Obama walks path blazed by Nixon in 1972
Premier Zhou Enlai gives President Richard Nixon a lesson in chopstick use in 1972. (AP photo)
In February 1972, President Richard M. Nixon was viewed as the ultimate Cold Warrior, a politician who made his name in part by a vigorous embrace of anti-Communism. In November 2009, President Barack Obama is seen as an internationalist, whose outreach to the world has been so welcome he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama's upcoming trip to China will lack what Nixon's did during his visit there 37 years ago: Shock value. But Obama needed Nixon to pave the way.
"This is just a regular visit. Obama is sort of a global media superstar in some ways. ... Although they’re going to roll out the red carpet, there’s no comparison to that world-changing, political event,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, author of “Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World” and Council on Foreign Relations fellow.
Obama's trip will be one of relationship "maintenance" that "puts the bow" on negotiations done by both countries in recent years, said Drew Thompson, director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. Nixonian breakthroughs so groundbreaking they inspire operas (as Nixon's did in 1987) won't be on the agenda.
Televised images of Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong meeting inside the People's Republic of China were almost incomprehensible. Such a mission coming from another president would have been considered suspect, but everyone knew Nixon was not soft on communism. Observers say that reputation gave Nixon needed cover to famously open the door to China, exploiting divides between China and the Soviets and recalibrating the global balance of power at the height of the Cold War.
Obama will be performing to expectations; the real shock would come if he aggressively took on taboo subjects such as human rights and Tibet.
Obama "is committed to cooperation and building these sorts of connections. His visit is perfectly in character. In Nixon's case, it was so very out of character," said Thomas S. Mullaney, assistant professor of modern Chinese history at Stanford University.
Nixon told the world it was time to reach out to China, but in fact, China was hardly ready, Thompson said. For one, China was a global troublemaker.
Beyond getting China as an ally against the U.S.S.R., the outreach was part of the strategy to pressure the North Vietnamese to end to the Vietnam War.
"You could say it was a tremendously large agenda but it was terribly narrow at the same time," Thompson said.
Today, it's a different world. There’s hardly a week, Thompson said, when there isn't some high-level communication or negotiation happening between both countries. China now heavily invests in U.S business. And while vast differences still separate the countries, both nations will be discussing global issues — climate, energy, economics — unlike the much narrower agenda of 1972.
Nixon's successful trip was a deep inspiration to the Chinese people, offering hope that their misery might be at an end. The visit by Obama will no doubt captivate, but it won't be seen as a harbinger of a better life.
"When the Nixon visit was announced in China, it was a life-changing event for literally 800 million, 900 million people. ... They recognized that this essentially meant the end of the Cultural Revolution, the end of their isolation, the end of what had essentially been 20 really hard years," Thompson said.