The reputation of the “Iron chancellor” Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was established by his remarkable achievement in unifying Germany through three short victorious wars, from 1864-1870, that completely remade the European balance of power, and then orchestrating a generation of peace through a series of complex treaties that placed his country in amicable relations with all the continent’s great powers, except the irreconcilable French who were kept in a permanent state of diplomatic isolation.
However, in 1890, Germany’s blundering new sovereign, Kaiser Wilhelm II, dismissed Bismarck from office and subsequently rejected the renewal of the Russo-German Treaty of Accord, which led the arch-conservative Tsar Alexander III to astonish Europe by entering into an unlikely but enduring alliance with liberal France. This reconfigured the balance of power and set the stage for the catastrophic First World War.
In August 1939, another spurned Russian ruler, Joseph Stalin, reacted to the appalling appeasement of Britain and France at the recent Munich Conference by vaulting across the ideological spectrum and entering an alliance with Adolf Hitler, thereby turning the world’s diplomatic architecture upside down and directly leading to the outbreak of World War II just one month later.
In American history, there was only one diplomatic initiative that, in terms of drama, worldwide impact and enduring benefit to the participants is comparable to the above noted events. It occurred in February 1972, when President Richard Nixon, leader of the free world, journeyed to Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong, founder and leader of Communist China, in a turn of events that shocked enemies and allies of both countries and redesigned the geopolitical shape of the world for decades to come.
As superbly recounted by Margaret MacMillan in “Nixon and Mao,” preceding this event were three years of complex and torturous secret negotiations conducted by foreign ministers Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger that ensured that the final result would entail significant advantages to both countries. For China, it meant ending its long diplomatic isolation and emerging from the shadow of its increasingly overbearing Russian ally. For the United States, it meant gaining vital leverage to extricate itself from the war in Vietnam and diplomatic opportunities that arose from being able to deal with China separately from the Soviet Union.
For over 40 years, six U.S. administrations availed themselves of this opportunity, recognizing that while Russia would remain America’s principal international antagonist in the interests of world peace, it was imperative to maintain civil diplomatic relations, as circumstances allowed, and simultaneously treat a rising China in ways that hopefully could serve as a useful counterpoint to relations with Russia.
Then, in 2016, a veritable maelstrom engulfed America’s domestic politics in the form of an allegation that Donald Trump had colluded with Russia in a manner that illegitimately elected him as president of the United States. Though ultimately shown to be unfounded, this allegation became a dominant narrative in American politics for over four years, poisoning U.S.-Russia relations. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this downward spiral has continued to a point where productive U.S.-Russia relations seem to have no future whatsoever.
The obvious beneficiary of this impasse is China, now belatedly recognized as the principal threat to America’s national security. China has embraced the task of fully restoring harmony, cooperation and common geostrategic purpose between itself and Russia to a strength not seen since before 1972.
Though many American elites, from business to government to media, seem blind to this emergent reality, in terms of brute military capacity and the political ruthlessness needed to use it, it is not China or Russia that is isolated in this rapidly changing world, but the United States. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have squandered Nixon’s legacy with China and canceled any benefits it may have conferred.
In today’s world of deepening conflicts, from the Middle East to the Taiwan Strait, an economically struggling and polarized America is greatly challenged to meet its far-flung obligations. Oddly, we often hear that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs an “off ramp.” Perhaps the United States needs one even more.
William Moloney is a senior fellow at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, who has studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.