When it comes to China, and US foreign policy in general, Bernie Sanders needs all the help he can get (including from Henry Kissinger)

Tom Plate says the Democratic candidate’s dismissive comments about the former secretary of state during a debate with Hillary Clinton reveal his lack of understanding of international relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 February, 2016, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 February, 2016, 6:16pm

Henry Kissinger is a source of pride for some Americans and rage for others. Over the decades, our most famous former secretary of state (aside from Hillary Clinton) has turned into something of a lightening-and-ethics-measuring rod for the longitudinal validity of US foreign policy. Now, at 92, he looks to have a new role to play: as a punching bag on the China question during the ongoing US presidential campaign.

Here’s the back story: America has been both saint and sinner; it has conspired to concoct coups against democratically elected leaders, despite all our public blather about human rights, but has also interceded to save legitimate leaders from assassination. Our clandestine services have buttressed American corporations abroad that had no more interest in human rights than Pol Pot, and yet our armed forces, when not booked into foolish and illegal occupations, have jumped in heroically to rescue peoples and nations time and again from the most horrendous natural calamities. Often, this is forgotten.

Simply put, America does not offer simplicity of categorisation, and neither does Kissinger, the former Harvard professor suddenly caught in the centre of contention between Clinton and US Senator Bernie Sanders. During a televised debate, the two candidates for the Democratic Party nomination to succeed President Barack Obama next year differed on the national value and true character of this famous man.

Clinton pushed Sanders to name even one expert on whom he relies for input on foreign policy, a topic that’s not the Vermont senator’s strong suit. But, surprising everyone, he took advantage of the joust, turning it on the former secretary of state with more than a bit of burn: “Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger – that’s for sure.”

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His sally relayed the liberal critique of Clinton as so deeply embedded in the American establishment as to be unable to see its serious shortcomings. In the minds of many liberal Americans, Kissinger, though a Nobel Peace Prize honoree, is nothing less than an unindicted war criminal for actions that included the Richard Nixon presidency’s infamous Cambodia bombing, support of Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and covert cheerleading of political executions in Latin America. All things considered, his is indeed a very mixed CV.

Against this, admirers of America’s best-known living statesman bring up his seminal work with Nixon in breaking the historical ice with China during the cold war – and for keeping the relationship warm decade after decade. But for Sanders, playing the China card does not do the trick. As he said: “Where the secretary and I have a very profound difference ... she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger ... So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.”

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Clinton pushed back: “You know, I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas. I think it is fair to say, whatever the complaints that you want to make about him are, that with respect to China, one of the most challenging relationships we have – his opening up China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America.”

On the surface of the tense exchange (quality content for an American primary debate, usually little more than a podium for posturing by poseurs), is the implication that the Sanders position looks to the future whereas the Clinton position is stuck in the past. Paradoxically, the opposite is the case. Here’s why.

Kissinger’s sins, however grievous, are national sins more than those of an individual acting beyond his remit. The fact is that all major foreign policy decisions are presidential decisions, whether a given secretary of state is cunning and influential or, alternatively, slow-footed and marginalised, American foreign policy is set by the president. During his years of power, Kissinger worked for Nixon and Gerald Ford, not – as over the past four decades – for himself.

Advice need not come from a saint to be useful to a secular president; one is wise to consult even Lucifer if real insight is the pay-off

To be sure, this fact of governance provides no exculpation – no more than the capo of an organised crime family is blameless for the ordered sins of the godfather. But if the only relevant issue is about the future of US foreign policy, then Clinton was spot on: Without at least a satisfactory working relationship based on a measure of mutual strategic understanding with China (representing 20 per cent of the global population, no less), without such a fundamental ship-of-state bottom, the US will drift and sway dangerously – though perhaps not keel over – as it sails forward through the 21st century.

Kissinger’s Beijing perceptions and experiences (for me, his 2011 On China is canonical) cannot be anything but welcome. Advice need not come from a saint to be useful to a secular president; one is wise to consult even Lucifer if real insight is the pay-off. Let us invoke the wisdom of Max Weber, the legendary sociologist and philosopher of a century ago: “It is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who fails to see this is, indeed, a moral infant.” If you see what I’m getting at.

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Whether Asia finds itself content with Obama’s successor or dismayed, it will have no choice but to live with him or her – just as we in the US accept President Xi Jinping (習近平), like it or not. In the US case, though, one would wish that the new White House occupant would not need a crash course in “Intro to International Relations Reality” from day one.

Columnist and professor Tom Plate, now at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has been writing about Asia and America for two decades