The First Bush Presidency: Made in China


Mr. Engel teaches history and public policy at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government where he directs the Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs. He is also editor of The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President (Princeton, 2008).

Recent calls for President George Bush to avoid the upcoming Beijing Olympics as a stand against China’s human rights record bring to mind that he is not the only President Bush expected to attend these increasingly controversial games. George H.W. Bush plans to be there as well, serving as honorary captain of the United States team. The honor reflects not only Bush’s lifelong passion for sports, but also his long personal experience with the ancient kingdom and rising superpower. Bush arguably knew China better than any other American President, having served as Washington’s top diplomat in China during the mid-1970s. While in the White House he famously served as “his own China Desk Officer,” that is, as his own resident expert on all facets of the complex yet vital Sino-American relationship. China held the key to a peaceful 21st century, he argued throughout this time in office (and after), and American officials should take every opportunity possible to warm relations with Chinese policymakers and progressive forces alike.

Bush’s hopes for China nearly crumbled only months into his presidency after the communist government’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Sino-American relations sank to their nadir since Richard Nixon’s dramatic 1972 reestablishment of relations with a Beijing cut off by Washington since 1949. The China that Bush yearned to cultivate as a strategic partner proved arguably the most vexing nation in the world for a President increasingly praised by historians for his adroit management of the international system during a period of tremendous global transition. His administration faced a series of daunting crises of increasing complexity. The Cold War ended; the Soviet Union dissolved; Germany was reunited; Noriega was deposed in Panama; the North American Free Trade Association was largely negotiated; and of course, the Gulf War was successfully prosecuted without the complexities of a large-scale occupation. When Tiananmen Square is factored in, these were tumultuous times indeed. Little wonder, then, that foreign policy became Bush’s hallmark and the foundation of his historical legacy.

China played a far larger role in all of these events than historians have previously recognized. The country not only occupied Bush’s professional attention, it also played a key though until now largely unappreciated role in his own education as an international strategist. Many of the lessons he internalized during his fifteen months in Beijing from 1974-75 marked his later presidency. While in China he mastered his personal style of diplomacy, believing international relations functioned more smoothly when leaders were not only counterparts but real friends as well. In Beijing he also learned the value of quiet diplomacy, having seen the excesses of Chinese anti-American Cold War rhetoric and the havoc it wreaked on Sino-American relations. Finally, while there he learned the value of American commitments to its allies from watching Saigon’s final fall to communism, yet he additionally gleaned the more complex lesson that Washington should only make commitments that were truly in the American national interest, following thoughtful consultation with its closest allies.

These lessons bore fruit during Bush’s Presidency. They can be witnessed in his response to the Tiananmen crackdown, when he ignored calls from both sides of the political spectrum to sever ties with Beijing. He chose instead to contact privately his old friend, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a man he had met in 1974, using their friendship as a lifeline to rescue Sino-American relations from rocky shoals. Upon flying to China for the first time in October of 1974, Bush admitted to his diary that “it is my hope that I will be able to meet the next generation of China’s leaders, whoever they may prove to be.” Fifteen years later, when faced with the Tiananmen crisis, he wrote Deng a personal letter, one shown only to his closest advisers. “I wanted a letter straight from my heart,” Bush later explained, “so I composed it myself.” Their two nations needed to preserve their relationship, Bush told Deng. But his plea should carry extra weight because of their long-standing friendship. Some have criticized Bush for being too friendly with the architects of the Tiananmen massacre. Yet the crucial point is not to judge what Bush did, but rather to understand that everything he did during those trying weeks in 1989, he consciously did because of his own personal experience with China and its leaders. As he related to his diary the midst of the crisis, events were “highly complex, yet I am determined to try to preserve this relationship—[and to] cool the rhetoric….I take this relationship very personally, and I want to handle it that way.” He said much the same during a 2005 interview, noting that his personal relationship with Deng deeply informed the policies he pursued. “Had I not met the man,” Bush said, “I think I would have been less convinced that we should keep relations with them going after Tiananmen Square.”

We can see the imprint of his time in Beijing in Bush’s response to the Soviet Union’s collapse as well. Where others called for a celebratory response to Moscow’s woes, Bush recalled his own anger at Chinese bluster a generation before, and he adopted instead a quieter response. In 1974 he noted “China feels it must [rhetorically] attack the United States.” Later he noted “I am absolutely convinced that American public opinion will turn against this [rhetoric] at some point in a relationship which is very important to China will be damaged.” When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, Bush recalled his own anger of Beijing’s hot rhetoric, and he purposefully adopted a cooler tone, lest his own words of Cold War victory complicate matters for communist leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev and others. As Bush explained, “Hot rhetoric would needlessly antagonize the militant elements within the Soviet Union and the [Warsaw] Pact.” This was a lesson he had learned from being on the receiving end of such barbs while in China.

Finally, Bush responded to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait with a faith in multilateralism he developed in 1975, when he witnessed the way South Vietnam’s collapse sent shockwaves through Asia. Not wanting Baghdad to reap the benefits of victory the way he perceived Chinese leaders had a generation before, and not wanting Washington to be isolated from its allies as it was in the aftermath of Saigon’s fall, he drew a line in the sand by way of the United Nations. “I can't honestly feel that Southeast Asia is vital to the security of the United States,” he recorded in his journal in 1975. A generation later, however, he told his National Security council that Kuwait’s fate was not the real issue at hand, but rather that Saddam Hussein’s aggression was a “test” of the post-Cold War international system. America would defend the concept of sovereignty, he argued, and it would do so multilaterally, because global interests really were at stake. He would not repeat the failures of Vietnam that he had witnessed while in China.

Each of Bush’s greatest foreign policy achievements grew from his Beijing experience. Thankfully, Bush kept a detailed personal diary of his experiences while in China during those fateful months, which has been published in its entirety by Princeton University Press. The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President is not only a revealing look at a future president, it is also without easy precedent in the annals of presidential history. As a modest man, Bush never imagined his diary would prove of interest to readers nearly forty years later. It is particularly intimate, because he never thought it would be read by others. It is also revealing in the way it shows Bush’s own education as a diplomat. He used the diary itself the way an artist uses a sketchbook: as a means of trying new ideas. As both Presidents named Bush travel to Beijing this summer therefore, we should recall the crucial role that city and China itself played in the elder Bush’s own life and in the American history he helped forge. His diary reveals as much. The Bush Presidency was in this sense made in China.

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