What a difference a half-century makes.
In February 1972, the People’s Republic of China hosted a history-making American delegation headed by President Richard M. Nixon, the Middle Kingdom’s most important Western visitor since Marco Polo. In February 2022, no Western heads of state were in Beijing as the city played host to the Winter Olympics.
Those hoping the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott would cause red faces in Red China were disappointed when chief ChiCom Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their 38th meeting, just prior to the opening ceremonies. From their conference emerged a 5,000-word joint declaration pledging cooperation on military and economic matters around the world and beyond (plans for a Sino-Russian moon base were announced last year).
Preventing such a combination, which Xi has described as something that “exceeds an alliance,” has been an objective of foreign policy strategists since the beginning of the last century. The failure to achieve that objective is nothing short of calamitous according to fin de siècle historian Henry Adams.
Having relieved Spain of the remnants of her empire via the Spanish-American War, America emerged as a new world power at the dawn of the 20th Century. At that time, Henry Adams emerged as a peak geopolitical prognosticator. The scion of presidents and diplomats, Adams was famously perplexed by the modern world, but nonetheless possessed an unparalleled foresight into the future of foreign affairs. He correctly predicted the decline of the British Empire, world war, the Bolshevik Revolution, NATO, and the atomic bomb.
But Adams’ most chilling insight came as his friend and neighbor Secretary of State John Hay was desperately trying to prevent Russian colonization of China through his “Open Door” policy of guaranteeing world powers equal access to Chinese markets. Adams warned, “if Russia organizes China as an economical power, the little drama of history will end in the overthrow of our clumsy [W]estern civilization.”
Adams feared that if “the vast force of inertia known as China . . . united with the huge bulk of Russia in a single mass,” it could economically and militarily surpass any coalition of nations straddling the Atlantic. “We never can compete with Asia, and Chinese coal and labor, organized by a Siberian system,” stated Adams in 1903.
A precise pessimist, Adams saw this Eurasian union prevailing by 1950, the year Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung formally allied. But beyond Adams’ field of vision lay developments more congenial to the American agenda. The conflicting interests of Stalin’s successors and Mao soon led to the Sino-Soviet split and decades of mutual hostility between the communist world’s two titans.
During this period another influential Henry emerged who recognized the importance of maintaining distance between the Bear and the Dragon.
As a German refugee fleeing antisemitic persecution in his homeland, Henry Kissinger began life well outside of the elite environment that Adams inhabited from birth. Nevertheless, both men appreciated the advantages of antagonism among America’s adversaries. Having coordinated as National Security Advisor the shift in relations vis-à-vis China during the visit that Nixon called “the week that changed the world,” Kissinger, like Adams, has lived long enough to see events pass him by.
Removed from the cold logic of the Cold War, it is easy to view the China of today as “Kissinger’s Monster.” But that moniker fails to consider the fact that closer diplomatic relations with China was Nixon’s rather than Kissinger’s idea. It also ignores China’s true enabler, blind engagement by nearly all Western countries from 1991-2016.
Exhausted by the Vietnam War, the U.S. pursued détente with both the Soviets and the Chinese. The thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations was suspended by the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then canceled by American voters the following November. America’s détente with China lasted until the American electorate insisted upon its demise in November 2016.
This recalibration of American foreign policy was 25 years late. China policy should have changed along with the lines on the post-Cold War map. Instead, the successful American foreign policy of the Cold War’s last decade gave way to the blundering naivete of American foreign policy during the quarter-century after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
The level of competition displayed by the athletes in Beijing is nothing compared to the competition the free world faces from China. Despite behaving more poorly during the pandemic than even American teachers’ unions, China’s goal of eclipsing the U.S. as the preeminent world power is proceeding apace. China’s alignment with Russia makes impossible the kind of sustained pressure the U.S. imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Prying the Beijing-Moscow Axis apart should be America’s prime priority.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.