Kissinger’s book On China is a broad, detailed insight into the diplomacy behind the creation of closer relations between the United States and China. As someone with relatively little knowledge of China, or United States foreign policy in the second-half of the twentieth century, the book provided fantastic explanations of the over-arching themes and ideas of the period, as well as the details needed to understand the inner-workings of the policies.
No part of the book made me think quite as much as epilogue, titled “Does History Repeat Itself? The Crowe Memorandum”. I’m going to summarise Kissinger’s argument, and explain why it got me thinking. I think of the whole book, this is the part most worth reading, as it is of huge importance and relevance going forward.
Kissinger explores the diplomatic situation in Europe at the start of the 20th century, and comes to conclusions as to why the First World War broke out. He places significance with the Crowe Memorandum, which was submitted by British Foreign Office official Eyre Crowe in 1907 and discussed Germany’s desires and foreign policy. The memorandum, in short, concluded with Crowe’s views that whatever course German foreign policy was taking, “Germany would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford”. Crowe then made the assessment that this fact, regardless of true German intentions, would be “an objective threat to Britain, and incompatible with the existence of the British Empire”.
Kissinger explains that this memorandum led to foreign relations becoming a zero-sum endeavor. Any decision by either nation would inherently harm the other, as to Britain, Germany’s existence was a threat in itself. “In other words, already in 1907, there was no longer any scope for diplomacy; the issue had become who would back down in a crisis, and whenever that condition was not fulfilled, war was nearly inevitable”.
The question that arises from this discussion is whether China’s rise puts the United States at a similar position as Germany’s rise did to Britain at the start of the century. Indeed, Kissinger acknowledges that there are signs pointing to this being true.
The epilogue ends with Kissinger citing the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who, in his essay Perpetual Peace, made a statement regarding the future of world peace. He believed that world peace would be accomplished in just one of two ways: either by human insight and design, or by conflicts and catastrophes so great that humanity is left with no other choice.
Kissinger states simply, “We are at such a juncture”.
I can’t help but think that the relationship between the United States and China will be what defines this century. It seems unavoidable that the way these two nations work together will be what allows the rest of the world to function smoothly. The mutual desire to stop Soviet hegemony brought China and the United States together, but as the past twenty years have shown, without that common goal, the relationship can be more strained.
A focus, therefore, should be on creating a relationship that leaves options open, and does not close doors as the Crowe Memorandum did in 1907. I believe this is the challenge that Kissinger leaves the world at the end of his book.