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Henry Kissinger in the Asian context



Henry Kissinger has passed. What sort of a man was he – hero? Villain? How should he be contextualized in Asian terms?

Clearly not a moralist like Mencius. When the King of Wei-liang asked Mencius, “Surely you have counsels of profit for my kingdom?”, Mencius replied, “Sir, my only counsels are to humaneness and righteousness. Why must you use that word profit?”

And surely Kissinger was not a Taoist. Self-effacing egolessness was impossible for him.

Neither therefore was he a Buddhist. Important paramitas cannot be detected in his personality: renunciation, patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance, truthfulness, honesty, goodwill, friendliness, loving-kindness, equanimity, serenity. 

Though highly intellectual, Kissinger was not inclined to meditative self-examination. Looking back on his life, he said in August 2022, “I do not torture myself with things we might have done differently.”

In a Western context, Kissinger is easy to understand. His morality was that of the Athenian warlords who told the conquered Melians “the strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.”


Accordingly, Kissinger was a nihilist. The Will to Power was his rod and his staff as he walked through this valley of death. And as a nihilist he could not avoid narcissism. His personality type was that of a sociopath, a person without empathy seeking with guile and manipulation to rise in power and status.

So where should we place him in an Asian context?

The answer is obvious: among the unctuous and conniving Persuaders of the Warring States period in China.

His ingratiating subservience to the Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao, his complicated and devious maneuvers in negotiations, his brilliant but misleading use of language, all remind me of the tactics of Zhang Yi and Su Chin.

The Warring States period of division and conflict bore many similarities to the global system in place during Kissinger’s career. In both eras, there were great states and small states.

Great alliances

There were two alliances – in China, Qin and Wei opposed and oppressed the other feudal realms, while in Kissinger’s lifetime the Free World fought to prevent expansion of the Communist Bloc.

Clever men called Persuaders were hired by kings to devise stratagems for outfoxing their rivals. Many of their schemes are recorded in the Annals of the Warring States.


My favorite story of effective persuasion is this:

The state of East Chou wanted to plant rice but West Chou would not open river sluices to provide water. Sun Tzu asked the ruler of East Chou for permission to go and speak with the ruler of West Chou to get access to water.

Sun Tzu told the ruler of West Chou: Your plan is faulty. By withholding water from East Chou, you make her wealthy for her citizens sow to dry grain. If you open the sluices, you will ruin their seeds and East Chou must replant to rice. Then, in the future you may deny them the water and they will have to come to you as supplicants and take orders from your majesty.

The ruler of West Chou agreed and released the water. Sun Tzu received gold from both countries.

Kissinger’s 1973 Vietnam peace agreement, which turned the balance of power against the Vietnamese Nationalists, and his formula to please both Beijing and Washington over an interim status for Taiwan were classic Persuader ploys using words to distract attention away from unstated realities.

The godfather of the Persuaders was Mozi. Like Kissinger, he had confidence only in authoritarian power. His noted premise was this rejection of Confucius:

In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was “everybody according to his own idea.” Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and 10 men had 10 different ideas – the more people, the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men.


As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others with water, fire, and poison.

Surplus energy was not spent for mutual aid; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing; excellent teachings (Tao) were kept secret and not revealed. The disorder in the (human) world could be compared to that among birds and beasts.

All this disorder was due to the want of a ruler. 

Following Mozi, China would become an empire under Qin Shihuang. That imperial system survives to this day. Xi Jinping, the current Ling Xiu (Supreme Leader) of China, is a Mohist through and through.

‘The Doctrine of Position’

A brilliant exponent of Mozi’s approach to human nature was Han Feizi. In his writings on political theory, he has a chapter that presents with verve Kissinger’s methodology. The title of the chapter is translated as “The Doctrine of Position,” but the English “position” conveys little of the depth and genius of the Chinese concept.

“Position” is a comprehensive way of understanding power. It embraces power under my direct control but also the power of circumstances that govern your desires and will. If I can control those circumstances, you will become putty in my hands.

Most of the stratagems proposed by Warring States Persuaders were for the manipulation of “position” to obtain what the ruler desired. Sun Tzu’s brilliant analysis of war depends on his keen insights into “position.”


So Han Feizi wrote, “Where there is order by force of circumstance, there can be no chaos.”

Kissinger in his private life and his approach to foreign policy used “position” again and again. If, say Mao or the Vietnamese Communists had “position,” he would acquiesce and proposed face-saving retreats for his own side.  

Using the word “equilibrium” for Han Feizi’s “position,” Kissinger once defined for an interviewer success in negotiations as arriving at an equilibrium – “a kind of balance of power with an acceptance of the legitimacy of sometimes opposing values.”

And he easily accepted sacrificing his values in order to gain such a balance of power: “Because if you believe that the final outcome of your effort has to be the imposition of your values, then I think equilibrium is not possible.”

In his personal life, manipulation of “position” with the American elite and the Davos Crowd made him a multimillionaire, with a reputed net worth of US$50 million.

Making a lot of money off others is, indeed, one kind of a legacy often admired in both Asia and the West.

Source: Asia Times

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