Kissinger in China: Triumph or disaster?

Clyde Prestowitz

Henry the K was at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace yesterday using the occasion of the publication of his latest book, the portentously titled On China, to take another, perhaps a final, victory lap for his work in carrying out President Richard Nixon’s strategy of achieving a diplomatic opening to China.

This negotiation that brought about the normalization of long-frozen relations between the United States and China and that led eventually to the modernization and recent prodigious rise of China has always been the centerpiece of Kissinger’s career, the main peg on which will hang the judgment of history about him. For this reason, Kissinger, ever mindful that it is not only the winners who write history but also the writers who win history or at least historical renown, has written and spoken a great deal about the event, carefully burnishing his reputation as a statesman of the first rank on a par with such as Metternich and Bismarck. Now it is certainly the case that in reputation he appears to stand head and shoulders above other U.S. secretaries of state since George Marshall and Dean Acheson, and that is certainly owing to his central role in the Opening to China which is generally regarded as having been a great success.

Yet sometimes I wonder. The first responsibility of a statesman, one supposes, is at least to maintain and even perhaps to enhance the relative power and influence of the state he serves. From this perspective, it is certainly possible to question what Kissinger actually accomplished.

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