Misleading Advice from Henry Kissinger, Again

Oddly, Dr. Henry Kissinger was the star speaker at the Nov. 9 "Jews and Conservatism" conference in New York. Kissinger, who made his bones by melding game theory with balance-of-power theory, insisted that the United States couldn't win the Cold War. The Reagan wing of the Republican Party rejected Kissinger's version of conventional wisdom. Reagan told his team that our policy was we win, they lose, and proceeded to win the Cold War without firing a shot. Kissinger surely deserves credit for America's 1972 opening to China--which contributed to our victory over the Soviet Union--but it is implausible to put him forward as an exemplar of conservative thinking.

Kissinger remains as brilliant and as misleading as ever, propounding a pessimistic, even defeatist view of America's position in the world. On Nov. 14 he told a business group that promotes China trade that a strategic conflict “will be worse than the world wars that ruined European civilization," adding, “It’s no longer possible to think that one side can dominate the other. They have to get used to the fact that they have that kind of a rivalry.” That’s the same Kissinger who told us we couldn’t win the Cold War.

His warning is correct but misleading. Some of my conservative friends, for example Steve Bannon, appear to think that we can destabilize China, help the good Chinese people overthrow the wicked Chinese Communist Party, and dispense with the greatest challenge to American world leadership with a few deft maneuvers. They are frothing-at-the-mouth mad, and I have had to dissociate myself from their madness. China's GDP per person has multiplied 48 times (that's 4,800%) since Deng Xiaoping's 1979 reforms. The grandparents of today's Chinese faced starvation during the Great Leap Forward of 1959-1961. This is the first time in China's history where no-one is hungry.

In that respect Kissinger is right. We don’t want a war with China. And an all-out trade war would devastate the world economy. But that’s not the choice. Steve Bannon et al. have moved to the political fringe. We're at no danger of war with China.

But we are at danger of being relegated to insignificance in the game-changing technologies of the 21st century, and thereby becoming a second-rate power and second-rate economy. China's national champion Huawei now dominates the world rollout of 5G broadband, and wants to dominate all of the Artificial Intellience and related applications that 5G makes possible.

Second best today means the trash can. The digital age produces binary outcomes. You’re either Facebook or Myspace, Excel or Lotus 1-2-3, Google or AltaVista. China has put its formidable resources and energy behind a plan to capture the “control points” in key emerging technologies. First prize is a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives.

The Reagan administration did what Kissinger thought impossible (in fact, Jimmy Carter's Defense Department under the late Dr. Harold Brown had already done a great deal before Reagan took office). Massive federal support for basic R&D in partnership with corporate laboratories produced all the technologies of the digital age--semiconductors, optical networks, sensors, displays, and the Internet itself. Russia realized that it couldn't keep pace with the speed and depth of American innovation.

In 1983, the director of plans at the National Security Council, Dr. Norman A. Bailey, asked me to draft a study on the economic benefits of anti-missile research. I argued that the Strategic Defense Initiative would pay for itself through higher productivity from civilian spinoffs. Neither I nor anyone else at the time could imagine how big the payoff would be for the civilian economy.

There's no magic bullet to stop the Chinese dragon. Frodo isn't going to drop the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom and bring down Barad-Dur. It will take ten years and a trillion dollars to re-assert American tech leadership. That doesn't seem like a lot considering that we wasted $7 trillion chasing the phantom of democracy around the Middle East.