Mr. Kissinger’s fascinating, shrewd and sometimes perverse new book, “On China,” not only addresses the central role he played in Nixon’s opening to China but also tries to show how the history of China, both ancient and more recent, has shaped its foreign policy and attitudes toward the West. While this volume is indebted to the pioneering scholarship of historians like Jonathan D. Spence, its portrait of China is informed by Mr. Kissinger’s intimate firsthand knowledge of several generations of Chinese leaders.
The book deftly traces the rhythms and patterns in Chinese history (its cycles of turning inward in isolationist defensiveness and outward to the broader world), even as it explicates the philosophical differences that separate it from the United States. Each country has a sense of manifest destiny, but “American exceptionalism is missionary,” Mr. Kissinger says. “It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world.”
China’s exceptionalism, in contrast, he says, is cultural: China does not proselytize or claim that its institutions “are relevant outside China,” yet it tends to grade “all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms.”
Lurking beneath Mr. Kissinger’s musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, “Diplomacy,” is also a sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. It is a book that promotes Mr. Kissinger’s own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Mao’s ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of more recent American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.