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Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussed his new book On China at an event in New York City on Wednesday hosted by The Common Good. Kissinger's ideas about China are strongly rooted in the realpolitik ideology that played such a dominant role in U.S. foreign policy during the 1960s and 1970s. He discussed everything from modern Sino-American relations to his greatest success on his first secret trip to China — "not meeting Mao Zedong."

Kissinger's big takeaway was that the U.S. and China need to work together and cooperate more in world affairs. But, I feel his analysis fell short on several levels.

First, he emphasized that both China and America face international affairs nightmares "which arise at a moment when the world is in simultaneous turmoil." China's nightmare is to be surrounded by hostile countries, while America's nightmare is a united Asia that organizes itself in a manner that makes it impossible to manage.

But here, I feel Kissinger simplifies China's perspective. He did not mention that in addition to fearing hostile surrounding countries, China also seems to fear internal uprisings which can divide the country and overthrow the Communist party.

Next, Kissinger provided some analysis of China's and America's strategies in solving international problems. The American mindset is more pragmatic and oriented toward problem-solving; the U.S. tends to believe that problems are solvable and tries to develop a strategy to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the Chinese believe that few problems have ultimate solutions; so, they are more content managing conflicts rather than resolving them. As a result, Chinese negotiators are more willing to accept an impasse or deadlock in negotiations.

Finally, Kissinger argued that the U.S. and China need to develop a better relationship, based on mutual respect and cooperation. Both must accept that neither the U.S. nor China will dominate the other in our multi-polar world. Due to economic and military shifts, it has become more difficult for one country to carry the police stick and exert influence in all parts of the globe. 

I find Kissinger's idea here to be too idealistic. The two countries are in an economic relationship, and getting them on the same page in terms of global affairs will be difficult. As the world becomes more multi-polar, shifts in alliances will only create more of a rift, rather than cohesion, between the two giants. For example, America supports India as a regional watchdog in South Asia, but for China, India represents a threat that needs to be tamed (China has recently strengthened ties with Pakistan).

Still, at 88 years-old, Kissinger still holds significant sway over Chinese-American policy.

See here for more event opportunities from The Common Good.

Photo CreditOliver Atkins