The Bush administration has successfully weathered its first foreign policy crisis. After some initial hesitation and uncertainty about what posture to strike, the president and his foreign policy team handled the China crisis with poise. They kept their cool, struck the right public tone and, importantly, were able to speak with a single voice.
After all, while the president may have little foreign policy experience, he is served by a seasoned team that has confronted and overcome crises far worse than the one just resolved. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell were at the helm when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld served in the White House and as secretary of defense in the immediate aftermath of Watergate. And Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, served in the White House when the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
What does come as a surprise is the manner in which the administration sought to handle this crisis, which stands in stark contrast to the way George W. Bush and his team have approached foreign policy in their first 12 weeks in office. Far from taking the kind of hard, confrontational line that had marked its initial foreign policy forays, the administration sought to craft a diplomatic approach that would lead to a win-win outcome for both sides.
Washington wanted the crew and plane back, but it did not want to apologize for an accident that was not its fault. The administration also insisted that reconnaissance flights would continue, including in the area where the collision happened. Beijing wanted an admission that the U.S. presence in the area was ultimately the cause of the incident-if not actually an acknowledgement that the Navy plane had caused the crash and death of its pilot. China also sought to curtail future flights by U.S. aircraft in the region.
The agreement that ended the crisis meets both sides more than halfway-we got our crew back without having apologized. China received an acknowledgement of American regret over the incident and Washington said it was “very sorry” for the resulting loss of life and the need to enter Chinese territory without receiving permission.
The fate of the plane is to be addressed in a meeting to be held next week, which will also provide Beijing a forum for raising the issue of reconnaissance missions near China.
This diplomatic resolution of the crisis became possible only because the administration sought to understand the issue from China’s point of view. It then skillfully crafted an approach that met both Beijing’s and Washington’s minimum requirements. Since neither side wanted to escalate the crisis further, both were willing to settle for getting most, even if not all, of what they wanted. We got the crew, but not the plane; China got an expression of sorrow and a forum for addressing our presence near its shores, though no apology.
This cooperative approach to the crisis stands in sharp contrast to the new “realism” that has characterized the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy up to this point. Instead of a search for common ground, let alone an intensive effort at resolving differences, Bush and his advisers have been satisfied with staking out clear policy positions without much regard for the positions of others on the issue.
Thus, the Kyoto treaty on global warming is pronounced “dead,” and no alternative is offered for dealing with climate change. Violence in the Mideast must stop, but Washington will not engage to help revive the Mideast peace process until the parties themselves are ready to deal. Missile defenses will be deployed and research conducted, without regard to the ABM Treaty. Missile negotiations with North Korea cannot resume until airtight verification measures have been worked out. And the list goes on.
Even on China, the administration has sought to draw lines without offering the prospect of, or a process for, overcoming differences. China is now a “competitor,” not a “partner.” The leaders of Japan and South Korea are invited for an Oval Office visit; the Chinese leader does not even get a phone call.
Beijing is put on notice that this administration will be “firm” in stating its disagreements. And China’s World Trade Organization accession is now, we are told, a “low priority.” Foreign policy in the Bush administration has been all take and no give. It has been my way or the highway-there are no in-between ways.
Until now. When a real crisis emerged, and the lives of Americans were clearly at stake; when worried families and yellow ribbons were back on the nightly news, the administration shifted gear. Rather than insisting only on principle and simply asserting the United States had the right to do what it did, the administration looked to engage the other side and find a compromise-a give-and-take solution-that everyone could live with.
It worked in this instance. Now let’s hope that Bush and his very seasoned team will have learned that cooperation can work in many other instances as well.
Mao Zedong did not see the value of reform and opening up. The China part of Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article suggested an implicit bargain that provided the conceptual basis for China’s new direction after 1978. That bargain was if China focused on domestic development and didn’t threaten the security of its neighbours, the United States would help.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.