Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The China Canard

[posted by Callimachus]

A new book on the sudden Sino-American breakthrough of 1972, culminating in Nixon's trip to Beijing, apparently takes the familiar line that the "United States' rapprochement with China in the 1970s was one of the turning points in the history of the last century," the fortunate outcome of U.S. foreign policy passing "into the hands of two highly intelligent figures, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger."

Nixon, whatever his domestic iniquities, was a skilled operator in foreign affairs. He was the first to see the necessity of sensible relations with Beijing. He and Kissinger were also alive to the potential leverage offered by the growing dissension between China and the Soviet Union. They were in many ways an un-American pair. They were realists; they talked, and thought, in terms of national interests, even balance of power. They invented triangular diplomacy.

Coincidentally, I'm just now reading Derek Leebaert's delightful contrarian history of the Cold War, "The Fifty-Year Wound," which takes a very different view of the thing. As with all contrarian works, not all of the points he attempts are equally convincing. But this one is: Steering closer to China wasn't a stroke of genius for America; it was a no-brainer. China was threatened by Soviet malevolence, and the U.S. played the basic diplomatic game of supporting the weaker of its two rivals against the stronger.

Furthermore, the whole scene brought out the worst in Nixon and Kissinger, lovers of intrigue and deception for its own sake, both junkies for crisis and grand set-piece scenes which would prove to the world their weight as leaders and solvers. They were not above ginning up a crisis artificially if the interval between the natural ones grew irksomely wide.

Even the new book seems to acknowledge this, as described in the review:

Nixon's visit was a gesture, a great ceremonial occasion, minutely choreographed, with the photographers always ready at their assigned places and the timings always arranged to ensure maximum television coverage in the United States.

Leebaert is harsher:

All the care surrounding the China initiative was good fun for those involved, but gratuitous. Secrecy was essential, the public would be told, so that right-wing critics would not sabotage such bold diplomacy. Of course, the chief right-wing critic, had he not been president, would have been Nixon. The invitation once received, he sprang this grand gesture on the nation in an evening television address.

The China trip features all those qualities that made the American imperial presidency so odious. It confirmed all the processes that had begun under Kennedy to short-circuit Constitutional government in foreign policy, including back-channel communications and end-runs around State, Defense, and Congress. "U.S. leaders subjected to criticism at home," Leebaert observes, "look enviously at despotic states and the diplomatic fireworks they can lay on."

It also tangled America in the classic Cold War ugliness of supporting murderous thuggeries for the sake of an advantage on the global chessboard. Nixon "offered effusive toasts as the bloody Cultural Revolution ground over the Chinese people and munitions rolled steadily south to Hanoi."

The costs of the Nixon-Kissinger performance with China were several, including not just the slighting of Japan (uninformed of the overture), but also essentially countenancing helpful Pakistan's extermination, at the time of Kissinger's secret trip, of at least half a million Bengalis. ("We had to demonstrate to China we were a reliable government to deal with," recalled Kissinger aide Winston Lord," We had to show China we respect a mutual friend.") Moreover, at a time when Americans were being killed with China's assistance in Vietnam, the sudden "opening" got deliriously out of hand. ... U.S.-Chinese relations of some sort would have emerged anyway during the 1970s. That they came about as another of Nixon's grand architectural gestures -- as if Oceania's leader were visiting Eastasia that week -- was unfortunate.

And of course the big media of the day was along for the ride; in the traditional role of the "political-press complex" as captained by the old New York Times, when top print-media journalists "still worked as insiders and self-censoring amateur statesmen more than as newspapermen. ... [L]ittle was more important to the era's most powerful journalists than influencing foreign policy -- that is, being in the know."

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