Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
SOME BRITISH ATTITUDES
IN JULY 1958, when for a time a summit conference seemed imminent, James Reston of The New York Times explained why the conference would be held in spite of American misgivings. "The truth is," he wrote, "that President Eisenhower has agreed to attend what he and his principal advisers profoundly and unanimously believe to be the wrong meeting at the wrong time and place on the wrong subject. The explanation is equally simple. It is that British public and parliamentary opinion forced the President's reluctant acquiescence, just as pressure from the British Labor Party was the decisive factor in arranging the last summit meeting with Premier Khrushchev in July 1955, at Geneva."
Whether or not Mr. Reston was right in attributing so much influence to British opinion, it is certainly true that during the last decade British politicians and the British press have been more enthusiastic supporters of summit conferences than have those of any other Western country; and there is no reason for doubting that this enthusiasm reflected the prevailing public opinion in Britain. After Winston Churchill first proposed a "parley at the summit" in an election speech in February 1950, and more particularly after his speech in the House of Commons on May 11, 1953, calling for an informal and private "conference on the highest level," support for summit conferences and faith in them as a means of resolving the tensions of the cold war increased rapidly.
The initiative in working for such conferences came from a few Conservative leaders and from a Left which was substantially united on this issue. The Conservative rank and file did not show the same enthusiasm, and it was noticeable that in the debate following Mr. Churchill's speech in 1953 most of the backbench Conservative speakers virtually ignored that part of his speech proposing a summit conference and preferred to take up other themes. But whether or not they continued to have private doubts and reservations, by the late 1950s there was little public opposition in Britain to the holding of summit conferences. Some were more hopeful than others about the outcome; there was some disagreement as to the conditions which should be fulfilled before a meeting was held; but there was very little outright opposition to, or fundamental criticism of, summit conferences as such. No one was prepared, as Ernest Bevin had been in 1950, to dismiss the idea of a summit conference as a "stunt proposal" which could not possibly solve the problems of the cold war. As The Observer reflected, just after a breakdown of the Paris meeting in May 1960, "The efficacy of a Summit meeting to produce better relations between Russia and America had become an article of popular faith."
I want to bring out here two aspects of this faith and to examine some of the arguments used to justify it.
It has often been asserted that there is nothing new about summit conferences, and the great conferences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been pointed to as proof of this. But while the fact that these earlier conferences took place establishes that there is nothing new about meetings of heads of states and governments as such, it does not establish that there is nothing novel about summit conferences as they are now conceived; and in one very important respect these summit conferences do seem different from earlier meetings. For whereas previously such meetings have been regarded as part of the normal process of diplomacy, now, increasingly, they seem to be regarded as a substitute for it. Indeed, one of the arguments used most frequently in support of summit conferences is that traditional diplomacy is hopelessly outdated and inadequate and that we need a "diplomatic revolution" to come to terms with the "nuclear revolution" which is supposed to have changed the nature of international politics in the most radical way. Faith in summit conferences is very often a corollary of a loss of faith in conventional diplomacy.
It is interesting that this loss of faith seems to be most evident in a people which traditionally takes pride in its mastery of the skills of classical diplomacy. In Britain, suggestions that the holding of a conference should be made conditional on the success of preliminary meetings, that its purpose should be to give final form and dramatic force to agreements reached by conventional negotiations, or that detailed agenda should be agreed on before a meeting is fixed are likely to be dismissed as obstructionist. Indeed any insistence at all on careful preparation and the weighing up of difficulties may meet the same fate. The mood is conveyed by a passage from Clement Davies' response to Churchill's proposal in 1953: "... this is not the moment to enter into details, to stress this or that matter, to call attention to difficulties which may arise in one country or another. How will that help? ... This is not the right way to bring about what we all desire-a meeting which will bring about peace."[i] And again by a Daily Herald editorial five years later (July 25, 1958): "When-and where- are we going to have those Summit talks? Why do we have to suffer this stumbling and mumbling, and silly suggestions that talks need more than a week-maybe weeks-to arrange?"
From the point of view of the supporters of summit conferences the rejection of preliminary negotiations makes sense, since it is the supposed impossibility of successful negotiations of the usual kind which is considered to make the holding of summit conferences necessary. But it is an attitude which makes it seriously misleading to assert that there is nothing new about summit conferences, that they are meetings of a traditional kind.
Another interesting aspect of this faith in summit conferences is that there often seems to be implicit in it both an acceptance of the supremacy and autonomy of politics as an activity, and the notion that the leaders are free agents who can manipulate the course of political life at will. The name "summit" is itself suggestive in this respect, conveying as it does a sense of Olympian elevation, a rising above the struggle to a plane from which events can be seen disinterestedly and as a whole rather than partially and with bias. (The contrast between the pettiness and selfishness of politics at the ground level and the nobility and purity of the summit is a recurring theme in English political cartoons.) The general nature of the demand for summits as expressed by their more extreme and optimistic supporters-a demand that the leaders shall meet and personally break a deadlock created, on any interpretation, by profound historical processes -clearly implies the omnipotence of political leaders and their freedom from the forces which condition and determine the behavior of ordinary men. Bertrand Russell writes an Open Letter to Eisenhower and Khrushchev[ii] asking them to meet and adopt policies which he thinks desirable, and he begins by addressing them as "Most Potent Sirs," the context making it clear that no irony is intended. Aneurin Bevan says that "the sooner we have the summit conference the better, so that the authors of the play may be there as well,"[iii] the implication being that the substance of international politics is something determined by a few political leaders. Clement Davies says that "what is obviously wanted is for the big statesmen, the really big men who have the fate of humanity in their hands, to come together."[iv] Discussing those who were to attend the conference of May 1960, The Observer says (May 15, 1960), "two of them are masters of the world in a sense that no two men before them have ever been."
Here is the "great man" theory of history in a pretty crude form and supported ardently by many whose political philosophy denies it. Many of the left-leaning advocates of summit conferences in fact seem to be schizophrenic in their attitude toward the political leaders of the world, believing both that collectively they might perform the miracle of transforming the international scene and that individually they are of very inferior calibre indeed. The point can be made by reference to the cartoons of Vicky of the New Statesman, widely regarded as a serious and even profound commentator on world politics. Even allowing for the exaggerations necessitated by his craft, it is clear that Vicky's opinion of the world's statesmen is a low one. Yet he believes passionately in a summit-a summit which seems to exist apart from those who would go to it. Somehow, by some unexplained alchemy, it seems that individual stupidity would give way to collective wisdom once these men met.
Perhaps because of the almost unanimous opinion in Britain that summit meetings are desirable, most statements on the subject seem to be concerned more with discussing how such meetings can be brought about and what should be talked about when they do occur than with establishing the case for them. However, several lines of justification do emerge and some of them throw an interesting light on the way in which international politics are thought of in Britain.
One of the most popular is summed up in a phrase coined by Mr. Churchill (though hardly a Churchillian phrase), "Jaw, jaw, is better than war, war"- or by one of its variants such as, "Nobody gets shot talking" (Daily Herald editorial, July 21, 1958). It is possible to agree with these statements (indeed it is difficult not to agree with them) while recognizing that they do not constitute any kind of an argument for holding summit conferences. Talking at the summit may be better than war, but then so is talking at the foothills and not talking at all and all sorts of other alternatives. Statements such as these would amount to an argument only if talking at the summit and war were the only two possible alternatives. As this is clearly not the case, the relevant question is not whether a summit conference is better than fighting a war but whether it is better than the other alternatives to fighting a war. And this can be answered only by considering each alternative in the light of the existing situation and goals. It is also relevant that in some circumstances certain kinds of talking (say, the Munich kind) represent not an alternative to war but a prelude to it, making war more rather than less probable.
Of the same calibre is the "no-stone-unturned, no-avenue-unexplored" line which usually takes the form: "The world is in a dreadful mess and disaster stares us in the face; in such a situation we should be prepared to try anything. Why not the summit?" And usually the rider is added or implied: "In any case we have nothing to lose." The weaknesses here are many. First, this is a line which could be used to advocate any course of action since it says not "we should have a summit meeting because it will have this or that desirable consequence," but "we should have a summit meeting because you never know, something might come of it." It makes no attempt to say why a summit should be thought desirable but takes the stand that it is desirable until shown to be otherwise. While making the line intellectually worthless, this probably increases its effectiveness as propaganda since it throws the onus of proof on those who oppose summit conferences or are skeptical about them.
Secondly, the fact (which is indisputable) that things are grim and that utter catastrophe is a possibility does not justify doing anything; it only justifies doing those things which are likely to make things less grim and catastrophe less probable.
Thirdly, the rider-"in any case we have nothing to lose"-is simply false if it means that things cannot get any worse (since it is the possibility of things getting worse which is supposed to make a summit meeting necessary), and highly debatable if it means that the holding of a summit meeting cannot itself make them worse. This was the view taken by Mr. Churchill in 1950: "It is not easy to see how things could be worsened by a parley at the Summit if such a thing were possible."
Whether or not a summit meeting can make things worse depends on the circumstances in which it is held. For example, if, before a meeting is held, great expectations concerning the possibility of "relaxing tension" are aroused (as they are likely to be in the interest of building support for the government's policy) , then when the meeting is held a choice may well have to be faced between, on the one hand, accepting a deadlock and disappointing those expectations-with possibly serious effects both on morale and on confidence in the government-and, on the other hand, accepting an unfavorable compromise in order to avoid deadlock and to achieve the expected relaxation.
The two arguments just considered are important only because they are popular; otherwise they could not be taken seriously. A more serious argument, and one with some very respectable backing, is based on the premise that the cold war conflicts are very largely the results of misunderstandings among the leaders. In particular, it is often said that the Soviet leaders do not understand the West, that they are blinded by their ideology or by their history, and that they think, wrongly, that Western leaders are intent on war (or alternatively that they doubt, wrongly, the West's determination and ability to defend itself); and it is also said that meetings between leaders (and exchanges of visits) can play a substantial part in destroying these illusions and misconceptions.
It is of course possible to accept the first proposition while rejecting the second, as George Kennan did in his 1957 Reith Lectures. In those lectures he gave influential support to the view that the Communist leaders misunderstood the West, although he dismissed the idea that summit conferences could do much to remove this misunderstanding. For many, however, there is clearly a close connection between the two propositions and they move easily from the assumption that there is misunderstanding to advocating visits and meetings as a means of removing it. Thus Mr. Attlee, taking up the Churchill proposal in May 1953: "What we want to get is understanding, by us of them and by them of us. It would be a great thing if we could get personal relations which would dissipate some of the Soviet mythology about Britain."[v] An editorial in The Times (London, August 5, 1959) discussing Mr. Khrushchev's proposed visit to the United States recognized that "it has always been argued that one of the foremost advantages of a visit by Khrushchev would be to convince him of the enormous strength and resilience of the United States."
The conclusion that the Soviet leaders misunderstand the West can be arrived at in a number of ways. One way is by studying, and taking at their face value, Soviet statements about the West, and if it is objected that only the naïve and those predisposed, because of an ideological or emotional attachment to the Soviet Union, to believe such statements would make this the test, it is worth remembering that these two groups are far from negligible either in numbers or in influence. Another way is by speculating about the psychological effects of certain modes of thought and action characteristic of Communism, as Mr. Kennan does when he considers the effects of the prolonged lying and "habitual carelessness about the truth" indulged in by the Soviet leaders. The objection to Mr. Kennan's view seems to me to be that he assumes that the intellectual corruption which accompanies indiscriminate and arbitrary lying will also accompany lying of the most discriminate and systematic kind, lying which is, moreover, always subjected to an objective test in terms of whether or not it serves the interests of the Party. Mr. Kennan obscures this by accusing the Soviet leaders of "carelessness" about the truth. This is surely the wrong word; the Soviet leaders are certainly unscrupulous about the truth, but they are anything but careless in the way they suppress and distort it. As the Kennan argument rests on the effects which are supposed to follow from carelessness about the truth, this distinction is vital.
Another argument used to establish the fact that the Soviet high command is misinformed about the West is based on certain views of totalitarian bureaucracy. Merle Fainsod states this line, without subscribing to it:
The tendency to embrace data that confirm established predilections while rejecting the unpalatable facts that offend one's preconceptions is a weakness from which no one is wholly free. Totalitarian societies appear to be particularly susceptible to such manipulation. Every dictatorship has a tendency to breed sycophancy and to discourage independence in its bureaucratic hierarchy. When the pronouncements of the dictator are sacred and unchallengeable, the words which subordinates throw back at him tend to flatter his whims rather than to challenge his analyses. No dictatorial regime can entirely escape the distortion of this echo effect.[vi]
In considering this view two points are important. First, while enough empirical evidence may one day be available to substantiate it, at present it seems to be based on a general theory of totalitarian bureaucracy rather than on known facts about the Soviet system. While such theories are interesting and suggestive, the number of totalitarian bureaucracies which have existed to date is surely too small for conclusive generalization. Secondly, as Mr. Fainsod points out, the Soviet leaders themselves take steps to safeguard the integrity of their sources of information by having "a variety of intelligence agencies [which] function side by side with no point of coördination short of the Kremlin itself." How effective these safeguards are is not known, but then neither is the extent of the distortion they are meant to counter. While there is certainly some distortion as information moves up through the hierarchy-as there is in every government-it seems to me that too little is known about its nature and extent to conclude on this ground alone that the Soviet leaders are seriously misinformed about the West.
The strongest argument for accepting the misunderstanding thesis is that the nature of Communist theory is such that anyone who believes it must have a distorted picture of the world because the theory is a wrong or confused one. If this is accepted, however, it can still be questioned whether their belief in the theory misleads the Soviet leaders in the way implied when it is maintained that it is their misconceptions about the West which are largely responsible for the cold war. What I think is meant when this is maintained is that (a) anyone who accepts the Communist view of history must accept as a fact-indeed as the central fact of international politics-the unremitting conflict between Communism and capitalism, between, that is, the Soviet Union and the West; (b) the Soviet leaders therefore believe that the governments of the West are unavoidably their enemies; and (c) this belief is a mistaken one. Again, Mr. Fainsod expresses this view: "Perhaps the greatest single source of distortion derives from the enemy image which is deeply embedded in Marxist-Leninist patterns of thought. The politics of Communism is built around the concept of the implacable adversary who has to be overwhelmed and destroyed lest he in turn annihilate Communism."[vii] That this enemy image exists and is central to Communist thinking about Western democracies must be accepted. But to what extent does it result in distortion? Are not the leaders of a totalitarian régime which is committed to achieving world domination and to the destruction of all non-Communist political systems right in thinking that other governments are their actual or potential enemies? Is it not one of the least controversial generalizations that can be made about power politics that he who pursues goals which are incompatible with my continued existence and who in the pursuit of those goals is determined to destroy me is, once I realize these facts, regarded by me as my enemy?
As long as direct evidence as to how the Soviet leaders view the West is inconclusive, a crucial test of their comprehension is whether in their dealings with the West these leaders behave as if they did not understand it; and it seems to me that they do not. It is not merely that, in the face of a mobilized West, Communism has made great gains in the last decade; nor is it only that, by general agreement, the Soviet leaders have seized and held the political initiative. I do not wish to argue that there is a simple relationship between success and understanding. What is more significant is the policies and methods by which these successes have been achieved. Taken together, the Soviet's "coexistence" and "peace" campaigns, the skillful alteration of tough and relaxed approaches, the use of personal visits and the success of the campaign for a summit conference itself, to mention but a few examples, seem to imply a very considerable understanding of the motives, fears, hopes, rivalries and illusions operating in the West. In the face of such evidence any claim that the Soviet leaders do not understand the West should be approached very warily and the onus of proof should rest on those who put it forward.[viii]
Someone who accepts misunderstanding or ignorance as one of the main causes of the cold war is more likely to believe in the efficacy of summit meetings as a means of bringing the cold war to an end than is someone who explains it in terms of real conflicts of interest arising out of ideological factors and power politics. But even then it is not self- evident that meetings between leaders are an effective way of removing misunderstanding. The vanity of men may make them believe that they can understand their fellows by looking them in the eye and clasping their hands, but there is ample evidence that meetings can breed and feed misunderstanding as well as understanding; one has only to think of the procession of British politicians, many of great experience, who visited Hitler and Mussolini and drew the wrong conclusions.[ix] It could well be argued that if understanding is the aim the more impersonal the proceedings, the more that the irrelevant factors such as charm, demeanor and skill in debate are excluded, the better the chance of success.
Another reason which has frequently been given for holding summit meetings is that there is "no use talking to anyone in Russia except Mr. Khrushchev." This view received wide support in the foreign policy debate in the House of Commons in July 1959,[x] both from backbenchers and from the Prime Minister. When Mr. Macmillan came to give his reasons for wanting a meeting, the first reason he gave was: ". . . because I think that certain decisions can be taken only by a meeting with Mr. Khrushchev, and it may be that the Berlin question is one."[xi] Mr. J. J. Mendelson, discussing the opposition of Mr. Adenauer and others to a meeting, said: "They do not wish any serious negotiations to take place. Therefore, they are against a Summit Conference, because it is generally agreed that there can be serious negotiations only at that level." Mr. Paul Williams extended this argument by claiming that no one below the heads of government had negotiating power on either side. "There was a time when Foreign Secretaries going to international conferences had some power and influence. This is not so today. This may or may not be regrettable, but that it is a fact is not open to doubt"-a strange view in the light of the recent careers of John Foster Dulles and Sir Anthony Eden as foreign secretaries. As applied to the conduct of the Soviet Union's foreign policy, however, the argument has more plausibility. Mr. Khrushchev is a dictator; power in the Soviet Union is extremely centralized; control over diplomatic representatives is tight. It might seem, then, that there is much to be said for negotiating directly with the one man who can take serious decisions, who has some freedom of manoeuvre.
But these facts are themselves two-edged and it can be argued that it does not really make much difference, in terms of effective negotiations, at what level discussions take place. For if centralization of power and tight discipline characterize Soviet diplomacy, and if during negotiations Soviet diplomats report back fully to their leaders and are carefully instructed by them, then it would seem that dealing with subordinates is very much like dealing with Mr. Khrushchev himself. As long as communication is good between the ventriloquist and his dummy it matters little which is spoken to: the former can exercise his initiative and his freedom of manoeuvre equally well in either case. In fact, whoever the Western leaders are ostensibly negotiating with, in reality they are always negotiating with Mr. Khrushchev; and if negotiations with the Soviet Union prove unproductive, it is not because the wrong people are being negotiated with but because it is the Soviet Government's policy (or Mr. Khrushchev's policy) not to reach agreement. I think that this argument is substantially sound and that the belief that direct negotiations with Mr. Khrushchev might produce substantial changes in Soviet policy is mistaken. Why, after all, should he be less wedded to the policy which he himself formulates than are his subordinates? There are undoubtedly some differences between negotiating with a dictator and with his subordinates, but it is not at all clear that they are such as to make a successful outcome more likely when it is the leader who negotiates. Indeed, among these differences must be counted the fact that when he is directly engaged the issue of personal prestige and the possibility of using the occasion for propaganda rather than for serious negotiations loom much larger than they do otherwise.
There is another aspect to this justification of summit conferences. Even if it is true that Mr. Khrushchev is the only man worth talking to on the Communist side, it does not follow that only the President in the case of the United States or the Prime Minister in the case of Britain can really represent their particular countries. Neither democratic theory nor recent practice in Western countries supports the view that foreign secretaries and other senior diplomats cannot be responsible negotiators. Why, then, is it assumed that because Mr. Khrushchev must take part in order for the negotiations to be serious, Mr. Macmillan and President Kennedy must also take part? Presumably because it is believed that they are the only persons with whom Mr. Khrushchev will negotiate. This may well be the case; but if it is, and if it is considered to be a sufficient reason for having summit meetings, it is well to be clear as to the extent to which the modes of action characteristic of Communism are shaping the modes of action of Western countries.[xii] In order to make serious negotiations possible the latter have, then, to concentrate initiative and power in the hands of one man in very much the same way as they are concentrated in the Soviet Union, and the division of functions characteristic of Western political systems has to be largely abandoned. These changes may or may not be considered worthwhile, but in any final summing up of the advantages and disadvantages of summit conferences they should certainly be considered.
I have already mentioned the widely held view that the technological and military developments of the last 20 years have so changed the nature of international politics that we need a "diplomatic revolution" to come to terms with this "nuclear revolution." It is maintained that conventional diplomacy can no longer cope with the complexity of the issues; that too much is at stake to leave things to the diplomats; that their conventions and niceties are unsuited to modern conditions; that it is necessary to create machinery to cut through the protocol and prevarications of the old system. This view gains much of its support from the fact that the record of diplomacy in the last three decades has been singularly unimpressive and that many of the old methods and conventions clearly do not work as well as they used to.
What seems to me doubtful is that all this has much to do with "the nuclear age." Much more important is that throughout this period some of the most powerful members of international society have been totalitarian states. These states have rejected not only many of the procedures of the old diplomacy but also the assumptions on which it was based. Their aim has been to destroy the state system and to bring diplomacy to an end. Their presence has meant that there have been in international society two groups of states whose conceptions of the nature and purpose of diplomacy are different, and it is this fact (made worse by our failure to recognize it) more than any other which accounts for the difficulties and failures of modern diplomacy. It is a fact which, it may well be argued, makes necessary the adoption of new assumptions and the development of new techniques. But accepting this, it amounts only to a general case for change and not to a justification of any particular kind of change or innovation; the case for summit conferences still has to be made. And the attitude of totalitarian states to well-publicized conferences -their tendency to exploit them for propaganda purposes and to use them as occasions for appealing to peoples over the heads of their governments-does not suggest that summit conferences are the answer to the problems created by the presence of totalitarian states in international politics.
There may be grounds other than these for believing that summit conferences provide a real means of ending or alleviating the conflicts of the cold war. But, as far as I can discover, these are the ones put forward most frequently, at least in Britain. What is striking about them is that they seem to provide an extremely flimsy structure to bear the weight of the ardent and widespread faith in summit conferences. Their weakness suggests that faith in such conferences is not the outcome of rational calculation but rather an irrational reaction to the strain of living in a divided world, the pressure of totalitarian propaganda and the possibility of war.
[i] Hansard, v. 515, p. 1975.
[ii] New Statesman, Nov. 23, 1957.
[iii] Hansard, v. 608, p. 1382.
[iv] Hansard, v. 515, p. 1975.
[v] Hansard, v. 515, p. 1063.
[vi] Merle Fainsod, "How Russia Is Ruled." Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953, p. 283.
[vii] Ibid, p. 284.
[viii] There is another reason for caution. As E. H. Carr showed in "The Twenty Years Crisis," the liberal belief in a fundamental harmony of interest still permeates the English view of international politics and it is characteristic of those who believe in such a harmony that they attempt to explain, or to explain away, conflicts of interest in terms of ignorance and misunderstanding. It is over 30 years since Carr wrote, but I see no reason for holding that belief in a harmony of interest has weakened in the meantime; indeed the existence of nuclear weapons may well have strengthened it.
[ix] Another startling example of the conclusions drawn from appearances and behavior was provided by The People, a Sunday paper with a circulation of several millions, commenting on Mr. Mikoyan's visit to the United States in 1959: "[He has] done a splendid job, not for Russia, but for peace. It will simply not be possible for Foster Dulles to make the Americans shiver any longer with his stories about the grizzly Russian bear."
[x] Hansard, vol. 608, p. 1382 et seq.
[xi] Mr. Macmillan's second, and only other, reason was simply that such a meeting, if con ducted privately, "would be of great value in itself." His attempt to enlarge on this did not really succeed in making his meaning clear. Ibid, p. 1494.
[xii] Writing in this journal last year, Mr. Dean Rusk made a similar point, pertinently asking, "Is there point in allowing the Soviet Union to set the style of international negotiation at the cost of disrupting the established political arrangements of other nations?" (Foreign Affairs, April 1960, p. 367.)