Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kissinger: a legacy built on insecurity and ambition

By Joanna Slater, Globe and Mail June 10, 2011
Titled simply On China, it is a 500-page tome that combines a telescopic view of Chinese history with firsthand insights into critical moments in U.S.-China relations. It concludes with an earnest call for the two countries to co-operate, but – this is Henry Kissinger, after all – also a cold-eyed acknowledgment that rivalry may be inevitable.

The book's timing owes as much to personal considerations as it does to geopolitics. “If you look at my age,” – he stops and smiles, his face creasing into a fabric of fine lines – “you can't wait indefinitely.” Now 88, Dr. Kissinger is aware that On China could be his final book. Its publication may also be one of his last chances to shape his legacy – a project, some would argue, that has absorbed his attention ever since he left politics in 1977, in the form of writings and public appearances.
Dr. Kissinger occupies a place in modern American diplomacy for which there is no real equivalent, a figure alternately revered and reviled. A secretary of state to two presidents, he helped establish formal relations between the U.S. and China, reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, and negotiate a ceasefire in Vietnam (an accomplishment for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973).
Yet he is also synonymous with the secret U.S. bombing campaign of Cambodia, its support for an anti-democratic coup in Chile and its tacit approval of the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia. His policy choices were nothing short of disastrous from a human-rights perspective, critics say.
Seeking and finding a legacy in geopolitical world affairs, based on his (noted by Slated) two overriding qualities of ambition and insecurity, is as solid a basis for such a pursuit as any.
And to some extent, it is the inextricable and mutually informing quality of these two attributes that is so compelling for everyone. Hence, Kissinger's staying power in world events and negotiations.
As deep as the insecurity goes, so high does the ambition reach. The deeper the former, the higher the reach of the latter.
It is a capacity that accompanies insecurity that is the telling resource: the capacity to read the strengths and the weaknesses of the other. And yet, the public stereotypes these two as incompatible: insecurity and ambition or power.
When we one truly grasps and understands and accepts the depth of one's own insecurity, one is never far from the reality of touching that same reality in another. And insight is just another word for grasping the complexities of any human encounter, both in the micro and in the maco verions of that encounter. No conversation between two people, whether domestic or geopolitical, is ever merely a meeting of two intellects, or two representatives of different countries or governments. It is always an encounter between  two cultures, two histories, two philosophies and two faith systems and world views. And it is the capacity to both bridge and to fully and critically examine the potential gifts of such an encounter and to appreciate the dangers in such an encounter that marks the gifted diplomat, leader, teacher and conversationalist.
Many of us quite literally had contempt for the president Kissinger is most notably associated with, Nixon. And yet, through the persistence and the patience and the cunning intellectual "playing" with his leader's insecurities and strengths, Kissinger was able to generate an initiative that provides a signature for Nixon's legacy and his own, the opening of relationship between China, the inscrutable and the U.S.
His new book is an extension of that legacy, and there can be no doubt that the author himself intended it to be so. Here is a man, also inscrutable and insightful and incisive, just as the Chinese themselves, fit for the building of bridges between the east and the west. And there is no doubt he has at least as much respect from Chinese leaders as he does, and deserves, from western leaders.
There is a window of a learning opportunity that comes to the U.S. each time the "oracle" speaks, or writes, gives and interview, or answers a phone. And that is that the U.S. itself, has to shed its triumphalism in both it foreign policy and its domestic policy. Triumphalism, always being seen as "victorious" and always expecting to be the "best" and the "biggest" and the "number one" nation in the world, is not consistent with Kissinger's open acknowledgement of the limits of any enterprise, and the limits of any culture, and the limits of any psyche. He may speak like Zeus from mount Olympus, in his gravelly bass tones with measured and carefully selected words and phrases, but he never abandones his careful scrutiny of the whole reality of which he is engaged. It is this comprehensive courageous openness to both the possibilities and the risks and dangers that seems to animate him, his ambition and his depth of insight...never relinquishing his grasp on his own very profound insecurities, and those of all others, including his hosts in China.
I cannot wait to read his latest book, On China.

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