The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

He might have been a world-class war criminal, but Kissinger also understood China on a level few others could.

Henry Kissinger emerges as a towering figure in the history of 20th-century diplomacy and strategic thought. He embodied the principles of realpolitik, leveraging a profound understanding of how to apply U.S. influence amid the intricate dynamics of global power. His pivotal role in opening diplomatic channels with China stands as a testament to his lasting impact. Today, as the U.S. and China grapple with an increasingly fraught relationship, Kissinger’s shrewd perspectives remain remarkably pertinent, offering a lens through which to view the complexities of contemporary geopolitical rivalry.

Henry Kissinger’s clandestine trips to Beijing in July and October of 1971 set the stage for President Nixon’s landmark visit in February 1972—a move that took the world by surprise. Kissinger was instrumental during this visit, helping to craft a joint communiqué that not only cemented this diplomatic milestone but also laid the cornerstone for the evolving relationship between the United States and China.

To normalize relations with China, the United States acknowledged the one-China policy. Yet, it firmly demanded a steadfast pledge from China to resolve the Taiwan situation peacefully and to renounce aggression. Beijing was initially averse to these terms. Nevertheless, Washington maintained its position on supplying Taipei with defensive weaponry—a stance that China contested. Despite this disagreement, both nations chose to temporarily sideline their dispute to advance diplomatic normalization. The Taiwan Strait continues to be a significant point of contention in Sino-American relations, representing a potential flashpoint for future conflict.

In his analysis of current U.S.-China relations, Kissinger cautioned that viewing each other as strategic adversaries fuels a tense environment of significant power rivalry. He pointed out the increased risk of conflict, particularly concerning Taiwan, within this charged context. Kissinger highlighted the catastrophic risks associated with conflicts between major powers, noting that such wars are ultimately unwinnable. He stressed this, especially against the backdrop of nuclear armaments and the advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), which together pose unprecedented existential dangers to humanity.

Kissinger emphasized the necessity for the United States and China to transcend the zero-sum mindset in their bilateral relations. He urged the importance of prioritizing stability, recognizing the intricate interdependence that defines today’s global landscape. Kissinger argued that, in dealing with critical global challenges such as nuclear proliferation, environmental issues, energy security, and climate change, the need for international collaboration is more apparent than ever. He advocated for a renewed commitment to diplomacy as the cornerstone for navigating the complex geopolitical arena and cultivating a cooperative international order.

Kissinger recognized China’s aspirations to achieve hegemonic status and its intention to supplant the United States, which in turn strives to maintain its current global standing. Despite these competing ambitions, he argued that both countries can coexist and reach a mutual understanding within the international arena. He proposed that the United States and China could delineate their spheres of influence through diplomatic negotiations. Kissinger believed that such agreements could lay down a structure conducive to a stable and more equitable relationship, promoting a cooperative existence between the two powers.

Kissinger highlighted the critical importance of understanding a nation’s history, culture, and values as the bedrock of effective diplomacy. With his profound interest in Chinese history and culture, he discerned the ideological disparities between the United States and China. He characterized American exceptionalism as missionary, with a belief in the United States’ duty to spread its values internationally. In contrast, he observed that Chinese exceptionalism is culturally entrenched, with China refraining from promoting its political system globally, yet viewing itself as a central power. These differing ideologies hinder mutual understanding, leading to misconceptions and fostering distrust in Sino-American relations.

In July, Kissinger, at the venerable age of 100, was warmly received in China as a distinguished guest. President Xi Jinping welcomed him in the very building where Kissinger had conducted historic talks with Premier Zhou Enlai half a century earlier. On this significant visit, President Xi poignantly remarked, “China and the United States’ relations will forever be linked to the name Kissinger.” Upon Kissinger’s passing on November 30, President Xi paid homage to him as “a world-renowned strategist and an old friend and good friend of the Chinese people” in his message of condolence. Kissinger’s profound influence on Sino-American diplomatic ties, coupled with his relevant contemporary perspectives, remains a vital compass for nurturing stability in the ongoing and forthcoming diplomatic engagements between the two nations.

Saira Bano is Assistant Professor of Politics at Thompson Rivers University.