In 1971, at the height of the Cold War, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took a secret trip to communist Beijing to explore the potential for a visit by President Richard Nixon to discuss the U.S.-Chinese agenda at the time, including Soviet aggression and the Vietnam War. Several decades later, his recollections on the opening to China read as a fresh strategic reminder in light of intensifying U.S.-Chinese quarrels.
Kissinger on Kissinger is the one and only oral history by the former U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, detailing his years in the Nixon administration from 1969 to 1974. Composed of transcribed interviews, the book is co-authored by two of Kissinger’s long-term protégés: Winston Lord, Special Assistant to the then-National Security Advisor, and K.T. MacFarland, junior member of the National Security Council staff. While the book is certainly intended for those with a knack for foreign policy and history, and specifically Kissinger-enthusiasts, its style and tone make it comprehensible and valuable to a larger audience, as well.
Kissinger on Kissinger explores tensions between the U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R in a diplomatic tug-of-war. The book does not stop at historical anecdotes, however, but also provides some useful strategic insights. The comparison of Chinese and U.S. approaches to foreign policy is a valuable reminder in today’s international political climate. As the new U.S. administration increases its hawkish pressure on China in 2021, the Chinese continue with strategic patience. Or as Kissinger explores in other words, the Chinese “think in terms of process” while the Americans “fly up into the air at an approaching storm and flap (their) wings.”
The most memorable sentence within his grand strategy explorations is the concept of how to assess the national interest and weave it into decision-making. As many national actors today seem to zero in on personal gains no matter the costs, this reminder of the broader picture is needed and welcome. Kissinger sums up, “if you assert only your interests, without linking them to the interests of others, you will not be able to sustain your efforts. It’s important to know the national interests […] (and) how to use them.”
One anecdote that leaves a lasting impression is the fact that while in China on his secret trip, Henry Kissinger had no means of communicating with President Nixon. It is merely mentioned as a side note but an interesting insight into a strategist’s potential leeway. It inspires questions about both the creativity and risk of foreign policy decision-making.
Kissinger applied history and projection, firmness and inducement, patience and urgency, aggravation and humor all dependent on his counterpart in respective negotiations. As he points out, “we didn’t enter government with a precise theory of negotiations” but rather the question of “where are we trying to go?”
Unfortunately, Kissinger does not go out of his way to be self-critical in his reflections. Part of this can be attributed to his interviewees and editors; as former Kissinger disciples, they are not too critical themselves. It also adheres to a larger trend in U.S. political memoirs to justify or even glorify past events. As the explorations consist of multiple interviews, there is also much repetition. While the book nicely reviews information already available, readers who expect to discover something new will be disappointed.
Kissinger on Kissinger recaps concisely the actions and rationale of one of the 20th century’s leading statesmen. It brings to memory major political decisions in U.S. foreign policy and the strategies behind them, even if these continue to be subject for debate. For anyone seeking a light introduction to U.S. foreign policy from the previous century, this book is for you.
Carolin Wefer is Editor at Foreign Policy Rising.