Sunday, February 13, 2011

On "Nixon in China"

I had the great pleasure of giving the introductory lecture before the live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of the opera Nixon in China here in Charlottesville on February 12, 2011. The paper that I prepared as background for my lecture is far too long to reproduce here, but it is attached as a pdf. I have simply posted the introduction and conclusion of that paper below.
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Nixon in China is an opera about a fairly recent historical event: the visit of President Richard M. Nixon and his delegation to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972. The visit marked the end to a period of more than twenty years during which the United States tried both to isolate and contain China following its successful Communist revolution in 1949.

From a theoretical perspective – the perspective of realist theory in international relations – this event was what scholars call “over-determined.” It is not difficult to explain, and thus is not particularly interesting. Both China and the United States were facing a rising rival – the former Soviet Union – during periods of weakness. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was still tearing China apart. Two of Mao’s probable successors, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, had been were dead: Liu of illness, allegedly untreated, while under arrest; Lin in an airplane accident in Outer Mongolia, trying to flee the country after attempting a coup against Mao. For its part, the U.S. was bogged down in the war in Vietnam and, as a result, was also experiencing political turmoil at home, although not at anywhere near the scale of the Cultural Revolution. The outcome of Nixon’s reelection campaign was therefore uncertain. In this context of shared vulnerability, the growing military power of the Soviet Union in Asia gave the two countries a common enemy, one of the most powerful incentives for two foes to mend their fences.

But probing beneath the surface, although the rapprochement between the two countries is easy to explain now, it was difficult to predict at the time. Both Mao and Nixon had reputations of implacable hostility toward the other country: Mao, the great anti-imperialist; Nixon, the staunch anti-Communist. Nixon had written, in 1968, about eventually bringing China into the family of nations, and had given a few other public signs suggesting an interest in improving American relations with that country, but few expected so dramatic a breakthrough. Mao had also given a few indications that he was willing for China to welcome a high-level American visitor, but as late as Nixon’s arrival at Beijing airport, it was uncertain as to whether he personally would receive him. The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” has entered the American language to refer to the surprising possibility that a hardliner would be well-positioned to engage in détente, if he so chose.

Thus, from the perspective of the principal personalities involved, the visit was a far more dramatic event than it may have appeared from a purely theoretical point of view. And it was the drama of the moment that made it the subject for grand opera.

How accurately does the opera Nixon in China reflect the reality of Nixon in China? Obviously, the scene featuring The Red Detachment of Women is a complete fantasy; and the last act of the opera is like a docudrama – we have no idea what the main characters talked about in their bedrooms during the Nixons’ last night in Beijing.

But parts of the opera are actually quite realistic, or at least are based on fact. In particular, much of the dialogue in the meeting between Nixon and Mao is based on the Nixon and Kissinger memoirs. Winston Lord, who was present during that meeting, has said that the opera accurately captures the essentially philosophical nature of the production. And, while Nixon did not actually state his concerns about the possible failure of the trip when he landed at Beijing Airport, we know that that what was on his mind and the minds of his assistants.

What’s entirely missing from the opera is what is normally regarded as the most important event of the trip: the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué. This is not accidental. In his long interview at the Asia Society, Sellars argued that the Communiqué was basically meaningless, and thus the last act is appropriately despairing, not triumphant. (He seems to think that the last scene occurred after the Shanghai Communiqué was signed, but in fact it is described as the “last night” in Beijing, before the American party moved on to Hangzhou and Shanghai. Nonetheless, his assessment of the communiqué is important and worth noting.)

This skeptical view of the Shanghai Communiqué is particularly interesting given the importance that is now assigned to that document as creatively providing a workable framework for a relationship between two nations that once regarded themselves as implacable adversaries. In fact, just before Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington, in an op-ed in the New York Times, Zbigniew Brzezinski called for another communiqué that could similarly define a new framework for a relationship between two countries that increasingly view themselves as rivals.

Unfortunately, this nostalgia for the Shanghai Communiqué is as unrealistic as is the nostalgia for the Middle America in the mid-20th century that permeates the soliloquies of Richard and Pat Nixon in Nixon in China. Brzezinski apparently forgot that the two leaders had already produced just such a communiqué in 2009, during Obama’s visit to China. And the fact that he had forgotten, while surprising, was understandable; unlike its predecessor, that communiqué was an unmemorable document that did little to redefine the US-China relationship. The communiqué that was produced this time, following Brzezinski’s advice – a Joint Statement with no fewer than 41 points -- will suffer, I fear, the same fate.

Peter Sellars’s skeptical view of the Shanghai Communiqué may not have been fully justified at the time. But today it is far more appropriate than Brzezinski’s naïve hope for a document that will “codify the historic potential of productive American-Chinese cooperation.” Alas, the days of that kind of diplomatic breakthrough in US-China relations, undertaken by “heroic” characters who create a “game-changing event” by making “one of the moving gestures in human history” are over. It’s unlikely that even Peter Sellars will conceive, or John Adams will write, another “CNN opera” called Obama in China, or even Hu in America.

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