Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter mused that the recent meetings in Anchorage between high level Chinese and American delegations would turn out to be “Baked Alaska.” The public session sadly was acrimonious and accusative. Any shred of diplomacy was stripped away by the charges and counter charges made by both sides.
To run the deck, so to speak, President Biden agreed with the characterization of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer” during a nationwide interview the day before. Too bad the president was not asked about Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Russia promptly withdrew its ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, to Moscow for discussions, the first time it had done so in 20 years. Why then does the Biden team seem more interested in confrontation than in cooperation with America’s key adversaries in relationships that are becoming more and more adversarial?
History, of course, counts. In June 1961, two months after the Bay of Pigs disaster, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet General-Secretary Nikita Khrushchev met in Vienna. The meeting, as Kennedy later related to Hugh Sidey of Time magazine “scared the hell out of me” as Khrushchev bullied and pressured the young and inexperienced Kennedy. The Anchorage meeting suggested that China got the upper hand by chastising the Americans about many sore points, including the killing of Black Americans and, of course, the Jan. 6 riots.
Baked Alaska is a cooked desert with ice cream on the inside heavily coated with meringue, suggesting the arctic conditions of that region. And the U.S. team was subjected to a baking. And the answer of why American diplomacy took such a heavy-handed approach does not augur well for the Biden administration whether these were premeditated or unintended actions.
One would be hard pressed to believe that when Henry Kissinger conducted secret diplomacy with China in 1970, despite the hostilities between the two sides and the matter of a three-year bloody war in Korea, his introduction to Mao or to Zhou Enlai would have been so accusatory. In my many trips to China, admittedly in friendlier times, even when the Chinese would launch on the absolute need for the reunification of Taiwan as the priority, once we got through that mandatory statement, discourse was always civil, candid and direct.
I can recall only one exception, about a decade or so ago. We were dining with China’s senior military leaders, several from the intelligence and attache corps in one of Beijing’s best restaurants. One of the generals, who bore a striking resemblance to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, sat grim-faced throughout dinner. Between courses, we took a break kneading rice into quasi golf balls for a putting competition. The general sat as still as a statue.
After we returned for the next course, the general had his moment. Turning on me with venom and so furious that he was literally spitting out his words, he attacked the U.S. for striking the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 78-day long Kosovo campaign in 1999. His comrades could not have been more embarrassed.
Since the diatribe was in Mandarin, all I could do was smile politely. When the general finished, I asked if I might reply in English because while no translation was needed, I did not speak Mandarin. Fearing a vicious rejoinder, my hosts reluctantly acceded.
In plain language, I said that the only difference between the general’s assessment of the bombing of your embassy and mine is that I do not understand how stupid the United States could have been and why China was not more outraged. Clearly, sarcasm can work.
The toxic air and poison in the general’s balloon burst. The hearty laughter, no doubt in relief after my response, was crushing. The general was humiliated and spent the rest of the evening sulking in his chair.
Returning to current American diplomacy, if the Biden team is responding to domestic politics, that would be a foolish and unworthy response. Kissinger did not. Nor did he choose to be insulting and disrespectful. If the administration thinks it can out hardball Russia and China, it should recall Vienna 1961 and the above tale.