My new article in the September-October issue of the American Conservative ponders whether President Richard Nixon could have pursued his diplomatic initiative to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) if today’s extreme partisanship in foreign policy had existed then. The shrill partisan criticism directed against President Trump’s attempt to establish a less confrontational relationship with North Korea suggests that that the answer is “no.”
Nixon’s 1972 trip to China marked the abandonment of the U.S. campaign to isolate and demonize the PRC. His conciliatory effort did generate some domestic controversy, but most members of Congress were reasonably supportive. The New York Times noted that Nixon was winning the “broad approval of Congress” for his new China policy. Perhaps most crucial, the support was firmly bipartisan. The majority of the major news outlets also generally praised the president’s initiative.
Raw partisanship was little in evidence. Indeed, most of the criticism that did emerge came from conservative Republicans who complained that the embryonic rapprochement undercut America’s longtime ally, Taiwan. Leading congressional Democrats, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, praised the president for easing tensions with China. Liberal columnist James Reston stated that it was Nixon’s finest hour.
Trump’s experience has been strikingly different. His critics, mostly congressional Democrats and their media allies, along with a small contingent of neoconservative hawks, launched a barrage of criticism about his outreach to Kim Jong-un from the onset. Some of them denounced the president’s willingness even to meet with the North Korean leader, contending that according Kim such an honor implicitly “legitimized” his brutal dictatorship. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin epitomized that view, fuming: “The spectacle of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un on equal footing with the president of the United States . . . was enough to turn democracy lovers’ stomachs.” President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” intoned House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) later exuded outrage in a tweet that Trump insisted on continuing a dialogue with such a monstrous leader. “Kim Jong Un is a homicidal tyrant who deliberately starves his people and murders those who displease him. This is who he is and who he has always been. It’s simply heartbreaking to know tonight that his biggest global cheerleader is the President of the United States of America.”
Yet Nixon initiated a dialogue with Mao Zedong, one of the worst mass murderers in human history, without much criticism from prominent Democrats. They understood that effective diplomacy often requires interaction with deplorable regimes and individuals to reduce tensions and the potential catastrophe of war.
If done purely for cheap partisan advantage, objecting to Trump’s pursuit of a rapprochement with North Korea is irresponsible. If, on the other hand, his opponents are sincere, they are being disturbingly naïve. Indeed, earlier critics would have had a better case to accuse Nixon of “appeasement” and conferring “legitimacy” on a totalitarian regime. Nixon was not only willing to open a dialogue with Mao and Zhou Enlai, he traveled to China to start the process. The latter feature gave the PRC a major prestige coup. Conversely, Trump insisted on holding the first two summits in neutral locations and the third at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
If myopic partisan critics had strangled Nixon’s China policy in its cradle, America’s relationship with Beijing today likely would be more dangerous—perhaps far more dangerous--for all concerned. President Trump’s difficult North Korea initiative deserves similar support and encouragement instead of ridicule and knee-jerk hostility. Prominent Democrats in the 1970s behaved in a responsible, constructive manner, despite having to back a political adversary. So, too, did most liberal media outlets. The petty conduct of their successors in response to Trump’s outreach to North Korea stands in depressing contrast to such statesmanship.