TOM PLATE WRITES: If you wanted to make a huge point that would explode inside the mind and indeed soul of your reader, would you do a kind of Beethoven, or a kind of literary Mozart? Come right at the theme and hit you over the head with it; or have it sneak up on you quietly, logically, inexorably.
In the invaluable sections about China in his new book “World Order,” Henry Kissinger goes for the Mozart. He wants you to accept what he believes is the 21st reality of China in its relationship with the United States, but he wishes to reason with you before bringing in the brass and the timpani.
He seems intellectually programmed toward the subtle. His complex prose style hovers in a steady state of cosmopolitan patience and even preternatural forbearance. The result is sentences that drip over with startling originality, or dense metaphysical miasma. The overall effect, as in his essential work, is judicious, knowing assessments about the world that bears serious attention, notwithstanding his own blunders while in high positions of power and his own occasional misjudgments regarding history. Worshippers of Dr. K sometimes do tend to forget that he is only human. Still, few would not be happy with his intellectual batting average,
His level of thought is special. Unlike journalists, who report on the movements and moments of our era with somewhat apocalyptic tendencies, Dr. Kissinger, of Harvard, of the White House, of the State Department (all under Republican presidents) is determined not to lecture like a pedant, or pose as prosecutor, judge and jury, as do many TV commentators and newspaper columnists. The result is propitious, leaving the reader with the sense of a calm and composed mind that is unwilling to bore you as would a common scold, but determined not to divert to footnotes the worrisome history that is unfolding before us now, with a speed and direction antithetical to a sustainable world order.
And so this is why the most stunning moment in this almost endlessly interesting and timely work of considered evaluation of humanity’s current geopolitical condition comes in the context of his assessment of the “structural challenge” posed by “the emergence of China.” It occurs in one little sentence at the very end of Chapter 6, three-fifths of the way into this 400-plus page book, in the chapter “Toward an Asian Order: Confrontation or Partnership,” and it that hits you as no one other single sentence. And the sentence is all of five words. The Mozart becomes the Beethoven.
Consider Kissinger’s thematic buildup: He insists no stable world order will be possible if one country alone seeks to recreate the evanescent unipolar moment once enjoyed by the U.S. That point might seem obvious and, after a moment’s thought, not especially distressing in itself, certainly not among true grounded realists in Beijing and Washington. But there is a problem: at the same time in Asia, U.S. policy aims to prevent hegemony (by China), and China wants to push potential threats, especially from the U.S., as far from its borders as possible.
These are core positions of the two most powerful nations on earth.
The practical world order question then is whether there is enough room for maneuver between these two geopolitical default positions. Optimists will say sure; pessimists will say no; Kissinger says yes … but: “The preservation of peace depends on the restraint with which they pursue their objectives and their ability to ensure that competition remains political and diplomatic.”
That seems axiomatic. So Kissinger goes one step further: He proposes that the new Asian balance of power be supplemented with an essential “concept of partnership.” Then comes the windup to the long, carefully plotted thought: “A purely military definition of the balance will shade into confrontation. A purely psychological approach to partnership will raise fears of hegemony. Wise statesmanship must try to find that balance.” But then ― and here is the Beethoven: “For outside it, disaster beckons.”
That, I believe, is exactly what is at stake for the world should Beijing and Washington no more than temporize their bilateral diplomacy. Partial paste-over solutions will only delay the inevitable, inevitably to surface with uncommon and unexpected ferocity. So if Sino-U.S. policy is to prove no more elevating than to avoid falling below the line of minimum diplomatic control, then these two great nations will never achieve anything stabilizing and sustainable enough to underwrite a new world order. By contrast, a strongly thought-out and relentlessly executed bilateral policy would aim much, much higher – toward a relationship of co-equals managed by both sides with care toward the other, malice toward none and ― perhaps occasionally ― with a touch of political genius.
Kissinger’s great contribution is to raise his conclusion above the level of mere recommendation into the realm of necessity. Currently preoccupied with all kinds of messy challenges ― from global extremism to economic rich-poor fissures ― the two capitals feel besieged and at the end of each day relieved just to have made it through, well, another day. While understandable from a human perspective, this is unacceptable from the goal of sustainable world order.
As someone has written: Disaster beckons. And we cannot say we have not been warned.
(Editor’s note: This review of ‘WORLD ORDER’ appeared recently in the Korea Times in Seoul and other world newspapers.)
Prof. Tom Plate’s new book is “In the Middle of China’s Future” (Marshall Cavendish). This U.S. journalist and author is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Pacific Perspectives Media Center.