Was It Bull In China’s Shop? Time Will Tell

Of all Theodore White’s Making of the President books, the one with the oddest shape was the volume that covered the 1972 election. White begins with a tale of a Master of the Universe: Richard Nixon, scarcely conscious of the buglike buzz of Edmund Muskie, George McGovern and the other Democrats, flying triumphantly to China. White, Time ‘s old China hand, looks out his airplane window to see the waters of the Yellow River spreading into the sea. But he ends with John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General, heading off to the slammer.

President Bill Clinton’s career has had a different shape. Webster Hubbell, the former No. 3 man in his Justice Department, already did his time before the President’s China trip, and the third act is still to be written. What of the trip itself?

It is hard for us to judge President Clinton’s effect on China because we are not Chinese. Certainly the speech, the press conference and the question-and-answer sessions will bring no quick changes, and for those who need change desperately-the slave laborers in factories, the Tibetans whose culture has been destroyed, the Christians whose definition of what must be rendered unto Caesar differs from Caesar’s-that’s tough luck. When national security adviser Samuel (Sandy) Berger celebrates with Tim Russert, they won’t be invited.

But the mid- to long-term effects on closed systems of even the smallest cracks can be incalculable. The Pope went to Poland; Solidarity followed. Solidarity was crushed, but where are the men who crushed it now? Bill Clinton is not the Pope. But neither is he Richard Nixon, whose China trip was an exercise in Realpolitik , lowered by sycophancy, which reached its nadir in his effusive post-banquet toasts to his hosts, the assembled tyrants. William F. Buckley Jr., who was in the traveling press corps, wrote one of the great disses of modern journalism: “You almost expected him to lurch into a toast to Alger Hiss.”

So President Clinton’s little homilies about freedom and prosperity, however wan they sound to us, may prove to be world-historical. The first time is the most important, as nuns, preachers, boys and girls know. When everything has been said, nothing resonates. When nothing may be said, anything can sound like a bugle.

But we also hear what our President has to say, and on us the effects can be demoralizing. When he carried on and on about how freedom brings prosperity, as if that was its only benefit or justification, he sounded like the dullest hack at some particularly bad political convention. Is liberty to be judged by dollars and cents? Hitler put Germany to work making autobahns while we wallowed in the Depression. Should we therefore have started passing out yellow stars? President Clinton was making a specific debaters’ point. The oligarchs of Beijing claim that repression is the precondition of stability; if they had not murdered hundreds in Tiananmen Square, millions would not now be prosperous. President Clinton was trying to rebut that devil’s calculus. But we can’t embargo his foreign utterances. Whatever he says abroad gets played back here, too.

There are tensions within the Presidency forced on it by the differing demands of the role, and by modernity itself. The President is both head of state and chief executive officer, king and prime minister. The direction of the nation’s foreign policy is in his hands, and he is the symbol of the nation. In the past, diplomats did the actual jawboning and treaty-signing. With ocean liners and airplanes, Presidents began going abroad-Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon. At the same time, the President is a kind of secular spiritual leader-the pontifex maximus of the American civil religion, as Walter Dean Burnham put it. He doesn’t just do his many jobs, he tells us why all our jobs are worth doing.

So the modern President must be both advance man and moralist. He must simultaneously go to China and give the Gettysburg Address. Naturally, problems arise. When you decide to deal with a foreign power, you accept certain protocols. You won’t show up in the capital and read a sermon, even if the capital has recently been an abattoir. But then you are letting down the home congregation, which looks to you for encouraging words.

What can a President do? He can encourage our realism, without diminishing our principles or their specialness, by periodically reminding us that we are not the leaders of the world, but one nation among many. We will not hesitate to judge others by our standards, and our standards may always be a factor in our dealings with them. But evangelizing for liberty is not our only, or even our driving, purpose. We take care of ourselves. The world must take care of itself.

However well he performs before a crowd, this President has neglected two aspects of an effective China policy. The present-day Realpolitik view of China, as expounded by National Review senior editor Peter Rodman and others, is that China is a conservative great power, not interested in upsetting the world’s, or even necessarily Asia’s, balance. But any great power by nature tends to expand into available vacuums. The United States should not tempt China by giving it room. That means a commitment to American military power, and to missile defense. We need a Navy capable of sailing through the Formosa Strait, and protection from whatever technologies our satellite companies have frittered away. That means strength and prudence, not meaningless agreements on retargeting Chinese missiles.

The President should also not weaken his own credibility by trolling for campaign contributions from Chinese generals. He already did that? Then see that he keeps his legal defense fund clean, and see that his Vice President, and would-be successor, keeps a watch on glad-handers, operators and temple fund-raisers. If that’s impossible, and it probably is, then next time out the Dem- ocrats should give us a neoliberal who isn’t corrupt, like Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.