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Foreign Policy

Inspirations from Henry Kissinger

Dec 21, 2023
  • Dong Chunling

    Deputy Director, Office of the Center for the Study of a Holistic View of National Security, CICIR

The Chinese people’s old friend Henry Kissinger died on Nov. 29 at age 100. The renowned German-American politician, diplomat, world-class strategist and thinker made important contributions to the development and stability of relations between China and the United States. His century of life was not only a consequential one in human history but also a fruitful academic and literary one. He produced many classic works, including “Diplomacy,” “On China,” “World Order” and “The Age of AI,” all of which will certainly have a lasting impact. We can still feel Kissinger’s broad strategic vision and insight, and can draw wisdom and inspiration from the man who changed the direction of the Cold War.

Kissinger’s outlook on national security formed under the influence of traditional European theories of international politics and was shaped by nuclear weapons and foreign policy during his doctoral studies and later as part of the U.S. government. He accumulated wide concrete experience during his time as U.S. national security adviser and secretary of state. Three main characteristics of his approach emerged.

First, national security is not absolute but relative, and can be achieved through a kind of dynamic equilibrium. The two global superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — had entered a continually escalating chase for nuclear superiority after the 1950s, the outcome of which was that both parties got bogged down in a dilemma — both continuously increased security spending in an attempt to achieve absolute security, even as they felt increasingly insecure.

Kissinger believed that after achieving a so-called balance of terror, which included the notion of mutually assured destruction, reaching a guaranteed nuclear equilibrium would be the best outcome for both countries. Therefore he tried hard to promote nuclear arms control negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union, to some extent relieving the two from an ever-escalating and unsustainable nuclear arms race. The Nobel Peace Prize Kissinger received had to do with this contribution.

Second, the core concerns of national security should be national interests and national strength, not ideology. National interests determine the goals of national security, while national strength determines the approach and route for accomplishing national security. As a realist, Kissinger always put U.S. national interests above ideological differences in macro strategic planning. He grasped the opportunity for changing the strategic China-U.S.-Soviet Union triangles, prompted the heavily ideological Richard Nixon to visit China (which at the time had no diplomatic ties with the U.S.) and facilitated the historic handshake across the Pacific that changed the trajectory of the Cold War. Without dramatically increasing inputs, the U.S. altered the global strategic balance through diplomatic maneuvering and thereby effectively consolidated national security.

Third, preserving national security should adapt to the times. Issues must be approached with human civilization in mind. During the Cold War, Kissinger developed a keen awareness of the damaging potential of nuclear weapons and the disastrous risks of big power conflict. In light of deliberations about how to preserve national security, given the new form of war, the U.S. made timely strategic adjustments to its policies.

In the new century, Kissinger — who saw the new geopolitical reality of China’s rapid rise — was among the earliest to propose the idea of simultaneous China-U.S. evolution, believing the two countries could coexist well while pursuing their respective aspirations. It was a prescription for getting the U.S. out of the Thucydides trap. In “World Order,” he pointed out that immigration, terrorism, the internet, nuclear proliferation and climate change all pose new challenges for preserving U.S. national security.

In his latest book, Kissinger had his eye on the frontiers of scientific and technological progress, deliberating strategically on the new reality of national security from the perspective of the dawning AI era. He offered advice for the global governance of AI.

Kissinger’s outlook on national security provides inspiration for understanding and handling present-day China-U.S. relations.

First, he repeatedly pointed out that China wants national security, not hegemony. But because the U.S. has been evaluating China’s national security concerns from the perspective of hegemony, the cognitive gap between the two sides has become an important source of strategic conflict. Hegemony is zero-sum in nature and reflects an obsession with absolute security. Conversely, national security is not zero-sum and can be realized through coordinating self-security and collective security. China and the U.S. need to further enhance strategic communication and dialogue to induce the U.S. to change its perceptions and renew its thinking.

Second, China and the U.S. should both transcend ideological differences, reduce the risks of conflict and increase cooperation with national interest as the ultimate gauge.

Change is accelerating globally, and humanity has reached a new crossroads. Should we choose decoupling and build two parallel markets, or a common global market? Should we choose camp confrontation, engage in a new round of cold war, or should we choose major country cooperation and global governance? Should humanity orient itself toward civilized advancement, or should it return to the law of the jungle? Transcending ideological differences is not only a precondition to both countries’ achieving national security but is also critical to their answers to these questions.

Third, both China and the U.S. should assume the responsibilities history and time have placed on their shoulders as big countries so they can jointly tackle the international community’s common security challenges against a backdrop of new technologies.

Kissinger said on multiple occasions that China and the United States have special capabilities for bringing peace and progress to the world, as well as the ability to destroy each other and the world as a whole. Therefore, they must find a way to coexist peacefully. The impending age of AI has put new national security issues in their face. The biggest test facing the U.S. embracing a national security outlook to achieve collective security. This is also an important cognitive foundation that will determine whether or not the two countries can join hands and proceed toward the vision established recently in San Francisco. 

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