It might discomfit the president and secretary of state to be told that their excellent first steps in foreign policy are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s 40 years ago, so instead let’s call them Trumanesque. Even before last week’s admirably acrimonious meeting between senior Chinese and U.S. officials in Anchorage, Joe Biden and Antony Blinken seem to be adhering to the principle that in diplomacy it is generally wise to know your own mind and to make sure that the other side knows it too.
Harry S. Truman did that on April 23, 1945, just 11 days into his presidency, during an Oval Office meeting with Vyacheslav Molotov. When Truman gave the Soviet foreign minister a dressing down (“in words of one syllable,” Truman later said) about Soviet noncompliance with wartime promises, Molotov complained that he had never been spoken to like that. Truman replied, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get to be talked to like that.” Franklin D. Roosevelt had reportedly told a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow that he had a “hunch” that “if I give [Stalin] everything that I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.” Truman, the product of Tom Pendergast’s Kansas City machine politics, had other ideas.
Nine days into Reagan’s presidency, at his first news conference, he said that when dealing with the Soviets, one should remember that “they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat in order to attain” their goals. In his June 8, 1982, Westminster speech to the British House of Commons, he called the Cold War a struggle between good and “totalitarian evil.” In a March 8, 1983, speech, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Reagan’s rhetoric implemented his policy of re-moralizing the Cold War, which he thought Richard Nixon’s policy of detente had drained of the moral clarity needed for implementing measures necessary for his vision of the endgame: “We win, they lose.”
Biden and Blinken surely do not expect that the competition with China will end so decisively, if at all. China cannot be described, as the Soviet Union was, as “Upper Volta with rockets.” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said in the 1980s, while rising Asian nations — although not yet China — were flooding the world with microcircuitry, the Soviet Union was “peddling fish eggs and furs, the trading goods of a hunter-gatherer society.” Because, however, China is woven into the global economy, it has much to lose from rhetoric accurately depicting it as barbarous and dangerous.
Corporate America is making endless woke gestures about this nation’s sinfulness while making fortunes off products of China’s forced labor, and not making a peep that could offend the Leninist tyrants and complicate access to China’s consumers. This straddle is becoming awkward. Five months before the previous secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made it U.S. policy to categorize China’s savagery toward millions of Uyghurs as “genocide,” candidate Biden described it as such.
And a decade before Biden’s recent candor — prompted by an interviewer, he agreed that Vladimir Putin is a “killer” — Biden told a New Yorker interviewer that he once told Putin, “I don’t think you have a soul.” Blinken’s word “quash” to describe what Beijing is doing — contrary to treaty obligations — to Hong Kong’s democracy is commendably without mincing nuance. In Alaska, the Chinese Communist Party’s top foreign affairs official, disdaining the negotiated two-minute limit for opening remarks, spoke for 16 minutes. It was bracing that one day before the Alaska meeting, Blinken, uninterested in cosmetic comity, identified 24 Chinese officials, including a member of the 25-person Politburo, subject to U.S. sanctions for their complicity in making Hong Kong in 2021 Asia’s Czechoslovakia of 1939.
China’s prickliness about U.S. “condescension” looks, as does its harping on its “century of humiliation” (from the First Opium War to the Communists’ 1949 victory in the civil war), symptomatic of gnawing insecurity. This might intensify if Biden and Blinken successfully cultivate “the Quad” — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — as a counterweight to China. The four have combined populations of 1.85 billion and combined GDPs of $30.8 trillion, compared with China’s 1.4 billion and $14.3 trillion. The Quad might be the beginning of something analogous to the Soviet containment measures Truman announced to a joint session of Congress 22 months after his admirably testy meeting with Molotov.
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