Deep Dive

What Biden Can Learn From Nixon About China

Fifty years later, Washington may be reversing a diplomatic masterstroke by driving Beijing and Moscow together.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) toasts with then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972.
Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) toasts with then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972.
Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) toasts with then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during a banquet in Beijing in February 1972. AFP via Getty Images

‘Not One but Two Cold Wars’

Fifty years ago this month, in one of the diplomatic masterstrokes of the Cold War, U.S. President Richard Nixon arrived in China on a surprise visit that drove a deep wedge between Beijing and Moscow. Today, many observers fear that Washington is doing the opposite: driving China and Russia closer together and risking military conflict simultaneously with both nations.

‘Not One but Two Cold Wars’

Fifty years ago this month, in one of the diplomatic masterstrokes of the Cold War, U.S. President Richard Nixon arrived in China on a surprise visit that drove a deep wedge between Beijing and Moscow. Today, many observers fear that Washington is doing the opposite: driving China and Russia closer together and risking military conflict simultaneously with both nations.

Beijing and Moscow have demonstrably stepped up their military cooperation in recent years, holding joint war games and sharing aviation, submarine, and hypersonic-weapons technology. Motivated in large part by a common opposition to U.S. policy, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin also have gingerly endorsed each other’s right to threaten independent nations that each leader considers a breakaway territory—respectively, Taiwan and Ukraine.

The Biden administration has found itself locked in confrontation with both countries and, most imminently, facing a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia. On Feb. 4, Putin pointedly met with Xi in Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics, an event that U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders boycotted. The Russian and Chinese leaders later issued a joint statement opposing “further enlargement of NATO”—Putin’s key demand regarding Ukraine, which he fears will join the alliance—as well as “any forms of independence of Taiwan.” The 5,300-word statement included an unprecedented pledge by the two countries to lead a “redistribution of power in the world” as part of a “no limits” strategic partnership.

Biden pooh-poohed the Xi-Putin meeting, telling reporters: “There is nothing new about that.” Senior Biden officials echoed that point, saying that the United States wasn’t especially worried, particularly since Washington has a lot more alliance power than both countries put together. The United States and its Western allies “are 50 percent-plus of global GDP. China and Russia are less than 20 percent,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Feb. 11, adding that “we are well situated to be able to deal with any threat or challenge that would be posed to us by any autocracy in the world.”

The China-Russia relationship has clearly deepened in recent years. After a three-day visit to Moscow in 2019, Xi described Putin as his “best friend and colleague.” According to a report by the Center for a New American Security, Russian arms now account for some 70 percent of China’s arms imports overall, and Beijing has been eagerly buying Su-27 and Su-35 fighter aircraft, S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, and anti-ship missiles. Moscow, in turn, “has turned to China for electronic components and naval diesel engines that it previously bought in the West, blunting the impact of Western sanctions,” the report said.

China and Russia are also cooperating in new ways in undermining democracy: Russia, for example, recently purchased internet firewall technology from China. According to an exhaustive study of the China-Russia relationship published by the Rand Corp. late last year, the two nations can be expected to ratchet up collaboration in research and development “such as with hypersonic glide vehicles, counter-space systems, and artificial intelligence; and expand military coproduction agreements.”

The Rand study concluded: “The net impact would be an overall increase in the capacity, sophistication, and interoperability of the two militaries, especially in the domains where they anticipate confronting the United States.”

Most experts still reject the prospect of a full-blown security alliance between China and Russia. For Beijing, in particular, the economic consequences could be devastating: China does vastly more trade with the European Union than it does with Russia, and despite current trade tensions the United States remains China’s largest trading partner, taking in nearly half a trillion dollars a year in Chinese goods and services. Even so, a 2019 assessment by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that Beijing and Moscow “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” The report said, “the relationship is likely to strengthen … as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived US unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights.”

In other words, the two Eurasian giants may well be approximately back to where they were as Cold War allies, before the Sino-Soviet split of 1961—the split that Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, brilliantly exploited by engaging with Beijing 50 years ago.

A key issue now is whether Beijing and Moscow are also working together to test U.S. and Western resolve. Another parallel to 50 years ago is that the United States is perceived as weak and internally divided. Will China and Russia find a way, together, to neutralize U.S. power and influence?

“I think the Russians are setting us up for something the Chinese will later do. They both think in the same way,” said former senior U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman. He said the two countries are united in opposing a hostile Washington they believe is pressing up against their territories, and if nothing changes they will respond in kind. “For Putin I don’t think this is about Ukraine only. It’s about a process of escalating pressure that may see him placing submarines with hypersonic missiles five minutes away from D.C. and New York. I think the Chinese will eventually be drawn to do the same. We’ve been running mock attack runs on Chinese ports; now they claim over 2,000 intrusions by us in the last year. At some point, they’re going to respond in kind off San Diego and Puget Sound, and eventually Norfolk.”

Freeman, a China expert who interpreted for Nixon during his historic trip 50 years ago, said the Biden administration has been misreading Beijing in particular—mainly in an effort to “posture for political effect” and look tough on Capitol Hill. “What we’ve been doing absolutely wrong is challenging Chinese ‘face’ wherever we can,” he said. Biden’s team, in particular Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “have absolutely no sense of how to manage cross-cultural communication,” Freeman said. “You can’t go into a meeting and denigrate the other side and expect to get anything but an angry reaction, and that’s what we got. This is asinine. This is not diplomacy.”

Last October, in what some interpreted as a breach of the official policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan that has prevailed since Nixon’s opening, Biden suggested he would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked. The administration later reaffirmed its adherence to strategic ambiguity, but Biden’s statement raised the temperature after a tense meeting in Alaska in March 2021, when Blinken harshly criticized Beijing’s brutal campaign of suppression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its threats to Taiwan. “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said, adding that China’s cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion against U.S. allies were equally unacceptable. The Chinese responded with angry denunciations. This January, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang—using blunt language formerly uncharacteristic of Chinese diplomats—told NPR that if the confrontation over Taiwan persists on its current course, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”

Earlier this month the Biden administration released a new Indo-Pacific strategy that said the U.S. objective is no longer trying to change China into a democracy or free market economy but rather “to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” Biden plans to achieve this, in part, by beefing up Washington’s relations with U.S. allies and partners in the region, especially the so-called Quad, which is made up of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia.

Yet key U.S. allies and partners are worried that, without some new diplomatic initiative, Washington is headed for endless, possibly disastrous, bouts of brinkmanship with both its two biggest rivals, China and Russia. The Rand study found that, “If Washington continues down the path of simultaneous heightened great-power competition with Beijing and Moscow, then a possible outcome is that it will become engaged in not one but two cold wars.”

Not least among these worriers is India, which finds itself caught in the middle of the Russia-China alignment—both geographically and geopolitically. “It defies common sense for the U.S. to take on two powerful military adversaries at two ends of the Eurasian landmass at the same time,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, a former senior Indian diplomat. “From India’s point of view, the U.S. should make a rational decision on who is the greater threat, Russia or China, and make some concessions accordingly as Nixon and Kissinger did with China vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in 1972.” Mukhopadhaya continued: “India also fears that this would marginalize India’s concerns over China over a range of issues, most of all on the Line of Actual Control [the 2,100-mile Indian-Chinese border] and strengthen China’s hand in the process.” Since 2020, Chinese and Indian troops have engaged in several new hostile actions along the Sino-Indian border.

Biden tried to head off the double China-Russia threat by seeking, initially at least, to assuage Putin over NATO expansion into Ukraine. Prior to Putin’s recent aggression, the U.S. president even provoked cries of appeasement from some hawks in Congress by appearing to do a “reverse Nixon” and seeking to co-opt or neutralize Putin. He offered the Russian autocrat a summit without conditions, as well as new talks over the START arms agreement. Biden also waived sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and, in January, suggested that a divided NATO might not firmly respond to a “minor incursion” by Putin into Ukraine.

Biden’s diplomatic outreach, however, may have only encouraged Putin’s aggression. Some diplomats believe the Russian autocrat was seeking to take advantage of the Biden team’s often-stated desire to concentrate on China as America’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” in Blinken’s description. “Putin may be actually trying to use tensions between the U.S. and China to renegotiate a new Russia-West modus vivendi over NATO in Europe (albeit through a dangerous brinkmanship that the U.S. felt it had to call the bluff on),” Mukhopadhaya said in an email.

Putin was also likely encouraged by the debacle of Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal, which prompted outspoken criticism of Washington from European allies last year. “It seems very likely Putin looked at the situation and saw a moment of unique distraction and division in the West, and thought this was the time to move,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Europe specialist at the Brookings Institution.

But Putin seems to have miscalculated. In recent weeks NATO has closed ranks as Biden has raised the stakes against Russia, announcing that about 2,000 U.S.-based troops are heading to Poland and Germany, while shifting 1,000 from Germany to Romania. “I suspect that the Kremlin and Putin have been unpleasantly surprised by the solidity of Western resistance and resolve,” Stelzenmüller said. China is watching closely as well, and Washington and some of its allies are well aware of how their response to Putin’s aggression—whether it is deemed weak or not—might influence Beijing’s calculations over Taiwan. On Feb. 16, Biden said he was still looking for diplomatic “offramps” to the Ukraine standoff.

Can Biden, faced with authoritarian governments in Beijing and Moscow that are aligned against the democratic West, find any pragmatic way of winding down tensions with one or both? Such a realpolitik approach is politically hazardous, with the president navigating a closely divided Congress amid an atmosphere in Washington of hawkishness toward both China and Russia. Some critics say the administration has too often pandered to such sentiments, deploying self-righteous rhetoric that is only inciting Beijing and Moscow to grow even closer.

The biggest danger, perhaps, is that absent a more nuanced approach to both these rival nations, Washington is in for a long-term confrontation with both—risking war with two heavily nuclearized military powers. As Kissinger himself said at a 50th anniversary event held in Beijing last July to mark the beginning of his secret diplomacy with China, Washington and Beijing in particular “should start from the premise that war between our two countries will be an unspeakable catastrophe. It cannot be won.” Freeman’s warning was equally blunt: “If you’re going to go in search of dragons to destroy, they’re going to follow you home.”

Nixon (second from left) shakes hands with Premier of the People's Republic of China Zhou En-Lai
Nixon (second from left) shakes hands with Premier of the People's Republic of China Zhou En-Lai

At the foot of Air Force One, Nixon (second from left) shakes hands with Zhou on Feb. 21, 1972.Bryan Schumaker/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

‘This Will Shake the World’

Most people, even diplomats, generally aren’t aware they’re making history at the moment they’re doing it. Nixon’s trip to China was different. After seven months of secret diplomacy, everyone who joined him for his arrival in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972, was fully cognizant of its historic nature. Not least, Nixon himself. “I have never seen a president prepare more extensively for a trip,” Winston Lord, Kissinger’s key aide on that trip and later ambassador to China, recalled in an interview. “Before leaving Washington Nixon had marked up countless pages of six thick briefing books that I had assembled from government agencies. And then, as we flew to China via Hawaii and Guam on Air Force One, he kept asking us for even more information and details.”

As Air Force One taxied on the Beijing tarmac, Nixon instructed everyone to remain on board while he strode forth to shake Premier Zhou Enlai’s hand. “He wanted photos to capture this moment in isolation to contrast for Zhou, and the world, with the 1950s incident in Geneva when then-Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles had refused to shake Zhou’s hand,” Lord said. Beijing and Washington had been bitter enemies with no diplomatic relations since the Korean War. Thus one of the most dramatic moments of the visit was also one of the first: the image of a smiling Nixon, dressed in a gray winter coat, warmly greeting Zhou at the bottom of the airplane stairs. “We were in one move opening up to one-fifth of the world’s people,” Lord said.

Yet the opening also came to be romanticized later as a decisive turnabout in Cold War tensions, when in fact it was a touch-and-go affair, filled with second-guessing, rancor, and enduring ambiguities. At one point in the negotiations leading up to the summit, even the aristocratic, smooth-talking Zhou—whom Kissinger called “one of the two or three most impressive men I have ever met”—summarily dismissed Kissinger’s draft communique, which “tended to emphasize the positive elements of the opening,” Lord recalled. “After one night Zhou came back and scornfully said, ‘This has no credibility. We fought each other in Korea, we’ve been enemies for 22 years, and you suddenly want to make it look like we’re prospective allies.’ He said we should try a different approach, namely each side will state differences both ideological and on specific issues, and then where we can agree we’ll look more credible.”

Kissinger quickly agreed to the unusual terms, and Lord remembers staying up until 4 a.m. to redraft the document, which addressed South Asia, the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea, and bilateral relations while leaving the explosive issue of Taiwan open. The communique was fairly well precooked by the time Nixon got to China. But Taiwan provoked another near-blowup after the Chinese Politburo had approved it. Kissinger and Nixon had excluded Secretary of State William Rogers and his deputy Marshall Green from the initial negotiations. When Rogers and Green finally saw the original draft language on Taiwan, which they believed made Nixon look soft on Taiwan, they declared “that the communique could be a disaster,” Lord recalled. “They said that President Nixon could get killed at home and around the world, and that we had given in too much to the Chinese.”

Nixon feared that Rogers and Green would leak that they had been excluded from the talks and that the president had sold out Taiwan. So he sent Kissinger back to renegotiate. At Green’s suggestion, Kissinger removed a statement in the U.S. draft that reaffirmed U.S. alliances around the world but excluded Taiwan. “That suggested echoes of Dean Acheson,” said Lord, referring to the then-secretary of state’s infamous 1950 speech excluding Korea from America’s defense perimeter, thus inviting the Soviet-backed Korean War. “He said, let’s take out any mention of alliances, so Taiwan’s absence would not stick out.”

The final result, known as the Shanghai Communique, did just that. It also left the issue of Taiwan officially open, with the U.S. side calling for “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.” The communique vaguely noted “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” While Kissinger, in a gesture to U.S. hard-liners, did manage to declare in Shanghai that the United States would continue to have a defense relationship with Taiwan, Nixon and subsequent presidents also made clear that Washington would no longer oppose Beijing’s political claims to Taiwan. “Nixon’s initiative conveyed America’s acceptance, for the first time, of the outcome of the Chinese civil war,” the journalist James Mann later wrote. “The United States stopped challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s authority to rule the country.”

In the end the Shanghai Communique was a masterpiece of what came to be known as “strategic ambiguity.” “The basic theme of the Nixon trip—and the Shanghai Communiqué—was to put off the issue of Taiwan for the future, to enable the two nations to close the gulf of twenty years and to pursue parallel policies where their interests coincided,” Kissinger wrote in his memoirs. But the communique did contain one clear phrase, one that might even be, with a renewal of practical diplomacy, relevant to today’s standoff. The final document said that neither nation “should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony.”

The knock-on effects of the Shanghai Communique were far-reaching. “It restored U.S. credibility on the world stage,” Lord said, and led to a new willingness by the Soviets to negotiate arms control as well as “some help by both communist powers with the Vietnam peace negotiations,” among other breakthroughs.

Kissinger later wrote that after he and Zhou finally agreed on the communique, the Chinese leader remarked to him: “This will shake the world.”

Zhou gave Winston Lord, Kissinger’s key aide on the trip and later ambassador to China, this photo of the Feb. 21, 1972, meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong to prove that Lord secretly attended. Lord is seen second from right, with official photos of the meeting stopping at Henry Kissinger to his left.
Zhou gave Winston Lord, Kissinger’s key aide on the trip and later ambassador to China, this photo of the Feb. 21, 1972, meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong to prove that Lord secretly attended. Lord is seen second from right, with official photos of the meeting stopping at Henry Kissinger to his left.

Zhou gave Winston Lord, Kissinger’s key aide on the trip and later ambassador to China, this photo of the Feb. 21, 1972, meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong to prove that Lord secretly attended. Lord is seen second from right, with official photos of the meeting stopping at Henry Kissinger to his left.Personal Collection of Winston Lord

‘Ambiguity Is Sometimes the Lifeblood of Diplomacy’

What are the larger lessons for today? The biggest contrast to 50 years ago is that the Biden administration and both parties on Capitol Hill are now dead set on a course of confrontation—or at the least long-term competition—with China. In February the House passed a version of the America Competes Act that the Senate approved last year. Biden supported the bill, which will fund semiconductor manufacture and research. The act officially designated China as the economic pacesetter for America’s future, much as the Soviets were early in the Cold War.

All this reflects the views of a senior China expert in the White House, Rush Doshi, who last year published a book called ​​The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order. Doshi argued that Xi is not just a uniquely nasty autocrat looking to consolidate his personal power but is following a long-term plan to make China the leading world power. Under Xi, China has shifted from its previous “hide and bide” foreign policy—under which Beijing was pretending to work with Washington while it built up its economy and military—to an openly aggressive one. Since Xi announced a “new era” at the 19th Congress of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, Doshi wrote, China’s “‘struggle for mastery,’ once confined to Asia, is now over the global order and its future.”

Though Biden has tried to take a more nuanced approach to Beijing than his predecessor, Donald Trump, Doshi’s concept of long-term competition with China marks what is probably the most significant continuity between the two administrations. Doshi’s view seems to have become the settled approach of the Biden administration as a whole. Biden’s chief advisor on the Indo-Pacific region, the hawkish Kurt Campbell, declared flatly last May that “the period that was broadly described as ‘engagement’ [with China] has come to an end” and “the dominant paradigm is going to be competition,” with both giants vying to shape the global order. Blinken has described China as “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system—all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to.”

Advocates of traditional realpolitik such as Kissinger would counsel trying to, once again, drive a diplomatic wedge between Russia or China. Some China hawks also worry that, by confronting Russia, Biden is losing the edge against China. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, in a Feb. 1 letter to Blinken, said Biden should move further in denying NATO membership to Ukraine, saying America’s interest in Ukraine should not “justify committing the United States to go to war with Russia over Ukraine’s fate. Rather, we must aid Ukraine in a manner that aligns with the American interests at stake and preserves our ability to deny Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.” (Hawley was also one of eight senators who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.)

Yet in today’s environment, Biden may have no choice but a tough posture with both nations. “I think they are much more serious about working together now. The reason is they are bound together against the United States,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Now the West is the focus of their collective ire. They don’t like its messianic message. So it’s not a feasible goal to peel the two apart.” As a result, many experts believe the only path to countering two rising authoritarian powers may be by actively calling them out over their abuses of democratic norms and human rights, while promoting and strengthening democracy at home and around the world.

Still, it’s fair to ask, as some diplomats do, whether Washington is overstating the threat from both countries, China in particular. Is Beijing really on an ideological offensive to rewrite the rules and dominate the 21st century—or is it mainly playing defense? Beijing’s conflict with Washington is plainly different from the Cold War in that China is primarily exporting money and influence, not communism or an alternative political vision intended to radically upend the global system of markets and United Nations-monitored international law. Others within the Biden administration take this more cautious view, including Julian Gewirtz, who serves with Doshi on the National Security Council and has argued that “China is not monolithic. The incompatibility of our political systems makes it even more important that we seek out areas where we can build strong, resilient ties.”

It is true that Xi, in his new partnership with Putin, is actively promoting the idea abroad that autocracy works better than democracy (though the two leaders insist all they’re doing is “redefining” democracy). Xi is doling out large investments to like-minded autocrats, minus all those annoying Western-style human rights restraints, and cutting economic ties with nations that criticize Beijing. He is also taking advantage of Biden’s stalled trade agenda in Asia, pushing his own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and seeking to join the successor to the trade agreement that Trump withdrew from, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (originally designed to pressure China to observe free trade norms).

Asked to comment on Blinken’s recent visit to Australia, which the Biden administration is seeking to bolster with new nuclear-powered submarines, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded with a broader attack on the American political system. “With its so-called democracy having collapsed long ago, the U.S. is forcing other countries to accept the standards of the American democracy, drawing lines with democratic values and piecing together cliques,” he said on Feb. 9. “That is a complete betrayal of democracy.”

China’s trade bullying has sometimes backfired, however, driving some formerly fence-sitting nations such as Australia closer to the United States. And despite Beijing’s often harsh rhetoric, Chinese diplomacy is not all that different from what it was 50 years ago. Beijing is, by many accounts of international diplomats, still looking for a face-saving way out of invading Taiwan; its main goal is to maintain strategic ambiguity. Behind the scenes, China is asking mainly that the United States continue doing what it pledged to do in 1972: Don’t support Taiwanese independence.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the White House in Washington on Nov. 15, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the White House in Washington on Nov. 15, 2021.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with China’s President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the White House in Washington on Nov. 15, 2021.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

That has become more politically challenging than it was a half century ago, when Taiwan was still an autocracy. Today it is a thriving democracy. In a 2020 Foreign Affairs article he co-wrote, former State policy planning chief Richard Haass said, “The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.” Haass, who today heads the Council on Foreign Relations, sought to maintain the spirit of the Shanghai Communique by hedging that Washington should still make clear it does not support Taiwanese independence.

Yet such a change of policy would also likely edge Taiwanese politics closer to independence—and very possibly trigger hostilities. While the Biden administration still officially endorses strategic ambiguity, to date Biden has failed to mount any kind of diplomatic initiative alongside his newly aggressive approach to arming U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan against possible hostilities in the Taiwan Strait. U.S. officials say diplomatic efforts are stalled—despite several virtual Xi-Biden summits—because Beijing continues to insist on linking its willingness to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific to cooperation on climate and other global issues. “It takes two to tango,” said a senior administration official who would address negotiations only on condition of anonymity.

Still, a shift in emphasis from constantly harping on competition with Beijing, instead emphasizing cooperation, could go a long way, some diplomats say. “We started out with a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Taiwan issue and we ended up with nothing but a military one,” Freeman said.

Biden could learn a few other things from the summit of 50 years ago, experts say. The U.S. president and his team say they no longer believe they can change China. Neither did Nixon. Thus, the only way forward may be what Kissinger called a “pragmatic concept of coexistence.” Contrary to the simplistic notion that he and Nixon turned China into a friend or ally, the two countries stated explicitly where they disagreed but agreed to focus on the places they could cooperate. Ambiguity, as Kissinger later wrote, “is sometimes the lifeblood of diplomacy.”

Today, a similar strategic construct is needed, including with Russia, some diplomats say. Putin, in the end, appears to be asking for a modus vivendi in which Ukraine simply doesn’t become allied with the United States by joining NATO. “Essentially the Russians have given us an opportunity to work out a stabilization policy in which Ukraine is an independent neutral state which is a bridge and buffer,” Freeman said. “If we could do that with the Austrian State Treaty in 1955 … we can do it with Ukraine.” (On May 15, 1955, despite the Cold War, the governments of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States, and France signed a treaty that granted Austria independence and arranged for the withdrawal of all occupation forces.)

Many experts agree that when it comes to broad strategy, circumstances are vastly different from what they were in 1972. Back then the Soviet Union was the dominant rival, a major nuclear threat, while China was in the junior role of Russia today. Moreover, the two powers were already hostile to each other—and Nixon and Kissinger deftly exploited those Sino-Soviet divisions.

But Biden could certainly be pushing for a new diplomatic agenda to blunt joint efforts by China and Russia. Most experts, including the lead authors of the Rand study, believe that the Chinese-Russian alignment will probably remain limited to tactical cooperation. “Yes, there’s a bond between two leaders, but relations between the two countries are based on realpolitik,” said Andrew Scobell, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace who was co-lead author of the Rand study. “It’s quite a transactional relationship.” Mitchell Reiss, a former head of State’s policy planning department, agrees. “If you look at the sweep of history there will always be tension between China and Russia. That’s a more natural state of affairs than an alliance,” he said.

And that means both Xi and Putin are likely seeking to leverage the worst fears of the United States and its allies by putting the most threatening face on their relationship, though the two leaders are not as tight as they sometimes seem. “We’re playing this all wrong: By getting worried about this China-Russia condominium we’re actually strengthening it,” said former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, now dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “At this point we’re the ones being leveraged rather than being the ones who are leveraging.”

Nixon and Zhou review troops of the Chinese Red Army in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972.
Nixon and Zhou review troops of the Chinese Red Army in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972.

Nixon and Zhou review troops of the Chinese Red Army in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Despite the Watergate scandal that would force his resignation two years later, Nixon was also in a stronger position politically in 1972 than Biden is today. As a conservative Republican and anti-communist hawk, Nixon enjoyed the credibility he needed to make such a dramatic move, giving rise to the famous saying that “only Nixon could go to China.” By contrast, Biden is perceived as a progressive internationalist from whom any hint of softness would invite savage criticism from hawks in Congress. Biden may well face even more opposition at home than Nixon did, with a substantial portion of the electorate, and Congress, questioning his legitimacy as president.

“When you look at the horrid situation today the only one you can think of that comes close was the landscape Nixon inherited in 1969,” Lord said. He was referring to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., and the decision by President Lyndon B. Johnson to forgo a second term amid the domestic turmoil over Vietnam. “That’s what made Nixon’s move so important for restoring American prestige. But you have a situation today I would say is even worse.”

The only answer may be to try to speak more softly in diplomatic forums—no major power can afford to lose face, which is especially important to Xi and Putin—while continuing to build up the big stick of U.S. economic and military might and reaffirmed alliances, as well as new partnerships.

“I think where we should be focusing attention frankly is not so much whether we can pull the two countries apart, but looking at some of the countries in between,” Pantucci said. U.S. diplomacy, he said, should be focused on weaning away nations in Central Asia that are currently caught between Russian and U.S. influence, such as Kazakhstan, as well as other nations on China’s perimeter.

A senior State Department official said that was pretty much Biden’s approach at present. Although Blinken has sought to create some daylight between China and Russia—warning Beijing recently that U.S. sanctions on Moscow would hurt Chinese companies—the main U.S. focus has been on “deft diplomacy” toward other nations caught in between.

“In many ways that’s been our strategy since the end of the Cold War,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Making clear to our partners that when it comes to China and Russia sometimes their motives are not so benevolent in seeking the interests of the country in question.”

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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