China and the United States should work toward a common goal to strengthen their relationship, Henry Kissinger said during a candid talk in front of a packed house at Columbia University’s Miller Theater on April 16.
Kissinger participated in a Q&A with Dean Glenn Hubbard and accepted the George S. Eccles Prize for Excellence in Economic Writing for his book, Henry Kissinger on China (The Penguin Press HC, 2011). The event was organized by Columbia Business School’s Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business.
Since orchestrating the opening of relations between the United States and China under President Richard Nixon, Kissinger has made 50 trips in four decades to the country. The former secretary of state for Nixon and President Gerald Ford, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.
In his remarks, Kissinger emphasized the importance the Chinese place on relationship-building and the relatively long, slow process of creating confidence between US presidential administrations and Chinese government leaders; setting the stage for Nixon’s 1972 visit to China took nearly three years, Kissinger said.
The challenges in bridging the divide are many. For one, the two nations differ in their views of history, which influence policy decisions. China has a history of 4,000 years, while US history spans only a few hundred. “If you ask an American when something happened, they give you a date,” Kissinger said. “If you ask the Chinese, they give you a dynasty.”
These types of fundamental differences in worldview lead to opposing cultural perspectives that can be major hurdles. “The US believes our values are prevalent all over the world; the Chinese believe their values are exceptional,” Kissinger said. “As a nation, we think every problem has a solution. So we create a program to solve it. The Chinese think every program is a ticket to more problems. It’s not always easy to find a common denominator.”
Although Kissinger said there are debates in both countries about whether the other should be viewed as an adversary, progress has been made in US leaders’ understanding of the context of Chinese policy decisions. The next decade could prove particularly important as China’s economic power increases, which will not only increase its military power, but could also lead to political changes as Chinese leaders have even more influence over the global economy.
“It’s inevitable that economic freedom will lead to more political freedom in China. I think the system we see now will undergo enormous change,” Kissinger said. “It’s possible China will be more confrontational in 10 years. An effort should be made to use [this time] to be as cooperative as possible.”
The George S. Eccles Prize for Excellence in Economic Writing is awarded annually to the author of the best book on economics that bridges theory and practice. The selection is made by a committee of Columbia Business School faculty members and a member of the Eccles family and is based on academic rigor and accessibility of the material.