Kissinger, one of the most influential figures in 20th-century diplomacy, A man who navigated the complexities of international relations during a turbulent period in world history, left behind a legacy that continues to incite debate and discussion. From his role in reshaping U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War to his pivotal influence in thawing Sino-American relations, Kissinger’s strategies were both innovative and controversial. Begin with the analysis of the divergent reactions to Kissinger’s death in these two pivotal nations, this article prompts for a deeper understanding of the intricate dynamic of global relations and the role of individual agency in shaping history. The China Academy translated it from a Chinese article by Shen Yi, a professor of international relations at Fudan University. – Editors
Henry Kissinger, the renowned American diplomat and strategist, passed away on November 29, 2023, at the age of 100. He served as the National Security Advisor and later as the Secretary of State during the Nixon administration. In a period when the United States was relatively weaker during the Cold War, Kissinger played a pivotal role in reshaping the country’s global strategy. He was instrumental in the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and in warming the icy Sino-American relations, ultimately establishing a strategic triangular relationship between China, the U.S., and the Soviet Union. This move significantly improved the international standing of the United States.
In the aftermath of his death, there has been a striking contrast in how Kissinger is remembered in China compared to the United States. On Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, discussions predominantly revolve around his significant contributions to both Sino-American and broader international relations. Despite varying opinions and sentiments, there is a general consensus on the positive impact Kissinger had on America’s national interests and its position in the global order.
In stark contrast, reactions on Western social media platforms, including those from the U.S., tend to be more trivial, emotionally driven, and in some instances, disrespectful. A notable example is a cartoon depicting the Grim Reaper using a claw machine to pick up Kissinger, symbolizing that it was finally his time to die. Such imagery is considered highly disrespectful from a Chinese cultural perspective.
Major Western news outlets like The Washington Post, while acknowledging Kissinger’s diplomatic achievements, have focused more on the longstanding criticisms of his approach to diplomacy. These critiques often center around perceived shortcomings in his principles and morality.
Kissinger, characterized as a man deeply rooted in Western classical realism in diplomacy, had profound academic insights into figures like Metternich. His teachings on geopolitics, American deterrence strategy, and the principles of realism in U.S. global strategy have been influential.
After entering Nixon’s diplomatic team and becoming Nixon’s most trusted National Security Advisor, Kissinger attempted to use his deep understanding of the framework of international relations to promote a shift in U.S. foreign diplomacy strategy. He endeavored to enable the United States to construct a more advantageous diplomatic environment at a lower cost.
“Why has there been no ‘Kissinger’ in America since Kissinger?”
The biographer of Kissinger once said: Kissinger is an exception, a unique figure born out of a specific historical and domestic political backdrop. This exceptionality reminds me of a video conference I attended a couple of years ago, where I spoke about America’s foreign strategy, offshore balancing, power equilibrium, and geopolitics. An American scholar at the conference bluntly stated that the likes of Kissinger and Brzezinski were not truly American, but European. This was shocking at the time, but now seems to be the norm.
“Kissinger” was possible primarily because of Nixon. In terms of Sino-American relations, Nixon’s political courage and Kissinger’s diplomatic wisdom together catalyzed a transformation in the relationship towards a healthy and positive trajectory. In other words, Kissinger was a product of a specific era.
Firstly, America’s global power remained dominant, but not as overwhelmingly as after World War II, when it accounted for two-thirds of the world’s economy. Nor could it continue to uphold the unlimited gold exchange of the Bretton Woods system. America’s nearly decade-long involvement in Vietnam drained domestic political support and led to a significant loss of strategic resources on a secondary front, necessitating strategic adjustments.
Additionally, U.S. domestic politics were in a classical state, still bearing some features of elitism described by Tocqueville in “Democracy in America”. Thus, Nixon could focus on the bigger picture and strategy. He was willing to take political responsibility and could arrive at the same conclusions as Kissinger from different angles. This allowed him to appoint Kissinger to key positions, granting him sufficient political authority, trust, and space for action. Unlike current leaders who are more concerned with personal political gains and losses, focusing on procedural and minor issues, and lack the courage to take action.
When we ask why there is no “Kissinger” in America now, we are essentially asking why Americans haven’t elected a president like Nixon again. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have shown a continual decline in their ability to formulate major strategies, especially in foreign policy. From Obama to Trump and then to Biden, the quality of U.S. foreign policy, its strategic execution, and actual global impact have been in decline, starkly contrasting with the era of Kissinger and Nixon. Hence, the nostalgia following Kissinger’s death is not only due to his personal abilities and achievements but also a stark contrast to the incompetence and inefficiency of his successors, underscoring how rare and valuable Kissinger’s cognitive abilities were.
What does Kissinger mean for Sino-American relations?
In July this year, Chinese leader met with Kissinger and said something very important: “52 years ago, China and the U.S. were at a crucial turning point. Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai, President Nixon, and you personally made the right choice for Sino-American cooperation with outstanding strategic vision, which not only benefited both countries but also changed the world.”
Many might think the improvement in Sino-American relations was a one-way gift from the U.S. to China or solely the result of Kissinger’s efforts. However, it was a mutual endeavor. Despite significant differences in power and strength between China and the U.S. at that time and even now, the relationship between the two countries is mutually beneficial, not the result of unilateral efforts. You cannot clap with one hand. The various issues in today’s Sino-American relations are due to the U.S. deviating from the original strategic track of Sino-American relations, despite China’s wishes. Kissinger’s talent, knowledge, cognition, and ideas emerged at the right historical moment and he bravely embraced the opportunities history offered him, making the right decisions. These factors combined to create Kissinger’s unique contributions to Sino-American relations.
For Kissinger, from the thawing of Sino-American relations during his tenure to witnessing the end of the Cold War and China’s rapid rise in the 21st century, as well as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, he saw the U.S. gradually deviating from the correct, healthy, and positive development track, leading to unnecessary decline and deterioration in Sino-American relations. Throughout this process, Kissinger continued to play his role to the fullest, trying to make his contributions. In the U.S., after leaving the White House, he was once appointed as a member of the Advisory Committees for the State Department and the Department of Defense. Of course, after Trump took office, he disbanded the entire committee, believing he didn’t need their advice.
This likely represents a significant difference in historical and cultural backgrounds between China and the U.S. For China, the saying “having an elder in the house is like having a treasure (家有一老如有一宝)” and the culture of “repaying a drop of kindness with a spring of favor (滴水之恩涌泉相报)”, as well as the mindset of “not forgetting the well-digger when drinking from the well (吃水不忘挖井人)” have systematic continuity. So when the news of Kissinger’s death came, including his 100th birthday visit to China, he was called “an old friend and good friend of the Chinese people”. China’s evaluation of Kissinger is objective and fair. This “old friend” does not mean that Kissinger was China’s “Secretary of State” or that he was “pro-communist” or “pro-China”.
As the U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to the President, Kissinger defended what he understood to be American national interests. These interests were divorced from ideology, the consideration of the U.S. domestic political process, specific political parties, and individual gains and losses in competitive electoral politics in the U.S. Standing from a grand, historical perspective, this reflected his understanding of international relations and guided his diplomatic strategy, providing him with deep insights into international relations for a long time.
From the Western perspective, whether it’s Kissinger’s diplomatic philosophy, ideas, or his methodological approach to international relations and diplomacy, all are in a subtly awkward position. In Western academia, the discipline of international relations is showing a so-called scientific development trend. Insights and understandings of history are considered inaccurate, discontinuous, and unscientific. This has shifted towards systematically removing specific historical contexts, reducing history to fragmented data, and then using programmatic methods for cognition, understanding, and research, which are rapidly gaining popularity.
However, with this change in research methods, the ability and practice of making correct and effective strategic decisions and policies in foreign strategy by Western countries, especially in Europe and the U.S., are continuously declining. The continued decline in the position of Western countries in the international order is a historical warning. Kissinger’s feelings before leaving this world must have been very complex. Sino-American relations became one of the most important and repeatedly mentioned achievements in his life. Rather than saying this is partly due to the courageous and wise decisions made in a special environment, it’s more accurate to say that China, to a certain extent, has enhanced Kissinger’s legacy with its achievements and development in the international system. If China had not achieved historical success and influenced international relations, the historical significance, strategic status, and impact of the Sino-American relationship thaw would not be as complex and nuanced in evaluating Kissinger.
On the other hand, Kissinger witnessed changes in America’s position in the international system. This change includes his shining moments in “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East, witnessing the historical moment of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, and seeing American presidents ambitiously implementing humanitarian interventions globally with concepts different from geopolitics and power equilibrium, achieving limited success in certain cases.
At the same time, Kissinger also saw American foreign strategy deviate from traditional realism’s core principles, leading to decline due to overexpansion without considering costs, disrespecting other countries’ core interests, ignoring America’s uniqueness, and disregarding social, cultural, and economic specifics in other regions. Additionally, the rapid shift in U.S. domestic politics over 30 years in a manner completely contrary to elite cognition led to the emergence of radical progressivism and the return of politically ambitious but skill-lacking right-wing populists, spurred by populist sentiment. This, in turn, caused persistent rifts and strife in U.S. domestic politics. One consequence is the politicization of foreign strategy and actions, deviating from all the diplomatic history, direction, and paths summarized by Western countries themselves, rapidly declining in an almost irrational manner. I believe Kissinger was deeply pained by this and very much wished for a reversal.
Thus, we see that in his later years, Kissinger’s perceptions and understandings changed. One highly respectable aspect of this elderly gentleman was his continuous engagement with new topics and his relatively pragmatic approach to understanding and comprehending things he was initially unfamiliar with, coupled with enough political courage to promote significant adjustments and changes in strategic cognition. Whether it was his views on nuclear weapons and strategic stability, or his understanding of geopolitics, the development path and direction of Sino-American relations, how America should handle its relations with Russia, how to use its power, and how to sustainably extend America’s strategic advantages and the American-led strategic system in a post-Cold War world, Kissinger continuously voiced his opinions despite external pressure. In new fields like the impact of artificial intelligence and the information technology revolution on human society, Kissinger also attempted to comprehensively understand them within his capacity and contributed some insightful and referential views to the world. This is indeed respectable.
China’s respect for Kissinger, especially among its leaders and diplomatic circles, is evident at the strategic level. This respect is not because he actively did things in China’s favor; Kissinger always prioritized American interests. However, his pragmatic approach, based on a relatively accurate understanding of China’s history and culture, recognized China’s core interests and emphasized their importance to the U.S. Despite variations in policy and disruptions, Kissinger remained consistent in his views, contributing to a mutually beneficial Sino-American relationship, even if it was not his subjective intention. China values this objective outcome and reciprocates in a manner consistent with its cultural background and characteristics.
Kissinger, undoubtedly one of the most challenging and formidable diplomatic negotiators China has encountered, earned respect for his ability to be objective in his words and actions. This objectivity, especially in contrast to his successors and contemporaries, is particularly precious in today’s world, where Western leaders often discuss foreign policy and strategy in a manner that seems disconnected and frustrating.
In this context, deep nostalgia for Kissinger is understandable. It is ironic that today, it seems that Kissinger is more seriously discussed and his diplomatic legacy more thoroughly considered in China than in the United States. Our remembrance of Kissinger is not about wishing for another figure like him for easier dealings with the U.S., but rather about returning to a focus on substantial bilateral interests, treating diplomacy as diplomacy and foreign strategy as foreign strategy, without unnecessary political calculations, cunning, arrogance, and shortsightedness that increase unnecessary costs and uncertainties, hampering our efforts towards a shared human destiny.
An era has ended
With the deaths of Charlie Munger on November 28 and Kissinger on November 29, the real challenge for the U.S. is not their passing, but the absence of successors and a lack of systemic, deep thinking. This should be a lesson and a warning for us. Our discussions about Kissinger often revolve around the strategic context of Sino-American relations. We must also recognize that these relations have undergone significant changes, but the experiences, wisdom, and core principles of that time, at least on the Chinese side, have been effectively inherited and developed.
China has proposed three principles for Sino-American relations: mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation. Behind these simple words is a deep understanding of the fundamental laws governing Sino-American relations and an inheritance and innovative interpretation of the strategic wisdom and political courage shown by Premier Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao Zedong, U.S. President Nixon, and Dr. Kissinger in breaking the ice in Sino-American relations.
We live in a special era, not only for Sino-American relations but for the world at a crossroads. Kissinger left many unresolved issues, including his “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East, which has resulted in the current situation in the region. The continuation of this situation from that time and the ongoing deterioration are historical warnings. Today, China not only commemorates Kissinger’s positive contributions to Sino-American relations but also bravely takes on the responsibilities it should bear in a new environment. As the world reaches this crossroads, China must contribute its wisdom and results for a better world. Our task is not just to remember those who have passed and admire their wisdom but to do our part, walk our path, and make the world a better place. China’s achievement of its great national rejuvenation and its significant role in the new international system is perhaps the best tribute to Kissinger’s objective contributions to Sino-American relations.