A map of china where the country has a chinese flag on it. Next to the country are six origami boats facing each other.
Growing tensions between China and the U.S. over Taiwan reflect "the possible reshaping of the international system," according to William Newmann, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at VCU. (Getty Images)

Presidential decision-making in the 1960s and 1970s tells us a lot about what’s next for Taiwan, China and Russia, scholar says

William W. Newmann, author of “Isolation and Engagement: Presidential Decision Making on China from Kennedy to Nixon,” shares his thoughts on current events in China through the lens of presidential decision-making.

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As U.S. officials visit Taiwan and tensions between China and Taiwan continue to draw international attention, political scientist William W. Newmann, Ph.D., sees parallels to the circumstances the nations faced 50 years ago.

Newmann, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, has spent his academic career examining the decisions of U.S. leaders and their influences on foreign policy. His latest book, “Isolation and Engagement: Presidential Decision Making on China from Kennedy to Nixon” (University of Michigan Press), published this summer, focuses on the decisions presidents and their advisers made from 1961-1972 on whether to engage or isolate China and the international impact of those decisions.

VCU News spoke with Newmann about his new book and its relevance today as U.S. leaders contend with challenges related to Taiwan and China, as well as Russia and Ukraine.

Tell me about the situation in Taiwan and China. Based on your book and your expertise on this topic, what factors led to the situation we're seeing in Taiwan and China today?

What we’re seeing today — the increased tensions due to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and Sen. Ed Markey’s subsequent visit — are just a microcosm of the larger trends in U.S.-Chinese relations and China’s rise in power. From a long-term perspective, what we’re seeing is the possible reshaping of the international system.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the U.S. was the only superpower left, sometimes called the unipolar power by international relations scholars. No nation could rival the U.S. at the time. But China was on the way to developing the kind of power and ambition that could make it a challenger. Its economic reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s put it on a path to become the equal of the United States. Basic international relations theory predicts that powerful nations will become competitors as each seeks to run the world. Under Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader since 2012, China’s foreign policy goals have caught up with its growing power; it seeks to return China to what the Communist Party of China sees as China’s rightful place: the dominant power in Asia and a leader of the world. Officially, it’s the “Chinese Dream” or the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” Chinese nationalists will point out that China was the most powerful country in the world for 5,000 years; the last 500 years of European-American prominence is an exception to the rule.

China would like to return to the normal state of affairs — Chinese dominance. The next step to reclaiming that status is to make China whole again. That means reunifying with Taiwan. Of course, the problem is that Taiwan is a democracy, and the vast majority of Taiwanese have no interest in reunifying with a Communist-run system and losing their freedoms of speech, press, association or the ability to choose their own leaders. U.S. support for Taiwan’s status as an independent political system can lead China and the U.S. into direct conflict. It’s a conflict over Taiwan’s status and a conflict over who owns the 21st century.

What prompted your interest in exploring the engagement of different presidential administrations with China?

Presidential decision-making and East Asian security were always my two big interests. That goes back to U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I entered college four years after North Vietnam captured South Vietnam, and the debate about how the U.S. could have failed so badly was the central topic for presidential scholars. I became fascinated with that aspect, and I still am. Today, U.S. decisions regarding China will reshape the world. I’m studying how past administrations made decisions to seek out lessons for how future administrations can make better decisions.

As you dug deeper into this topic, what did you learn? Did you learn anything that surprised you or might surprise readers?

I confirmed a couple things I expected. We hope that our leaders will make decisions based on the national security interests of the U.S., but most of the time the key decisions are based on domestic political and electoral considerations. Both Democratic presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, thought that it was in U.S. interests to end U.S. isolation of China in the 1960s, but both knew that if they extended an olive branch to China, Republicans would all but accuse them of treason. So, both administrations held onto a policy that most experts in the administrations thought was irrational.

Nixon, the Republican, then came into office and did what the Democrats felt they couldn’t do — open relations with China. Nixon could do this because his own party would not accuse him of being soft on China; Nixon didn’t have Nixon to criticize him. He was free to act on U.S. national security interests because he wouldn’t face the political backlash.

The thing I learned that was surprising was how different Nixon’s decision-making was from the popular impression of it. Generally, people have a picture of Nixon’s foreign policy as being the result of Nixon and his national security adviser, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, working almost alone as a two-man show that ran the administration’s foreign affairs. In some areas of negotiations and secret diplomacy, that was true. In the case of China, the secret diplomacy was backed up by a comprehensive interagency process where all the expertise of the U.S. government was put to use. It was by-the-book formal decision-making. Kissinger worked hard to keep it that way, and it formed the intellectual backbone of the secret diplomacy that led to the opening of China in 1971-72.

What influence has U.S. decision-making and the style of each president had on foreign policy in China and Taiwan? Why is that important for leaders to know now?

Ultimately, presidents made decisions based on how much wiggle room their domestic political situation gave them — Kennedy and Johnson had little room for creativity on China, while Nixon had greater freedom in that area. One case, though, is instructive. Presidents trust certain advisers more than others. The beliefs of that first-among-equals adviser are crucial. For example, Johnson trusted his Secretary of State Dean Rusk more than any of this other cabinet officers. Rusk, a hawk on China who supported continued isolation, was able to influence Johnson a great deal. Two lessons from that are important.

First, presidents and their advisers should know that there will be a hierarchy among presidential advisers. Everyone needs to get used to that and not let it become the fodder for bad press and headlines such as “administration in disarray.” There will be rivalries among officials, and they need to take a back seat to making coherent foreign policy that supports U.S. interests. If you can’t put U.S. national security above your own ambition, you should resign, and if the president sees that you can’t do it, he should fire you. Second, advisers are so important to the outcome of policy debates that the U.S. people really need to know who will be advising the president before we vote. We need to know who will be whispering in the president’s ear before we elect a president. My research has reinforced my belief that presidential candidates should name their cabinets before the election.

What do you want readers to take away from this book? How do you hope your findings from this book will influence how leaders engage in foreign policy going forward?

I’d like readers to get a sense of how important it is to have a functioning formal interagency process that becomes the backbone of decision-making. Also, there needs to be an informal process where the senior officials can iron out their differences and develop an administration consensus. The book, for which I received support from VCU’s Humanities Research Center while conducting my research, suggests that administrations ultimately have three structures for decision-making: the formal interagency structure (usually through the National Security Council system); the informal structure where a handful of senior advisers work out a consensus; and the confidence structure where the president meets with the one or two advisers that are the most important to him. All three are necessary to have a solid, well-functioning decision-making process.

Are there any parallels between China/Taiwan and what we're seeing in Russia/Ukraine?

Yes. And China and Russia have made that explicit. Just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Putin and President Xi met and released a joint statement from both nations. It was essentially a declaration of independence from the U.S.-led world order. It seems to me to be a hugely significant document, vastly underreported given how it frames China’s and Russia’s ambition. Some key aspects included criticism of the U.S., though it was not named specifically, for its unilateral actions and its insistence on judging everyone else’s political systems by U.S. standards. It argued that democracy was defined culturally; different nations will have different definitions of democracy. In short, it was an endorsement of authoritarianism as a legitimate political system in the world order that China and Russia would like to create.

It also argued that in this new international system, nations should no longer interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations. That means that the U.S. should no longer criticize China or Russia or Iran for their domestic systems. Russia’s claims on Ukrainian territory and China’s claims to Taiwan clearly fell in the category of domestic political issues. In this sense, Russia’s move on Ukraine could be seen as a test of the new order China and Russia want to create. The difficulty Russia is having is important in that it shows that the U.S.-led order is not quite a thing of the past, and if China thinks retaking Taiwan by force will be easy, it needs to rethink that assessment.