David Rothkopf

The Debacle That Wasn’t

The Debacle That Wasn’t

A couple of weeks ago, before he was pictured on the front page of the biggest newspapers in America last week holding the hand of Chen Guangcheng, I had breakfast with Kurt Campbell. Campbell is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, making him the guy with day-to-day responsibility for many of the most sensitive issues the U.S. faces, from North Korea to Myanmar, Japan to China.

We have breakfast every so often. We have known each other for almost 20 years, since we both served in the Clinton administration. When we met this time, I was thinking of doing a column on Kurt. In my view, the work he has done at the State Department has been among the very best of any sub-cabinet official on the Obama team. If they gave out an MVP award for contributions to U.S. foreign policy over the past several years, justice would demand Campbell be considered.

But before I wrote anything, I wanted to talk to Kurt. One reason was to pick Kurt’s brain on developments in Asia. Unlike most folks in top Washington jobs, he has a strategic perspective — a worldview — and he rigorously re-examines it and ensures it evolves over time. Few people, in fact, would so appreciate the watershed that the dramatic and confounding Chen incident represents than this guy who was at the center of it.

There was another reason I wanted to talk to Kurt, though. I didn’t want to write anything about the work he was doing without getting his OK. Not regarding the substance of what I was writing, but that I was writing anything at all. Because while Kurt can hardly be called a self-effacing guy, a large degree of his success thus far has been due to the careful way he has worked behind the scenes. He knows that working quietly is what works best in Asia — and also in Washington. Press coverage can be useful, but in a town where people actively seek puffery and the spotlight, he, like many others who have thrived in the current environment (including his boss Hillary Clinton), has recognized that you can get more done with less flak when you leave center stage to others.

Campbell has been among Clinton’s most important lieutenants helping to shape and execute the strategic rebalancing to Asia that has been Obama’s greatest foreign-policy accomplishment. (As for the others: Getting out of Iraq was a done deal before he took office. Escalating in Afghanistan was a mistake. Killing Osama bin Laden was dramatic and welcome but has been awesomely overplayed in terms of its long-term significance.) The rebalancing of U.S. priorities shifted America’s focus from near-term threats to longer-term needs, and it was done in an unusual way: It didn’t come with a grand speech first. It came with methodical work at the ground level. And Campbell brought to it an unusually well rounded background, having served both as a naval officer and a White House fellow working in the Treasury Department, as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific issues, as a member of the team that helped see NAFTA into existence, and also as co-founder of the Center for a New American Security.

Under Campbell’s leadership, the United States established bilateral dialogues with countries throughout the region, including those like Laos that haven’t had much attention since the Vietnam War era. It promoted reform and the possibility of better relations with Myanmar, a risky initiative that thus far has shown promise, marked dramatically last week as newly released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took her place in that country’s parliament. It sought to find ways to draw closer to Japan despite that country’s turbulent political environment, such as by reacting quickly and generously to help Japan recover after the tsunami. It put through a trade deal with South Korea. It made the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral deal to liberalize trade and raise standards on issues like intellectual property around the Pacific Basin, the new centerpiece of its international trade agenda. It stood firm against North Korean provocations without overreacting in the face of an unusually difficult moment in the history of that country’s erratic leadership.

Many elements of the pivot have been outside Campbell’s region. Deepening ties with India has been among its most important centerpieces. And there is no question that Secretary Clinton has not only overseen and powered and enabled this pivot, but she has also framed it with a series of powerful, timely speeches, such as the one she delivered on prosperity in the region in Hong Kong last year and via articles like the one she wrote for Foreign Policy last November called "America’s Pacific Century." Others throughout the State Department have played a vital role in this effort, as has National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who, along with his team at the White House, has been deeply involved. And of course, none of it could happen without the vision, approval, and leadership of the president, whose trips to the region and meetings with visiting leaders have been essential.

But what has struck me about the pivot is the work behind the scenes and the attention to detail as I’ve watched the Strategic & Economic Dialogue with China evolve from a high-level show to one in which working-level teams from both sides established ties and relationships that had never been there before and would be essential in the future. And that’s why I thought Kurt and his team deserved some public acknowledgement of their work. The architect Mies van der Rohe once famously said, "God is in the details," and the remark is certainly as true of diplomacy as well. It comes in the daily calls and visits and invisible to the public micro-agreements that knit relationships together, add stability, deepen ties, and ensure open channels at times of tension and context in moments of upheaval and confusion.

Last week, it looked like it was going to all blow up. Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest, his odyssey across to China to the U.S. Embassy, the negotiations with the Chinese over his fate, and then his return to the control of the Chinese government produced a torrent of emotions. Watching it unfold was a lesson in the shortcomings of modern media. The tick tock on Twitter produced bold statements of triumph followed by shocked condemnations of betrayal. The perhaps natural but dangerous impulse of commentators to comment in real time when facts were sparse, conflicting and — as usually happens in these circumstances, not facts at all — was too seldom resisted. Even the very very best among them, like the New York Times‘s Nick Kristof, at one moment hailed the maturity of the Chinese for striking a deal to accept back Chen and a few minutes later wished aloud, via another tweet, that he could take the observation back when it seemed the Chinese were reneging.

For a moment, the United States appeared naïve in trying to cut a deal with the Chinese government. Throughout, talking to friends on the ground, it seemed to me that the usually disciplined State Department message machine had blown up with confusing stories, strange silences, and mayhem. Per a story this past weekend in the Daily Beast, the White House may also have been maintaining its laser-like focus on re-election, trying to distance itself from the dust-up and in so doing, being perfectly prepared to let Secretary Clinton take the heat for the problem.

Which, as usual, she was fully prepared to do. But she and her team kept working when it looked like the wheels were coming off the cart. They kept the Strategic & Economic Dialogue on track. They insisted via the channels they had developed over the past several years that the deal they negotiated be honored. And it seems — at least for now, and all this is still hugely delicate at the moment — that they were successful in winning the extraordinary opportunity for Chen to come to the United States to study.

Yes, it was ugly. But diplomacy is often messy. It could have been a debacle, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because the team involved worked the issues and once again demonstrated that real diplomacy is not about speeches or grand gestures but most often is about private conversations between nearly anonymous men and women — as much about improvisation as it is strategy. It requires doggedness and the ability to keep one’s head when plans are going ass over teakettle.

But let’s be clear about this: The real story of last week wasn’t just about the efforts of a few diplomats or even about the heroic defiance of a blind man willing to stand up to an oppressive government. It wasn’t about the deal struck or the deal blown or the deal resuscitated. It was about the fact that an incident that at any time in the past 20 years of the U.S.-China relationship would have blown it up did not. In the past, similar incidents, from the far more serious challenges that came in the days after the Tiananmen crackdown to spats over visits to Washington by Taiwanese leaders or disputes regarding other human rights advocates, have put the relationship into the deep freeze. If we didn’t overreact, the Chinese would have.

But this time both sides kept their heads, worked the issue, and maintained their focus on the long-term interests of both nations, from our intertwined economic futures to the recognition we need to work together to get almost anything major done on the world stage these days. In that respect, the Chen affair resulted in a testament to the importance of the U.S.-China relationship to both sides. Each seems to recognize that in big, complex relationships there will be irritants and even sometimes profound differences, but that for the two dominant powers of the 21st century, it is essential not to let those overshadow shared interests or deep interdependencies. This is why, in fact, the Strategic & Economic Dialogue was set up in the first place. It is why the United States has worked hard behind the scenes to establish ties at deeper levels. It is why, in the end, Kristof was right: The U.S.-China relationship has matured. And it is also why diplomatic craftsmen like Kurt Campbell and the rest of the president’s Asia team are doing such an essential job, and why we should be grateful that they are, on balance, doing it so well.