Constructing the New China Policy
Richard Nixon upended policy in a way seldom equaled when in 1972 he made his journey of reconciliation to Communist China and overturned a two-decade-old strategy of containment and isolation. The Truman administration had created that strategy, and it had persisted thanks to a strong anti-communist consensus at home and the rigid views of such leading policymakers as John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk. Nixon’s insistence on engaging China as an important player on the world stage not only broke with the past but yielded a stable new policy of engagement.
Evelyn Goh, currently an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, asks that we reconsider this widely retailed version of events. The U.S. policy shift was, she contends, neither as abrupt nor as dependent on Nixon as usually depicted. Her account, which had its origins as an Oxford dissertation, argues that during the Kennedy and Johnson years China specialists within the foreign policy bureaucracy along with academics, leading Democrats, and lobbying groups explored new ways of understanding and relating to China. By the end of the decade the established notion of an implacable “Red Menace” was in competition with three new perspectives. The Sino-Soviet dispute convinced some that Beijing was a “Revolutionary Rival” of Moscow. Turmoil within China—first famine following the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution—gave rise to a second new image, that of the “Troubled Modernizer.” Finally, China’s military shadow over Vietnam and acquisition of nuclear weapons inspired talk of a “Resurgent Power.”
While these fresh points of view had limited immediate effect on policy, they did prepare the ground for the Nixon revolution. The president built on the “Resurgent Power” outlook and moved toward rapprochement. Goh contends that the story does not stop, however, with Nixon’s triumphant 1972 visit. With the White House distracted by Watergate, Henry Kissinger proceeded to promote a tacit alliance with China, anticipating the Brzezinski anti-Soviet strategy of the Carter years.
The principle problem with Goh’s challenge to received wisdom is the simple one of cause and effect. Did the fresh perspectives of the 1960s have a significant impact on Nixon’s thinking? A case could be made that Nixon’s China overture derived primarily from his broader vision of a multipolar world in which the United States occupied a diminished international position. Engaging China as well as détente with the Soviet Union flowed from that broad conception. Until a fuller body of Nixon evidence comes available, this central point remains a matter of speculation.
The theoretical framing of this argument creates a second problem. Goh takes as her target a mechanical realism in which structural changes in international power relations result automatically in appropriate policy adjustments. Why then, she asks, did U.S.-China relations change so slowly, and what finally precipitated a rapid but belated U.S. acceptance of the reality of a powerful China as a legitimate world power? Goh finds her answer in a more subtle realism, one that pays more attention to ideas and identities embodied in policy-relevant “discourse.” To this reader at least, the version of realism Goh critiques seems like a straw man. To be sure, realists want leaders to take their cue from shifting constellations of power but also routinely recognize that misconceptions can get in the way and that policymakers then have to think their way out of difficulty. Compounding the problem, Goh’s elaboration of discourse analysis as a useful tool forces readers to travel along some meandering methodological paths through terminological brambles created by phases like “ideational bridge” (155), “intersubjective process” (164), and “’discursive entrapment’ effect” (254).
Whatever the limits of sources and methods, this treatment raises classic questions in international relations. How does a policy reversal of major proportions get made? Does it depend primarily on fresh insights that get the foreign policy establishment thinking along fresh lines? How important ultimately are changes in the basic international facts of life that compel even the most obdurate leaders to come to terms? How much weight to give to personality — the courage and knowledge a leader can bring to bear — in explaining dramatic policy reversals? Are the hands of even the most adept leaders tied until domestic political or cultural constraints weaken enough to permit room for policy maneuver? It is a tribute to Goh that in this, her first book, she has not only laid out a clear argument but done so in such a thought-provoking way.