When Brent Scowcroft saved the US-China relationship

When Brent Scowcroft saved the US-China relationship
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Numerous commentators noted the passing of one of the United States’ most accomplished strategists: Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the only man to serve as National Security Advisor to two presidents and who counseled at least four others, died Aug. 6 at the age of 95.

Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe and Jeff Lightfoot, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council center that bears Scowcroft’s name, praised his many achievements, and the enduring mark that he made on the conduct of U.S. national security policy. But they also celebrated Scowcroft’s “integrity, managerial skill, decency toward others, and an intellectual rigor that was deployed with strategic purpose.”

These attributes were needed on many occasions during Scowcroft’s long career. National security professionals face their greatest tests not when relations between countries are easy and productive, but rather when they become difficult and contentious. We are at such a moment right now. One wonders how Scowcroft would have handled it.


The world’s two dominant powers are locked in a bitter escalatory cycle. Just days after Scowcroft’s death, China slapped sanctions on 11 Americans in retaliation for similar measures imposed by the U.S. against Chinese officials for their crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and other offenses.

The sour turn appears to have started in earnest back in February. China’s failure to communicate critical details about the novel coronavirus that appears to have originated near Wuhan, China, has prompted U.S. government officials to lay most of the blame for the global pandemic at the feet of the Chinese government. President TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE routinely refers to “the China virus” — including in his recent interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan. In April, a top GOP strategist urged Senate Republicans to aggressively attack China for its role in covering up the disease. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China,” the memo stated. Unsurprisingly, Sinophobia is now at historic highs; nearly 3 in 4 Americans have an unfavorable view of China, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Demonizing China may pay-off politically, especially in the short-term, but maintaining avenues for cooperation with the world’s largest country (by population) and its second largest economy (or largest, by some measures) seems worth the effort.

After all, there have been other instances since President Richard Nixon established formal diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1972 that have tested the relationship. Perhaps none was more contentious than the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

At that moment, and despite the horrific images and a wave of justified hostility and anger toward the Chinese government, George H.W. Bush, explains his biographer Jeffrey Engel, “worked… hard to keep the ‘butchers of Beijing’ as part of the world.”


Engel’s framing was deliberate. Bush never doubted that hundreds or even thousands of protesters had been brutally murdered. He similarly rejected Chinese government claims that the protesters had been violent, and thus warranted a harsh response by security forces. But he concluded that the costs of isolating China as punishment for the massacre vastly outweighed the benefits — and worked to keep them integrated within the international system.

He assigned one of his most trusted advisers to convey that message — in person — to Chinese leaders in Beijing. In the book that he wrote jointly with President Bush 41, Scowcroft recounted his secret mission, undertaken barely three weeks after the crackdown.

Scowcroft reminded Deng Xiaoping that both countries had benefitted from the diplomatic and economic ties established over two decades. “There had been many ups and downs in the relationship but, on the whole, it has been a steadily deepening one. Not only because it responded to the basic interests of both sides, but because we respect the diversity between our two societies.”

But Scowcroft then pivoted to a vigorous defense of America’s unique role promoting human liberty around the world. “We, like you,” he explained, “hold deeply to the tenets of our own struggle for independence.” He continued:

“Our whole national experience, beginning with our revolution, has been a struggle to expand the boundaries of freedom as we define that term. We fought our revolution to establish freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom from arbitrary authority.”

The United States, he explained, would not back down.

Years later, Scowcroft reflected on these momentous encounters:

“It was clear… that the clash of cultures had created a wide divide between us. The resentment by the Chinese of foreign ‘interference’ was omnipresent… The purpose of my trip, however, was not negotiations… but an effort to keep open the lines of communication with a people inclined to isolate themselves and whose long experience with foreigners had engendered xenophobia.”

“It appeared to me,” he concluded, “that both sides were determined not to let Tiananmen obliterate the relationship.” Scowcroft considered the trip a success because he had successfully communicated “beneath all the turmoil and torment” just “how important the President thought the relationship was to the national interests of the United States.”

Some might fault the Bush administration’s stance as insufficiently attentive to the cause of human rights, but Bush and Scowcroft’s skill at using old-fashioned diplomacy to defuse a crisis did not foreclose the possibility of future dialogue on a range of issues.

The Trump administration has repeatedly asserted that engagement with China has failed, in effect casting doubt on those occasions when prior administrations prioritized continued economic and diplomatic ties and averted a clean break between the two countries. This would seem to include Bush 41’s decision to maintain a dialogue with Beijing, a policy that Scowcroft supported and helped implement.

But the alternative world that could have evolved following an irreparable Sino-U.S. split in the summer of 1989 likely would not have been a more peaceful or prosperous one. A resentful and isolated China might have lashed out militarily, or doubled down on communist dogma, rejecting Deng’s economic reforms that lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. And China’s further integration into the global economy bestowed enormous benefits. A few decades after Tiananmen, some would even credit China’s “half-a-trillion dollar spending splurge” with pulling the world out of the 2008 financial crisis — a move that they are unlikely to repeat this time around.

We should be grateful, therefore, for Scowcroft’s service and professionalism in preserving ties with Beijing in the waning days of the last Cold War. And wonder: Who in this era will carry on his legacy?

Christopher Preble is co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.