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Foreign Policy

Pragmatism in American Diplomacy

Apr 20, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

American diplomacy is often described as a combination of two traditions. One is liberalism — a highly moralistic “missionary” pursuit. The other is realism — an emphasis on fist fights proceeding from might and the balance of power.

The U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis seems to fit the paradigm. In mid-March, a White House official commented on China’s Russia policy, saying that the Chinese and Russian economies only account for 25 percent of the global total, while those of the G7 account for more than 50 percent. This seems to represent the realist tradition. Then, in his March 26 speech in Poland, U.S. President Joe Biden said the war in Ukraine had led the competition between democracy and authoritarianism into a new stage — an indication of the liberalist tradition. 

Similarly, U.S. diplomacy in the past has been read in a similar way. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were called masters of realist diplomacy, while Ronald Reagan, who was famous for criticizing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” has been identified as a true believer in liberalist diplomacy with right-wing ideology at its core.

But the realism-liberalism framework for evaluating U.S. diplomacy is misleading. The biggest asset of U.S. diplomacy is pragmatism, and the past, present and future of the stability of China-U.S. relations rest on its return.

First, pragmatic U.S. diplomacy once made historic contributions to the development of international relations. After the end of World War II in 1945, the UN, established under U.S. proposal, provided a basic framework for a large number of Asian, African and Latin American nations that achieved independence later to participate in international affairs. Although international relations between rival countries were extremely tense during the Cold War, the number of UN members grew from the initial 51 to nearly 160 by the end of the Cold War.

The formulation of the UN system was to some extent the realization of the qualitative change of the U.S.-led international political organizational pattern. This was because of the clear U.S. awareness that the danger of the previous reality — that international politics had basically been dominated by a few major European countries — and because of the new reality of decolonization and a plural world in the postwar era and of a pragmatism that conformed to the historical trend of democratization in international politics.

Second, the most successful moments in U.S. diplomacy usually coincided with a maximum commitment to pragmatism, while the worst ones usually coincided with dogmatism. Nixon’s China visit took place when the U.S. was bogged down in the mire of the Vietnam War. That was when the U.S. began to reflect on the failure of dogmatism in its assessment of international relations in postwar Asia.

Following the end of the Chinese civil war, discussion about “who lost China” in the U.S. resulted in the rise of McCarthyism, and a dogmatic cognitive framework of U.S. understanding of postwar Asian international relations began to form. Based on the liberalist “domino theory” dogma that Asian countries would all go communist, and the realist dogma of superstitious faith in its own military strength, the U.S. participated in two hot wars in Asia — the Korean War in the 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

The fundamental cause of the stalemates and failures in the wars lies in dogmatic (either liberally or realistically dogmatic) views on the endogenous dynamism of nation-state building in postwar Asia. The real significance of Nixon’s China visit was seeking common ground while shelving differences and— a highly pragmatic approach that prevailed over dogmatic fanaticism — and promoting the international community and the Asian region to develop in the direction of integration and peace. 

Third, neither realism nor liberalism has contributed much to resolving America’s specific diplomatic problems. Only pragmatism can bring diplomatic breakthroughs. The U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations would not have taken place under liberalist logic; and realist logic holds that both parties would lie to obtain comparative advantages. So it’s impossible to establish trust.

However the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan began focusing on the actual problems facing the country in the mid-1980s — for example, how to cope with domestic economic difficulties and excessive international expansion. It was such pragmatism that led to a relationship of trust between U.S. and Soviet leaders. Global strategic balance and arms control became mainstream at the time, and the Cold War ended.

Amid the ups and downs of China-U.S. relations in the past few years, many experts explain U.S. efforts in enhancing values diplomacy (such as convening the Summit of Democracies) through the lens of liberalist tradition. Others tend to interpret U.S. endeavors to ensure a balance of power by strengthening European and Asian alliances (such as enhancing NATO and promoting an Indo-Pacific strategy) from a realist perspective. Yet history shows neither liberalist nor realist dogmatism can guarantee stable international relations, including China-U.S. relations.

During a video meeting between Chinese and U.S. leaders, Biden reiterated that the U.S. does not seek a new cold war with China, nor does it want to change China’s system or confront China through enhanced alliances. Nor does it support Taiwan independence, and it has no intention of creating a conflict with China. All this is a sign of pragmatism.

America’s domestic and foreign policies will both return to the pragmatic tradition, partly because of the diverse nature of the U.S. — a society of immigrants. At the same time, pragmatic U.S. diplomacy with a pluralist world outlook will be conducive to the development of international relations.

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