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A new book on Henry Kissinger

Harper Collins Publishers began the pre-sale of a book “A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China” edited by Sanjaya Baru and Rahul Sharma. It’s a collective monograph with a big author team including Kanti Bajpai, Hoo Tiang Boon, Sujan Chinoy, Bill Emmott, Frédéric Grare, Suhasini Haidar, Quah Say Jye, Tsutomu Kikuchi, Chung Min Lee, Tanvi Madan, Kishore Mahbubani, Kalpit A. Mankikar, Rana Mitter, C. Raja Mohan, Samir Saran Teresita Schaffer, Ayesha Siddiqa, Peter Varghese.


We present the chapter written by Igor Yurgens, the head of INSOR.

* * *

I have known Henry Kissinger since 2009 when I hosted him in Moscow during his visit to Russia. The think tank which I led at that time worked for the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev and Kissinger was interested in the new developments in the upper echelon of our power structure. I was lucky to have the opportunities to talk to him on a number of occasions in Russia and abroad and the views he expressed were always both original and consequential.

Kissinger is an American patriot with deep European roots and knowledge of history and traditions. For many years as national security advisor and Secretary of State he defined the notion of America’s permanent national interests and defended them with great skill and brilliance. One of the undisputed triumphs of his diplomatic career was the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China and the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. While both were important for the changing world order, the synchronization of the two was the best way to serve America’s national interests.

The concept itself seems pretty linear: There was nothing new in pitting one enemy against another. The most eloquent definition of such continental alliances was offered by Winston Churchill in his famous book The Gathering Storm. [1] “For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the continent… we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant whoever he was… It is a law of public policy which we are following, and not a mere expedient dictated by the accidental circumstances, or likes and dislikes or any other sentiment”.

This was the rationale for U.S. diplomacy exploiting the Sino-Soviet rift, which reached its climax in the early 1970s. The period we are examining in this book was called “a revolutionary moment in U.S. history” by Kissinger himself in his famous book On China. It was the most acute stage of the confrontation of the two communist giants – the U.S.S.R. and People’s Republic of China, when the United States decided it could not adopt a position of neutrality, but should use the conflict to its advantage.

Looking back at my personal experience at the time, I distinctly remember the atmosphere of fear and stupefaction. Fear, because the country was declared by its leaders to be on the threshold of the big war, probably a nuclear one, and stupefaction because the enemy was a neighbour that just ten years before had been perceived as the closest friend and ally.

I entered Moscow State University in September 1969. Just six months before that, the Soviet and Chinese militaries had confronted each other on the disputed island of Damansky on the Ussuri river – the border between the two countries. Our leaders from the regional young communist organization called upon us, Soviet students, to protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Moscow. Some of us were given bottles of ink to throw at the windows of the Embassy. I should confess that even the strongest among us could not hit the intended target because the fence was too high and the building was too far away. But we felt that truth and justice were on our side because since the mid-1960s, when the so-called Cultural Revolution began in China, Soviet television regularly showed massive anti-Soviet demonstrations in front of our Embassy in Beijing.

The history of relations between the two countries had never been easy or comfortable. In 1860, Russia joined other European powers in securing territorial concessions and additional privileges from the weakened Qing dynasty after the Opium Wars. Russia acquired the territory of the Outer Manchuria, which represents a large part of its southern Far East. China never forgot the “unequal treaties” of Aigun (1858), Peking (1860) and Tarbagatai (1864). Even today one can find in China textbooks in which the results of those wars are described as Russian seizure of 1.5 million square kilometers of Chinese territory.

After the October revolution in Russia and the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong, the ideological togetherness went side by side with personal rivalries and tactical conflicts. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin supported the CCP but for a long time favored its enemy – the Chinese National Party (Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek, whom he needed against Japan. Stalin always regarded the position of CCP in the international Communist movement as junior, never missing a chance to cut Mao down to size.

After the allied victory over Nazism and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a powerful Sino-Soviet block was created. Together with the East European countries that fell into the Soviet orbit, one could say that two thirds of the world became Communist and anti-Western.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Mao began to develop his theory of Soviet revisionism and claimed leadership of the international workers’ movement while the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared friendship with China to be the cornerstone of a common struggle against imperialism. Khrushchev wanted, on the one hand, to outshine Stalin, accusing him of all the evils of the totalitarian regime, and to use the alliance with China for his own international posture, on the other. Khrushchev launched a major development assistance program for China, including the transfer of nuclear weapons technology. But things went sour pretty fast. Mao despised Khrushchev and wanted to be independent of the Soviets. By 1960, all Soviet advisers were withdrawn from China. The Soviets and the Chinese were accusing each other of deviating from the true Marxist-Leninist line and ended up in a series of border clashes, the Damansky Island incident being the most dangerous one.

On the night of March 1969, Chinese army units with 300 soldiers crossed the Soviet border and tried to occupy the Soviet island of Damansky, which the Chinese called Zhenbao. 31 Soviet servicemen were killed while China lost 17 men. The clashes continued for 14 days. Finally, the Soviets used the Grad missile system, which was secret at the time, burning down several kilometers of Chinese territory and killing hundreds of Chinese military.

In China, a massive anti-Soviet campaign was launched in April 1969 at the IX National Congress of CPC. The delegates formally ratified the purge of Soviet sympathiser Liu Shaoqi and moderate Deng Xiaoping and elevated Mao’s radical allies to power. First Vice Chairman of CPC Marshal Lin Biao delivered a report praising the ideology of “continuous revolution”. Chairman Mao in his speech at the Congress appealed to 1512 delegates to prepare for war.

That was the historical context in which Henry Kissinger proposed to use the Soviet threat as an additional reason to establish relations with China and to counterbalance the Soviet Union’s growing military buildup and assertive international behavior. After the Damansky episode, the U.S.S.R. placed forty combat divisions with nearly a million soldiers and nuclear weapons along the Chinese border. One should keep in mind that the newly formulated Brezhnev Doctrine was used in Czechoslovakia in 1968, according to which the U.S.S.R., as the standard-bearer of the world communist movement, had a special right to use military power to enforce its unity – which was totally unacceptable to China and the United States.

The other side of the coin of the geopolitical competition and confrontation was the US-U.S.S.R. arms race. At the end of the 1960s, an unprecedented build-up of strategic armaments by the U.S.S.R. and the United States started, with the American concept of a “disarming missile strike”[2] as its point of departure. Both countries were pursuing massive ballistic missile defence projects, which led to the unravelling of the whole idea of nuclear disarmament. Multiple attempts to negotiate at the United Nations ended nowhere.

In the early 1970s, the Soviet leadership announced that it had achieved nuclear parity. Even before that, the U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara stated in his famous speech in San Francisco that both sides had the ability to destroy each other even after absorbing a first strike[3]. At the time, the U.S.S.R. and the United States had 2350 and 1750 ballistic nuclear missiles respectively.

Preparing for his first secret visit to China, Kissinger was convinced that using Chinese leverage, the Soviets could be induced to take a more moderate stance both in the geopolitical competition and in the Asian conflict. This was the time of the Vietnam War, and America’s withdrawal from Indochina appeared as one of the obvious outcomes. Richard Nixon’s promise of an honourable peace, on which he was elected President of the United States two years earlier, was becoming an empty phrase. Isolating Hanoi and weakening the U.S.S.R. in the region were among his objectives.

The U.S.S.R. supported the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from the very beginning. Soviet Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin publicly said in 1965 that one day of Vietnamese military operations cost the Soviet Union 1.5 million dollars. The U.S.S.R. delivered to North Vietnam 687 tanks, 317 airplanes and 7500 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian military advisors accompanied Vietnamese troops in many combat operations. To weaken the Sino-Soviet front in Vietnam was one of the objectives of U.S. diplomacy. Was this goal achieved? After the Nixon’s visit, the Chinese aid to Vietnam was drastically reduced and reoriented to Khmer Rouge, who undermined North Vietnam’s struggle. As we all remember, this confrontation led to Vietnam’s military conflict first with Kampuchea and then, in 1979, with China. From the tactical point of view, the mission was accomplished, but the war was lost.

In 1990 the records of negotiations between Mao and Nixon were declassified. In the beginning of the discussion, Chairman Mao avoided the concrete issues of bilateral or multilateral relations with other countries. He jokingly suggested discussing “philosophical issues” instead. Then, however, it became clear that the Americans wanted to give the impression that they were putting China on an equal footing with the United States and emphasised the anti-Soviet vector of this effort. The price the United States paid for tacit acceptance of this alliance by Mao was Taiwan, which the United States previously recognized as the government of all China.

Mao’s insistence on the recognition of the People’s Republic and its One China policy was firm and irreversible. For the Chinese, unification of Taiwan with the mainland was a “sacred national obligation”. During the discussion in 1972, Mao ironically said that reunification might happen in a hundred years; it could be suspended for tactical reasons, but never abandoned. Since 1972, all American presidents have reaffirmed America’s commitment to the One China policy while emphasizing that the problem should be solved peacefully. The rejection of the use of force by either side was included in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which makes it American law.

The final communique signed during U.S. President’s visit specifically mentioned “resistance to Soviet hegemony”. Dr. Kissinger’s ultimate objective was described thus in his book Does America Need a Foreign Policy?: “The challenge for the United States was to make sure that it always had more options than either of the other two parties within the triangle. This obliged the United States to stay closer to both Moscow and Beijing than they were to each other, with a tilt toward Beijing since it was the Soviet Union which represented the more immediate and by far the more powerful threat”[4].

From the Soviet perspective Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China formalized Sino-American partnership against the Soviet Union with a view to keeping America’s hands free to pursue its own geopolitical objectives. To ensure a proper balance, Kissinger with Nixon’s consent began intense preparations for a U.S.-Soviet summit meeting. A confidential channel of communication was established between Kissinger and the Soviet Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, with the secret telephone line between Henry’s office and the Embassy. As Dobrynin wrote in his memoirs Strictly Confidential (1997): “Kissinger was always business-like, sharp… could give you a headache, but was never boring or bureaucratic”. [5] The Russians knew about the Chinese contacts and considered them as “a dynamic game in the strategic triangle of China, U.S.S.R. and the United States, with the Chinese card being a weighty argument on the American side.” [6]

The results of these “parallel” activities were impressive: the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1), signed in 1972, successful talks on the Biological Weapons Convention in the same year, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the beginning of the SALT-2 talks, culminating in the official visit to Washington of General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev in June 1973.

Can one say that Kissinger’s endeavour was a success? Definitely yes. In spite of the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s impeachment process and Chinese doubts about the reliability of their American partners, the dialogue continued for twenty years during the mandate of five U.S. Presidents. It certainly rebalanced the equilibrium in Asia and affected the Soviet Union’s international positioning. One can presume that this was one of the reasons why the policy of détente and its ultimate success – the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 – came to fruition.

The American bipartisan consensus on China policy was altered by two events – Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival to power in the U.S.S.R. and the brutal suppression of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in China.

In March 1985, Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union with the concept of “new thinking” in Soviet foreign policy. He decided that the U.S.S.R. will be constructive in its dialogue with all countries and will not seek unilateral advantages or military superiority. The U.S.S.R. unilaterally undertook important disarmament measures, intensified bilateral talks with the United States, and approached Germany, Great Britain and France with far-reaching initiatives to improve relations. In Gorbachev’s inner circle of advisors it was called “the tactics of stimulating the partners”. One of the members of this inner circle, Evgeny Primakov, was given the task of designing a new Soviet strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Mr. Primakov, the Director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, included me in his group of experts, and in 1986-1990 we worked on the concept of a “Soviet pivot to Asia”, which was impossible without a reset with China.

As one of the best experts on China, Bobo Lo from Lowy Institute in Sydney, very eloquently put it: “China, by virtue of its population, history, culture and geographical position, is an indispensable component of a constructive Asian policy, and this requires a settled policy, not a slogan. Confrontation should be the last resort, not a preferred option.” [7] That was exactly the bottom line of Primakov’s recommendations to the Soviet leadership more than thirty years ago. Mr. Primakov later became Minister of foreign affairs and Prime Minister of Russian Federation. Kissinger’s articles on China were among Primakov’s favourite.

At the same time, after the Tiananmen events, the United States hardened its position on the issue of human rights in China. Many in the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, began to view China as an adversary. I would go so far as to say that Gorbachev’s example of reforming Communism peacefully played a role in the American perception of China. Deng Xiaoping embraced economic policies favourable to market forces and the West, but the internal struggle within the top echelon of the Chinese Communist Party did not allow for political democratisation. Consequently, even President Bush, who was the head of the United States Liaison Office in Beijing in mid-1970s and knew China well, could not save Kissinger’s doctrine. With the arrival of Bill Clinton to the White House, the issue of human rights became predominant.

At the same time on the Russian front, first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin as the President of Russia drew much closer to the United States. From this point of view, the balance and equilibrium in the triangle remained intact. By contrast, in Russian-Chinese relations we witnessed a reversal of traditional roles, as the Soviet Union and its successor Russia weakened considerably and China rose as a new global power.

The arrogance of the Soviet elite towards China was replaced by a mood of Russian insecurity. Chinese economic power creates in Russia a feeling of erosion of sovereignty in the Russian Far East, creeping further to the Urals. The demography is hard to deny: China’s northern regions are populated by more than 140 million people, while the neighbouring Russian Far East has the population of 6 million at best, and this imbalance tends to deteriorate[8].

Relations at government-to-government level are excellent on the surface. Both Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, call them a “strategic alliance” and rightly so. And yet, we have a dichotomy of perceptions. On the one hand, on paper, signed by the two leaders, we have the “Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation”. On the other, the lack of trust and the heritage of many years of hostility make the relationship at lower levels of the two societies more complicated.

China does not view Russia as a real superpower that can compete with it and the United States for global leadership. In private talks, Chinese pundits (rarely officials) describe Russia as a country in decline with big demographic problems, horrendous corruption, and an unhealthy dependence on exports of raw materials. On the Russian side, Sinophobia is just below the surface. Among the most recent examples, Russia closed the 2600 miles-long border between the two countries because of the COVID-19 outbreak and ordered the deportation of Chinese students. Russians fully understand that China uses Russia’s rift with the West to strengthen its geopolitical, military and technological influence. Russia’s soft underbelly – the countries of Central Asia – are fully exploited through Chinese economic dominance and the Belt and Road megaproject. China welcomes Russia’s oil and gas, but refuses to provide strategic assistance against E.U. and U.S. sanctions.

Nevertheless, Russia has no other option but to be China’s close partner. This partnership includes similar positions on international issues and common external threats whether real or imaginary, but first and foremost it rests on the authoritarian tradition and practices of governance. With the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. strategy of engaging China, designed by Henry Kissinger, was brutally destroyed. The Chinese Communist Party was declared to be the enemy of the free world, and rivalry with China became the priority of U.S. foreign policy.

Henry Kissinger, the architect of triangular dynamic stability, has not remained indifferent to it. In October 2020, speaking at the Economic Club of New York, he stated: “Our leaders and their leaders have to discuss the limits beyond which they will not push threats. And then they have to find a way of conducting such a policy over an extended period of time”. Answering a question from the audience, he added: “You can say that it is totally impossible. And if it is totally impossible, we will slide into the situation similar to World War I.” [9] He said he had grown increasingly alarmed over a new Cold War developing between China and the United States, which he attributed to technological advances that drastically changed the geopolitical landscape. Kissinger once again stressed that the goal of U.S.-China rapprochement in 1972 was to create a balance against the Soviet Union.

Nowadays Washington will not be able to turn the U.S.-China-Russia triangle to its advantage, as it was able to do in the 1970s. We do not know whose advice Trump was listening to but he tried hard to establish good relations with Vladimir Putin. This move could potentially serve the purpose, if not of turning Russia against China, at least of making it a valuable partner in the new rebalancing. But, as things stand now, Washington has nothing to offer Russia. Democrats who control the Congress handcuffed Trump by imposing the most severe sanctions on Russia, which the Trump Administration cannot override, and they may become even worse with Joe Biden in White House.

It is now Russia’s turn to try to use the U.S.-China conflict, which is often called the new Cold War, to its advantage. Vladimir Putin played with the idea of a Yalta 2.0, using the analogy of the 1945 Yalta Conference at which Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill divided the spheres of influence. From time to time, Russian pro-Kremlin experts assert that there are only three independent centres of global power – the United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the Chinese People’s Republic. A Yalta 2.0, with Xi substituting for Churchill, would put Putin at the head table of international politics and make Russia the balancing force between the two superpowers.

The all-time low in Russian-American relations will not allow this to happen, however much Putin and Trump may like each other. Russia has to reconcile itself with the position of China’s junior partner, in substance if not in form. Another option for Russia to make itself useful and equal would be to reach out to other players like European Union or Japan and maintain functioning relations with the United States. That has become even less likely, however, after the annexation of the Crimea and serious worsening of tensions with the West on issues such as the Belarusian crisis, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s poisoning, interference in U.S. elections and so on – the list is long.

The Soviet demise and China’s rise could not be predicted in the 1970s when Kissinger tried to alter the course of the Cold War. He certainly helped to mitigate big tensions by exacerbating smaller ones. The Soviet Union’s confrontation with China was a smaller evil than a nuclear conflict between the U.S.S.R. and United States, no matter how hypothetical it seemed when Nixon came to power in Washington.

We are now going through a period of the increasing escalation in the Sino-American Cold War. The two powers are now on a confrontation course in all dimensions, including technological, military, societal, and geopolitical. Things will not become easier even after the more balanced Joe Biden has become President. The risk of the Cold War escalating into a hot war is also growing, with China’s aggressive behaviour in Hong Kong, its border clashes with India and sabre-rattling in the Taiwan Strait. Many in the West are now quite alarmed by China’s growing ambitions and military capabilities. Taiwan has become a very contentious issue. On January 1, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech proclaiming that “unification between the two sides of the Strait is the great trend of history” and that he will “make no promise to forego the use of force and retain the option of taking all necessary measures”.

The Administration of Donald Trump also has been increasingly provocative. It recently announced that it was considering a 7 billion U.S. dollar package of arms sales to Taiwan, breaking the understanding with Beijing not to ship modern arms there. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has led the charge against Beijing, calling the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our time.” He insisted that the U.S. mission is “securing our freedom from the Chinese Communist Party”. We all hope that the United States, China and its partner Russia will somehow manage their rivalries. We hope that the European Union succeeds in consolidating its positions and becoming an even more important international actor. The irreversible course of history proves that freedom is better than unfreedom and democracy is more efficient then autocracy.

And yet, today one can say that it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the powerful impact of the dynamic mix of autocracy, technocracy and nationalism of the contemporary East and the loss of common purpose of the West. We need people of Henry Kissinger’s calibre now as much as we needed them fifty years ago, to make the world a safer place. At the very least, we should learn from their experience.

[1] Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm, Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1948, p. 207—208.

[2] See: A. Arbatov. Transformation of Nuclear Deterrence. — Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 2018, vol. 62, No 7, pp. 5—16.

[3] R. McNamara. The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office, NewYork: Harper&Row, 1968, p. 176.

[4] Henry Kissinger. Does America need a foreign policy?: Toward a diplomacy for the 21st century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 141.

[5] A. Dobrynin. Strictly confidential. Moscow: Avtor, 1997, p. 188.

[6] Ibid, p. 189—190.

[7] Bolo Lo. Global order in the shadow of the coronavirus: China, Russia and the West. Lowy Institute Analyses, July 2020. Accessed at:

[8] Bobo Lo. A Wary Embrace. Lowy Institute Papers, April 2017, p. 8. Accessed at:

[9] David Wainer. Kissinger Warns US and China Must Set Limits to Avoid a Blow-up. — Bloomberg, October, 7, 2020. Accessed at: