By Richard M. Nixon
In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, initiating a years-long process to establish formal diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic and laying the foundations of what would become the world’s most significant bilateral relationship. Many Foreign Affairs contributors wrote in support of normalization, describing the estrangement from China as increasingly untenable. In a 1967 essay, Nixon himself argued that given the threat posed by an isolated Beijing, the United States “simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.”
At the time, observers grappled with questions that still plague the U.S.-Chinese relationship half a century later. In 1971, Jerome Alan Cohen discussed the consequences of recognizing the government in Beijing for U.S. relations with Taiwan—and for “the credibility of American commitments” more broadly. That same year, Michel Oksenberg urged U.S. policymakers to take a clear view of China’s foreign policy goals, lest “misunderstandings and conflicts of interest” lead to “another era of hostility.”
By the late 1970s, concerns about the responses of U.S. allies in Asia, China’s human rights record, and more had weakened the initially strong public support for the opening. As Richard Solomon wrote in 1978, normalization would test “the ability of the American political process to adjust to a changing world.” The United States and China finally established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. But Solomon’s reminder remains useful: foreign policy must be sold at home.
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