Lingering lessons from a warmonger

2011-06-30Asia Times

BEIJING - Can peace win a war? That is, can peaceful methods prevail over traditional military measures in confrontations? This is not an issue to be discussed in the next Woodstock peaceniks' session of some newly established Association of Flower Children; it is the lingering question in the latest book by a man defined as a notorious warmonger and yet also a Nobel Peace laureate: former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger's answer to this question - which according to Western strategic tradition should be a deafening "no" - is, conversely, "yes."

His new volume, On China, in fact, is not so much about China as it is about Chinese diplomacy, something inextricably intertwined with China's strategic mentality and practice. It is about how this mindset, a legacy from ancient war master Sunzi, can help us to understand China, the foremost anthropological and cultural challenge to the West; and how it can improve Western political planning philosophy overall.

The question is at the heart of Sunzi's idea that the best victories are achieved before a single battle has been fought.

This tradition of diplomacy is, for instance, how China managed to overcome many - although certainly not all - of the difficulties after the Opium Wars despite the many errors in its judgment regarding foreigners and despite making many wrong domestic political choices.

Kissinger spots the cruel realism of the Chinese political mind when he writes:
Having stopped the British advance Wei Yuan [a senior Qing official] continued, Beijing needed to weaken London's relative position in the world and in China. He came up with another original idea: to invite other barbarians into China and set up a contest between their greed and Britain's, so that China could emerge as the balancer in effect over the division of its own balance.

Through such an understanding of how to improve a bargaining position and fight the best possible, China - objectively very weak - managed to cope adeptly with the very difficult position of being squeezed between the Soviets and the US in the 1970s. This strategic tradition optimized her hand, for instance, during the process of reforms and the wave of globalization.

In recent weeks, the many reviews of the book that have come out often read as dutiful, with most claiming it contains nothing new. The facts are indeed all very well known, but Kissinger's analysis and warnings are not.

Often it is not clear what the West should heed from China. This is not simply about an old bag of tricks, but the Chinese mindset and its ability to combine in one pattern diplomacy and war - something that Kissinger himself saw as distinct in his former volume, Diplomacy.

This Chinese mindset is not without faults. It sees an order in everything, it can be at times far too conspiratorial, and it therefore traps the Chinese strategist by failing to help him perceive accidents and the unexpected, which if recognized as such can be exploited in devising new strategies and stratagems.

This traditional conspiratorial mind can be protective and yet also blinding. In the Opium Wars it took decades for China to realize that old cultural paradigms were not working and that a completely different world had opened its gates before the old mandarins.

It happened again with Mao Zedong, who tried to use the Americans like pawns on his convoluted chessboard, missing the fact that American power was not in the intelligence of a group of its leaders but in the strangely coordinated collective mind producing technological and cultural innovation and freedom - all simplistically branded as "capitalism".

Openly, Kissinger's book is not for the Chinese. It is a warning for Westerners who might underestimate Chinese tradition and should learn to equip themselves in a world in which 22% of humanity is playing an ever-greater role.

But it also contains a convoluted cautionary tale for the Chinese themselves. It tells them: Do not get too wrapped up in conspiracy theories and do not look at the world only through your own prism. The world is full of surprises, and one should accept differences and react to them. This ability to be positively open to surprises is a Western tradition and something the Chinese tend to dislike as they wonder about the ulterior motive and ultimate mover - the traps and the plot - behind the "surprise".

Convoluted plots, right or wrong, could work better with fewer variables. But in the present world, the number of variables is infinite. This is not only about the US and China, or Western tradition versus Chinese tradition. The rise of China is changing everything in the world, and this impacts everybody.

There are deep ruptures. In China's part of the world, Japan, Vietnam and South Korea do not wish to be dominated once again by China. And in parts of the Western world, many Latin American countries are trying to find a way to escape the US's cultural and political embrace.

We are now in a period of new competition and change, where many cultural and political differences must be reconciled. For this to happen, one must be hard-nosed enough to see one's weakness and act cruelly on them, and one must be good-hearted enough to strive to avoid bloodshed. This might be the ultimate lesson of a "war-mongering" Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  (2011-06-30 Asia Times)


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