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Henry Kissinger’s Lessons for George W. Bush

During the middle of July 1971 Henry Kissinger, acting as President Richard Nixon’s special representative, secretly traveled to Beijing. Kissinger’s voyage provided the basis for a dramatic opening in relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China – two nations estranged from one another, and often on the brink of full-scale war, for more than twenty years. Convulsed by internal upheavals and surrounded by regional threats, Chinese leaders viewed relations with Washington as a possible anchor for stability. Beset by a deepening military quagmire in Vietnam, deteriorating relations with traditional allies, and pervasive protests at home, the White House was desperate for a new diplomatic overture that would show some political promise before the upcoming presidential election.

Thirty-six years later the historical parallels are striking. President George W. Bush confronts a civil war in Iraq with no end in sight, American standing abroad has plummeted by all measures, and domestic opposition to present policies is growing, even within the highest ranks of the Republican Party. America’s long-time adversary, Iran, similarly contends with a clash of generations and worldviews at home, as well as a large cast of external challengers – including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council. Leaders in Washington and Tehran need one another as never before. The time is ripe for the White House to pursue a “China opening” with Iran.

Although Kissinger’s insights from fighting the Vietnam War have not helped in Iraq, his maneuvers with China do provide a model for navigating relations with Iran. Here is a roadmap for President Bush and Kissinger’s closest contemporary counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to begin their historic opening to Iran.

Open Multiple Channels of Communication. The most difficult impediment to new relations with old adversaries is history. The People’s Republic of China and the United States, like Tehran and Washington, spent more than twenty years trying to isolate one another. They had no institutional or interpersonal basis for initiating a constructive bilateral relationship. Nixon and Kissinger understood this. As a consequence, they took advantage of nearly every conceivable channel for communicating with Beijing. They enlisted diverse figures in Pakistan, Poland, Rumania, West Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the Vatican to pass messages to the Chinese leadership. Getting initial discussions started required consistent and determined efforts in the White House, with the president’s strong support. The repeated overtures by Nixon and Kissinger made their desire for improved relations credible to skeptical Chinese listeners.  

Talk While Fighting. Opening a dialogue with an adversary does not preclude continued conflict, and even warfare. Kissinger understood this particularly well. He and the president never believed that by engaging the Chinese leadership they had to forsake their strategic responsibilities in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or South Vietnam. In fact, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to each of these governments – including South Vietnam – as Kissinger traveled to Beijing in July 1971. The point of negotiations with the Chinese was to make these commitments more secure by insuring greater mutual understanding and respect. Strategic rivalry without direct communication only exacerbated tensions in Asia, as in the Middle East today. Policy-makers generally assume the worst of their adversaries when they know little about them.

Emphasize Personal Relationships. Nixon and Kissinger understood that demonizing their Chinese adversaries diminished Washington’s leverage in Asia. The same is true for contemporary American approaches to Iran and the Middle East. Despite their monstrous deeds, the Chinese communist leaders were smart, effective, and pragmatic human beings. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai recognized the same qualities in the “running dogs of imperialism” who allegedly occupied the White House. The leaders of the two states worked to build respect despite their serious differences. Personal bonds forged during Nixon and Kissinger’s visits to Beijing created some degree of comfort between the regimes. They allowed for an early probing of possible points of limited compromise. International rivalries are, after all, human relationships. Strategy and ideology matter, but so do perceptions of men and women in the flesh. A little personal respect can go a long way.

 Avoid “Total” Solutions. The records of the discussions between Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, and Zhou show that these men spent very little time talking about overarching strategic solutions. They remained deadlocked on the future of Taiwan, the civil war in Vietnam, and the division of the Korean peninsula, among other fundamental Cold War issues. Discussion would have broken down immediately if either side pursued a “total” solution for any of these conflicts. Instead, the leaders of the two states emphasized small steps toward better relations. These included student, athletic, and scientific exchanges; the transfer of prisoners; and new avenues for limited trade. Most of these agreements were more symbolic than substantive, but they created a foundation for significant discussions about security and economics in later years. Disputes over the big strategic issues made discussion of the smaller topics all the more important. This is the case in the Middle East today, as it was in Asia years before.

Normalize the Diplomatic Process. In the end, Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China illustrated the importance of process. Despite continued conflict, relations between Washington and Beijing improved because both sides now felt a stake in maintaining a dialogue. They did not feel pressed to solve all of their problems at once, or deny that serious differences existed between them. Instead they committed themselves to continual discussions and efforts at mutual agreement on the margins of their hostile strategies. The China opening was not a panacea for Asia, but it was a realistic effort to build better relations, rather than accept inherited isolation and recrimination.

The present Iranian regime is as dangerous and violent as Communist China at its worst. Tehran’s nuclear weapons program threatens to unleash a string of new nuclear states in the Middle East. The government is deeply divided among diverse factions, some advocating belligerent domestic and international programs.

To call for an opening to this regime, on the model of Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China, does not deny any of these facts. Isolation and recrimination, however, do not make for effective policy. The history of improved relations between Washington and Beijing since 1971 provides reason to believe that discussions are also possible between the United States and Iran. At the very least, an opening to Iran is worth a try. If it fails, as Nixon and Kissinger’s efforts might have failed, then the Bush administration will gain credibility for seeking to break out of the recurring cycle of violence in the Middle East. If it succeeds, even only at the margins, it will mark a rare moment of foreign policy achievement for the Bush administration. Setbacks in Iraq will continue to loom large, but like the legacy of the Vietnam War, they will be counterbalanced by the promise of progress next door.