Niall Ferguson: Dr. K’s Rx for China

Roundup: Historians' Take

Niall Ferguson is a Harvard professor and Newsweek columnist.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thinks the Chinese government is “scared” of the Arab Spring. “They’re worried,” she told Jeffrey Goldberg in the latest Atlantic, “and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it.”

These are words—intemperate, undiplomatic, and very likely counterproductive—that you cannot imagine being uttered by her predecessor Henry Kissinger.

It is now 40 years since Kissinger went on his secret mission to China, to pave the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit the following year. Since then he has visited the country more than 50 times. And if there is one thing he has learned, it is this: the real fool’s errand is to lean on the Chinese.

Much has changed in the world since Kissinger’s first trip to China. (In 1971, who would have dared to predict that America’s public enemy No. 1 would be a Saudi-born Islamic fundamentalist skulking in a walled compound in Pakistan?) But at least two things in American foreign policy remain consistent: the relationship with mainland China, revived by Kissinger after more than 20 years in the deep freeze, and Kissinger himself, consulted formally or informally by every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. On China, Kissinger’s new book, is a reminder of why our leaders still want to pick his brains. Eighty-eight years old this month, he remains without equal as a strategic thinker.

The opening to China is a story Kissinger has told before: how he and Nixon had discerned that country could become a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union; how he secretly flew to China after feigning illness in Pakistan; how he and Premier Zhou Enlai hammered out the diplomatic basis for Nixon’s official visit (the Shanghai Communiqué). The result was, as he puts it, “a quasi alliance,” which, though initially intended to contain the Soviet Union, ended up outliving the Cold War....

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