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Henry Kissinger’s Illusory World Order
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Henry Kissinger’s Illusory World Order

He writes about how coronavirus will change the world without even mentioning China.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger warns that “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order.” He writes that anti-viral efforts “must not crowd out the urgent task of launching a parallel enterprise for the transition to the post-coronavirus order.” In addition to shoring up the economy, Kissinger argues that the U.S. must “safeguard the principles of the liberal world order,” including “Enlightenment values.” 

The piece is long on pablum and short on specifics. But there is a bigger problem. Kissinger does not mention China or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) once. Yet now, more than ever, is a good time to re-examine the former secretary of state’s policy advice with respect to China.

Of course, Kissinger’s biggest claim to fame is President Nixon’s great opening to China. That is a far more complex event than is widely known. Kissinger has also done extensive business inside China, maintaining friendly relations with the CCP’s leadership for decades since. We will have to save a discussion of those issues for another time, but it is worth mentioning his obvious conflicts of interest up front. 

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe these past several weeks, I’ve been thinking back to Kissinger’s work—even before he published his Wall Street Journal op-ed on April 3. In my view, the COVID-19 crisis illustrates the fundamental problems with the grand bargain Kissinger imagines between the U.S. and the CCP. This isn’t just a matter of revisiting the past, as Kissinger and his associates continue to hold sway in Washington decades after the pinnacle of his power. 

Kissinger’s writings total thousands of pages, so there is no way I can distill all of his thinking here. But let us briefly—very briefly—reflect on two of the main themes of his work. The phrases “world order” and “balance of power” recur repeatedly throughout his analyses, including in books such as On China (2011) and, well, World Order (2015). He freely concedes that there has never been any such thing as a truly global order, but he believes the U.S. and China can construct one. Indeed, the epilogue to On China is a plea for the two nations to do just that. 

At the conclusion of On China, Kissinger draws equivalence between “Chinese triumphalists,” who harbor imperial ambitions, and “some American neoconservatives,” who have an ideological fervor for democratization. In Kissinger’s view, neither camp is ascendant within their respective nations. But he still fears that these two sides will lock their countries into a death spiral leading to inexorable conflict. 

Kissinger’s triangulation between “Chinese triumphalists” and “American neoconservatives” is entirely self-serving. It allows him to pretend that he, and his Chinese counterparts, offer a more nuanced third way between the hardliners. Some within the U.S. undoubtedly do want the American government to more actively promote democratization efforts within China, but they are not solely neoconservatives. Indeed, the generic “neoconservative” has become a strawman in American policy debates—his or her views are basically a stand-in for whatever American policy a commentator doesn’t like, especially if that policy is believed to be American-centric, or interventionist. Kissinger doesn’t name the specific neoconservatives he has in mind, an obvious tell that he is using the label as a bogeyman. 

Of course, one need not be a neoconservative—however it is defined, because it turns out there is no consistent definition—to think the CCP is a real threat to Americans. Many American federal prosecutors, law enforcement agents and counterintelligence specialists are currently attempting to counter CCP incursions into our society. I doubt very many of these Americans would self-identify as neoconservatives. As the wealth of evidence concerning the CCP’s malicious intelligence efforts and strong-arm trade practices continues to mount, Kissinger has had little to say about these activities. 

Kissinger’s “balance of power” is also an arbitrary construct. In On China and elsewhere, Kissinger is fond of citing the second half of the 19th century as the source for his inspiration. He argues that the European states had achieved a “rough strategic equilibrium” after war had devastated the continent decades earlier. That word—“equilibrium”—also recurs throughout Kissinger’s works. Of course, this interlude in European history was sandwiched between the devastating Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century and the even more disastrous world wars of the 20th century. Why anyone would think this specific interbellum nearly 200 years ago is a sustainable model for global diplomacy today is not clear. 

This balancing certainly hasn’t existed in Kissinger’s own lifetime. Less than two decades after his time in the White House and Foggy Bottom, the Soviet Union fell—rendering his vision for détente and other models of mutual dependence between the Communists and free men moot. Most importantly, it was the power of a unified and growing Germany that broke the peace in Europe after the end of the 19th century. And as Kissinger himself recognizes in On China, China’s rise today is comparable to Germany’s then. 

Kissinger uses what followed Germany’s unification and expansion—World War I—as a specter to ward off detractors who may think that a stabilizing “balance of power” between the U.S. and China is unlikely, or even unreasonable. But Kissinger’s own preferred policies, including massive economic assistance to the Chinese, have contributed to the CCP’s strength and, therefore, the security dilemma policymakers now face. It is for this reason that Kissinger’s own boss, President Nixon, worried that his administration had released a “Frankenstein.” 

Which brings us back to the coronavirus. While Kissinger doesn’t say it in the Wall Street Journal, the CCP Frankenstein’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak is the chief reason why America, its allies, and nations around the globe are facing twin economic and health crises. 

There is mounting evidence that Xi Jinping’s government drastically underreported the death toll in Wuhan, the virus’s epicenter. Jinping’s minions unquestionably lied to the World Health Organization (WHO) all throughout January, insisting that the virus couldn’t be transferred human-to-human. The WHO’s obsequiousness has received well-deserved and widespread condemnation, with President Trump threatening to cut off funds. In a Kissinger-style balance of power, China and the U.S. would ensure world stability through international organizations such as the WHO. That is more unlikely today than ever. 

And then there are the CCP’s Orwellian impulses. Not only did Xi Jinping’s regime suppress early whistleblowers, such as Wuhan’s own Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to tell the world a nasty virus was on the loose, but it has sought to use such heroism for its own purposes. This week, the CCP honored Wenliang, a victim of the CCP’s repression, as a “martyr”—thereby claiming him as one of its own. Just this week, the Commission for Discipline Inspection in Beijing admitted that Ren Zhiqiang, a wealthy businessman who had the audacity to criticize the regime’s mishandling of the outbreak, is being investigated for “serious violations of law and discipline.” Zhiqiang disappeared in mid-March and hasn’t been seen by his friends or loved ones since.

Thus, Jinping’s minders cracked down on early warnings, which could have saved lives, and repressed calls for accountability afterward. In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger worries about the institutional damage done by the virus, as citizens no longer trust authorities to get it right. But the CCP has forfeited whatever moral authority and legitimacy it has in this regard, making it the opposite of a role model for global governance. 

In Kissinger’s framework, the CCP’s internal oppression of dissidents and the truth is a secondary concern, at best, to global stability. He sacrifices these supposedly solely moral considerations on the altar of power politics. But as the COVID-19 story illustrates, the CCP’s repressive policies inside China are one of the direct causes of the current worldwide instability. The desire to quash internal dissent and inconvenient facts led to a mass pandemic around the globe. 

This doesn’t mean that the U.S. government should prioritize regime change, as Kissinger imagines his policy opponents desire at all costs. It does mean that no one should pretend that Xi Jinping’s regime is a partner for “world order.” 

Photograph by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.