The Biggest Foreign Policy Blunder In US History

For this post, I briefly once more put on my former academic’s hat. It is also something of an opinion piece, which I know is out of the ordinary for me. So if you want to “cut class,” feel free to click away now: attendance is not mandatory.

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In New York in the early 1990s, before many of you were even born, I taught political science/international relations at a suburban university. Recalling that period from our current 2020, those were in some ways amazing times in which to have lived. Indeed in living them we ourselves often even felt that way.

[Statue of Liberty and World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, from the Liberty Island ferry. Photo by me, 1991.]

Because we had sensed we were living history. The communist police state that had been the USSR had collapsed between 1989-1992. Afterwards, while the US and the successor Russian government were hardly buddies (and often sadly we are not still), with the end of the communist power monopoly there the US and Russia were suddenly no longer the harshest of adversaries.

Aside from 1941-1945, when US and British military equipment and foodstuffs were shipped there to try to help the country fend off the Nazi assault, during its official existence from 1922-1991 the communist USSR had never really been part of the global economy. The few consumer goods – such as refrigerators – available were usually domestically built and sold by the ruling Communist Party’s state-run enterprises and normally required LONG waits to be able to buy. Even when they were finally obtained by a Soviet consumer, the goods were usually of indifferent (to be kind) quality.

International tourism to the USSR was carefully controlled by the ruling Communist Party and kept small. Foreigners were wanted for the “hard currency” they brought with them; but Westerners’ “bourgeois” ideas were unwanted and feared. A Westerner in the 1970s or 1980s did not decide “Uh, I’m gonna have a weekend in Moscow…” and simply catch a flight for there:

[Excerpt from Frontiers: Atlantic Lives, 1995-1996. Click to expand.]

Travel abroad from the USSR was also carefully controlled and only realistically possible for the trusted and privileged. The big fear was “Western contamination.” The worry was tourists visiting Western countries would bring back “dangerous ideas” that were not in line with Communist Party dogma:

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995. Click to expand.]

Remember, there was also no internet back then. The Party controlled all of the media. The only non-Soviet information often heard came in by shortwave radio services, such as the BBC or the Voice of America, which were also routinely jammed by the Communists; and – at least until the 1980s – to be caught listening to a foreign radio station was generally not good for one’s personal health.

“Elena” above and similar twenty-something Russians and former Soviets by the early-1990s were among my postgraduate classmates. Undergraduates from the former USSR were also among my students. (I have never forgotten a chat I had with an “Anna” after I – not a Russian speaker, nor a Soviet specialist – had to lecture in her comparative politics class on some generalisms of governance in the former Soviet Union. As we strolled across the campus to my office, our talk revolved around her views on life in America as compared to her – now independent – Ukraine.) Some of them eventually married Americans and settled in the US – to the point that today tens of thousands of young Americans have a Russian or other former Soviet Union parent who arrived in the US during those 1990s.

Thus the US-Russia relationship in 1991 was VERY different compared to that of 1981.

Simultaneously, the Chinese communist dictators were of course nervously watching the communist USSR teetering. Obviously they had decided that their political fate was not to be the same. In 1989, rather than give in to their mostly young street protesters’ demands for increased democracy too, unlike the Soviet communists the Chinese Communist Party ordered its army into the streets… and massacred the protesters.

Like the USSR, the Chinese Communist Party had mostly enforced an economically isolationist autarky since seizing power in 1949; their fear too was “Western contamination.” Now, however, newer leadership clearly decided that it would not continue the error they believed the Soviets had made. They would “open up” ONLY in terms of bringing in foreign capital and would stay in power by joining the global economy.

Having in 1979 agreed full diplomatic relations with that communist government, from our US perch, seeing the “opening up” apparently starting during the 1990s, we thought… yes, they are liberalizing. Perhaps, we wondered, a transition to freedom could be accomplished there gradually? We had so hoped: “Trade. Yes, allow our companies to build factories there. Help raise Chinese living standards. Be nice. It will make us some money too. A win-win. For communism will then surely implode there too.”

The implosion did NOT happen. Using our money to keep their hold on power, however, did. In turning a mostly blind eye to the communist dictatorship and pretending it is somehow a “normal” government, we have reaped the whirlwind: Rampant industrial espionage; the too often shoddy (and even poisonous) exported goods; the spying on and intimidation of Chinese students studying among us; the growing threats aimed at our businesses, such as the NBA; the attacks on free speech at our own universities (and even at a Norwegian library); the bullying of Canada (America’s best global friend: CANADA); the (efforts at) blackmail; the disinformation (given their track record on everything else, anyone who accepts at face value the relatively “low” COVID infection and death figures put out by these Communists… well, you are a very trusting person indeed); the outright lies (for example, the assertion posted on its Paris embassy’s web site that amidst this COVID outbreak – that started THERE, remember – that our Western governments abandoned elderly to die in care homes); the long-time stifling of religious freedom; the increasing saber-rattling; the arrests of political dissenters (including in supposedly the “special administrative area” of Hong Kong), and so much more.

All of which has been orchestrated 100 percent by the ruling, unchallenged, Communist Party.

Over the years, we had allowed ourselves to be dazzled and even “reassured” by the likes of their 2008 Olympics. We were impressed by all of the glittering new buildings and infrastructure there. We saw all of the new tourists – well, we were desperate to believe that is what they all were – visiting us.

Of course their ports are bigger and newer than, say, Brazil’s. Naturally their state apparatus is more orderly than, say, Mexico’s. We helped PAY FOR THOSE PORTS and THAT EFFICIENT STATE APPARATUS by allowing Apple to assemble iPhones there and in choosing to overlook that it is still A COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIP.

So, now, here we are… almost pathetically trying to obtain medical gowns and masks from them in order to protect our medical professionals from a virus that started THERE. And when such equipment does maybe appear from the industrial juggernauts we have for years been told that communist country’s manufacturers supposedly are? The stuff has often been (surprise, surprise) total rubbish.

‪Particularly due to their police-state strong-arm secretive behavior over the virus, our tolerance for them should now have also totally run out. Our attempted “normalizing” of the Chinese communist dictatorship over the last three decades has inadvertently helped “enable” this COVID-19 pandemic (which is, again, simply the latest and worst outrage) and overall by now can hardly be considered anything other than the biggest foreign policy blunder in US history. The price we are all paying around the world for the naïveté – and in terms of many businesses, to be blunt, greed – since 1989 is existential and is now LITERALLY KILLING us.

[US Capitol. Photo by me, September 11, 2018.]

So the relationship from our perspective must change.

‪After this virus finally passes, for a return to regular trade with us the government of the United States should demand an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and free elections there first.‬

‪That is unrealistic of us? They will refuse? ‬In fact, they will laugh in our faces?

[View of the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by me, 2017.]

Fine. The Democratic nominee for president has been blistering in both his criticism of the current president – which is to be expected – as well as of the Chinese Communists…

…And that latter is certainly a new thing. So if the not unreasonable request of a “great power” – multi-party free elections – in this day and age is rebuffed by the Communists in that manner, whoever the next US president is he for starters should seriously consider greatly scaling back the US diplomatic presence there, banning all US companies from doing business on the Communist Party controlled mainland, and offering to (re)open a US full embassy in democratic and rationally-governed Taiwan. ‪Because enough is now, frankly, enough.

For thirty years we have been more than patient in awaiting political liberalization there, only to be haughtily lectured by them (as they happily also take our money) if we dared perhaps meekly inquire when that liberalization might, you know, start maybe a little… that their domestic governance is none of our business. Well, this horrific pandemic that started behind their secretive communist authoritarian wall and spread globally so quickly due to their role in the global economy is definitely our business. We hear that so many desire real US international leadership. Going forward, let’s actually try to provide some.‬


  1. An excellent digest of the last thirty years or so, we must also take into account that our blunder was heralded by a little booklet published by the Quakers entitled “A New China Policy.” It inspired Richard Nixon to lay the groundwork for “opening” China.

    I’m not sanguine it can be reversed. And, it’s important to remember we have never stopped having an embassy in Taipei; just called it an Institute. But we have sat on our hands while generations of Taiwanese have perpetuated the Chicom mantra they are a merely wayward province rather than the more legitimate China they pushed into the sea.

    Thanks for posting on this incredibly important issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dan. And you’re right. (You are a former FSO and would know better than I.) I phrased that embassy point badly. We have always had a Taipei embassy in all but name. As part of our diplomatic recognition of the communist regime, we stopped calling it that. I suppose I was thinking more in terms of the symbolism of again actually calling it an embassy.

      It is not going to be easy and will probably take decades, but I think matters may be turned around for this reason. There have been and are huge numbers of dissenters within the communist state, but they have had nowhere to go. They get little to no support from anyone, including us. Well, going forward, they should. We are all going to come out of this virus mess much poorer, including the communists. Now is the time economically (the only language the communists understand) to smack them (for example, develop new supply chains that do not rely on them – we are learning the fearful cost now of relying on them) and to begin to support those inside of the country who want democracy and wish for the mainland to be run like Taiwan and HK (well, at least how HK used to be mostly run anyway) and not the other way around. Doing that may lead to greatly emboldened political reformers and dissenters arising from within. Those types are why the communists still feel the need to run a police state: dissenters do exist. Unlike the 1970s and 80s in the former USSR, Chinese also have far more access to international info and many more have traveled and studied abroad. Somewhere out there is the future first freely elected president of a democratic China… of “2040.” He/She needs our help. And we need he/she too. The world does.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While Asia was not my area of expertise, at one point I dealt with political-military objectives related to our regime of foreign military sales (FMS) to Taiwan. Your argument is flawless.

    China appeasement is a course of action that appeals to those who do not recall China’s international adventurism has always had bad results. Even before Communism, China has been culturally not predisposed to bold, international steps. They maintain a security belt such as the old Soviet “near abroad.” They will not hesitate to act in this zone, which includes North Korea. But the appeasers need to understand they are unlikely to resort to force outside their borders; even in the case of Taiwan, for which they have been building an attack task force for decades.

    You are correct Chine is likely to understand commercial pressure more than other approaches.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful. Much appreciate that from you. I think we are going to have to view this as a long-term issue, as was the Cold War. There will be good days and bad days. I do believe, though, with much of the world seeing them for what they are, and if we can impart that our issue is NOT with China itself, but with its Communist rulers (which is true), we may find we have more support than we realize. IF we were not as sure before, we should be now. This is our challenge for the 21st century.


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