Kissinger was right about this

As Henry Kissinger approaches his centenarian moment (on Saturday), I have no intention of adding to the rapidly amassing oeuvre of laudatory or condemnatory summations of his life. For the best of the former read his biographer Niall Ferguson’s piece on what Kissinger at 100 can tell us about the world in The Times. And for a full Hitchenesque “many happy returns”, read this in The Nation: “Henry Kissinger, war criminal — still at large at 100”. No one could accuse Swamp Notes of denying you the full range of opinions. 

I prefer to paraphrase my inner Mark Twain and point out that history’s rhyming verse is out of whack. As Kissinger turns 100, his greatest feat — the consummation of the Sino-Soviet split in 1972 — has totally unraveled. Exploiting the split of the great communist Eurasian land powers was arguably America’s most effective move on the cold war chessboard. This week with the visit of Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, to China we have the latest reminder that Moscow and Beijing are driving ever closer together. The geopolitical screen was perfectly split. On one you had Volodymyr Zelenskyy being feted at the G7 summit in Hiroshima — a confabulation that explicitly linked the war in Ukraine with China’s designs on Taiwan. On the other, you have the intensifying flurry of exchanges between Russia and China in their “no limits” partnership.

As my colleague, Martin Wolf, writes in his latest column, the G7 is not what it used to be. The western summit no longer has the economic preponderance to view itself as the world’s steering committee. The smaller its relative share of the global economy, the more it turns into a club about values. As it happens, I share almost all of the values the Biden administration put forward at the summit: promoting clean energy, defending democracy, worker rights, women’s role in the labour force, and so on. But the event will chiefly be remembered as a key moment in the division of the world into two rapidly arming and mutually antagonistic blocs. I find it hard to disagree with Martin’s conclusion:

“We must recognise that any talk of ‘de-risking’ that does not focus on the two biggest threats we face — those of war and climate — is to strain at gnats, while swallowing camels,” he writes. “Yes, the G7 must defend its values and its interests. But it cannot run the world, even though the world’s fate will also be that of its members. A path to co-operation must be found, once again.”

To put it another way, the world badly needs Détente. In the absence of a modus vivendi between the west and the China bloc, the spectre of war will drive out any hope of finding a global solution to climate change, which is accelerating at a terrifying rate (see recent increases in global sea temperatures). A Kissinger approach would be to ringfence areas of common interest between the two blocs from the fundamental differences that divide us. That could mean setting up working groups to establish guardrails for AI, launching new common financing initiatives to help the developing world transition to clean energy, or even arms control talks, though it is hard to imagine China ever agreeing to embark on those. Such efforts cannot be an afterthought. They must be our central purpose. I appreciate that US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and secretary of state Antony Blinken are straining hard to re-establish US-China dialogue following what Joe Biden called “the silly balloon” incident. They must keep trying.

As for Kissinger, he has two legacies. The first is deep moral repugnance for various Kissinger-Nixon acts of realpolitik — the covert bombing of Cambodia that helped spawn the Khmer Rouge, the support of Pakistan in its bloody attempts to suppress the East Pakistan war of independence, the coup in Chile, the 1968 sabotage of Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam, and so on.

The other is Détente. Appreciating its virtuosity involves an act of will to separate your analytical from your moral faculties. We have to do that today with China. However much we may reject and fear what Xi Jinping represents, we live in a messy world in which unpleasant trade offs are unavoidable. That will never change. If you are rightly sceptical of the Kissinger example (I would argue that none of the outrages on Kissinger’s charge sheet was necessary to achieve Détente), please consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose effusive praise for Josef Stalin, one of history’s greatest monsters, can still make you wince 80 years later. Yet FDR had an even bigger monster to destroy. So he bit his lip and did what was necessary.

Rana, what moves do we need to make to ensure the world does not fatally and irrevocably split?

A note to readers: Swamp Notes is taking off on Monday for Memorial Day. We’ll be back later in the week.

  • My column this week evaluates the warped libertarianism of Elon Musk: “The sooner people see Musk’s political motives for what they are, not what he claims them to be, the better for society’s mental health,” I write. I am also still reeling from Ron DeSantis’s decision to launch his campaign on Twitter in conversation with Musk. Was this supposed to make him more relatable . . .?

  • As Rana, pointed out, last Saturday’s Weekend FT festival at the Kennedy Center’s Reach was spectacular — and I’m not just talking of Jancis Robinson’s bibulous Portuguese wine-tasting session. Watch Chris Grimes with Jamie Lee Curtis, Rana with Chris Miller (of Chips War fame), Roula Khalaf’s leader conference, and my own fireside with Salman Rushdie. Watch them all on demand here.

  • Finally, there is the small matter of Republicans holding America’s full faith and credit hostage to a full repeal of Biden’s agenda, and a gutting of the IRS (among other delights). The Washington Post’s always sage EJ Dionne Jr captures the stakes — and utter recklessness — and points out that “the cruelty is the point”. 

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, my answer to your question has really been in the columns I’ve been writing for the last two years. I believe that de-risking is not only necessary, but ultimately healthy for the world. I could go into the problems of neoliberal globalisation yet again, and what I think the solutions are, but I won’t — interested parties can just read my last book. (Hint: it’s not “all about trade,” as you put it in a recent response to one of my Notes, but an entire political economic system that needs to shift.) 

Still, just for the sake of clarity here, let me sum up the problem of highly financialised, globally imbalanced growth (which I believe to be the cause of the current geopolitical issues) as former US trade representative Robert Lighthizer does in a really terrific new policy manifesto that’s being put out on June 14 by Oren Cass, at American Compass, on how to rebuild our global economic system in a healthier way. As Lighthizer puts it, “We are literally trading the future control of our country, the wealth of our children and grandchildren, for current consumption — cheaper TV sets and sneakers. This is madness.” I couldn’t agree more. I’d encourage everyone to read the manuscript, Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers, which has pieces by everyone from Guanghua professor Michael Pettis to Lighthizer to progressives like legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman. It is smart, honest, bipartisan and pragmatic. 

But I’m going to take this moment, given that you’ve brought up Kissinger and his legacy, to say that I have a lot less respect for many of the Great Men of the Past than you seem to. When I think of Kissinger, I think not of Détente, but of the enormous wealth that Kissinger Associates has made doing consulting work with western multinationals that want to do business with China. Why is it that when we discuss the decision paths taken by such men, that we don’t bring that up? I think there is an entire generation of neoliberal thinkers who got extremely wealthy on certain policy prescriptions that are presented in merely intellectual, rather than self-interested, terms. As Upton Sinclair put it, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The GMOTPs (that’s Great Men of the Past) may have believed a certain kind of globalisation was both inevitable and desirable. But there’s no doubt that their incomes also depended on that belief. 

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to “What we think about China”:

“If climate breakdown truly is the first priority (and I’m convinced it is), the world can’t be better off with more chips and rare earth minerals. What we need is to reduce the overall / global demand, not to go from a dependency [on] fossil fuels to a dependency on rare earth minerals.” — Stéphanie Lepczynski

“I agree that a pivot from ‘decoupling’ to ‘de-risking’ sounds good, but is it really substantive? The big economic sectors in a modern economy — technology, energy, finance — are inherently strategic. Even ubiquitous consumer products like cars or smartphones are based on hardware and software that are easily of competitive or military criticality. The necessary energy transition is based on essential raw materials with limited sources.
Trying to dial down the temperature between the US and China is welcome. But it will inevitably run into the challenge that once you have de-risked, there won’t be much left to couple.” — Paul O’Brien

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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