A hand-wringing vote in the House on free trade with China, expected Wednesday, is really the end result of Bill Clinton's long education to become a statesman.
Over the past seven years, the president's strategy toward China - perhaps America's most critical foreign relationship - performed a mid-air flip, like a Beijing opera acrobat finding the right balance before it's too late.
Now a "yes" vote in Congress on granting China "permanent trade status" may be Mr. Clinton's most important legacy in foreign affairs, despite his many miscues up to now.
A military near-miss
Clinton the politician came roaring into office in 1993 waving the human rights banner against China, trying to out-Republican the anti-Beijing Republicans. That approach wasn't wrong. It was just out of proportion. It was driven by his nonstop campaigning for popularity. But it nearly led to disaster.
Early on, the president's finger-wagging at Beijing was basically a continuation of the nation's cold-war "containment" of Communist-led countries. China, like the Soviet Union until 1991, was an ideological enemy. It had to be boxed in. The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown proved it. Contain China, and just let it collapse under its inherent failures.
Or, as Congress preferred, just threaten to deny it free trade status annually in hopes that China would reform itself.
That cold logic hit hot reality, however, after Clinton granted a visa for Taiwan's president to visit the United States in 1995. (The US has no official ties with Taiwan - as China demands.)
A second generation of Communist Party leaders in Beijing, searching for a way to rally weak public support, used that slap in the face to stoke Chinese nationalism. They tried to intimidate Taiwan in 1996 by firing missiles offshore just before an election on the island. Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to confront the threat.
And the world gasped at what might have become a Sino-American war. It was a close call for Clinton.
So as he entered his lame-duck second term, Clinton realized the cold-war logic may not work well anymore. In fact, he was helping create a whole generation of Chinese who were getting the idea that the US is the enemy. He sent his top security adviser to Beijing to find a way to "engage" China rather than confront it.
Pushing China where it's going
Why upset China when its socialist economics is on the run and its Communist Party dictatorship is eroding? Beijing is nervous after watching six neighboring Asian nations become democratic since 1986. It has been forced to allow local elections to prevent local corruption of officials. The Internet worms away at its authority. The party needs foreign markets and foreign investment to shore up its popularity and the economy.
And the US, now reigning as the world's only military and economic superpower, has had to realize that China is a long way from being a military competitor. Rather, history shows that a nation which is peerless in its power must work to avoid military competition. The US should not become so isolated from other nations, especially China, that it has to throw its weight around.
Yes, China is a rival, but Clinton has realized the way to channel that nationalism is through economic competition - and cooperation. Letting China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the best way to dissuade it from becoming a military rival of the US.
Is there a successful model for this "soft" approach? Yes, in postwar Japan and Germany. By welcoming those former enemies into the international marketplace, the US channeled their nationalist instincts into peaceful pursuits.
By the time of his visit to China in 1998, Clinton was soft-pedaling human rights and playing up economic ties. But even when China's reform-minded prime minister, Zhu Rongji, visited the US in 1999, Clinton balked at sewing up a deal for China's entry into the WTO. He had one eye on domestic politics.
But now he's lobbying hard in the House to win the vote, even defying Democratic Party leaders as he touts the economic benefits of a China inside - rather than outside - the international economic system.
A statesman is forged when he must defy his party to shape a new role for America and effectively promote democracy in other nations. Bill Clinton's education has been our own.
Now it's time for the final exam.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society