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Henry K In Beijing

Above photo: Kissinger, Zhou, and Mao in Beijing. Undated, early 1970s. Oliver Atkins/ Wikimedia Commons.

China finally finds someone to talk to.

Secretary of State Blinken traveled to Beijing in mid–June and got nothing done. Treasury Secretary Yellen followed within weeks and got nothing done. John Kerry, secretary of nothing who is supposed to be doing something about climate policy but one cannot make out what, finished up a round of talks in the Chinese capital last weekend. And got nothing done.

This has been going on since the Biden regime befouled relations with China shortly after the January 2021 inauguration. None of these people has been received in Beijing with more than minimal courtesy and not quite that if we are measuring respect.

Last week none other than Henry Kissinger, small and stooped at nearly 100 but still at it, had his own round of talks in Beijing. The carpet could not have been any redder for this longtime “friend of China,” an informal designation the Chinese have used since 1949 to describe trusted foreigners.

Nor could Henry’s itinerary have been more pointedly welcoming. Last Tuesday he met Li Shangfu, the defense minister, who has more or less middle-fingered Lloyd Austin in response to the SecDef’s requests to hold talks—this for two good reasons. One, because the Biden regime has idiotically decided to sanction Li personally. Two, Li is supposed to talk to Austin while the regime conducts a concerted campaign to encircle China militarily and pretends it is doing no such thing? What would be the point?

Also on Tuesday, Kissinger had talks with Wang Yi, the Xi government’s sternly wary foreign policy chief. At midweek came talks with President Xi—these held in the same Forbidden City villa where, as Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry met Premier Zhou Enlai during the dramatic rapprochement that produced the Shanghai Communiqué 50 years ago and led to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979.

The appreciation all these officials expressed for the centenarian Dr. K. practically overflowed their teacups. “China and the United States’ relations will forever be linked to the name ‘Kissinger,’” President Xi said. “I express my deep respect to you.” By this time Wang Yi had already expressed China’s desire to see a return to “Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom and Nixon-style political bravery.”

I hope Blinken and the rest of the Biden regime’s motley foreign policy crew were listening. Kissinger’s reception in Beijing was as much a complaint about the mess this administration has made as it was praiseful nostalgia for an era when useful things actually got done across the Pacific. The ever-blunt Wang made this perfectly clear in his meeting with Kissinger Tuesday. From the Foreign Ministry’s readout (and we will set aside the awkward wording):

President Joe Biden has made the ‘five no’s’ commitment (i.e., not seek a ‘new Cold War,’ not seek to change China’s system, the revitalization of its alliances is not against China, not support ‘Taiwan independence,’ not look for conflict with China), but what the U.S. has done has run in the opposite direction. The U.S., out of a wrong perception of China, insists on viewing China as its most prominent rival and a long-term challenger. Some people even described successful stories of China–U.S. exchanges as failed ones. By doing so, they respect neither history nor themselves.

Sad, pitiful, shameful, worrisome: There are many ways to read Kissinger’s days in Beijing. How far has American statecraft fallen is a good summary of my reaction to the extraordinary spectacle of a 100–year-old man crossing the Pacific at least partly (taking into account the vanity aspect) out of concern that the incompetents running our incapacitated president’s foreign policy have brought Sino–American relations to the edge of a cliff.

It is everybody’s favorite sport to screech on about Kissinger’s malign judgments during his time serving in the Nixon administration, Kissinger-as-war-criminal, and the stains on his soul are of course beyond dispute. Chief among these but far from the only item on the list is his role as prime mover in the bombing of Cambodia in the latter stages of the Vietnam war, when it was obvious the U.S. faced defeat even as the policy cliques in Washington could not face it.

But the man has to be counted at bottom a walking contradiction. The opening to China stands among the great, daring, consequential acts of twentieth century diplomacy, all the inhumane deeds notwithstanding. However deep one’s contempt for Henry, and mine is competitively so, to deny this imaginative achievement is a form of dishonesty. The U.S. had frozen out “Red China” for twenty-two years when Kissinger made his secret trip to Beijing in 1971. Then the world changed. History’s wheel turned—for once in the right direction.

One dimension of Kissinger’s accomplishment is not much mentioned, although my readings in the scholarship are far from comprehensive. With the China opening, Kissinger led the realists’ school in American foreign policy to triumph over the Wilsonian universalists. Interests were sharply defined (even as the mess in Southeast Asia went on). These did not include the internal affairs of the People’s Republic. This is one reason the Chinese appreciated Henry. In this respect his take on Sino–American relations was a match with Zhou’s Five Principles, four of which had to do with respect for the sovereignty of other nations.

We look back now and recognize that the innovative diplomacy of the Nixon–Kissinger years was an aberration. Washington returned to the universalism Wilson codified as policy a hundred-odd years ago soon enough after the China opening—if, indeed, it ever repudiated Wilson’s Protestant-evangelism-as-foreign-policy. This slide has been especially pronounced since the events of 2001, which threw the policy cliques on their back feet. Pompeo’s term as Donald Trump’s secretary of state was singularly appalling in this respect.

The Biden regime’s sin lies in its refusal—incapacity is the true problem, in my view—to alter course even minorly. Consider Henry now, standing with the principled minority against the eastward expansion of the Atlantic alliance—a position that is to his credit. It is a long way from the grand days of trans–Pacific triumph.

The reality we are charged now to recognize, as the twenty-first century crests like a wave over us, is that America’s policy cliques suffered a great case of sclerosis after the 1945 victories. There was no need thenceforth for diplomacy—which Boutros–Ghali, in the wonderful memoir he published after the U.S. ousted him as the U.N.’s sec-gen, described as the resort of the less powerful. “The strong have no need of it,” as the cultured Egyptian put it. All Washington had to do was to keep on doing what it had been doing, no need to change anything. It is a common mistake among victors. No need to think is another way to put it.

Now Washington is stuck. I am frequently critical of the incompetence of our diplomats, and this is not out of petulance or easy habit. It is simply, historically the case. Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns, the various others: They are all well-educated and well-trained in one or another profession—law, finance, economics, what have you. But they have no experience in statecraft in any artful, imaginative sense. Their only resort is to power. They are otherwise paralyzed.

And power is not enough in our new century. Paralysis will not do. This is what Wang Yi and Xi had to say when they had a little time last week with their “old friend,” their “friend of China.”

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