The limits of personal diplomacy
Back in prehistory, during The Cold War, students of arcane Kremlinology – the science and art of trying to unravel what Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in an enigma” – identified a dangerous heresy. “Mirror-imaging”, it was called, defined as attributing to Moscow our own motivations, rather than understanding Soviet Communist leadership lived in a completely different world and dreamed different dreams.
In a sense it was what Sigmund Freud called “projection”, a psychological defense whereby an individual “projects” his own thoughts, motivations, desires and feelings onto someone else. In the Soviets case, the West collectively – hoping against hope – often tried to see Moscow’s actions as an expression of a common desire for peace and stability. Alas! that was rarely the case, especially after Josef Stalin’s failed mid-30s self-serving maneuvers to block Nazi Germany.
All this came to mind with a recent Obama Administration “leak” announcing Vice President Joseph Biden would take “the China portfolio”. Insiders said Mr. Biden would channel multifaceted China relations, ultimately lifting issues from secretaries of state, treasury, and defense. It didn’t take long for the lickspittle camp followers of the huge U.S. China trade lobby who apparently flew this kite to bring it to earth. No, Mr. Biden, hasn’t quite become the [however controversial] “assistant president” of Mr. Richard Cheney in the Bush II Administrations, and would not he be taking over “China”, just kibitzing.
But one couldn’t help speculating on the origins of this little Washington circus.
For some months it’s been clear with continuing Middle East disasters – admittedly much of the debris inherited from earlier times and administrations – the Obama White House wanted the country to look further east for its major foreign policy initiatives. A fawning media fell in line. That was despite echoes of growing disappointment in Pres. Obama’s earlier Muslim outreach, the escalating Iranian crisis, unanticipated subversion of “The Arab Spring”, troubled relations with major ally Israel, and the messy withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, China looms ever larger. Not only are there huge unresolved economic issues in a time when the economy takes front and center – Beijing’s still growing dollars hoard, the unresolved yuan’s value, billions in stolen American intellectual property, blocking of American imports. But increasing bellicosity of Chinese military – and a lashing out against the U.S. by Le Keqiang, now scheduled as China’s next prime minister — all point to what might well be America’s number one longer term foreign policy concern.
With cavalier aplomb – given what’s generally perceived as U.S. over commitment and a gaping treasury – Sec. Clinton added to all this when she threw down the gauntlet in Southeast Asia. With “Vietnam Syndrome”long forgotten, Mrs. Clinton announced Washington would back China’s Southeast Asian neighbors in attempting to fend off Beijing’s outrageous claims to South China Sea oil and gas and dominance of one of the world’s most strategic waterways. Yes, it was only a restatement of America’s post-World War II Western Pacific hegemony and renewing the U.S. Navy’s pledge to maintain freedom of the seas. Still …
As best one can calculate – motivation is always the most dangerous speculation – some Administration geopolitical genius latched on to the coincidence Mr. Biden was the U.S. vice president, and China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, is supposedly tapped in this fall’s succession to succeed Pres. Hu Jinbao. So, wouldn’t it be jolly for our vice president to get to know their vice president, establish a personal relationship, leading to understanding and cooperation, as we set off into the sunset? Kumbaya!
But Beijing’s politics are, if anything, more Byzantine than Washington’s – and far more opaque. Mr. Xi has repeatedly stumbled despite his “lips and teeth” relationship to Pres. Hu in his scramble for the triple throne of Party, military and government No. 1. And despite Mr. Biden’s claims to proletarian origins, they hardly match “princeling” Mr. Xi’s background — son of a Communist Party founder who incurred Mao Tsetung’s wrath that ondemned his teenage son to seven years “exile” at hard labor in a poverty-stricken semidesert village.
Whatever their vitae, dreaming up a buddy relationship as solution to the troubled U.S.-China relations almost certainly ahead, is, indeed, preposterous. The little soap opera proves, were it not already self-evident, the “lessons” of the Cold War lie buried somewhere in the Library of Congress — with no remnant at CIA, one surmises.