No one can lay claim to so much influence on the shaping of foreign policy over the past 50 years as Henry Kissinger. In and out of office, he has been intelligently ubiquitous. Almost two decades have passed since the publication of Diplomacy, a masterly study of the subject that will long endure as a bible for all who believe that nation states remain the principal building blocks in international politics, whatever the human aspirations towards international co-operation.
Now, with On China, Kissinger has turned his mind to a subject on which he has a unique vantage point. Publishers must have drooled at the prospect of this guru from the last century writing about the rising global power of the present one, especially given his own role in helping to open it up to the world.
For Henry Kissinger, ancient China was a subtle place. That in turn led to its special resonance in the present: “In no other country,” he writes, “is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event,” as Mao often did in discussing policy matters. And Mao “could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions.” How could it not be so? For “Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy.” “Strategic acumen” shaped China’s earliest international policies; and to support its central position it could call on a remarkable series of potential followers and aides.
A good example was the Chinese scholar known in the West as Confucius, who taught by citing examples to a small group of loyal and dedicated students. They reciprocated by drawing on their conversations for practical examples that could create a legacy on his behalf—forming a canon that Kissinger describes as “something akin to China’s Bible and its Constitution combined.” Whereas in the Western world “balance-of-power diplomacy was less a choice than an inevitability,” and “no religion retained sufficient authority to sustain universality,” for China foreign contacts did not form “on the basis of equality.”
Kissinger’s reflections about the Western and Chinese concepts of strategy lead him to posit a stark distinction, one in which “the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage,” while “the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces.” It is a good way for Kissinger to prepare the reader for a dualistic approach to two vast philosophical and military traditions, which he begins by summarizing the key differences between the Chinese players of the board game weiqi (the Japanese go) and those favoring the contrasting game of chess. While chess is about the clash of forces, about “decisive battle” and the goal of “total victory,” all of which depend on the full deployment of all the pieces of the board, weiqi is a game of relative gain, of long-range encirclement, which starts with an empty board and only ends when it “is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength.”
Teachers and practitioners of grand strategy have studied these contrasts between the two for many centuries. The principles of weiqi are echoed in the haunting text known as The Art of War, by a certain Master Sun, writing around the same time as Confucius. Kissinger quotes Sun at some length, drawing especially on his insights into the concepts of “indirect attack” and “psychological combat.”