Monday, May 22, 2017

China Confidential: American Diplomats and Sino-American Relations, 1945-1996

Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, China Confidential: American Diplomats and Sino-American Relations, 1945-1996 

Tucker exaqmines the complex relationship between the United States and China from the perspective of the foreign service officers who worked in the trenches.  This allows Tucker to examine the inner workings of the American State Department, the psychology of decision makers, and include the small details of Sino-American relations that are not captured in speeches, treaties, or policy documents.  Tucker’s ground level focus in China Confidential sets it apart from most other texts dealing with Sino-American relations.  Only Chen Jian’s Mao’s China and the Cold War and David Lampton’s Same Bed, Different Dreams even attempt to examine the psychology of policy makers, and Tucker is alone in examining the motivations of sub-cabinet officials.  China Confidential also clearly shows the economic and political development of the Nationalist government on Taiwan, including its slow move toward the goal of independence.  However, this approach also means that she does not address issues like the “Chinese victim complex” or sources of the Sino-Soviet Split discussed by Chen and others.

Looking at the impact of sub-cabinet level officials on Sino-Soviet relations, Paul Wolfowitz’s ideological biases had a negative impact as he removed Chinese offers to hold four-party talks to reduce tensions from memos sent back to Washington, even though senior officials like Secretary of State George Shulz were the targets of those offers.  Tucker does not focus only on the negative impacts and opinions of lower-level American diplomats; she also illustrates the contributions and frustrations of those trying to make Sino-Soviet relations work. As an example of the positive efforts of American diplomats, Ambassador Winston Lord and his Chinese wife Bette Bao Lord tried to subtly educate Chinese officials on the need for reform in politics and on human rights by having “philosophical discussions” with them.  They also utilized Mrs. Lord’s language skills and cultural knowledge to deal with Chinese officials and their unique psychology.  Her knowledge of China and her academic and literary credentials also gave Winston Lord access to part of Chinese society that he would not normally be part of as ambassador.  The Lords used this to establish ties with China’s future leaders, as well as dissidents and intellectuals.
As important as the impact, methods, and motivations of State Department officials are, those of senior policy makers reign supreme.  This is particularly true when assessing the relative impact on Sino-American relations of individuals like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Jimmy Carter.  Both Nixon and Kissinger acted to keep the State Department out of foreign policy decision making: Nixon because he did not trust or respect the Foreign Service, and Kissinger because he wanted to control access to the President and wanted to manage relations along his own geopolitical lines.  In Kissinger’s case, this included ignoring human rights issues in favor of strategic concerns and not informing key personnel of impending developments.  Jimmy Carter’s desire to normalize relations at all costs, and uncritically accepting Chinese demands in the process caused him problem with Congress, which passed the Taiwan Relations Act to force his Administration to maintain some ties to Taiwan over Chinese objections.

By examining the psychology and motivations of American leaders, Tucker provides the perfect counterpoint to Chen’s discussion of the psychological and cultural motivations of Chinese leaders.  Chen attributes Chinese actions to the “Chinese victim mentality”, and Chinese belief that China is the “Central Kingdom”.  In the “Chinese victim mentality” theory, China’s leaders believe that Western powers have exploited and humiliated China during the modern era, which prevents China from taking the place on the world stage that they believe it deserves.  The Chinese victim mentality feeds on the Chinese belief that China is the “Central Kingdom”: the glorious source of culture and civilization that other nations should want to be near or emulate.  These twin psychologies combine in a manner that makes Chinese leaders believe that the West owes China for past wrongs, and deal with foreign leaders in an arrogant manner.  Tucker also briefly mentions the Chinese concept of the Central or Middle Kingdom, when she quotes Lindsey Grant describing the phenomenon that Chinese “feel themselves the center of the earth” and that the Chinese name for China, Zhongguo, literally means “Middle Kingdom.”

In an area of study dominated by analysis of geopolitical strategic actions and motive, or by political science theory based explanations of the Sino-American relationship, Tucker provides a more personal look at the events, decisions, and actors in managing Sino-American relations.  In this she provides the American side of the equation, which balances Chen Jian’s effort to explain the Chinese interpretation of those same events and decisions.  While China Confidential does not provide a complete explanation of all of the factors behind Sino-American relations, it does allow a more complete understanding of the interaction between the two nations and their leaders.

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