Diplomacy Is a Dirty Business
Diplomacy Is a Dirty Business
Did Henry Kissinger get overawed by the Chinese in 1972?
Published on: Jan 5, 2021  |  

Editor's Note: Our least structured thoughts are published regularly as "Notes." These include germs of arguments, random musings, and updates on what we are reading and writing. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

The end of 2020 found me falling into a series of rabbit-holes. First, I ended up revisiting some Faulkner for no real reason except that I found it on a bookshelf at my parents’ house in Zadar and I started reading. Next, I ended up diving into the details of Teddy Roosevelt's foreign policy and the emergence of American international ambitions at the turn of the century—not completely irrelevant to the book project I’m pursuing, but probably not worth more than a paragraph in its eventual introduction.

Then, in the closing days of the year, I fell waist-deep into Nixon and Kissinger's trip to China. The proximate cause was this compelling essay by Ambassador Chas Freeman on Taiwan—part history, part meditation on diplomacy, part criticism of American foreign policy. I’ll have a longer piece up soon that will react more fully to it, and feature the fruits of my research labors. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share a few of my random notes, mostly prompted by reading Kissinger’s memoirs, many of which may end up on the cutting room floor after I’m done with the main piece.

This was the first time I’ve read White House Years. I was ready for good, entertaining writing. Kissinger, after all, is a craftsman: Diplomacy, A World Restored, and even World Order are a pleasure to read. I was even ready for the duplicitousness. Diplomacy is a terrific book until you get to the unreliable parts that concern Kissinger himself. I had heard that his memoirs are like an expanded meditation of those notorious Vietnam chapters. I just wasn’t ready to find truth-bending in the China stuff as well.

Before we get to the duplicitousness, it’s important to note just how bowled over Kissinger seems to have been by the experience of dealing with the Chinese. He was particularly taken by how meticulously Zhou Enlai’s bureaucracy communicated with itself:

Every visit to China was like a carefully rehearsed play in which nothing was accidental and yet everything appeared spontaneous. The Chinese remembered every conversation, from those with the lowliest officials to those with the most senior statesmen. Each remark by a Chinese was part of a jigsaw puzzle, even if at first our more literal intelligence did not pick up the design. (Later on Winston Lord and I actually got quite good at it.) On my ten visits to China, it was as if we were engaged in one endless conversation with an organism that recalled everything, seemingly motivated by a single intelligence. This gave the encounters both an exhilarating and occasionally a slightly ominous quality. It engendered a combination of awe and sense of impotence at so much discipline and dedication—not unusual in the encounter of foreigners with Chinese culture.

Ignore the weird aside about the Chinese collective hive mind. Pay attention, instead, to the breathless admiration that suffuses the whole passage. The Chinese may be “ominous,” but they’re clearly ominous in way that excites Kissinger.

Here’s Kissinger meeting Mao for the first time:

One usually cannot tell when meeting a famous and powerful leader to what extent one is impressed by his personality or awed by his status and repute. In Mao’s case there could be no doubt. . . . Mao just stood there, surrounded by books, tall and powerfully built for a Chinese. He fixed the visitor with a smile both penetrating and slightly mocking, warning by his bearing that there was no point in seeking to deceive this specialist in the foibles and duplicity of man. I have met no one, with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, who so distilled raw, concentrated willpower. He was planted there with a female attendant close by to help steady him (and on my last visits to hold him up); he dominated the room—not by the pomp that in most states confers a degree of majesty on the leaders, but by exuding in almost tangible form the overwhelming drive to prevail.

Mao’s very presence testified to an act of will. . . . There were no trappings that could account for the sense of power Mao conveyed. My children speak of the “vibes” of popular recording artists to which, I must confess, I am totally immune. But Mao emanated vibrations of strength and power and will.

Mao apparently chose to talk in generalities, which also seem to have impressed Kissinger as philosophical. Philosophical or not, it included a lot of flattery:

There was an extraordinary indication of Mao’s preference for the greater calculability of conservative leaders over the sentimental oscillations of liberals: “I voted for you during your election,” he told the startled Nixon. “People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right. . . . I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.”

I haven’t read Nixon’s memoir yet, so I don’t know how well it worked on him. But the overall effect was profound on Kissinger. His description of Mao’s performance is rapturous:

Later on, as I comprehended better the many-layered design of Mao’s conversation, I understood that it was like the courtyards in the Forbidden City, each leading to a deeper recess distinguished from the others only by slight changes of proportion, with ultimate meaning residing in a totality that only long reflection could grasp. In the pleasantries recorded by Nixon there were hints and themes that, like the overture to a Wagner opera, needed elaboration before their meaning became evident.

The reason this striking unctuousness matters is the question of Taiwan. One of the costs of Nixon’s fabled “opening” was the United States announcing and committing to the “One China” policy—an important pivot that left the Taiwanese shocked in disbelief and feeling deeply betrayed by an ally they had been counting on.

As Ambassador Freeman argues in the above-mentioned essay, Kissinger’s recourse to “strategic ambiguity” on China’s claims to Taiwan has yielded many positive results over the last 50 years. And even harsh critics of Nixon and Kissinger have to concede that in the context of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union it made a lot of sense to do whatever it took to split China off. But given Kissinger’s uncritical enthusiasm—after all, he’s describing the architect of the disastrous Great Leap Forward—one can’t help but wonder whether he had given too much away.

If you want to read a case that in fact he had, I’ll point you to this excellent analysis by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, published after some of the U.S. archives were declassified. She shows that Kissinger and Nixon had been obfuscating about the nature of their talks ever since they concluded. In his memoirs, Kissinger insists:

Neither then, nor in any subsequent meeting, did Mao indicate any impatience over Taiwan, set any time limits, make any threats, or treat it as the touchstone of our relationship. “We can do without them for the time being, and let it come after 100 years.” “Why such great haste?” “This issue [Taiwan] is not an important one. The issue of the international situation is an important one.” “The small issue is Taiwan, the big issue is the world.” These were Mao’s thoughts on Taiwan as expressed to us on many visits. (These were also the views of Chou En-lai and Teng Hsiao-p’ing.) But Mao, like Chou and Teng, spent very little time in our talks on this issue.

The record, as excavated by Tucker, suggests a different story. Her article goes to some lengths to show where Kissinger is plainly shading the truth. Rather than go through all of those, here is Nixon at his first meeting with Zhou, explaining why the obfuscation is necessary:

Nixon emphasized his fears that domestic groups would manipulate the Taiwan question to block his China initiative. Language had to be found to disguise concessions so that a joint communiqué between the United States and the People's Republic setting out areas of agreement at the end of the president’s visit “would not stir up the animals,” motivating them to hurl charges that “the American President went to Peking and sold Taiwan down the river.” . . . ”The problem here," Nixon told Zhou, "is not what we are going to do, the problem is what we are going to say about it.”

What do I think about all this? It's complicated, and I hope to get at some of it in the bigger essay. For now, let me just say that it's easy to damn duplicitousness but hard to play the counterfactual game when the stakes in the Cold War were as high as they were. Nixon and Kissinger did what they did because they thought it was the wisest course of action in a world suffused with tragedy and danger.

As for selling Taiwan down the river, what Nixon and Kissinger arranged didn't really amount to that either. Taiwan's great success today is a testament to the flexibility of the "One China" construct. Ambassador Freeman puts it pithily:

The “one China” stipulation of a single “Chinese” sovereignty on both sides of the Strait took the urgency out of the Taiwan issue.  It enabled Beijing to act as though a reunified China was inevitable and Taipei to pretend that it either agreed with that or might eventually be persuaded to do so.  As anticipated, Beijing deferred action while Taipei played for time.

The fact that the United States officially ruled out actions to “split China” lessened Beijing’s apprehensions that it might have to go to war to prevent such a split.  This, in turn, reduced the need for U.S. deterrence of a mainland attack on Taiwan.  Despite a blip or two, tensions in the Taiwan Strait subsided.  The diplomatic fiction of “one China” eventually enabled the two sides to avoid arguments about sovereignty while they facilitated cross-Strait trade, travel, and other connectivity.

I note all this instead to point out some of the human textures and frailties that can emerge when you dig into an event—human textures and frailties that can have history-altering implications. Kissinger's "strategic ambiguity" may have worked out fine, and it's a credit to its architect that it has functioned for as long as it has. Still, it's hard not to wonder whether that palpable admiration for raw power could have led us to a much worse place.

It also drives home a broader point I remember my mom making, in exasperation, as we watched the Yugoslav Wars ending in the mid-1990s, and the iniquitous peace deals being made in Dayton.

"Diplomacy is a dirty business," she said.

I'll never forget those words.