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When he became president on January 20, 2021, Joe Biden identified four immediate crises facing the United States: the coronavirus, the economy, racial justice, and climate change. One challenge that Biden did not include, but which ultimately may prove no less consequential for his presidency, is the deteriorating U.S. relationship with China. Under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, tensions between the two superpowers rose to levels unseen in half a century. Most experts agree that returning to the status quo ante of engagement, the framework guiding U.S.-China policy since the 1970s, isn’t possible — or even desirable. Can the new administration cooperate with its strategic competitor in areas of mutual interest, like climate change? Or is the relationship destined to worsen?
Five days before President Biden’s inauguration, Asia Society Northern California brought together two statesmen who played a direct role in shaping the trajectory of U.S.-China relations: Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; and George Shultz, who held the position under President Ronald Reagan. Their gathering, held virtually as part of the Future of U.S.-China Relations conference, was also an opportunity to celebrate Shultz’ 100th birthday. (For the record, he said it “felt just like being 99.”) He and the then 97-year-old Kissinger, whom Shultz referred to as a “promising young man,” were joined in conversation by the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and an architect of President Barack Obama’s Asia policy.
Sadly, Shultz died on February 6, 2021, in Stanford, California. This conversation was one of the last public appearances of his life.
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Daniel Russel: Dr. Kissinger, I heard you say that George Shultz had a tremendous influence on your life. What was it that made such an impression on you?
Henry Kissinger: About 25 years ago, I wrote an essay about leadership. And I said that if I could appoint a president of the United States, I’d appoint George Shultz, because I had seen him in a number of major positions, and I had learned that he studied each subject with enormous dedication. And, in the process, I learned from him about subjects I had not addressed before.
There was one moment in our country, during the Watergate crisis, when it seemed very important to get together a core group of people who could make sure that for a critical period, policy would be conducted in a careful and systematic way — and to assist the president in a manner that would hold things together. The person who first came to my mind to do this was George Shultz.
President-elect Biden has pledged to conduct a foreign policy for the middle class — that he will try to ground his foreign policy in the agenda for domestic renewal here at home. Secretary Shultz, I’d love to ask your view on making foreign policy support the domestic agenda. How doable is that? And in this day and age, what could that look like?
George Shultz: I think the people at the end of World War II — [Harry] Truman, [Dean] Acheson, [George] Marshall, and so on — they must have looked back. And what did they see? They saw two world wars. The first ended in rather vindictive terms, and helped lead to the second. They saw 52 million people killed in the Second World War. They saw the Holocaust. They saw the Great Depression, and the protectionism and currency manipulation that aggravated it. And they must have said to themselves, “What a crummy world.” And then they set up something that was the opposite (to our approach) after World War I. They said, “We’re part of the world, whether we like it or not.”
And they started to remake it. Remember, at Bretton Woods, there were some 40 countries — we weren’t alone. And out of Bretton Woods came the International Monetary Fund, to work with currencies; and the National Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now the World Bank; and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, that became the World Trade Organization and stood for open trade. This laid the groundwork for a revolution that happened. These were real changes.
We need something like that now. Because we have to realize: Whatever state the world is in, we’re part of it, whether we like it or not. The better it is, the better off we are.
Well, that of course makes great sense. And whether we like it or not, we’re part of a world that also includes China in a very substantial way. And so I’d like to pick up on the issue that is at the center of nearly every conversation about foreign policy — the future of U.S.-China relations. Secretary Shultz, you took over as secretary of state in 1982, a time of tremendous friction with Beijing over Taiwan. And you left office in ’89, well before the Tiananmen Square massacre. But during your tenure, U.S.-China relations flourished. Whereas today, we may be at a turning point along the lines that you just mentioned in history. Dr. Kissinger warned we may be in the foothills of a Cold War — if not a little bit further up the mountain.
Secretary Shultz, was there anything in your experience dealing with China in the 1980s that you think is relevant or applicable to today’s situation? Are there any clues from that experience about what could be done going forward today, to put the U.S.-China relationship on a healthier track?
George Shultz: With President Reagan’s approval, I went to Beijing and said to the Chinese leaders: “You put on the table everything you want to talk about, I’ll put on the table everything I want to talk about. Let’s construct an agenda out of that, and then work our way through it.”
And that worked well. We confronted problems, became friends, and trusted each other. One time I was in Beijing and I said to my counterparts: “Every time I come here, you put me up in the same guest house. We always have meetings in the Great Hall of the People. I keep reading that China’s a great country. As far as I’m concerned, it’s two buildings and a road.” And so my wife and I were taken on a one-week tour of China. And we had fun, and made friendships. We and the Chinese trusted each other and were able to work together. You have to do these things on a personal basis.
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Dr. Kissinger, do you have thoughts about the formula for engineering a U.S.-China relationship that serves the best interests of the United States, given where things stand today?
Henry Kissinger: I encountered China when Mao was the leader, and the United States had had no diplomatic dialogue with China for 25 years. The meetings we did have all followed the same formula. The Chinese would say that we had to begin by recognizing Taiwan as part of China. And we would say that they had to begin by renouncing the use of force. And that would be the end of the meeting.
When we reopened relations with China in 1971, we decided that we would do what George has described: namely, discuss the issues that existed around the world. The then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and I would spend long hours talking almost like college professors, on the theory that when practical problems arose, we should understand the basic thinking of the other side.
At that time, China was a developing country. And it has really gone through three phases, at least, in my observation of it. The first was when both China and the U.S. were concerned with the impact of the Soviet Union on international stability, when we and China had parallel interests. Then there was an intermediate period in which China began to develop its economy, and the early pattern of our relationship still was maintained. Then there came the fairly recent period, where the evolution of technology has been so explosive, that both countries now find themselves in a unique position.
Each country has exceptional qualities. Our history, our notion of exceptionalism, is based on human liberty. China’s notion of exceptionalism is a performance of a magnitude, one that other countries respected, or were even in awe of. So how do we reconcile this? Cooperation requires both of us to learn a new approach to the idea of global influence. That’s our challenge today, and that’s a big opportunity for the new administration.
Is there a way to integrate our values, our support for human rights, in our relationship to China? Can this be part of our policy towards China, but still allow us to actually get things done and to make progress?
George Shultz: We want to be sure that when we travel, our values travel with us. So we’re not afraid to say what we’re for, and how we think our society should be organized. But they have their way of organizing their society, and we shouldn’t think that we’re going to tell them how to do it. If they adjust, OK — but we can talk to them sensibly on the basis of two different systems. There’s no reason why that can’t be done.
Secretary Shultz, you’re also famous for your analogy of diplomacy to tending a garden. But, you know, even gardening has been transformed by technology. And diplomacy, of course, is increasingly conducted on Zoom and on Twitter. What are your thoughts on what is or isn’t different in terms of practicing diplomacy in today’s environment?
George Shultz: I think on a personal level, you need to build trust. Trust is the coin of the realm. And there’s no reason why you can’t build it with people who are your adversaries. It’s a personal thing.
I’ll give an example. When I served as secretary of state, Eduard Shevardnadze was foreign minister of the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. And he came to me and said, “We have decided to leave Afghanistan. We haven’t decided when, and we haven’t decided when to announce it. But we’re going to leave. So I’m telling you this so you and I maybe can talk a little bit about how to have this come about in a way that minimizes the loss of human life as it proceeds.”
The only person I told was Ronald Reagan. [Shevardnadze] knew he could trust me; that I wouldn’t go blaring this out even though it was a huge piece of news. You can build trust with people — even though you’re adversaries — by the way you behave.
Dr. Kissinger, you and I have also talked about the pace of technological development and how that complicates the strategic equation. Do you have some thoughts about what we need to bear in mind in conducting effective diplomacy in today’s environment?
Henry Kissinger: I have suggested, in different periods, that each president should appoint somebody in his office with primary responsibility for Chinese relations — and the Chinese should do the same, but for American relations. Because we are the two largest economic countries in the world. We cannot help interacting with each other, and we are bound to have an impact on each other by the very nature of our actions. We have to be careful in this period that, historically in such situations, conflict was the dominant characteristic.
But we have to find a way of dealing with each other based on an element of cooperation, together with recognition by each side of the limits beyond which conflict becomes too likely. We are in this strange situation now. For almost half a century, the main weapons of the big countries have been refined year after year. They’ve never been used. And they haven’t been used for a very good reason — that the consequences of using them would be so appalling and would destroy humanity. It is necessary to do two things: to have an understanding on what can be done together, like say climate change, or other practical things, and how we can limit the possibility of conflict.
What I’m hearing from both of you, which I think is very profound and wise, is the need to establish a relationship of mutual understanding that builds trust as a foundation for collaboration on areas where our interests overlap, but also as the basis for collaboration on risk management and on risk reduction.
George Shultz: I think we’re working on our Chinese problems now from the outside in — we’re pounding away from the outside to get changes. I think we should be working at it from the inside out. We have a chance to say, “Hey, there’s this problem. Maybe we can resolve it, and maybe we can’t, but at least let’s set the parameters.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.