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Could Nixon Go to China Today? How hyper-partisanship thwarts peace.

Nearly a half century ago, President Richard Nixon made a bold and risky foreign policy move. In a radio and television address on July 15, 1971, Nixon announced that he would be traveling to the People's Republic of China (PRC) to hold talks with that country's communist rulers. The following February, Nixon did indeed go to China for meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. His visit culminated with the issuance of the Shanghai Communique, which began the profound transformation of U.S.-China relations. Despite the dramatic reversal of the hostile policy U.S. leaders had pursued since the 1949 communist revolution, the president's actions received widespread, bipartisan support.

In 2018, President Donald Trump made a similarly bold and surprising move to transform relations with another communist rogue state, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). Trump startled the American public when he agreed to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

Reaction from Congress, the media, and the foreign policy community, though, was dramatically different in this case than it had been to Nixons opening to China. Instead of extensive backing, a deluge of often vitriolic criticism took place. Worse, the opposition was disturbingly partisan. GOP hawks likely were not pleased about Trumps meeting with the North Korean dictator, but most of them remained quiet rather than attacking his policy in public. Progressive politicians and pundits exhibited no such restraint. Moreover, both the intensity and partisan nature of the opposition continued unabated following Trumps second summit with Kim in Hanoi in February 2019 and the "photo-op" summit at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in June 2019.

The stark contrast in congressional and media behavior regarding Nixons diplomatic venture and Trumps raises a troubling question. Could Nixons opening to China even have taken place if the hyper-partisanship dominating American politics today? The view that politics stopped at the waters edge and that important foreign policy issues were off-limits for partisan posturing was still strong in the 1970s, despite the trauma and divisions of the Vietnam War. Such principled bipartisanship now seems like a quaint memory.

Nixons initiative abandoned the U.S. campaign to isolate and demonize the PRC. His conciliatory effort did generate some domestic controversy, but most members of Congress were reasonably supportive. The New York Times noted that Nixon was winning the "broad approval of Congress" for his new China policy. Perhaps most crucially, the support was firmly bipartisan. The majority of the principal news outlets also generally praised the presidents efforts.

A few Senate Democrats, led by hawkish Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA), opposed the presidents overture to China. A "saddened" Jackson claimed that with the Shanghai Communique and the overall shift in U.S. policy, "we are doing the withdrawing and they are doing the staying. That does not strike me as a good horse trade." But most congressional Democrats were at least mildly supportive, and even Jackson eventually came around.

Most of the criticism that did emerge came from conservative Republican figures who charged that the embryonic rapprochement undercut Americas longtime ally, Taiwan. Senator James Buckley (R-NY) blasted Nixons trip as a "disastrous adventure in American diplomacy" He lamented that the Shanghai Communique had done "enormous damage to American credibility" and hinted that he might refuse to campaign for Nixon in the upcoming 1972 election.

But influential, outspoken critics were rare. Leading congressional Democrats, including Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), praised the president for easing tensions with China. Liberal columnist James Reston stated that it was Nixons finest hour.

A New York Times sampling of editorial comments in newspapers across the nation found far more support than criticism of the president's policy, especially among liberal-leaning publications. The Boston Globe stated that "with this good start, it remains to be seen how far the two nations can proceed together on the road to peace." The Chicago Sun Times exuded pleasure: "If all this is not superior to trading insults mixed with myths, we'd like to know what is." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that "many Americans may be viewing Communist China in a positive light for the first time." Such a development, the editors concluded "of itself is a notable advance in international amity and a heartening portent." Those and other papers expressed caution that much additional diplomatic labor was necessary, but they gave the president high marks for his initial foray.

If instead of such encouragement, intense partisan sniping had taken place in response to Nixons rapprochement with China, it is highly improbable that the delicate diplomatic process could have continued and produced positive results. Indeed, it is unlikely that Nixon would have been willing to proceed. Fortunately, he did not have to confront such opposition.

Trump's experience has been strikingly different. His critics, mostly congressional Democrats and their media allies, along with a small contingent of neoconservatives, launched a barrage of criticism at his outreach to Kim from the onset. Some of them denounced the president's willingness to even meet with the North Korean leader, contending that according Kim such an honor implicitly "legitimized" the DPRKs brutal dictatorship. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin fumed: "The spectacle of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un on equal footing with the president of the United States...was enough to turn democracy lovers' stomachs."

President Trump "elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime's status quo," intoned ` congressional Democrats were equally caustic. Referring to the conciliatory but boilerplate language of the summits concluding joint statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer groused: "What the United States has gained is vague and unveriflable at best." Conversely North Koreas boost in international prestige, "is tangible and lasting." Sen. Chris Murphy (DCT) later expressed outrage in a tweet that Trump insisted on continuing a dialogue with such a monstrous leader. "Kim Jong Un is a homicidal tyrant who deliberately starves his people and murders those who displease him. This is who he is and who he has always been. It's simply heartbreaking to know tonight that his biggest global cheerleader is the President of the United States of America."

Other critics grudgingly conceded that a willingness to talk to Kim might be acceptable in theory, but Trump should have insisted on major moves from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program before agreeing to any summit. They also seemed to believe that Trumps willingness to make concessions amounted to appeasement. Progressives were even more upset than conservative hawks that Trump promised to suspend the annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises--a major objective of Pyongyang for decades. MSNBCs Rachel Maddow accused the president of a " giveaway to North Korea."

The sneering increased when the February 2019 summit in Hanoi ended abruptly without any new agreement, and the negativity continued despite the striking symbolism of a new relationship with North Korea when Trump took his brief stroll into the DPRK during the June 2019 meeting with Kim at the DMZ. Liberal-leaning media outlets dismissed the summit as a meaningless expression of Trumps vanity.

Democratic presidential candidates were scarcely more supportive. "Our President shouldn't be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator," U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on Twitter. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) likewise called the event nothing more than a "photo-op." Trump "has raised the profile of a dictator by meeting with Kim three times now with nothing to show for it," according to Julian Castro. A spokesman for former vice president Joe Biden said that Trump was "coddling" Kim and other dictators at the expense of U.S. national security.

If done purely for petty partisan advantage, such objections are shamefully irresponsible. If they are sincere, they are being disturbingly naive. Indeed, earlier critics would have had a better case to accuse Nixon of "appeasement" and conferring "legitimacy" on a totalitarian regime than the current crop has for leveling those charges at Trump. Nixon was not only willing to open a dialogue with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, but to travel to China to start the process. The latter feature gave the PRC a major prestige coup. Conversely, Trump insisted on holding the first two summits in neutral locations. Nixon set foot in the PRC on his first visit, while Trump entered the DPRK only during the third summit.

Any progress with North Korea would be unlikely if Trump refused even to meet with Kim Jong-un. Agreeing to conduct diplomacy with even odious foreign leaders is not a case of the United States bestowing a great honor on them. Effective diplomacy requires a willingness to engage unpleasant regimes and leaders. U.S. presidents have done so repeatedly throughout history. In addition to the normalization of relations with the PRC, several summits took place with Soviet dictators during the Cold War--even as those tyrants continued to operate the horrific gulags.

Trump's critics are being unrealistic. It is unlikely that the DPRK will ever accept Washingtons long-standing demand for "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" denuclearization. The level of trust necessary for North Korean leaders to relinquish their only reliable guarantee that the United States will never resort to forcible regime change toward the DPRK is lacking--and will be for many years, even if the overall bilateral relationship improves.

Moreover, Trump's critics are wrong that he has obtained no concessions from Pyongyang. North Korea has refrained from conducting any new nuclear tests. And although Pyongyang did test a new, short-range missile, it has conspicuously not launched any medium or long-range missiles for well over a year. Those are not meaningless changes in behavior.

It remains to be seen if the cautious warming of relations between the longtime enemies will continue and eventually result in a fully normal relationship, including a peace treaty ending the Korean War, the exchange of ambassadors, the lifting of sanctions, and the onset of trade relations. Such progress, if it takes place at all, will not occur overnight. But the transformation of Washingtons relationship with the PRC did not take place quickly either. The United States did not even formally recognize the Beijing government until 1979, and the now massive bilateral economic ties did not truly gather momentum until the 1980s.

Overcoming decades of animosity between adversaries--especially nations with starkly different economic and political systems--is not easy or quick But as the experience with China demonstrates, the rewards of engagement and tension reduction can be substantial, even though quarrels remain. If myopic partisan critics had strangled Nixons new policy in its cradle, America's relationship with China today likely would be more dangerous for all concerned.

President Trump's North Korea initiative deserves similar support and encouragement instead of ridicule and knee-jerk hostility. Prominent Democrats in the 1970s, such as Kennedy and Mansfield, behaved in a responsible, constructive manner, despite having to give credit to a political adversary. So, too, did most liberal media outlets. The petty conduct of their successors in response to Trump's outreach to North Korea stands in depressing contrast to such mature statesmanship.


Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 800 articles on international affairs.
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Title Annotation:Front Lines
Author:Carpenter, Ted Galen
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 1, 2019
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