The United States in the 20th century is an example of a state achieving eminence without conflict with the then-dominant countries.”

What United States is Henry Kissinger talking about? His recommendations on “avoiding a U.S.-China cold war” may or may not correctly describe China’s strategic culture, but his portrait of America is unrecognizable.

The rise of the United States through the 20th century involved two world wars and the Cold War with the Soviets. American “eminence” proved a fatal problem for German, Japanese and Russian ambitions. The rise of the United States to a position of world power at the beginning of the century began with “the world turned upside down,” according to Lord Cornwallis’s pipers; the Venezuela crisis of 1895 did not result in open military action, but London and Washington were still 50 years away from a “special relationship.” Almost from the start, monarchs and emperors fretted about the rise of a republican empire in North America, and they feared American political principles long before they had any regard for American military power.

Kissinger’s “transactional” view of American strategy making is, if anything, even more myopic. The fundamentals of American strategy have remained remarkably consistent, even as the international environment has changed radically; indeed, the goal of a “balance of power that favors freedom” predates the Revolution. Even as British colonists, Americans have seen themselves in the framework of a worldwide international order. The strategic “pragmatism” that Kissinger describes is only intelligible in light of underlying principles and the premium Americans place on political liberties.

Kissinger’s characterization of the American approach to North Korea encapsulates his pinched view of U.S. strategy. “America is focused on the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” he observes. True, that is the most immediate focus, and for good reason: Pyongyang’s propensity to proliferate is a big part of a global problem. But our strategic commitment to the Korean peninsula, our understanding of the importance of the peninsula to the overall security of Northeast Asia, and our role as the architect and guarantor for regional security encompasses a larger and longer-lasting set of interests and a belief that lasting peace comes from democratic governance. Those interests and beliefs would endure even if the DPRK gave up its nukes or the regime evaporated tomorrow. And it’s likely that a good outcome – good to us and to the South Koreans – on the peninsula would exacerbate tensions with Beijing. "Korea, whole and free" is not what the Chinese are after.

Kissinger at least concedes that the Chinese have a different view of what kind of a world they want to live in. But if it is true, as Kissinger writes, that the Chinese wish to return to the order of 200 years ago, then that is a recipe for conflict and competition and it cannot be a formula for cooperation. The world has moved on, not just because of the rise of American power but also because of the effect of American principles on the politics of East Asia. China’s neighbors have no wish to reset the clock, either.

The fact of international competition and geopolitical conflict does not mean there must be war. Universal principles have never absolved Americans from the need to practice statecraft or make strategy. But, contra Kissinger, it has been the United States that has proven itself to be strategically patient over the course of time; we have, broadly speaking, closely hewed to George Washington’s farewell admonishment to “choose peace or war as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Indeed, Kissinger’s suggestion that the United States adopt a “joint enterprise” with China to fashion a global condominium would be to pursue exactly the sort of antithetical “entanglement” that Washington warned against. 

In 1823, British foreign secretary George Canning made a similar proposal of condominium in Latin America, ostensibly in response to attempts to suppress Bolivarian revolutions on the part of Spain, aided by other continental powers. The British offer had many attractions, both strategic and commercial, and elicited great interest from President James Monroe and his cabinet. However, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wondered whether they met “a test of right and wrong.” Adams established, as Greg Russell has written, that “the methods devised to safeguard American security … had an intrinsic bearing upon the vitality of national purpose before the world.” The resulting Monroe Doctrine was an assertion that the American republic would not cut long-term deals with any monarchical regime – even with Britain, the most liberal of all great powers and even despite U.S. relative weakness.

Adopting a similarly standoffish attitude toward the current Chinese regime would be a timely reminder of the vitality of the American national purpose, not only before the world but here at home, where it is also in question, especially on the part of Kissingerian “realists.” Americans will naturally and profitably continue to trade with China, expand cultural exchanges and otherwise “engage.” But prospects for geopolitical “joint exercises” with Beijing are extremely limited – not only because of the nature of China’s rise but also because of the nature of American “eminence.”

Thomas Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.