Democrats Refuse to Learn From the Failure of Engagement With China

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The timing couldn’t have been better. Democratic Party foreign-policy “expert” Joseph Nye, who served in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations and who teaches at Harvard University, wrote an article in Project Syndicate extolling the virtues of post–Cold War engagement of China and praising the Biden administration’s competitive-engagement approach to China.

Meanwhile, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow and historian Frank Dikötter, who teaches at the University of Hong Kong, has written China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower, to be released later this month, which shatters the “China illusion” upon which engagement was based.

Nye attempts to defend presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush against charges that their optimism about China’s eventual political liberalization was naïve. Nye asserts that Clinton and Bush “realized that Cold War-style containment of China would be impossible … because other countries would not have gone along with it.” Clinton and Bush, he writes, were right in trying to “coax China to contribute to global public goods and institutions by acting as … ‘a responsible stakeholder.’” “In the first decade of this century,” Nye claims, “China was still moving toward greater openness, moderation, and pluralization.” It was only when current President Xi Jinping came to power, Nye writes, that hopes for a successful engagement policy were dashed. But Nye insists that Biden is right to “not foreclose the possibility of more benign future scenarios” with China.

Dikötter, the author of important books on Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, spent a decade in China conducting research in then-open archives and had access to the diaries of Li Rui, who served as Mao’s personal secretary and later was a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. Dikötter shows that after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, CCP leaders never wavered from exerting exclusive political control over the country, and they erected an “entrenched dictatorship” and a “sprawling security apparatus” before Xi came to power. All of Mao’s successors, including the reformist Deng Xiaoping, were committed to state control of the economy and a Leninist–Maoist party dictatorship. There would be no Chinese Gorbachev in command in Beijing.

Dikötter writes that all of the common Western assumptions about the “era of Reform and Opening Up” in China — assumptions obviously still held by Nye — were wrong. And those wrongheaded assumptions led Western political leaders and businessmen to help fuel China’s economic and military rise. The policy of engagement was sold to the West as the best way to move China in the direction of political moderation and liberalization. It was a policy underpinned by what Nye famously calls “soft power.” It didn’t work, but that didn’t translate to a change in U.S. policy, even after Xi rose to power and publicly promoted his “China Dream” — the goal of China replacing the United States as the world’s leading power.

It is no surprise that Nye clings to the supposed efficacy of “soft power” — a term upon which he has built his reputation as a foreign-policy expert. But this is the same Joseph Nye who in his last book — Do Morals Matter?: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump — rates the foreign policies of Clinton, Carter, and Obama over those of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.

That judgment is not just biased and wrong — it is preposterous.

The China engagers like Nye — and he is far from alone here — are the policymakers and “experts” that have placed us in our current predicament with China. You reap what you sow. Engagement failed, and, as Frank Dikötter shows, it never had a chance of success as long as the CCP was in power. That failure has led to what is perhaps the greatest foreign-policy challenge of our history. And, unfortunately, the Biden administration is staffed with people who think like Nye.

Reporting from The American Spectator.