Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, February 15, 1999

"Never again," vowed Leonard Woodcock, Jimmy Carter's ambassador to Beijing, in 1977, "shall we embarrass ourselves before a foreign nation the way Henry Kissinger did with the Chinese."

But as James Mann notes in his new About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, breaking the patterns set by Kissinger proved difficult. A year after Woodcock's vow, Carter officials, led by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, were retracing Kissinger's path to Beijing. As Mann points out, later administrations perpetuated not only policies "but also, more surprisingly, much of the style and texture of the Nixon-Kissinger era." The style of U.S. policy, it turns out, has heavily influenced the substance of Sino-American relations -- and in unfortunate ways.

The Chinese, widely assumed to be ignorant of American politics and culture, have proved over the years to be skilled manipulators of American vanity and venality. And Americans have proved in turn almost guileless, gratefully acquiescing to Chinese stipulations not only about the subject of negotiations but about their manner, timing, and location as well. In About Face, Mann has brilliantly catalogued the ways American policy-makers have made the least of a strong hand in dealing with Beijing. It is a manual on how not to deal with China.

Consider the role "personal diplomacy" has played. The Chinese have always preferred to negotiate in secret with individuals -- a preference consistent with a Chinese political culture that invests importance in personal relations rather than institutions. And for Americans -- from Nixon's Henry Kissinger to Clinton's Sandy Berger -- personal, secret diplomacy has been a lot easier to carry off and much more conducive to fame and fortune.

Many of the agreements hammered out over the years would not be easy to defend in public. Kissinger, for instance, flatly pledged in his first meeting with Chou Enlai that the United States would oppose an independent Taiwan -- a preemptive concession the full magnitude of which Mann reveals for the first time. For more than two decades, America's position had been that Taiwan's future could be determined only through negotiations between Beijing and But as Mann recounts, "Kissinger told Chou to ignore the formal position." Not only were the American people misled, so were the Chinese -- who waited in vain for successive presidents to fulfill Kissinger's promise and break with Taiwan.

Personal diplomacy not only avoided public scrutiny, it also appealed to American vanity. Dealing with a single, high-level official, Mann points out, gave the Chinese "an interlocutor who could be courted, flattered and praised for his wisdom, in the fashion of Kissinger. Such an official (Brzezinski, Haig) would in turn often become a forceful advocate in Washington." Americans who assumed the grand role of emissary to Beijing became desperate to achieve breakthroughs, since they stood to win all the praise for success and shoulder all the blame for failure.

The Chinese played deftly on the American visitors' vanity and fear. During the 1978 negotiations over normalizing relations, the Chinese "handled Brzezinski brilliantly," according to Mann. They dragged out the talks, demanding ever more concessions on Taiwan -- as though normalization were a favor China was doing the United States. As time went by, Brzezinski became "overly eager, if not desperate." A report later prepared by China expert Richard H. Solomon concluded that Beijing had employed a tactic Solomon called "Show Us That You Care." The tactic worked: Upon Brzezinski's return, even Jimmy Carter joked that he "had been seduced."

Brzezinski was not the only one. Solomon's report, which examined all high-level meetings between 1971 and 1985, found that the Chinese would systematically "exploit or manipulate the differences in Washington, rewarding and flattering China's friends, instilling a sense of obligation, freezing out those U.S. officials who were considered less sympathetic."

As it happens, establishing a reputation as a friend was the least effective way to convince the Chinese to accede to American wishes. As Mann shows, Chinese officials were considerably more demanding of their friends than of those they perceived as hostile.

Personal diplomacy, while ineffective, at least had its humorous moments. In newly declassified notes Nixon made before his first meeting with Mao in 1972, one finds Kissinger's suggestions on how to forge a personal bond between the American president and the author of the Cultural Revolution: "RN and Mao, men of the people. . . . Problems with intellectuals." When President Ford met Mao three years later, the ailing Chinese leader intimated his approaching death by telling Ford, "God has sent me an invitation." As Mann recounts, "Ford may not have understood the Chinese leader; at the end of the session, groping for something to say, he cheerily told Mao: 'I hope you get your invitation soon!'"

It didn't help that Americans repeatedly acquiesced to demands that negotiations be held in Beijing. As Solomon noted, "Negotiating in the Chinese capital gives the Chinese the opportunity to manage the ambience so as to maximize the sense of gratitude, dependence, awe, and helplessness." But presidents from Nixon to Clinton relished the opportunity to be photographed on their China pilgrimages. "The main thing," H. R. Haldeman recorded in his diaries, is President Nixon's position as "a big-league operator."

The insistence on negotiating on Chinese soil was part of a broader effort to convince the United States that China was different from other nations. The advantage was obvious: Special concern for Chinese "sensitivities" and special regard for China's history (especially its nineteenth-century treatment by Western powers) dictated a gentler, more accommodating approach. And the American diplomats who accepted the premise of Chinese uniqueness always gave up more than they had to.

The Chinese also learned, in Mann's words, that "American politicians, after they left office, often sought to make money from their China connections." After Reagan took office in 1981, for example, a parade of former Carter officials -- Richard Holbrooke, James Schlesinger, Michael Blumenthal, and Bob Bergland -- wended their way to Beijing to do business. Nor were Carter officials the only ones. Kissinger was only the most famous of former Republican officials who gained access for American corporations. For the past twenty years, cashing in on China has been the one area of true bipartisan consensus.

Insofar as Mann's account contains any heroes, they are Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, and his top adviser on China, Paul Wolfowitz. Neither was ever considered a friend by the Chinese -- which is probably why they did well. Believing that his predecessors had overvalued China, Shultz worried that while Nixon's opening to China had given China and the United States some leverage over the Soviet Union, it had also given "the Chinese leverage over us."

Wolfowitz, according to Mann, "felt that the notion of China's global strategic importance had been largely manufactured by Kissinger to make himself look smart." In Wolfowitz's view, China needed the United States far more than the United States needed China.

Shultz also took a dim view of the clamor for Chinese markets at the expense of American security. Asked once why the Reagan administration wasn't issuing export licenses as fast as Japanese and Western European governments, Shultz responded, "Why don't you move to Japan or Western Europe?"

The Reagan administration didn't take an implacable view of China. It provided the Chinese with military equipment, teamed with them to aid resistance in Afghanistan and Cambodia, and generally tried to improve relations. Nor was it immune to Kissingerian influences. Reagan on one occasion referred to China as a "so-called Communist country," and his administration contained some fervent appeasers, notably ex-Kissinger aide Alexander Haig. But the Reagan administration, especially after Haig's departure, was also more wary of Chinese ambitions than its predecessors and successors. Shultz, a former labor negotiator, believed that "in international relations, as in labor relations, the road to a bad relationship is to place too much emphasis on the relationship for its own sake."

America had first established relations with China in the Nixon years to offset what appeared to be a shifting of forces in favor of the Soviet Union. Nixon and Kissinger thought the "China card" would deliver a quick fix in Vietnam and help restore a more favorable international equilibrium.

In Reagan's grand strategy, however, the China card was less significant. Reagan wanted to address Soviet power through the buildup of arms and a policy of confrontation that created, as Dean Acheson once put it, "situations of strength" at every point of contact with the Soviet empire. China's assistance might help around the edges, as in Afghanistan, but it would no longer be the center of American foreign policy. In his public statements, Shultz went out of his way to speak only of China's "regional role," and he deliberately refrained from using Kissinger's term "strategic" to describe relations with China.

Indeed, even in Asia, Shultz and Wolfowitz put China on the margins of American strategy. As Mann recounts, Shultz and Wolfowitz added in early 1983 "the last, crucial element in their new Asia policy: the notion that Japan, not China, should be the primary focus." Shultz believed Japan's democratic system made it a more compatible strategic partner. Friction and profound disagreements with China were inevitable because of the "differences between our social systems."

The irony is that these Reagan officials founded a closer, more extensive relation with China than America has had before or since -- despite their skepticism about China's strategic value, their desire not to offer rewards without reciprocal concessions, and their conviction that deep ideological differences would always limit cooperation. Mann refers to the mid-1980s as the "golden years" in Sino-American relations.

Whether such close relations were actually good for American interests remains open to question. But they are certainly instructive. Most China experts still insist that the only successful policy toward China is a "constructive engagement" that respects Chinese "sensitivities," promotes good behavior through inducements, and sets aside all philosophical differences.

President Clinton's policy in the 1990s is the direct descendant of Kissinger's in the 1970s. The justifications have changed dramatically, of course, from a dubious strategic justification during the Cold War to an equally dubious economic justification today. But the pattern remains the same. It is little wonder China gets the best of us: We have been bluffed, and bluffed well, for years.