image of US ambassador Jim Sasser peering out the broken door of the
paint-splattered US embassy in Beijing is more than a moving photograph;
it provides a mini-course in diplomacy.
The context: an anti-US demonstration whipped up in the angry aftermath to the US stealth bombing
of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. The bombing was
precise enough to destroy the building and kill three people.
were those who claimed it was an accident, and others who insisted it
was an intentional attack. Not surprisingly, opinion cleaved along
national lines. Americans thought it unlikely to have been intentional.
Why would a democratic country bomb an embassy? Chinese, and not just
officials, thought it was intentional. Hi-tech and deadly, it showed the
true colour of US imperialism.
In the hot seat during this maelstrom of
national mood swings and incendiary opinion was US ambassador to Beijing, Jim
Sasser. The mild-mannered former US senator from Tennessee who was a political
appointee. He was no China expert, but a natural diplomat.
The bombing of China’s embassy and the incendiary aftermath
that saw the US embassy chancery defaced and battered, but not destroyed, was
as close to war as the US and China have come in modern times. Perhaps, in retrospect,
not as close as it felt at the time, but it was not uncommon for Americans in
Beijing at the time to be lightning rods for populist anger.
When a US embassy photographer snapped a photo of a
forlorn-looking ambassador staring at the damaged property, it was composed to
good purpose. Although Jim Sasser left Beijing a few months later on a rotation that
had been scheduled in advance, during that dire moment of need, he stood up and
stood his ground, but he did so in a way that was at once wistful and empathetic.
The Biden administration needs to find an ambassador with
such a temperament. Intimate China knowledge is highly desirable, but
personality goes a long way in diplomacy and with China and the US at tenterhooks,
an even-keeled envoy can help keep the peace.
Tough is not enough. Respected is not as important as
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s first stop on his first
Asia tour is Japan. Although the US is rewarding Tokyo for its loyalty (subservience)
by treating it as the number one diplomatic destination in Asia, everyone knows,
including the Japanese, that China is paramount.
The Japanese media picked up on
this decades ago, popularizing the term “Japan passing” because Bill Clinton
and other prominent US leaders tended to skip past Japan and land in
China has long beckoned for reasons of geopolitics, diplomatic urgency
and to some extent for the sheer pomp and circumstance of a massively choreographed
Beijing visit, following in the footsteps of Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Bush
Blinken’s focus on Tokyo is a way of signaling that compliant
behavior is rewarded, non-compliant behavior is not. It’s diplomatic theatre,
but China takes such symbolic moves seriously.
Already an artful
accommodation has been reached. Blinken and White House National Security Advisor
Jake Sullivan will stop in Anchorage, Alaska on the way home from Japan where they
will meet with two high-ranking Chinese diplomats--Politburo member Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang
The new US ambassador has to be able to play subtle diplomatic
games of this kind convincingly. That’s why one of the alleged top candidates
for the slot, former Chicago mayor and Democratic Party loyalist Rahm Emanuel,
would be a disastrous pick.
He has a knack for making enemies; he did so as a Clinton
advisor, and again after a brief tenure as Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff. When
I spoke to him with colleagues at a private meeting at the Nieman Foundation at
Harvard in 1997, he flew off the handle every time he got asked a question he
Good diplomacy is not about showing how tough you are,
though toughness, backbone and underlying convictions are important.
When it comes to dealing with Beijing, keeping cool, calm
and collected is also paramount.
On the other hand, a jaded diplomat such as R. Nicholas
Burns, also considered to be on Biden’s shortlist, lacks the politician’s verve
and autonomy of spirit of the sort that served Sasser so well in a time of
A bureaucrat who has loyally served diverse masters with aplomb, Burn’s career spans the Bill Clinton years, and both
Bush Presidencies. He served as ambassador to Greece and as George W.
Bush's envoy to NATO, and supported the war in Iraq.
In 2008, he retired from the foreign
service to spend more time with his family and lobby for arms manufacturers.
When it comes to dealing with Beijing in real time on the
ground, it takes a leader, not a follower. Sure, ambassadors serve at the
pleasure of the president, but a good executive appoints qualified candidates and delegates
authority to them.
Surely there are many men and women both knowledgeable of
China and of good temperament worth considering for the job.
And the position should be filled soon, to better stem the
free fall in US-China relations.