By Elizabeth Pond
If Mitt Romney is elected president on November 6, what he should do on Day One is—no, not brand China a currency manipulator—make Robert Zoellick his Secretary of State and send him to China even before taking his oath of office.
Not just because Zoellick is a Republican who gets along well with both Democrats and Chinese. Not just because he knows all the top Chinese economists and snatched up one of them to be the World Bank's senior economist during his own term as the bank's president. Not just because he called China a "responsible stakeholder" in Asia last year and could discuss this trust collegially with the new leaders who will take office this week in the once-a-decade political succession in Beijing.
The main reason is that history buff Zoellick—like Henry Kissinger, who changed the course of cold war history when he and an earlier Republican president recognized Communist China in 1972—thinks strategically. Strategic planning, as Kissinger continues to preach tirelessly, is urgently needed to prevent the world's number-one and number-two powers from sliding into unintended confrontation that could escalate to war in the 21st century. The next four years will be crucial—and the frequency with which the collision between a rising great power and the dominant hegemon has led to war since Herodotus first noted the phenomen bodes ill in a globalized nuclear world unless both sides exercise prudence.
Kissinger himself takes a dim view of both presidential candidates' China-bashing on the rare occasions when foreign policy came up in the electoral campaign. For the first time in the 35 years since he graduated from the State Department to become the globe's diplomacy guru, he is now criticizing his own government in public. Last week he told blue-ribbon seminars that he is unhappy about the present administration's China policy. The only consolation for President Barack Obama was Kissinger's add-on that he was even more unhappy about challenger Romney's China policy.
Getting China's relationship with the United States and the West right is "one of the biggest jobs in international foreign policy in the months and years to come," agrees veteran diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to the U.S. on 9/11/01 and today's impresario of the A-list Munich Security Conference. It's a "long-term challenge for the United States and all of us."
Back in 1972 Chinese-American rapprochement was simpler, even though it looked hard at the time. Kissinger could and did strike a basic grand bargain with his strategic soulmate Premier Zhou Enlai. The U.S. recognized Communist China, reinsuring it against the Soviet superpower that Beijing was in the process of divorcing—and also against the rising Japanese economic power. In return, China accepted US dominance in the Pacific Ocean as Washington's way of reinsuring Tokyo—and Taiwan —against Beijing.
The deal worked spectacularly. The West contained the Soviet Union, which two decades later abandoned the cold war, pulled its troops out of the heart of Europe, gave up its external empire, let the two Germanys reunite as a democratic state—and then promptly imploded. China essentially gained three decades of peace in which to turn capitalist, build its giant economy, lift half a billion peasants out of abject poverty, and generate a new middle class bigger than the entire US population. All the while it displayed improbable dexterity in preserving the Communist Party's monopoly on political power by shifting its claim to legitimacy from Marxist ideology to the new social compact of fast-rising prosperity.
The result is a chaotic world in which today's basic tradeoffs are far less obvious than they were in 1972. Virtually all experts say that the U.S. and China have become so interdependent economically and financially that any military clash would cost far more than either side could possibly gain by victory. The optimal policy must therefore reconcile cooperation and rivalry, and find a balance to prevent tactical skirmishing from exploding into war.
It won't be easy. Both Americans and Chinese claim a prickly exceptionalism, whether as the city upon a hill or as the old Middle Kingdom that foreigners deferred to. Americans are accustomed to half a century as top dog in the world. Many Chinese feel that after 150 years of humiliation by Western colonial powers, they have a right to resume their leading role in Asia—and not to be encircled by the U.S. Navy and military bases. In the most likely flashpoints in the South and East China Seas, both parties chafe at the rudimentary United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the US by failing to ratify the treaty, China by interpreting the treaty arbitrarily.
Neither Kissinger nor Zoellick, it's safe to assume, believes in the predestination of conflict implicit in Alfred Thayer Mahan's primacy of sea power and Halford John Mackinder's heartland theory, and, indeed, in the current fads of geoeconomics. Yet in this new era, naval heavyweight America and continental heavyweight China must jointly design for Asia a win-win intellectual framework with corresponding institutions to brake any inadvertent automaticity of conflict and escalation.
The task cannot be performed "at the level of deputy foreign ministers or chiefs of staff of the military. You have to do it from the top down," comments Ischinger. You need "to carefully orchestrate, to engage with [the Chinese] at the level of the president, the vice president, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council." You need to have "someone of the intellectual caliber of Henry Kissinger, capable of understanding these guys and thinking in the long term."
Zoellick, one of the chief architects of the cold war's peaceful end under Bush 41 as well as Romney's senior foreign policy adviser, is just the person for this mission.
And what if Barack Obama is re-elected and must respond immediately to the Chinese navy's new and ongoing show of force off the disputed but Japanese-administrated Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? Even Obama Redux might consider sending Republican Robert Zoellick to Beijing as his special envoy.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.
[Photo Courtesy of German Marshall Fund]