Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, recently said that “the period [in U.S.-China relations] which has been widely described as the engagement ended. This shift from a “responsible stakeholder” strategy in relations with Beijing to a bipartisan consensus in favor of a much more confrontational stance towards the People’s Republic of China is now well recognized. Critics of the Trump administration, for example, have described past efforts to engage with China as n / AIve and akin to appeasement. But history shows us that a false dichotomy between appeasement and confrontation is neither accurate nor beneficial to US strategic interests. In fact, “hawks” have often been successful in using “talks” with adversaries to advance American interests and global stability.
Indeed, the child star of anti-appeasement himself, Winston Churchill, made this specific point in the United States at the start of the Cold War. Shortly after the defeat of French forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954, the United States faced a difficult strategic decision on how best to advance its interests as Communist forces appeared poised to take control of all of Southeast Asia. Many members of the executive and Congress have advocated direct US military intervention in the conflict and have suggested that negotiating with Communist officials in Geneva on the issue would constitute another ‘Munich’, or a naive appeasement in the face of an insatiable adversary. .
A different approach, however, has been advocated by one of the most respected voices in the international community. Churchill – the premonitory hawk who strongly opposed Adolf Hitler’s appeasement in Munich (and who turned out to be the first to invent the phrase “iron curtain” to describe the threat from the Soviet Union ) – advised, instead, to take the route of diplomatic engagement. “Jaw-jawed is always better than war-war” was the advice the British lion gave to members of the US Congress. Specifically, he “warned against rash actions, stating that in the long run, time often solves many problems that seemed difficult at first glance.” Rather, the prime minister advocated “peaceful coexistence” with the People’s Republic of China after the bloody Korean stalemate, while acknowledging “that some think it is almost heresy.” Of course, a decade later, US Presidents would ignore Churchill’s advice and – citing the Munich analogy – engage the United States in what is widely considered the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history: Vietnam War.
Hawks and talks
Churchill is far from the only light-eyed hawk who has nonetheless strongly advocated engagement with adversaries. It was no less an ardent anti-Communist than Richard Nixon who first implemented a policy of detente with the Soviet Union and even greater cooperation with China. The Nixon administration was the first to secure a stable deal with the Soviet Union over Berlin, and the major strategic arms limitation treaty signed by the superpowers was also the product of Nixon’s realistic engagement with the ‘Soviet Union.
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, also had clearly hawkish credentials as a steadfast supporter of the Vietnam War while in Congress and appointing advisers such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney once in the White House. Yet, as president, Ford engaged the United States in the 1975 Helsinki Accords recognizing post-World War II borders in Eastern Europe (and, therefore, Soviet rule) by exchange of a written agreement respecting human rights. Such action was widely seen as naïve by political rivals at the time – indeed, political criticism became so intense that Ford banned the use of the word “detente” from his 1976 presidential campaign. Yet in In the final analysis, Ford’s sarcastic engagement via Helsinki proved to be a key driver of Eastern European resistance to the Communist regime over the next fifteen years.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan’s presidency can hardly be questioned in his hawkish attitude towards the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Reagan took office determined to compete intensely with the USSR, and Reagan himself publicly ranked l ‘USSR as an “evil empire”. Yet despite this, Reagan showed himself to be quite willing to sit down and talk with the adversary – and even when immediate results could not be achieved. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev first met at the Geneva summit in 1985 and discussed issues such as arms control, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and human rights, but a fierce disagreement over the Reagan’s strategic defense initiative led to a deadlock on a true arms control deal. The summit itself therefore ended in failure and no real agreement was reached. However, the dialogue started in Geneva led to an ongoing conversation with the Soviets on arms control after the meeting. At the Reykjavík summit the following year, talks collapsed again without a deal, but progress led to the signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the next summit in Washington. The administration didn’t want Pollyanna to work with the Soviets, but, instead, was able to advance American interests through Reagan’s oft-cited Russian proverb “trust but verify.” During Reagan’s last year in power, US efforts to engage the USSR had been so successful that at the 1988 Moscow summit the two leaders were able to declare the Cold War over. History, from Churchill to Reagan, thus gives us strong evidence that light-eyed hawks have often used engagement strategies with their adversaries to great effect.
Commitment, not naive idealism
While the “responsible stakeholder” approach to China has clearly passed, it is not yet clear what will replace it. The US foreign policy attitude towards China has declined sharply under the Trump administration, and there is now a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the US needs to take a stronger stance towards Communist rule. Yet taking a more lucid and realistic approach to China – unlike a naive idealistic attempt to shape the rising power – does not require giving up engagement entirely.
For example, the United States and China held an annual strategic and economic dialogue from 2009 to 2016 under the Obama administration. The Trump administration initially seemed inclined to continue a similar process by leading a comprehensive economic dialogue in 2017, but high-level dialogues quickly collapsed as the administration sought to take a more confrontational approach with China over economic issues.
Conventional wisdom seemed to develop that such a process of structured dialogue with the Chinese was at best a waste of time, and at worst, downright counterproductive to American interests. Thus, stopping such a process of dialogue would appear to be an insignificant, even positive, development. However, in a recently published report titled “Engagement Revisited: Progress Made and Lessons Learned from the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue” (S&ED) by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, we find that, contrary to this conventional wisdom, Substantial progress has in fact been made in various areas through the dialogue process:
Security cooperation. The S&ED facilitated cooperation between technical agencies on security issues, including customs and law enforcement related to the illegal trafficking of nuclear and other materials, as well as the fight against child pornography and cybercrime.
Macroeconomic stability. The two countries kept their key commitments to improve their national economies in the wake of the global financial crisis, with China increasing domestic consumption from 49 to 50 percent of GDP at the end of S&ED and the United States cutting deficit spending by almost two-thirds during the same period.
More transparency and protection of rights. The S&DE has advanced U.S. goals for protecting intellectual property rights, both in collaborative research under the umbrella of S&DE and in commitments that the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has recognized as major progress. .
Public health management. The United States and China strongly coordinated the response to the Ebola crisis in Africa in 2014, sending teams and medical supplies and using existing relationships to contain the outbreak. Cooperation continued to develop, with both sides recognizing the global threat of infectious diseases, culminating in a joint project to establish the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which began in January 2017, shortly before the shutdown. of S&ED.
Climate change and clean energy. The S&DE contributed significantly to the sharing of information and experiences which resulted in the strengthening of Chinese environmental regulations, as well as the final resolution of the issues that held back adherence to the Paris Agreement.
Overall, the data just doesn’t support the perception of failure that many have about US-Chinese dialogues, and the S&ED proves that the two powers can compartmentalize areas of cooperation, competition, and conflict.
While the Trump administration’s approach to China was clearly far more confrontational than that of the Obama administration, there is little evidence that the Biden administration is looking to turn back the clock in 2016. On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence eight months after taking office suggests much more continuity with the previous administration than the difference in Chinese policy. Chinese advisers to the Top Biden administration have, for example, argued that “China is done biding its time” and that China is on a “long game” to move the United States in world affairs. So the Biden administration has apparently done the strategic math to take a more competitive stance with the People’s Republic of China for the foreseeable future. But a permanent abandonment of the “responsible stakeholder” strategy of trying to shape China should not mean a permanent abandonment of high-level dialogue. Hawks and talks are not mutually exclusive, but are actually quite effective when paired.