Coping with a troublesome giant
Thursday, June 16, 2011
IT WAS SHEER GOOD LUCK, I am sure. But the venerable news-agency Reuters (known as Thomson Reuters for the past three of its 160 years, since being swallowed by the Thomson Corporation) planned a high-wattage talkfest this week – which promptly got boosted on the day by real news.
The Wall Street Journal’s front page that morning proclaimed “Unrest Rocks China”. The Thomson Reuters gathering had been devised for discussion of the challenging and often perplexing state of China in today’s world. It formed a neat intersection of politics and media, held at “the crossroads of the world”, Times Square, where the agency now has its glitzy 32-story headquarters.
The incisive veteran journalist Sir Harold Evans (above left) - newly appointed as the company's Editor-at-Large - led a discussion with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who unsurprisingly and conveniently has just published “On China” from Penguin Books.
On the platform as well was President Barack Obama’s China ambassador until two months ago, Jon Huntsman (above right, alongside Kissinger) who took advantage of being in that preeminent news-hub to announce what he’ll be announcing next Tuesday. Yes, that’s how it’s done these days. The “what” was (equally unsurprisingly, and conveniently enough) his candidacy for the Republican nomination to replace his recent boss.
Among the worldly audience, few treated the ex-Ambassador’s (and, raising the Mormon quota, the ex-Governor of Utah’s) bid for the White House as anything momentous, with many taking it to be simply a marker for 2016, much more than for 2012. The day’s real business was indeed China … its rising global strength, its internal tensions, the intimidation felt by its neighbors, and its implications for America’s own role in the world.
Little difference separated the views of the original ground-breaking envoy (1971 being when Kissinger made his first, secret flight via Pakistan to begin opening up contact between the West and Mao Tse Tung’s totalitarian communist regime) and the most recent of our men in Beijing. In emphasis, though, Huntsman (as befits a candidate, perhaps) started out more generally reassuring about the eastern Goliath than Dr K generally is.
But both former senior U.S. representatives agreed on the need for China and America to negotiate a treaty restricting cyber-attacks and designating some digital spheres as off-limits to website hacking, with Huntsman stressing "red lines around areas that we don't want them into and they might not want us into" and Kissinger saying that only such overall détente would prevent the squabbling that's inevitable "if you take it case by case [which] will lead to accusations and counter-accusations".
Watch the Reuters video clip [If your browser doesn't play this video readily, click here]
I RAISED A MORE GENERAL AND BASIC point with the still controversial 88-year old – to some a war criminal, to others a hard-headed realist of statecraft. We talked about an historical antecedent, the famous pre-World War I “Crowe Memorandum” authored in 1907 for the British Foreign Office by Sir Eyre Crowe, a man long held to be a prime example of the “realist” school of diplomacy, and thus in some ways a forebear of Dr K’s.
The document is quoted toward the end of Kissinger’s own book, highlighting especially Crowe’s commonsensical conviction that the fast-rising Germany would “surely seek to diminish the power of any rivals, to enhance her own by extending her domination …” The passage is often invoked when analysts consider today's relationship between the US and China.
I suggested that in a “realist” view, given the expansiveness we see today from China, a zero-sum rivalry for power (which after all is how “realists” tend to see the world) will suggest only one thing. As the giant awakens and more fully stretches, it’s inevitable that the United States will lose its primacy as the solo post-Cold War power.
Kissinger stared fixedly at me (though he also discomfortingly thanked me for not calling his approach realpolitik, evidently a disparaging term for him, not least in its German-ness) while he argued that early twentieth century Europeans did not have the advantage of hindsight knowledge about the consequences of confrontation ... the horrors of the First World War, of course, and the extra potential it generated for still more conflict later. Had they known what we know, he asked rhetorically, “would they not have taken another look at the inevitability of confrontation?”
Kissinger was, as was Huntsman, recommending our full and active engagement with China, while taking complete (but non-interventionist) account of the pressures for change building inside the country - even the possibility, with rapid urbanization, of public opinion achieving greater expression - which could alter what he called China's “crucial” balance of “the element of legitimacy against the element of power”. This he felt was the way any direct conflict between Beijing and Washington will be headed off. The “whole array of issues,” he said, “can only be dealt with on a global basis and cannot be dealt with on a competitive basis”.
He ended up sounding more optimistic than I’ve ever heard him in public. “I believe the seeming inevitability of a rising power and a status-quo power presents problems - but they can, perhaps for the first time in history, be overcome.”
[The full video is at: http://link.reuters.com/hab22s
Our exchanges on direct US-China rivalry are at 44:00 and 50:45]
I have never felt I could applaud or excuse Kissinger’s policies, from Cambodia to Bangladesh to Cyprus. But on China I sense he could well be right - and we must hope that leadership in both countries can believe the same.
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