The historical merges into the personal in the early 1970s, when Kissinger, as national security adviser, becomes a central figure in the narrative during the secret approach to Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) China. Inevitably, the sections many will turn to first are those where Kissinger reveals the details of his conversations with top Chinese leaders from Mao to Jiang Zemin (江澤民). The contours of the story are familiar, but the judgments on figures who have passed into history still have freshness because they come from the last surviving top-level figure who was at the 1972 meeting. “Mao dominated any gathering, [premier] Zhou [Enlai] (周恩來) suffused it,” he notes. “Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating.” He also gives us details of the one occasion when he (and possibly any Westerner) saw the unflappable Zhou lose his temper: when Kissinger suggested that Chinese Marxism had adapted the tenets of traditional Confucianism. Zhou may have been particularly incensed since the insight was in many ways quite accurate.
One aspect of Chinese politics that Kissinger stresses is the tendency of leaders to make statements and let listeners draw their own inferences and that is a technique that he employs throughout the book. He notes that some observers consider Mao’s cruelty a price worth paying for the restoration of China as a major power, whereas others believe that his crimes outweigh his contribution.
But Kissinger’s view is discernible only where he hints that a “recent biography” of Mao (presumably Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story) is interesting but “one-sided.” After all, it is a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao’s.
Nixon’s role also comes in for scrutiny by his former secretary of state. Despite his fondness for “vagueness and ambiguity,” among the 10 presidents whom Kissinger has known, Nixon “had a unique grasp of long-term international trends.” It is hard not to see there yet another subtle criticism of more recent administrations which have failed to consider the impact of their policies in the longer term, particularly in the Middle East.
The final part of the book has a distinctly elegiac feel, as if Kissinger is worried that the rise of a new assertive nationalism in China along with “yellow peril” populist rhetoric in the US may undo the work that came from that secret visit to Beijing in 1971. His prescription — that the West should hold to its own values on questions of human rights while seeking to understand the historical context in which China has come to prominence — is sensible. But policymakers in Washington and Beijing seem less enthusiastic about nuance than their predecessors. The hints and aphorisms batted between Zhou and Kissinger have given way to a more zero-sum rhetoric.
Henry Kissinger will always remain a controversial historical figure. But this elegantly written and erudite book reminds us that on one of the biggest questions of the post-World War II world his judgment was right, and showed a long-term vision that few politicians of any country could match today. Unless, of course, Hillary Clinton is even now on a secret mission to Tehran.