“Truman lost China” and the effect of “the stuff of politics” on IR

In our discussion of the international (or system) level-of-analysis in IR, we noted some of the strengths and weaknesses of focusing explanation and description at that level. While system-level explanations are helpful in that they are comprehensive and holistic, a major disadvantage of that level is that it misses, or neglects, the “stuff of politics.” What does that mean?

ping_pong_diplomacy.jpgHere’s an explanation by way of example. The image below is of Richard Nixon and Mao ZeDong engaging in “ping pong diplomacy”* with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai looking on approvingly [why is Mao using a “Western” grip?]. Those of you who know a little bit about US-China diplomatic history understand the importance of the “Nixon goes to China” moment. The most significant point, for our purposes, is that this meeting signaled the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and “Red China”, after they had been cut off due to the 1949 victory of Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War. It was not surprising that it was Nixon–a Republican–who was able to make this diplomatic gesture, since it would have been politically impossible for a Democratic president to have done the same. This is because President Harry S. Truman, and the whole of the Democratic party by association, had been vilified for having “lost China” to Communism. This is the kind of “stuff of politics” that is ignored when looking at IR from only an international (or system-level) perspective. Here is a clip from a documentary analyzing Nixon’s visit to China:

*Nixon and Mao never did play ping-pong (as far as I know), but their meeting was given the name “ping-pong diplomacy” since the first post-1949 diplomatic US visitors to China were table tennis players.