David Gergen | BIO
CNN Senior Political Analyst
Barack Obama has recently been reading up on the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Coming home from China, he might well focus on Kennedy’s first summit overseas with the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. Indeed, we all could learn from that episode.
Like Obama, Kennedy came into office as an inspiring figure, an idealist who stirred hopes for the future and yet was inexperienced in the exercise of power. At the time, the Soviet Union was a rising nation that was threatening the global leadership of the United States.
In the fall of his first year in office, Kennedy went to Europe where he was welcomed grandly until he arrived in Vienna to sit down with Khrushchev. Kennedy, the idealist, thought that his charm and his appeals to reason would win over the Soviet leader. Instead, Khrushchev bullied him unmercifully and the men were unable to agree on anything of substance. Polite reasoning went nowhere.
According to Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves, Khruschev left the meeting telling associates, “He’s very young… not strong enough. Too intelligent and too weak.” Khrushchev concluded that he could push Kennedy around and started causing mischief from Berlin to Cuba.
Kennedy was shaken but, fortunately, he didn’t go into denial. He went into action, treating the meeting as a wake-up call. In the months that followed, he became a much tougher, more assertive president, and a year later when a showdown came over Khrushchev sneaking missiles into Cuba, Kennedy was an outstanding leader – and he turned the tables on Khrushchev.
Why bring up that story now, as President Obama comes home from Asia? Because it has considerable relevance to his meetings in China with President Hu.
Obama went into those sessions like Kennedy: with great hope that his charm and appeal to reason – qualities so admired in the United States – would work well with Hu. By numerous accounts, that is not at all what happened: reports from correspondents on the scene are replete with statements that Hu stiffed the President, that he rejected arguments about Chinese human rights and currency behavior while scolding the U.S. for its trade policies, and that he stage-managed the visit so that Obama – unlike Clinton and Bush before him – was unable to reach a large Chinese audience through television.
To be fair, President Obama seemed to handle the situation better than Kennedy did: he wasn’t humiliated, he did secure some generalized agreements, and – so the White House believes – he laid the groundwork for a productive, long-term relationship. We shall see.
But it is equally clear that this was not at all the kind of summit that an American administration would want – and it does bear some ominous similarities to the Kennedy-Khrushchev talks in Vienna.
It would seem wise not only for President Obama but for all Americans to treat this as a wake-up call.
For the President, the challenge is whether he will start approaching international affairs with a greater measure of toughness, standing up more firmly and assertively for American interests. Yes, he must still be the man of reason and peace, but that can easily be read as a sign of weakness by others unless he balances it with the inner steel that is essential in international affairs. The most recent issue of Forbes identifies Obama and Hu as the two most powerful people on the planet – but it is Obama who is Number One, not Hu.
For the United States, this trip should also send a clear message that the balance of power is changing in the world.
Even though China is still a relatively weak country compared to the U.S., it is rising rapidly, and people around the globe are wondering if China represents the future – and the U.S. the past. We need to wake up, too, recognizing that we have to pull ourselves together to solve the challenges before us – living beyond our means for too long, building up too much debt, allowing China to become our biggest creditor, refusing to overcome our polarization, allowing our political discourse to degenerate so that it is hard to find sensible answers, and on and on.
Unless we do pull together as a great people, we will find that our whole country – not just our President – will be in for a very rough ride. Downhill.