Trump cancels Nixon

Turning Points

Shortly before his death in 1994, former U.S. President Richard Nixon allowed himself a moment of doubt regarding his signal foreign policy accomplishment: rapprochement with China—a breakthrough that set the stage for the Asian giant's spectacular revival. "Maybe we created a Frankenstein," he told the late New York Times columnist William Safire.

On July 23, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked that comment in a fiery speech that seemed to erase decades of U.S. diplomatic engagement with the People's Republic of China. Underscoring the reversal of relations that has been underway since 2017, the Trump administration ordered China to close its consulate in Houston. China countered by demanding America's diplomatic mission in Chengdu shut its doors, dramatically extending a series of tit-for-tat expulsions that has included journalists, academics and scientists.

Nixon made it his mission to bring China out of Maoist isolation. "Tak­ing the long view," he wrote in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, "we sim­ply can­not af­ford to leave China for­ever out­side the fam­ily of na­tions, there to nur­ture its fan­tasies, cher­ish its hates and threaten its neigh­bors." Four years later, hav­ing as­cended to the White House, Nixon en­gi­neered his "open­ing to China."

Pompeo and the coterie of anti-China hawks surrounding President Donald Trump now see it as their historic task to correct what they regard as Nixon's mistake.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing in 1972.

Source: Keystone/Hulton Archive

This week in the New Economy


The sense of urgency among Trump's adjutants is inspired by their belief that a showdown between two incompatible political and economic systems—one democratic and capitalist, the other authoritarian and state-driven—is inevitable, and it would be better to bring it on now rather than wait until China is an even more formidable competitor.

These hardliners may also reckon they don't have much time left to act. While the strategy of seeking a dangerous confrontation with China could help Trump rally his right-wing devotees come November, it may not, so his aides figure better to do it while they can. In his speech at the Nixon library, Pompeo urged other countries and the Chinese people to rise up against a "bankrupt totalitarian ideology." He stopped just shy of calling for regime change.

But as the renowned Harvard Sinologist Ezra Vogel points out, this kind of rhetoric is having the opposite effect in China: it is stoking nationalism at U.S. expense, even among those who know and like Americans and wish to see a more democratic China, one that plays by international rules.

As for Pompeo's efforts to build an anti-China global coalition, he'd likely have an easier time if his boss wasn't regularly lashing out at America's traditional allies and trashing international institutions. Besides, as we now know in colorful detail from John Bolton's book about his recent stint in the White House, Trump has no interest in an ideological fight with China. His singular goal is reelectionand picking a fight might just help.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Xi Jinping, China's president, greet attendees waving American and Chinese national flags during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.

Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg

History seems to have proven Nixon right. As U.S. defenders of his engagement policy argue, an isolated China might have continued to export violent revolution, sought to proliferate nuclear weapons and send waves of impoverished refugees across its borders. Instead, it's now the world's second largest economy, and whether or not you believe the recent Chinese GDP spurt is real, the trend is clear: China is on course to overtake the U.S. economy in aggregate size. The coronavirus, and America's failure to control it, has only accelerated the timeline.

In a lengthy essay this week in the London Review of Books, the economist Adam Tooze puts Nixon's legacy into perspective. The U.S. and China are not in a "new Cold War," he argues: In Asia, the U.S. never prevailed in the first one. While the West was celebrating the "end of history" with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Chinese leadership was cracking down on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, a violent event that spurred a shaken Communist Party to preserve its rule by building China into an economic superpower.

It is this China that the U.S. now confronts, a global behemoth thatas Tooze puts ithas embarked upon a "gigantic and novel social and political experiment enrolling one-sixth of humanitya historic project that dwarfs that of democratic capitalism in the North Atlantic."

To Pompeo, this China may well be the "Frankenstein" Nixon mused about. But then, as now, the alternative to engagement is a world of disorder. According to Tooze, the only question "is how rapidly we can move to d├ętente, meaning long-term co-existence with a regime radically different from our own."


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