The other day, President Barack Obama met with the Tibetan Dali Lama in the White House—doing so in the Map Room as opposed to the Oval Office in an apparent attempt to mute any “official” aura for the meeting. It was sort of like trying to kowtow to one audience while powwowing with another. Likely the nuance was lost on the government in Beijing. Of course, past presidents have received the Tibetan leader—a man who has become a symbol for freedom and a persistent reminder of the oppression of his people at the hands of the Chinese regime.
It was 38 years ago this week that President Richard Nixon played the historic China Card—a geopolitical masterstroke during the Cold War. It was all part of a strategic view of the world and effectuated from a position of strength. We were powerful; they were backward—technologically, culturally, and with obvious political deficiencies. That moment remains a high water mark in Nixon’s presidency—a moment in time that even the most determined critics concede positively to his legacy.
But what would Mr. Nixon think now?
These days, admittedly, the whole issue of U.S.-China relations is a sticky one for our current President. It is one of many examples of how different things are when you are governing as opposed to campaigning for office—although it is hard to tell which is which in Washington these days. Mario Cuomo famously talked years ago about politics being “poetry” and governing “prose.”
Dealing with potential adversaries—and even some friends—is always best when you do so from a position of strength. It’s true in military and national defense (“peace through strength”) and it’s true in economics, as well. The scriptures remind us, “The borrower is servant to the lender.” And when one party is deep in financial debt to another a certain measure of leverage is ceded to the lender.
How this dynamic will play out in the immediate future is anyone’s guess, but owing nearly $800 billion to the Chinese should raise a flag—a red one. And it should come as no surprise if and when those to whom we owe such copious amounts of money begin to squeeze us on the international stage.