Personalized Book Review: Reflections on Kissinger H., On China, (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), pp. 604

At one time in my life I had developed a keen interest on diplomacy. That is now more than 10 years ago. I was an undergraduate student majoring in IR and all that I dreamt of had something to do with being a diplomat. I enjoyed lectures and seminars on diplomacy. I was conversant with diplomatic immunities and privileges as articulated in the Vienna Convention of 1961. My best friend, Anne Keah, and I would discuss diplomacy day and night telling each of our future ambitions to represent our countries in high levels meetings. As ever, I was very patriotic with Tanzania and we even agreed that we would always defend our countries without getting personal or ending our friendship. I created new email accounts in hotmail and Gmail with IDs ‘diplomataika’. It was a love affair. I went on to do an MA in IR with more electives on diplomacy. We had lots of U.N. simulation exercises. However, during the MA studies I gradually lost interest on diplomacy. Instead, I wanted to do research on foreign policy. Thus moving from the practice to the academia. My wish was now to pursue more studies and research on foreign policy. In particular I wanted to understand the nexus between foreign policy and religion. So I ended up enrolling in a PhD program, which culminated into analyzing religion and international development policy. I delved into that and my brain seemed to forget my heart’s former desire. (Anne, on her side, pursued diplomacy as a career. She was posted and represented her country at the very heart of global diplomacy-Geneva. Visiting her was my enjoyable reliefs from hard and haunting PhD research. She always treated me so well with a touch of diplomacy). Nevertheless, one cannot really separate diplomacy and international development policy. International development encompasses a whole lot of things that are integral to diplomacy. One aspect of this, are the UN Millennium Goals, which were negotiated over years under the context of diplomacy. Foreign aid is often used as a diplomatic tool. In that light, my interest on diplomacy did not die. It was hidden somewhere in the subconscious part of my beautiful brain.

 Perhaps that is partly what triggered me to buy Henry Kissinger’s book titled ‘On China’.  As many would know, Kissinger is one the most known and successful 20th & 21st centuries diplomats… ‘On China’ is one other proof of that. Well, can you guess what the book did to me?  It rejuvenated my ‘near obsession’ to diplomacy. It gave me another impression of diplomacy and what it can achieve.

 Kissinger’s analysis and account of the U.S.A and Chinese diplomatic efforts to restore relationship was a loving reminder of the romantic nature of diplomacy. His analysis is objective with evidence from scripts of live conversations between him and Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. He has also included scripts of conversations between the U.S.A presidents with Chinese counterparts. For the reader, reading the conversations was like moisture on the thick skin required in the execution of foreign policy as analyzed in the book.

 Impressively, the book’s first chapters give a rich account of Chinese history and culture. These were crucial in understanding the next chapters in particular on areas of foreign policy formulation, execution and interactions between the Chinese leaders and their U.S.A counterparts. In the preface, for example, Kissinger noted that ‘American exceptionalism is missionary…China’s exceptionalism is cultural’ (p. xvi).  This phrase is almost a summary of the two countries’ foreign policies. In general, every chapter of the book builds on another one. To understand a chapter properly, you’d have to read the previous chapter. In this respect, Kissinger is a teacher as much as he is a diplomat.

 The book composes of analytical chapters discussing and explaining the politics and dynamics of Vietnam War, Korean Wars, among other major conflicts engraved within the Cold War. If anything, the book has allowed me to understand intricate relationships and what went behind the scene during the Cold War. Many people would think ideology was enough to separate the East and West but there was more than ideology. That is why China, although a Communist country, re-established its relationship with the USA mostly to counter the Soviets. The book provides a perfect picture of ‘Realism’ as practiced by states during the Cold War.  However, I wish Kissinger had gone a bit far to show how developing countries were a battle field for the Cold War…the war was only cold between the major powers but very hot, intense, and real in many developing countries including African countries such as Angola and to a great extent DRC (the former Zaire). Effects of the Cold War are still felt to this point in Africa.

 To understand Chinese contemporary rhetoric, behaviors, and practices in the international community, one needs to understand her history, culture, and founding ideas. Although the Cultural Revolution tried to destroy Confucianism, the spirit of Confucian and its ideals did not die. They were so embedded in China in that they were easy to revive after the death of Mao. Arguably, Mao himself, consciously or unconsciously, retained and sustained that spirit. He was a keen reader of the Confucian writings and that must have had an influence on his thinking. The people that Mao pushed aside for ‘re-education’ purposes during the Cultural Revolution are those who came back to power. Such is Deng Xiaoping, the man who is credited for Chinese great economic success. Ideas are thus key variables in policy decision-making.

 As much as Kissinger is a realist and focuses on state, his analysis shows that he is not blind to other factors that inform international affairs. In particular he gives considerable attention to culture and values. He demonstrates how the U.S.A democratic and human rights value affect its foreign policy and at times national interests. This is especially due to the strong public opinion on such issues. Similarly, Kissinger shows the influence of values, ideas and history in Chinese foreign policy.

In connection to that, Kissinger’s last chapters and in particular the epilogue and the afterword are must read for students of IR and anyone interested in understanding international relations. The chapters can also be considered as policy recommendations for USA and China foreign policies.  In that, Kissinger goes beyond ‘Classical Realism’ thinking and advocate for something more practical. Here is an extract from the book that catches the advice: “ The simplest approach to strategy is to insist on overwhelming potential adversaries with superior resources and materials…but this is not feasible in the contemporary world for either the United States or China. Inevitably each side will continue as an enduring reality for the other. Neither country can entrust its security substantially to the other- no great power does so deliberately- and each will continue to pursue its own interests, sometimes at the relative expense of the other. But both sided have the responsibility to take into account each other’s nightmares, and both would do well to recognize that their rhetoric, as much as their actual policies, occasionally-perhaps even accidentally- feeds into the other’s suspicions.”(p. 540)

 In light of that Kissinger gives an unbiased advice on how the two great powers should behave in the interests of themselves and for the entire world. He is not blind to the difficulty of doing so. So he argues, “this book does not predict that the United States and China will necessarily transcend the ordinary operation of great power rivalry or of ideological disagreement. It argues that the two countries owe it to themselves and the world to attempt to do so” (p. 547).

 Bringing back the reflections of ‘On China’ on my country Tanzania, I can’t think of a better motivation to our development. China was a poor country facing famine and hardships mainly due to what Paul Krugman would call ‘Zombie policies’. Such were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Since poverty in China was not natural, Deng Xiaoping managed to turn around the situation. He did that by being visionary, pragmatic, determined, and serious. Interestingly, Deng used diplomacy not only to change the image of China but also to attain Chinese interests. He strategically visited other countries and learnt from them. His trip to the United States was a landmark and he used it for the development of China. Kissinger explains that ‘throughout the visit, Deng stressed China’s need to acquire technology and develop its economy…at his request, he toured manufacturing and technology facilities…Deng avowed his desire to ‘learn about your (USA) advance experience in the petroleum industry and other fields’ (p.361). There are many lessons from that. Above all is that, Deng put aside pride to pursue what was crucial to his country. We, in Tanzania, are blessed with diplomatic skills and international acceptance. Thus we need to tap more into the many diplomatic opportunities we have for the development of our economy. We need to be visionary and pragmatic. Just as Deng changed China’s economy, it is possible to significantly reduce poverty in Tanzania and change our country’s situation. If we decide and put right policies in place, we can lift millions of Tanzanians out poverty. We can be the giants, not only in the East Africa region, but also in the entire continent and world. China did it, and we can do it…we have all the potential, C’mon my fellow citizens!

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6 Responses

  1. Shirumisha Kwayu
    Shirumisha Kwayu at | | Reply

    Dear Aika,
    The article is good, but we (I) still demand some more explanations on a number of issue, could you explain more how the book rejuvenated your interest in diplomacy. second could you explain what was more than ideology…and finally can you define or explain more on how America policy is missionary and China on culture. Thanks

    1. Aikande
      Aikande at | | Reply

      Thanks Shirumisha for your comments. I will get back to with more details. But just to help get the context may be the following araticlw my be useful http://thediplomat.com/china-power/soft-power-or-ancient-wisdom/

    2. Sagar
      Sagar at | | Reply

      Water is subset of suinsatable development. If water challenges are met, some or most of suinsatable development challenges will be met. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.a0And water mismanagement, scarcity, etc. are issues effecting suinsatable development. Think of this as solving a problem in parts, and water is a huge and crucial part of suinsatable development. And yes, there are lessons which we can learn from suinsatable development diplomacy. +18

    3. Juana
      Juana at | | Reply

      all the files have been converted to Kindle fomart, but Amazon has not yet provided a release date to the publisher. Please check the link on the Amazon website.

  2. jake
    jake at | | Reply

    This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this subject. You realize a lot its practically hard to dispute with you (not I actually would certainly want

  3. Books I have read in 2013 | Aikande Kwayu

    […] Kissinger H., On China (Toronto: Penguin Group, 2012) 604pp […]

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