Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Diplomatic Immunity?

For Time Magazine, Jeffrey Wasserstrom reviews Henry Kissinger’s new book, On China:

The value of Kissinger’s book lies in the insider perspective it offers on many of these unexpected developments. There are no smoking-gun revelations in his account of Ping-Pong diplomacy and Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao. He also goes over familiar ground when it comes to the standoffs and reconciliations that have defined and refined the relationship between Washington and Beijing ever since. But there is something special about having the story told by someone present through all of it. Kissinger’s longevity makes him unique. No one else has briefed (and been briefed by) each post-Nixon U.S. Administration or chatted with so many Chinese leaders of the Mao era or after.

At the same time, it’s clear that brevity is not among Kissinger’s gifts. On China could have been a slim, appealing diplomatic memoir. Instead, we get a 500-plus-page behemoth within which that engaging thinner one struggles to be read. Bloating the work are efforts by Kissinger to get us to think of him as a major geopolitical thinker proved right by history. It’s easy to accept this notion vis-à-vis his admirable part in Ping-Pong diplomacy. But given his role in misguided U.S. military endeavors in Vietnam and Cambodia, many readers, myself included, will chafe at the vision of him as an all-seeing sage. Even with China, Kissinger can be taken to task for working far too assiduously to soften global censure of Deng — a longtime “friend” directly responsible for 1989’s June 4 crackdown. See the 100 best novels of all time.

On China has many passages that are so misleading or simplistic they resemble something from the pages of that dated gem I picked up at the used-book store. Kissinger reduces all “Chinese tradition” to an enduring, unchanging Confucianism and overlooks the diversity of China’s population (the Chinese “people” are as homogeneous a mass here as the armies of Mao-suit-wearing “blue ants” in Paloczi-Horvath’s book). The historic continuity of China’s governance and diplomacy is also overstated.

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