A Half Century after Nixon’s Visit to China 

“Xi Is, Along with Putin, the Most Dangerous Man in the World”

Former U.S. diplomat Winston Lord participated in the momentous 1972 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong. In an interview, he examines the current state of the relationship between the superpowers and discusses what should be done about Taiwan.

Interview Conducted by Bernhard Zand in New York
22.02.2022, 21.01 Uhr

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Ambassador, one often remembers outstanding events in life through seemingly insignificant personal moments. Was there such a moment for you when you traveled with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s to China in 1972?

Winston Lord: Certainly there was such a moment. Shortly after Nixon arrived in Beijing, Premier Zhou Enlai came to the guesthouse and said that Chairman Mao wanted to see the president. We were delighted, because this showed that Mao was putting his stamp of approval on the whole visit at the very beginning. Nixon asked Henry Kissinger to join him, but intended to exclude the secretary of state.

DER SPIEGEL: Secretary of State William Rogers, who was overshadowed by National Security Advisor Kissinger.

Lord: Kissinger in turn asked me to accompany him because I had been central to preparing the briefing books for the president and I’d been on Kissinger’s secret trip in 1971. And I was a good note-taker so he could concentrate on the meeting. At the end of the meeting, Nixon and Kissinger asked Zhou Enlai to ensure that my presence was kept secret. I was to be cut out of the communiques and erased from the photographs of the meeting so as to spare the secretary of state further humiliation for not being there. A year later, Zhou Enlai gave me a photo which proved that I was there. So the meeting itself will always be in my mind because of its historic and geopolitical impact. But the fact that I was there secretly gives an added twist to it.

DER SPIEGEL: Today, U.S.-China relations are perhaps as bad as they’ve been in the last 50 years. When and why did things start going south?

Lord: I can’t name a specific date or event. It’s been a rolling process over the course of several years. Since about 2008, the financial crisis, our relationship has changed. Part of this is inevitable: You have a rising power challenging an established power and that rising power demands a greater say in the international system, although it doesn’t have the right to overturn international laws. Under Xi Jinping, but starting even under his predecessor Hu Jintao, the Chinese have been much more repressive at home and aggressive abroad. As a result, we face a low point in our relations, and I do lay the overwhelming blame for that on the Chinese. That doesn’t mean we’re going to war, but the whole nature of the relationship has changed.

American and Chinese political leaders sit on opposite sides of a table at a meeting during President Richard Nixon’s trip to China. On the right are Premier Chou En-Lai (with arms resting on table) and Chinese political leaders. On the other side are American political leaders Winston Lord, Henry Kissinger, Nixon, and John Holdridge of the NSC staff. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The American and Chinese delegations during Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. On the left side, Winston Lord can be seen sitting next to Henry Kissinger.

DER SPIEGEL: What made you so sure in 1972 that China, which was economically insignificant and ravaged by the Cultural Revolution at the time, would eventually reemerge as a world power?

Lord: No one could have envisaged then where China is today in terms of its influence, power and achievements. Having said that, even in the early 1970s, when you looked at one fifth of the world’s population and the entrepreneurial skills of the Chinese, it was clear that they were very dynamic, skilled people. Putting their sheer size, their culture and history together, one could be sure that it would not be a stable or a complete world unless China was a participant. This clearly was Nixon’s focus on improving relations with China. He was interested in the stability of the world system and thinking more about the potential rather than the actual weight that China carried in those days. Kissinger had a similar approach, but he came more from a balance of power perspective, and how this opening might improve America’s position in the world, particularly against the Soviet Union.

“We wanted to reestablish our credibility as a world power.”

DER SPIEGEL: If you had to come up with a present-day equivalent of the audacity of the 1972 trip, what comes to mind? A U.S. presidential visit to Tehran? Or to Pyongyang perhaps? Moscow?

Lord: I don’t see any such venture that would succeed in today’s environment. In the early 1970s, there were clear incentives on both sides that made the gamble – being taken by both leaders – at least feasible. The Chinese had a clear fear of the Soviet Union, they were isolated and wanted to have more international presence. We wanted to influence Moscow toward a more reasonable posture by getting their attention, by opening up with China. We wanted help on the Vietnam War and we wanted a more stable Asia. We wanted to lift the morale of the American people, which had been fatigued by years of division and riots. We wanted to reestablish our credibility as a world power. So each side had strong incentives, but it was still very courageous. People tend to think this was inevitable, that it was easy. It was not for either side, but both leaderships could at least calculate the incentives on the other side and why it might work.

DER SPIEGEL: Is that not the case with America’s adversaries today?

Lord: Certainly not with Putin, certainly not with Xi. Perhaps the least remote would be something with Iran, but it wouldn’t be on the scale of the 1970s, and it would be too risky politically and geopolitically. Also, we don’t have the leadership, to be frank. We don’t have the Nixons and the Kissingers on the American side, and we don’t have the strategic vision, I think, on the side of our adversaries. Beyond that, we have become so polarized in America that it’s very difficult to assemble a sustainable majority for any daring action. It’s just much more dangerous today, the atmosphere is much more toxic.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping as he arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on November 11, 2014. Top leaders and ministers of the 21-member APEC grouping are meeting in Beijing from November 7 to 11. AFP PHOTO / Greg BAKER

DER SPIEGEL: China is now led by Xi Jinping, who is often called “the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.” Do you agree with that characterization?

Lord: Yes, I think you have to say he is the strongest leader since Mao. But he is not permanently invulnerable. I think he’s had a bad record the last year or two. The fact he’s made himself a dictator for life …

DER SPIEGEL: … by scrapping term limits for the office of president in 2018 …

Lord: … can’t be popular with all the elites in China. But he’s managed to do that and made himself the head of every important committee and policy, whether it’s the Belt and Road Initiative or the redefinition of China’s role in the world. Up until Xi, China’s basic posture was: “We like our model. You can have yours. We’re not going to try to fight over it or influence other countries.” Xi has changed that. He is supportive of the so-called wolf warriors, diplomats and media types who attack other countries, other people, other businesses in an aggressive manner. So in terms of domestic control and aggressiveness in foreign policy, Xi is, along with Putin, the most dangerous man in the world.

“You have to say that Xi is the strongest leader since Mao. But he is not permanently invulnerable.”

DER SPIEGEL: Why does this make him vulnerable?

Lord: Because there’s been blowback on that in many parts of the world. Take Europe, where there are more and more statements on China’s human rights violations. You have the Lithuanian example of moving closer to Taiwan and China’s bullying in response, which is annoying other Europeans. Japan, too, is getting much more involved in the Taiwan question. Many countries receiving Belt and Road contracts are now worried about debt overload, and some of those projects are not going well. And then, of course, there is a domestic crackdown on technology and repression in general. How is China going to move up the scale and be a leader in advanced scientific and technological efforts? So far, let’s face it, it’s been doing a pretty good job of it. But at some point, if you choke off innovation, contacts with the outside world, free enterprise, you will face problems.

DER SPIEGEL: Which strategies envisaged in the early 1970s are still applicable to U.S.-China relations today?

Lord: Certain principles are still applicable. First, it’s about having a strategic vision of what you’re trying to achieve. Not just reacting, not just paying attention to tactical issues or near-term questions, but having a vision and moving towards that vision. Nixon had that, whatever his other shortcomings were. Kissinger had that, certainly, and I don’t see anybody on the American scene having that now. But let me stress that the Biden Administration is doing an excellent job on China policy, focusing on our domestic strengths to compete, on our alliances for leverage with China, and on international institutions where we can cooperate with China. And it is firm, but in a smart and effective way, not succumbing to hysteria.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the second principle?

Lord: The ability of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and asking: What is important to them? Nixon and Kissinger knew that the Chinese had concerns about the Soviets, and they had real concerns about being totally isolated in the world. They also knew what sensitivities the Chinese had to handle. And they were skillful enough to find a way to work with the Chinese to kick problems down the road.


Lord: The Taiwan issue was essentially put on ice, and in my view, it was the Chinese who made the major concessions, not the Americans. So you need to find the red lines and the essential needs of both sides and postpone issues which are temporarily insoluble. That is much tougher today. Leaving aside whether one could find leaders with this kind of vision, you still have the toxic political environment in the United States, the impact of social media and disinformation. We now have one party that essentially doesn’t care about free elections and is willing to promote conspiracy theories. I say that as someone who most of his life was a registered Republican and was appointed by President Reagan. Even if Nixon and Kissinger were around today, I’m not sure they could pull it off.

DER SPIEGEL: Some U.S. politicians now see Nixon’s opening to China as a mistake.

Lord: Yes, some revisionists have ludicrously attacked engagement, saying that it was a naive, overoptimistic policy and that we expected to make China a Jeffersonian democracy within a few months. But the fact is that there was no alternative to engagement. Containment would never have worked, because we wouldn’t have been able to convince other countries to go along with it. Moreover, we always hedged our engagement policy with military power, alliances and increasing attention to Asia. We had some concrete gains from the policy. And while we hoped for liberalization in China, we never assumed it or made it the driving principle of our policy.

“No one could have envisaged then where China is today in terms of its influence, power and achievements.”

DER SPIEGEL: Ex-U.S. President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared America’s China policy of the past 50 years a failure and called for it to be ended.

Lord: I do think we have needed, and we are now implementing, a firmer policy toward China. And I give the Trump administration some credit for highlighting the fact that China is a strategic competitor. But Pompeo and others have reacted with machetes instead of scalpels. And they had no nuance, and therefore they are less effective in countering China.

DER SPIEGEL: The Biden administration has kept many of the Trump administration’s China policies intact.

Lord: Yes, and as I said before, the Biden administration is conducting policy toward China very effectively. The one reason why I give them an A-minus instead of a straight A is their failure to engage in multilateral trade initiatives in Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership …

DER SPIEGEL: … which was established by Japan, pushed by Barack Obama and rejected by Donald Trump …

Lord: … has not only economic but also tremendous geopolitical significance. Leaving the field to China in the economics of trade in Asia is a disaster. So that’s the single big mistake that Biden has been making.

DER SPIEGEL: China’s leaders have said that the next 10 to 15 years, at which point China will presumably surpass America as the world’s largest economic power, will be the most tumultuous in the U.S.-China relationship. Once that happens, though, they say, America will adapt to the new reality and things will calm down. Do you subscribe to this view?

Lord: That may be their public posture. I think privately they recognize the challenges. China’s growth is slowing, the country’s birth rate is sinking and their society is graying. Their crackdown on human rights and on private enterprise, the COVID restrictions – all of this is pushing this magic date further into the future. Some are even saying it won’t ever come. I don’t. My point is that it is irrelevant because per capita income and other indices are more important than overall economic strength.

“I give the Trump administration some credit for highlighting the fact that China is a strategic competitor.”

DER SPIEGEL: Currently, per capita income in the U.S. is about four times that of China.

Lord: The Chinese have self-confidence and nationalistic fervor, and many of them believe that they can surpass the U.S. But my point is: It’s not going to happen unless we continue to self-destruct as we’ve been doing for the last five or six years.

DER SPIEGEL: The 1972 visit succeeded in bringing China over to America’s side vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Today, it seems that China and Russia are more closely aligned than they have been in a long time.

Lord: The triangular relationship is radically different today than it was in the early 1970s. You could make the superficial case that, at least for the time being, it is now the U.S. that is the odd man out. But in answering this question, you have to take the long view. Yes, Xi and Putin have some parallel objectives. But their cooperation is clearly tactical. China and Russia are cooperating against the U.S. Both of them have autocratic leaders who feel threatened by Western values. They want to reduce America’s position in the world. They have some limited concrete cooperation in energy and military aid, and they are working together at the UN. This is not trivial. It is a challenge, and it certainly is very different from the early 1970s.


Lord: These two countries will never grow particularly close; they have a long history of mistrust. There is this vast, uninhabited border between the two. At some point, the Russians have to see whether the Chinese are coming into Siberia. There is the possibility of border disputes. And there is very little economic exchange compared to what Russia and China have with the West. China, in particular, depends on trade with the U.S., Europe and Japan. They have competing interests in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, China isn’t entirely happy with what the Russians are doing. And would China like the precedent of the Russians invading Ukraine? I don’t think so. Beijing cannot be happy if they see Russia invading a neighboring country. So this is not a long term sort of alliance, even though it is posing considerable tactical challenges for us today.

Members of the “August 1st” Aerobatic Team of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force perform during the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China 2021, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Zhuhai in southern China’s Guangdong province. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

DER SPIEGEL: On the last day of Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, you signed the Shanghai Communiqué. That was an unusual diplomatic document in that it first listed many areas of disagreement – only to highlight the few points on which Beijing and Washington could agree. Could that be a template for a diplomatic restart between China and the U.S. today?

Lord: In principle, yes. But the areas of conflict and distrust are so great that it would make it difficult. We do want a stable relationship to the best extent possible. I’ve worked for this for 50 years, and with all my critical comments, I still wish to improve relations. So I do think the basic approach could still apply. You could say: Look, here’s where we have real differences. No sense trying to paper them over and we can’t solve them in the near term. So let’s agree how we can make sure these issues don’t get us into bigger trouble.

DER SPIEGEL: And then?

Lord: Against that background, you could then search for areas of competition where there’s not necessarily agreement but where we can at least compete – whether it’s economics or technology, hearts and minds of people. So that’s not an area of cooperation, but it’s one of competition.

DER SPIEGEL: And finally?

Lord: The third area – a very limited one today – comprises issues where we should try to cooperate, in our common interest and in the global interest. Issues like the climate challenge, the prevention of pandemics, nonproliferation. These can’t be solved unless the two countries work together on it.

“The Chinese have self-confidence and nationalistic fervor, and many of them believe that they can surpass the U.S.”

DER SPIEGEL: In 1972, the most important issue of the first category was Taiwan, one of the most dangerous conflicts in the world today. In hindsight, was it a great achievement to postpone a final settlement of the Taiwan question, or was it a mistake?

Lord: Not only is it an achievement, I consider it one of the most significant foreign policy successes of the United States in the last 50 years, continued by seven or eight presidents of both parties. We’ve managed to avoid going to war over this, despite its intense importance in China. With our policy, we managed to give sufficient attention to Taiwan, so that despite the shock of shifting recognition, it has in the last 50 years remained secure and has grown into an economic juggernaut and a flourishing democracy. An example not only to the world, but to the people in China, making the point that democracy could work with Chinese as well. For Taiwan to flourish is a major achievement, and I think part of that is ambiguity.

DER SPIEGEL: The ambiguity of the One China Policy, which is so complex that few people fully understand it.

Lord: The One China policy, which I helped draft, is extremely elusive and ambiguous – and that was the only way to do it. The fact that many people can’t understand it is very good news, because that’s the whole point: that each side can interpret it the way it wants. And that Taiwan can continue to be secure and flourish.

DER SPIEGEL: So you disagree with the call to end strategic ambiguity and issue a clear security guarantee for Taiwan?

Lord: In the Shanghai Communiqué, we agreed to an ambiguous One China policy, but one which, at that point, was agreed to by both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In exchange for that, we maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but also a defense treaty, troops on Taiwan, and arms sales to Taiwan. So not only did China not solve the problem the way it wanted, they had to make all these concessions.

(FILES) This file photo taken on February 22, 1972 shows US President Richard Nixon (centre R) and US National security advisor Henry Kissinger (R) meeting China’s Chairman Mao Zedong (centre L) during his official visit to China in Beijing. – February 21, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, and his meeting with China’s leader Mao Zedong. (Photo by XINHUA / AFP) / – China OUT

DER SPIEGEL: But isn’t there a danger that China will misinterpret this ambiguity? Shouldn’t it be deterred by strategic clarity?

Lord: I think it’s fair to raise that question because of the increasing pressure on Taiwan exerted by China, militarily and diplomatically. Anyone who deviates from China’s biblical stance on Taiwan is treated brutally. That means that we should at least reconsider this issue.

DER SPIEGEL: And what is your answer?

Lord: I still believe we should maintain strategic ambiguity for the following reasons. First of all, I don’t think that China is going to invade Taiwan, no matter how overwhelming their powers are. Even without American help, it would be very costly in military and economic terms. Secondly, there’s a lot of deterrence already. China cannot be sure that we won’t intervene, certainly. They also see that other countries, particularly Japan, are now getting more concerned. So deterrence ought to be continued by strong statements, continued arms sales and continued unofficial ties with Taiwan. We should also sign a free trade agreement with Taiwan.

DER SPIEGEL: And thirdly?

Lord: Finally, of course, there is the danger that strategic clarity, a statement that we’re going to defend Taiwan no matter what, might prompt irresponsible leaders in Taiwan to provoke China. Certainly not the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, whom I know well personally and who is one of the outstanding leaders on the world stage. She is very careful not to provoke China. But if Taiwan knows it can count on the U.S. no matter what happens, there is a danger that some future leader would be provocative, accept a move toward formal independence and drag us into a war. So for all these reasons, and although I think it is a legitimate debate, I would stick with strategic ambiguity.

(FILES) This file photo taken on February 22, 1972 shows China’s Chairman Mao Zedong shaking hands with US President Richard Nixon after their meeting in Beijing during the US leader’s official visit to China. – February 21, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, and his meeting with China’s leader Mao Zedong. (Photo by AFP)

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Ambassador, one often remembers outstanding events in life through seemingly insignificant personal moments. Was there such a moment for you when you traveled with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s to China in 1972?

Winston Lord: Certainly there was such a moment. Shortly after Nixon arrived in Beijing, Premier Zhou Enlai came to the guesthouse and said that Chairman Mao wanted to see the president. We were delighted, because this showed that Mao was putting his stamp of approval on the whole visit at the very beginning. Nixon asked Henry Kissinger to join him, but intended to exclude the secretary of state.

About Winston Lord

Former US Ambassador to China Winston Lord appears before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing, ‘Tiananmen at 25: Enduring Influence on US-China Relations and China’s Political Development’, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 20 May 2014. The hearing investigates the enduring impact of events that took place at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on 04 June 1989. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS ++

Winston Lord, born in 1937, was a close confidant of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger during the American process of reshaping its relations with China, punctuated by President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country in 1972. Later, he became director of policy planning in the State Department and went to China as the U.S. ambassador. In summer 1971, he traveled to China with Kissinger on his secret trip to pave the way for Nixon’s trip the next year. The 50th anniversary of Nixon’s historic visit is this week.