David Rothkopf

As we say in Chinese, ‘Why is this state dinner unlike any other?’

The agenda for the state visit was dominated by trade and economic issues. The world was recovering from a recent global economic crash. There was a certain tension because the visitor had strong autocratic tendencies and according to some, imperial ambitions. He had also regularly made statements that could be interpreted as hostile to U.S. ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The agenda for the state visit was dominated by trade and economic issues. The world was recovering from a recent global economic crash. There was a certain tension because the visitor had strong autocratic tendencies and according to some, imperial ambitions. He had also regularly made statements that could be interpreted as hostile to U.S. and Western influences in his country. The U.S. president, who had once enjoyed enormous popularity, was mired in the difficulties of working with a fractious Congress and poisonous political divides across the country. His main job was nation building at home but he increasingly found he had to take time to address international concerns. In the end, the best outcome the visit could produce was some limited progress on trade deals, allowing the visitor more access to a U.S. market that was vital to his country’s growth.

While it sounds familiar, that is the story of the first visit of a foreign head of state to the United States. It took place in 1874. The visitor was King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. The U.S. president was Ulysses S. Grant. The signing of the trade deal — which focused primarily on agricultural commodities — was considered a big triumph back home in Hawaii although ultimately the king was better known for his energetic world travels, for the decline in the power of the Hawaiian monarchy that took place during his reign, that he was Hawaii’s last king and for the fact that during his reign he oversaw the revivals of hula dancing and surfing.

Thus the echoes with the visit of China’s president Hu Jintao to the United States this week are only distant ones. Nonetheless, there is something in this visit that compels a look backward to that first state visit of a foreign leader to Washington. Because this is the first time in the comparatively short history of such visits that any visiting leader has been seen by a substantial number of Americans as representing a rising power that might soon eclipse the United States.

Even during the visits of Soviet leaders who were seen to be at the helm of the world’s other superpower, there was always a perception among Americans that we were the ones with history on our side and also that should it come to conflict that either we would win or that both sides would lose. Further they were never seen as a real economic rival. But look at recent polling data. A Pew Study released last week showed that almost half of all Americans see China as already being the world’s leading economic power while fewer than a third of Americans see the United States in that role. An Allstate/Heartland survey last month showed the same thing and also suggested that at least as many Americans feel China will be the leader in 20 years as believe the United States will rebound.

While the United States has felt this kind of economic insecurity before (in the late 1980s similar polls showed a majority of Americans thinking Japan had supplanted the United States as the economic leader), China is also seen as a paramount security threat. A CNN/Opinion research poll conducted two months ago showed half of the United States thinking that China is an economic and military superpower and almost six out of ten seeing Beijing’s rise as a threat to the United States. These threat perception numbers have shot up during the past decade, more than doubling since 1997.

As such, Hu’s visit is quite unlike any other in U.S. history. As Americans watch reports of the state dinner and his meetings with President Obama, they will be wondering whether he represents the future and whether, for the first time in the history of such visits to the United States, the host country will not be the country with the tides of history flowing in its favor.

As such, Hu’s visit might someday be seen as more akin to another first among historic U.S. state visits, the first visit of a sitting U.S. president to Europe. That took place in late 1918 and early 1919 as President Woodrow Wilson arrived for a triumphant post-World War I tour. For the first time, Europeans were visited by a foreign leader who represented a greater power, a country whose future looked (to those willing to see it) considerably brighter than theirs.

While current views of the relative positions of the United States and China create an unprecedented context for the current visit that is certainly worth considering, I also think it is extremely premature to jump on the declinist-defeatist bandwagon.

To use past state visits as an illustration, we are, for example, still a very long way however from this being the kind of changing of the guard moment marked by Wilson’s journey. First of all, of course, Wilson represented a country that had convincingly demonstrated its power by playing the decisive role winning the "war to end all wars." Further, he arrived and was hailed as a peacemaker, his 14 Points proving to be very popular with the public even if David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau resisted the majority of his suggestions. In addition, the great powers of Europe were actively engaged in bringing each other down and the empires on which many depended were crumbling. And the United States, isolated from the dangers of the world by two oceans, was burgeoning unfettered by many of the constraints faced by potential competitors — including the fact that our mainland was unscathed by the recent war.

Right now, China’s ascendancy is something more than a theory and something less than a certainty. The same can be said of the United States’ decline. The United States is still vastly more powerful militarily and economically than the Chinese and China has yet to step up to play anything like the role great nations must play in contributing to the global good. China has proven supremely self-interested and periodically contentious. The United States has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself.

For all these reasons, it is just possible that we may someday look upon the Hu visit like one from a prior period of insecurity, more like that, for example, of Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s in February 1989 — which is to say we will hardly look back on it at all. (The Takeshita visit wasn’t even the most notable U.S.-Japanese summit of the Bush era, that of course being the 1992 visit of Bush to Japan during which the U.S. president vomited and fainted onto the lap of Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa.) Books on how it was all over for the United States were popular back then too and business leaders were wondering whether it was time to adopt Japanese management techniques like compelling employees to wear uniforms and sing company songs. And we all know how that turned out.

On Passover, the annual equivalent of a state dinner for Jewish families everywhere, it is traditional to ask this question: "What makes this night different from all others?" Should the question arise (or have arisen) at the Hu dinner at the White House, the answer must be that while it is clearly different in some unsettling ways from all those that have come before (dating back to King David — of Hawaii), it’s not yet clear how big a change it marks for all such dinners to follow.

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