Corleone Diplomacy

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/07/07):

Vladimir Putin’s Russia pursues power and treasure by constantly calling attention to its ability to disrupt U.S. goals abroad. Hu Jintao’s China works to soften the effects of its accelerating economic and military rise and to embed itself ever more deeply in the U.S. economy.

So who gets the ultimate intimacy of a weekend at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport? No, not Hu. It is Putin, the Russian president who recently threatened to resume targeting missiles on Europe. The Chinese leader quietly settled for a downgraded official White House welcome last year.

It would be comforting to think that this weekend’s visit to Kennebunkport by Putin is President Bush’s first important exercise in Godfather diplomacy. That is, Bush now recognizes Putin as foe, not soul mate, and follows Don Corleone’s advice: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

The political skies over the Maine resort may be cloud-filled when Bush and Putin publicly describe their talks Monday. They are due to announce symbolic progress on missile defense deployment by unveiling a joint high-level working group of the two nations’ defense and foreign ministers. But that development is likely to be overshadowed by continuing tension over independence for Kosovo and over the Kremlin’s implacable drive to squeeze Western companies out of Russia as it entrenches state- and crony-controlled monopolies of energy production and transport.

The most important outcome of this Bush-Putin weekend may be to underline the fact that the foreign policy legacy of this administration will include a surprisingly good relationship with communist-ruled China and a surprisingly bad one with Russia Inc., as some senior Bush aides now refer to Putin’s attempt to control the country’s politics and economic resources through a reconstituted Leninist-style political system.

But dealing with recognized adversaries can be more reliable than dealing with would-be friends, as Mario Puzo’s fictional Mafia don indicated. Putin initially won Bush’s trust, while the American leader immediately saw China as “a strategic competitor” that had to be handled with care and vigilance rather than as the “strategic partner” painted by Bill Clinton.

“The president started out as a ‘show-me’ guy, and the Chinese took the measure of that,” says one U.S. official. “They have over time become more realistic in their goals, particularly on Taiwan.”

National character and events certainly account for some of the difference in Bush’s dealings with two post-Marxist states in which leaders seek wealth for their supporters and legitimacy for themselves. But Putin now puzzles, and bothers, the White House in ways that Hu does not.

Bush was reportedly impressed by Hu’s straightforward manner when he asked the Chinese leader last year what his country’s biggest problems were. “Providing 25 million new jobs a year” and managing huge population migrations from the countryside to new urban areas were Hu’s immediate answers.

Since then Hu has publicly minimized any embarrassment he felt over not being granted a state dinner — as was his predecessor, Jiang Zemin — and over a series of protocol gaffes by the White House during his visit.

His restraint reflects China’s general determination to construct a benign foreign policy environment in which it can pursue national growth rates of 7 to 8 percent a year for the next decade. Hu has switched away from China’s “peaceful rise” ambition because it sounded too assertive and has instead adopted a goal of building a “harmonious society.” He has also dropped Jiang’s insistence on having a timetable to recover Taiwan, feeling he can rely on Bush to prevent the island republic from issuing a unilateral declaration of independence.

China’s manufacturing explosion is an oft-told story by now. But a recent visit to Beijing and Shanghai brought home to me how mutually embedded and symbiotic the American and Chinese economies have become over the past decade. A balance of financial terror exists between them today, paralleling the Cold War’s mutual assured destruction theory of nuclear deterrence. Serious economic retaliation by one or the other would do incalculable damage to both.

Putin flaunts Russia’s oil and gas power and uses intimidation as a basic foreign policy tool. Psychiatrists might see immense national insecurity behind such bravado. A sustained drop in energy prices would do more than Bush’s hospitality to change that.

Hu projects confidence that time is on his nation’s side. He also seems to be a man who understands what Don Corleone was talking about. Whatever the Bush-Putin outcome, it is China that has mastered Godfather diplomacy by keeping Bush close, and then closer.