Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Xi, Kissinger... and Putin

Most men borrow their worth from their offices, powers, seals, and privileges. That’s why they become empty-handed when they lose everything.

Some men reflect their own luster on their offices, which lose their glint when their occupants leave.

There are men who are bigger than their posts. Perhaps because they have an idea, passion and willfulness. They leave, taking their glow with them. A passionate person neither retires nor fades away. He always finds something that extends his connection to the world.

The highest tribute a person can receive is to be said that he has left his mark. This is true in politics, technology, literature and various fields of progress.

Henry Kissinger was supposed to be residing now among the leaves of oblivion and the wrinkles of age. But the man, who holds a hundred years of history, does neither give up nor resign.

Regardless of comments that say he does not lack vanity and appetite to swim in the lights, it is enough to remind that many did not memorize the name of the current US Secretary of State, but they perfectly remember the name of Kissinger, who left his office five decades ago.
Hundred-year-old Kissinger went on a trip to the empire, which used to be so frightened, and now has become so frightening. The Chinese leadership seized the opportunity to turn the visit into a truly historic one, and to convey a great deal of messages.

Xi Jinping chose to receive Kissinger at the same residence, where then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai met the American visitor in 1971. That meeting paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic trip, a year later, to meet Mao, and launch a massive coup in the international balance of power.

Xi said that China will not forget the “old friend and his historical contribution,” considering that what he did not only benefited the two countries, “but changed the world.”

He also said that the world was witnessing a tremendous change that has not been seen in a century, adding that China and the United States were again at a crossroads, and “the two sides must make a choice.”

Beijing did not skimp on the visitor with praises, as if it was sending an explicit message to successive US administrations that are increasingly fearful of the rise of China. Senior diplomat Wang Yi was very clear when he said that American policy towards China needed “Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom and Nixon-style political courage.”

I was following this visit when it occurred to me that what doubles its importance is the conditions of the current master of the Kremlin, who surely remembers that Kissinger’s first visit was aimed at moving the “Chinese card” in the face of the Soviet Union. China is no longer a card, and the Soviet Union no longer exists. I kept thinking of Vladimir Putin.

I was among those who got it wrong on the eve of the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine. I considered the Russian crowds on the borders of the country merely an attempt to escalate pressure on the authorities in Kiev, to persuade them to take the path of realism in dealing with their Russian-leaning citizens, and with their dream of joining NATO.

The faded credibility of successive US administrations prompted us to question Washington’s statements about the Russian army’s preparations to invade Ukraine. When the operation was launched, our old admiration for Putin led us to expect that he was based on certain information that the invasion would quickly lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian government, and the start of a negotiating mechanism to appease Moscow.

We ruled out that the Russian army, for which Putin spent hundreds of billions of dollars to rehabilitate, would falter. And here is Russia mired in a war that it can neither resolve, nor lose. Putin has fallen into the trap of false reports, despite his long experience in the world of intelligence.

The Russian President asserts that the Ukrainian counterattack has failed. This may be true after the Russian army managed to strengthen its defensive lines and plant Ukrainian lands with a sea of mines. Ukraine may never be able to expel Russian forces from its entire territory, because the human cost of such a mission is beyond its means.

On the other hand, what is certain is that the image of Russia in the world today is different from what it was on the eve of the invasion. Experts are increasingly saying that the war in Ukraine revealed the fragility of the Putin regime, especially after the rebellion of the “Wagner” leader, with whom the Kremlin was forced to conclude a quasi-compromise.

Putin can say that his country has not fallen into complete international isolation. Major countries, especially in Asia, chose a neutral or semi-neutral position, and refrained from condemning the military invasion, recalling the West’s attempt to encircle Russia by moving NATO’s pawns towards its borders.

In contrast, Russia fell into a Western isolation that is expected to last, especially in the absence of any prospects for ending the war soon. This isolation has political, economic and technological costs. It is not enough to rely on the Chinese neighbor to overcome its effects.

Russia has lost its ability to maneuver among the world powers. China would not choose to drown with it, even if Beijing had no interest in an outright Russian defeat.

For years, Kissinger has been warning of a path that puts America and China on an inevitable confrontation. It is a clash that the world cannot bear.

Any complete economic divorce between the West and China will push the global economy towards horrific collapses. Any military confrontation between the two giants will have dire consequences for the entire world. Perhaps that is why China’s strongman has chosen to send a message of willingness to manage coexistence in the coming decades.

The number of Kissinger’s visits to China corresponds to the years of his life. However, his recent trip may reserve its place in history, if Washington concludes that Beijing has the right to occupy a position similar in part to that of the former Soviet Union. As for Putin’s country, its strength is threatened with decline, even if a multipolar world emerges.