Kissinger On China

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser talks about his secret trips to China under President Nixon and his new book,  On China, examining Chinese foreign policy.

Did the secret trips work?

Kissinger maintains that they were successful in terms of giving the U.S. negotiating leverage during the Cold War.

Within about six weeks of the first trip to China the Soviet Union's demeanor towards the United States changed totally, partly because they now wanted to isolate China and try to get into a position in which they had better access in Washington, and that put us into the situation where we could conduct foreign policy with two communist super policies in such a way that we were closer to each of them than to each other.

Was Kissinger too soft on China?

Kissinger has critics who say his negotiations with China legitimized a regime that killed tens of millions of its own people.  Kissinger dismissed this notion, saying that it comes from people who have changed their tune with forty years of retrospect.

The general criticism made of the Nixon administration was that its foreign policy was too tough, not that it was too soft. Secondly the foreign policy of the Nixon administration was systematically to undermine the satellite orbit...There was not one dramatic speech saying 'tear down the wall' but there was no question that we were systematically seeking to weaken the Soviet position.

China needed to be brought into the international system if one was going to have progress towards peace, Kissinger said. He added that idea of adding a confrontation with China to a crisis in Vietnam is something that's easy to say in 2011, but it was not thoughtful policy then.

Should the U.S. fear China now?

Kissinger said China is developing economically in an extraordinary way, but also has enormous domestic problems.

We should certainly understand that China has the potential to aspire to the dominance of Asia. We also should attempt to bring about a situation in which this does not lead to another series of conflicts. But we should certainly be aware of the potential of China and understand that we are in a competitive situation.

It's a strange dilemma that China owns so much U.S. debt, Kissinger said. But the U.S. also holds a lot of power in the situation, he said, because if China tries to exploit their position of creditor they will lose the export markets from which their advantage arises.

K's Advice for elected officials

I basically believe that societies grow and become great not by their conflicts but by their reconciliations. And I'm hoping that at some point the leadership of both parties will agree not just on what concessions they need to make but what picture of America they want to support. Whether that takes another Presidential election or two, but at the end of the day that's what America needs to come to.

Does competition from China mean the U.S. middle class is doomed to shrink?

Kissinger said he hopes not, but we shouldn't blame everything on China either. He says there's a fundamental difference in the board game of the world now than there was at the end of WWII, or even at the end of the 20th century.

We have to learn which problems are caused by us and which problems are caused by others. If we blame everything on others then we think we can just sit back and let some kind of conflict take care of it. I think China is a problem but it isn't China alone. It is the rise of countries like India, Brazil, China, it's that the underrepresented countries are beginning to represent a greater market in the world.

He said the U.S. needs to re-industrialize, and the decline of our industrial base will potentially lead to a jobless recovery.

The real art of foreign policy

Kissinger says the real skill is to find the balance between equilibrium and justice and legitimacy. Power has a role and a sense of justice has a role, but one shouldn't go too far in either direction.

As a student of history, as someone who lived in a dictatorship and therefore has no desire to see a dictatorship anywhere, who lived in a dictatorship as a persecuted minority, my study of history tells me this: You can not have peace in the world without a certain equilibrium of power. Because if you don't have equilibrium then the ruthless and powerful can do whatever they want. Secondly, you cannot have equilibrium unless most people feel that the arrangements are just, because otherwise they have no interest in sustaining it.

The problem with performing the art of foreign policy, Kissinger said, is that no one feels that you're completely on their side.  Kissinger claims he has spent his life trying to promote peace, even as he has been viciously attacked by the left and the right.