shrewd attentiveness to what he nails as “hospitality as an aspect of strategy” Kissinger believes the opening to China might never have happened; and the world would be a very different place.
The China book, then, is different from anything Kissinger has hitherto essayed in print: a journey towards cultural empathy by two powers that seemed, at the outset, prohibitively ill-equipped to acquire that knowledge. Looking at Nixon and Mao, listening to their utterances, they should have been the oddest of odd couples. But paving the way for the “quasi-alliance” were Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, and the heart of the book is the story of their personal rapprochement, born of a mutual effort to understand an alien and incomprehensible culture.
But then, of course, the first alien and incomprehensible culture that Henry Kissinger had to negotiate was that of the United States of America. He was already 15 when his family arrived in New York in 1938, fleeing the Nazi Reich. There were ways and communities to ease the shock: a lively crowd of German-Jewish expatriates on the Upper West Side; the stammtisch by the Hudson; the cosmopolitan City University of New York and then the band of military intelligence interpreters, full of people like him. At Harvard, it was another story: the parched cerebrations of the college Brahmins. It was an unlikely mentor, William Yandell Elliott, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who was Kissinger’s first and lasting guide to the American mind at its most exacting. “He was a big personality,” Kissinger recalls, a member of the “Fugitive Poets” of Vanderbilt University, a gang that included Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. Elliott had brought his outsize personality and tough mind to Washington for Franklin Roosevelt and stayed connected with that world. Harvard undergraduates, perhaps especially ones with thick German accents and earnest intellectual urgency, may not, initially, have been his shot of bourbon. “He made it quite clear when I was assigned to him that that was one burden too many,” says Kissinger, smiling wistfully. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go write an essay on Kant?” The Categorical Imperative and the Practice of Politics? Right up young Henry’s street even when the ex-Rhodes Scholar Elliott required him, Balliol-style, to read it out at their next meeting. When he had finished, the Fugitive Poet conceded: “You really have an interesting mind.” “In effect he said he would now look after my intellectual development. As a first step he made me read The Brothers Karamazov.”
What Kissinger took from Elliott was that without grasping the long arc of time, any account of politics and government would be shallow and self-defeating. That long view is on full display in the China book, which insists – entertainingly – on going back to the origins of Chinese classical culture and on through the many dynasties of the Middle Kingdom before even touching the epoch of decline, dismemberment and revolution. Kissinger smiles at the scene with which he opens his book, in which Mao gathered together the leaders of the party to listen to his account of a war that occurred during the Tang dynasty. “It would be like one of our leaders going back to the wars of Charlemagne.” And you get the feeling that Kissinger believes that it would do them no harm if they did. Instead he laments that “contemporary politicians have very little sense of history. For them the Vietnam war is unimaginably far behind us, the Korean war has no relevance any more,” even though that conflict is very far from over and at any minute has the capability of going from cold to hot. “This [the United States of Amnesia as Gore Vidal likes to call it],” he sighs, “is a tremendous handicap … when I talk to policymakers and I cite some historical analogy they think, ‘There he goes again with his history.’”
Kissinger’s beau idéal of analytical thinking informed by deep historical knowledge remains the formidable circle of advisers around Harry Truman. Their commanding figure, George Kennan, says Kissinger, had “a beautiful mind; magnificent scope. Kennan’s article on containment [the famous Long Telegram of 1946 on the ambitions of the Soviet Union] was, he says, “seminal; you wouldn’t change a comma.” But as a diplomat, Kissinger recollects Kennan was a hot temper in the cold war; never quite able to control the rush of blood, shouting tactlessly at Tempelhof airport that conditions in Moscow were still “just like Nazi Germany”. “He thought in more or less absolute terms,” Kissinger says, smiling. “The contingencies that might arise were unbearable to him.”
Mastering contingency is what Kissinger’s style of foreign policy has been all about, never more so than in the Chinese scenario. The objective historical situation in which the mutual suspicions of the Russians and the Chinese were bound to lead to explosive conflict was always there. But it took Kissinger and Zhou, counter-intuitively in tandem, to follow the logic of the situation to achieve a breathtaking realignment. Knowing what we do now about the self-destructive overreach of Soviet power, were Chinese fears of Russian aggression, Mao’s “ill waters”, overdone? Not at all, Kissinger responds. Both sides were nervous, which is what made the situation in 1969 genuinely dangerous. Brezhnev, he says, exuded “a sense of ominous danger emerging out of China”. Stalin’s last years were haunted by the same conundrum, never “solving the problem of how their influence in China would continue”. Mao was sufficiently alarmed at the imminence of a pre-emptive Soviet strike that “he dispersed all his government ministers over China and only Zhou remained in Beijing.”
How much did Kissinger know about Chinese history and culture when he set off for his first rendezvous with Zhou? “Oh at the beginning … nothing.” Since at that point secrecy was paramount, Kissinger was denied any briefing from the usual agencies. Back to Harvard he went, hoping for a crash course from the great scholars of modern Chinese history, J.K. Fairbank and Owen Lattimore. “They wanted to talk to me about why China should be admitted to the UN and gave me all sorts of methodologies by which we could ease the admission, which I am sure was very wise but nobody sat down and said, ‘Now you really ought to understand how they think.’” What followed, then, was intensive self-education, but also Kissinger’s certainty that if anything was to be accomplished he had to shrug off the bureaucratic and State department default obsessions of raising legalistic issues of claims and indemnities and the like with the Chinese, instead moving directly to first principles, beginning with the mutual agreement that there was, in fact, one China not two, a position then upheld by the Nationalist government in Taiwan as much as by the Communist government in Beijing.
Kissinger talks about this momentous shift in global alignments as though it could only be accomplished through the kind of personal interaction customary to classic 19th-century statecraft. But at the centre of it all (not to forget the strange, turbulent, contorted personality of Nixon) was, after all, Mao, whose magnitude, for good or ill, Kissinger never wants to sell short. What about the deranged contradictions in Mao’s imperial fiats: decreeing a Great Leap Forward that condemned millions to die in an engineered famine, or unleashing the trauma of the Cultural Revolution only to slam on the brakes once it threatened to bring down the state itself? “They were a rebellion against mortality,” Kissinger says, a little gnomically, but offering an interesting addendum. It was Deng’s generation – and Deng himself, twice purged and who lost a son to the fury of the Red Guards – which has been permanently scarred by the “unimaginable abomination”. But their children are beginning to think that perhaps Mao “was on to something … but as always pushed it too far”. With the misery and terror of the Cultural Revolution just a parental memory, the next generation, Kissinger says, feels “nostalgic for … an alternative sense of community”. “There is in Chongqing right now,” he tells me, “a party secretary, Bo Xilai, who has been leading a kind of Maoist philosophical revival. One of my associates who has been in China tells me that university graduates who 10 years ago all wanted to be Goldman Sachs executives now want to be government officials.” And what would Mao himself have made of contemporary China? “I think he’d be troubled. He really did believe in an ethical mission for the Chinese. I think the selfishness of the Chinese yuppies would bother him.”
Shouldn’t the obstinately brutal record of the Chinese government on human rights give us pause when we cosy up to them? As if sensitive to all those accusations that he has been, at times in his career, insufficiently moved by these issues, Kissinger says: “I periodically raise human rights issues, usually on behalf of individuals, always without publicity. But for the advocates of human rights, publicity is a moral imperative because it puts us on the right side of history. I respect them for that.”
Not so much, though, as to get in the way of treating China as an indispensable element in any stabilisation of perilous situations in Korea and Afghanistan. Without China’s active participation, any attempts to immunise Afghanistan against terrorism would be futile. This may be a tall order, since the Russians and the Chinese are getting a “free ride” on US engagement, which contains the jihadism which in central Asia and Xinjiang threatens their own security. So was it, in retrospect, a good idea for Barack Obama to have announced that this coming July will see the beginning of a military drawdown? The question triggers a Vietnam flashback. “I know from personal experience that once you start a drawdown, the road from there is inexorable. I never found an answer when Le Duc Tho was taunting me in the negotiations that if you could not handle Vietnam with half-a-million people, what makes you think you can end it with progressively fewer? We found ourselves in a position where to maintain … a free choice for the population in South Vietnam … we had to keep withdrawing troops, thereby reducing the incentive for the very negotiations in which I was engaged. We will find the same challenge in Afghanistan. I wrote a memorandum to Nixon which said that in the beginning of the withdrawal it will be like salted peanuts; the more you eat, the more you want.”
Kissinger laughs even as he sketches a scenario for an Afghanistan even grimmer than anything anyone has yet imagined, where the presence or absence of al-Qaeda will be the least of its problems. What might happen, he says, is a de facto partition, with India and Russia reconstituting the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan hooked to the Taliban as a backstop against their own encirclement.
Suddenly, spring goes chilly. The prospect looms of a centennial commemoration of the first world war through a half-awake re-enactment. Not Belgium but Sarajevo. Think proxy half-states; the paranoia of encirclement; the bristling arsenals, in this case nuclear; the nervous, beleaguered Pakistanis lashing out in passive-aggressive insecurity. “An India-Pakistan war becomes more probable. Eventually,” says the Doctor, his voice a deep pond of calm. “Therefore some kind of international process in which these issues are discussed might generate enough restraints so that Pakistan does not feel itself encircled by India and doesn’t see a strategic reserve in the Taliban.” He looks directly at me. “Is it possible to do this? I don’t know. But I know if we let matters drift this could become the Balkans of the next world war.”
Suddenly the irrefutable clarity of his pessimism makes Dr Strangelove look like Dr Pangloss. Around America this week, biblical placards are appearing proclaiming that the world will definitely end on May 21. If they’re right, you won’t be reading this. But if Kissinger is right, they may yet have a chance to move the date back a bit. Don’t say history and Henry Kissinger didn’t warn you.
‘On China’ by Henry Kissinger is published in the UK by Allen Lane and in the US by The Penguin Press
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