Nixon and Mao by Margaret MacMillanThese days, reading a book about a former presidentany former presidentcan be painful. One is reminded that the Oval Office, historically, has been restricted to occupants with the capacity for something resembling thought. Now that our current chief executive has broken this barrier, its a time of reassessments, and even Richard Nixon has begun to look very, very good. An entertaining new book, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, by the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, only heightens the effect. MacMillan is best known as the author of Paris 1919, a lively account of the six months spent hammering out what would become the Treaty of Versailles, and in Nixon and Mao she takes a similarly spirited approach to a shorter interval: Nixons trip to the Peoples Republic of China in 1972, when ties between China and the United States were reopened. Its a well-timed commemoration of what diplomacy, done right, can achieve.

Nixon may have spent most of his presidency at the helm of an unpopular war, but his main interest was in peace (if rarely of a sentimental sort). This meant operating quietly and eschewing brinksmanship. Typical was the opening of a Time magazine article from April 1969: It was a week of intensive diplomatic activity on a variety of fronts for the Nixon Administration. And in encounter after encounter, the motif was conciliation. (The article went on to note that Nixon had defused a crisis with Peru over a seizure of U.S. oil companies, discussed with NATO allies the idea of a dtente with the Warsaw Pact bloc, and received an endorsement from the king of Jordan for pursuing a policy in the Middle East that was even-handed.) Indeed, one Nixonian contradiction among myriads was that a man so famously inept in everyday social interactions could nevertheless oversee such polished diplomacy.

The results were more than just talk. In 1969, Nixon initiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that would result in the SALT treaties. In 1972, he became the first sitting U.S. president to pay an official visit to Moscow, where, from behind an ornate rococo table at the Kremlin, he delivered a nationally televised speech to Soviet viewers about turning our countries away from a wasteful and dangerous arms race and towards more production for peace. On that same trip, Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement that endured until the current Bush presidency. And he eventually reduced the U.S. presence in Vietnam and brought about the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, however ill-fated.

Nixons trip to China, though, is what people remember best, and for good reason. Rarely has an alliance been formed between unlikelier partners. China, commonly called Red China at the time, to distinguish it from Taiwan, was a true rogue state. Its chairman, Mao Zedong, had once proposed attacking U.S. troops with Soviet nuclear weapons. The countrys Cultural Revolution, a period of state-sponsored mayhem that had led to hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths, had only recently begun to taper off. And China had provided Hanoi with weapons being used on U.S. soldiers. Oh, and one more thing: it didnt want to talk.

Presented with such manure, Nixon somehow coaxed out roses. MacMillan engagingly narrates how it was done. The White House knew that it had one important thing in common with China: a fear of Moscow, which was meddling inelegantly in areas where both Peking and Washington preferred to meddle inelegantly themselves. That was a sufficient start. The main stumbling block, as it turned out, was not over political ideologies but over something more tangible and pesky: Taiwan. China insisted that the United States disown Taiwan and relegate it to reunification with the mainland by any means deemed necessary, and until that happened, there would be nothing to discuss.

As history records, the two sides, thanks largely to Henry Kissinger, Nixons national security adviser, found a way to work through the problem. The understanding that Kissinger helped to bring about, recorded in what is known as the Shanghai Communiqu, is sufficiently creative and elegant to join what must be an extremely slim collection of diplomatic position papers that can be read for pleasure. Since China refused to engage in standard diplomatic artifice, the task was even more delicate. Here is part of Chinas contribution:

The Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; the Government of the Peoples Republic of China is the sole legal government of China; Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland; the liberation of Taiwan is Chinas internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all U.S. forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan. The Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of one China, one Taiwan, one China, two governments, two Chinas, an independent Taiwan or advocate that the status of Taiwan remains to be determined.

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.

Nixon returned to Washington, and more than two decades of hostile separation between the United States and China were brought to a close. Moscow panicked and fumedand eagerly resumed arms negotiations with the United States.

If Nixon and Mao is an implicit ode to diplomacy, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, by the author James Mann, is an implicit reproach to it. Mann accepts that we may have needed to bend a bit to establish the friendship in 1972, but he laments that weve been bending ever since. In Manns view, elites in the United States have convinced themselves that China is inevitably headed, either through evolution or upheaval, toward liberty and rule of law. But what, he asks, if it isnt? What if China becomes stronger every decade yet continues to oppress at home and spread mischief abroad?

Mann coins two terms to describe visions that experts have of Chinas future: the Soothing Scenario and the Upheaval Scenario. Adherents of the Soothing Scenario, such as Bill Clinton, believe that trade and improved standards of living in China will eventually bring about improvements in human rights. Supporters of the Upheaval Scenario, such as Gordon G. Chang (author of The Coming Collapse of China), predict that contradictions and inequity in China will lead to political turmoil and collapse. But Mann is worried that China might remain stable and repressive, an outcome he calls the Third Scenario. And what then?

This could be a fascinating topic. After all, Mann is a superb journalist. His best seller Rise of the Vulcans, published in 2004, is indispensable to anyone looking to understand the origins and evolution of the thinking in Bushs war cabinet. To make the idea behind The China Fantasy fill a book, however, would require two things. One would be an argument that a politically stagnant or regressive China is likely, and the other would be a notion of what we should do about it. In both respects, Mann comes up short. Instead, the book gives the impression of something written in haste.

Mann is probably right to claim that conventional wisdom favors the Soothing Scenario. Many experts would say that China, viewed in ten-year stretches, has become, by most measures, freer. In 1977, the country was totalitarian, just emerging from the rule of Mao. By 1987, leader Deng Xiaoping had opened the country to foreign investment, and restrictions on speech and association were vastly relaxed, with students even demonstrating occasionally for greater intellectual freedom. By 1997, the country had been connected to the Web, lifestyle magazines were cropping up, and the private sector provided more employment than ever. By 2007, the country boasted more than half a million Web sites, more than a hundred million Internet users, and a reformed system of residency registration that removed many oppressive rules on who could live where.

To be sure, finding evidence of repression in contemporary China is easy. Theres plenty of it. Mann points to political prisoners, bans on political parties, inequality between urban and rural areas, and arrests by secret police. All true. But thats not really the point. If the argument is one of trends, then specifics about today arent really relevant unless theyre viewed in comparison to what was happening yesterday. If Soothing Scenario types can point to positive long-term trends, then, surely, disputing them requires evidence of negative long-term countertrends.

Lets assume, though, that what Mann fears is correct, and China is politically stagnant or worse. What then does he suggest we do? Heres as detailed as his answer gets:

On the one hand, it is possible that America may seek new measures to goad the Chinese leadership toward democratic change. America also might want to reconsider its doctrinaire adherence to free trade in dealing with China. Alternatively … American could opt for a policy of sheer acceptance of the existing order. The American people are not being given such options now, because the choices are not being laid out.

None of this is to say that Mann isnt right to challenge the consensus on China. Maybe American experts are complacent and could use a kick in the rear. But an author resisting the tide must work much harder than an author sailing with the tide. Mann, in this book, is a rebel without the work. He raises valid questions, but, with only the skimpiest helping of facts, figures, and supporting evidence, manages mainly to repeat himself.

Whether or not Manns book succeeds, it reflects a broader public frustration with Chinas repression and an increased skepticism over whether U.S. policies have benefited either us or the Chinese. As a question of economics, this is a complicated matter, but, at the very least, many positive results of engagement are evident in other areas. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have studied in the United States, and tens of thousands of Americans have done the same in China. Thanks in part to such cross-pollination, China has been opened up greatly, and both sides understand each other better. If nothing else, this has made us safer.

Certainly, anyone who regards China closely will find much injustice to deplore, and many observers wish the United States would stiffen its moral backbone and take more of a stand. But maybe the old backbone could use a break. Its had a pretty good run lately. In 2003, for instance, the White House rebuffed an offer from Tehran to discuss a comprehensive peace with the United States. That took backbone. No, what might work better is a dose of traditional Nixonian statecraft, something that seems as remote today as a sentry post on the Great Wall. Nixon, who was open to negotiation, regularly shook hands with enemies; Bush, firm in his principles, spurns such interactions. Has appeasement ever looked so good?