When Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen first planned his upcoming trip to the United States, he was penciled in to see President Bush at the White House on Monday.
But then the Bush White House shifted ground. It urged Qian to put off his visit for a couple of days because the president wanted to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori first. So Bush will greet Mori on Monday, while Qian cools his heels.
The Chinese were privately irked. The turnabout was a subtle but telling demonstration of the new administration’s commitment to give Japan and other allies precedence over China in American policy toward Asia.
The episode was also a reminder that the Bush administration’s foreign policy team, in its earliest days, is not yet a smooth operation.
For all the current talk about how Bush and his administration have an efficient, corporate governing style, the reality is that--on foreign policy at least--the start-up has had its share of minor snafus.
Indeed, right now the biggest question about Bush’s foreign policy team is whether it will be disciplined enough to iron out and cover up its internal disagreements as well as the last Bush administration did.
The second Bush administration is less than two months old, and one can detect some early signs of discord.
The most recent example came last week, when the president asserted that he was in no rush to resume talks with North Korea. Only a day earlier, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had said he planned to pick up those negotiations where the Clinton administration had left off.
There have been signs of similar wrangling over Iraq policy. And during the next month, chances are that there will be a fight within the administration over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Such internal foreign policy disputes have broken out within every recent administration.
The Jimmy Carter administration’s foreign policy operation deteriorated into a virtual civil war between National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. In the Ronald Reagan administration, Secretary of State George P. Shultz was regularly at odds with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
The Clinton administration also had more than its share of turmoil. A new memoir by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, “Chances of a Lifetime,” describes how he was caught by surprise when, at a crucial juncture in 1994, President Clinton failed to support him in dealing with Beijing.
“For whatever reason, the president was not about to issue a ringing endorsement of our human rights policy as to China,” he wrote.
What made the style of the first Bush administration distinctive was the fact that these foreign policy battles usually were thrashed out in private, rather than in public. Read through the memoir of former President Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and you’ll find numerous cases of disagreements that were amicably settled without ever breaking into the open.
Scowcroft wrote, for example, that “a sharp internal debate” erupted when Saddam Hussein sought to challenge a U.S. embargo on Iraqi oil shipments in August 1990. Scowcroft said that he and his deputy, Robert M. Gates--along with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney--"were the hardliners, urging that we had to act.” Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Scowcroft said, “was insistent that we wait.”
To be sure, the first Bush administration was not immune to public bickering.
For most of 1989, the Bush team spoke with two voices in dealing with Moscow: One group, led by Baker, wanted to deal with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, while another group of skeptics, led by Gates, argued that Gorbachev’s reforms couldn’t succeed.
Yet beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the first Bush administration had a string of foreign policy successes. Each one seemed to make the foreign policy team more confident and more cohesive.
Can the new Bush administration repeat this performance? The betting here is that it can’t.
The obstacle is not one of personnel. On foreign policy, the younger Bush’s top officials are at least as experienced and knowledgeable as those in the first Bush administration.
But the times are different. There won’t be triumphs like those of the heady days when the Cold War came to an end.
In those days, Europe instinctively followed America’s lead. Soviet leaders wanted help and approval from the United States. China was internationally isolated and preoccupied with the after-effects of its 1989 crackdown.
Each is different now, and each is worried in its own way about American power.
At the same time, the ideological and institutional disagreements within the administration will be strong. Republican conservatives seek more assertive policies in dealing with North Korea, Iraq and China. Others are more reluctant to challenge the status quo.
“We tried very hard, and I think successfully, to . . . eliminate personality clashes which could undermine policymaking as well as effective diplomacy,” former President Bush wrote in his memoir.
The new president will have to be not only skillful but also extremely lucky to match that sort of harmony.
Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.