Both in the past and now recently, American officials held fruitless summits—meetings without a clear cut agenda in which they would have been wiser to walk away from.


If you weren’t thinking “Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna” while following the just-concluded Alaska meeting between top diplomats from the United States and China, you need a quick tutorial in Cold War history. For at a time of burgeoning Sino-American tensions over any number of genuinely crucial stakes (like the fate of Taiwan, which for the foreseeable future will be the manufacturer of the world’s most advanced semiconductors), the parallels are chilling.

After all, both the June 1961 summit between John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, and the sessions between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and their two senior Chinese counterparts, came near the start of U.S. administrations. Both meetings were also arranged in haste. In 1961, Kennedy was desperate to convey some credibility to Moscow following the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Today, President Joe Biden himself has said that his administration is still in the middle of conducting comprehensive reviews of China policy both on the trade and national security fronts. Also neither meetings had any set agenda or goals. And at both, relatively green American leaders were verbally mugged—or at least ambushed—by their much more experienced interlocutors.

Most troubling of all: At the end of the Khrushchev meeting that Kennedy himself bemoaned as a disaster, the Soviet leader demanded an allied withdrawal from Berlin that resulted in a third crisis over the divided city, and in August Moscow agreed to East Germany’s demands to build a Wall to block refugee flows. In addition, Moscow resumed above-ground nuclear tests, and the State Department’s own historian’s office suggests that Khrushchev’s Vienna-borne contempt for Kennedy encouraged him to continue installing medium-range missiles in Cuba, and launch the Cold War’s scariest episode.

China’s eventual reactions to its first in-person encounter with Biden administration officials remain to be seen, but the earliest indications are anything but promising. In particular, it’s all too possible that the Chinese interpreted Blinken and Sullivan’s response to their Day One propaganda diatribe just as Khrushchev interpreted Kennedy’s decision to engage him in inevitably futile philosophical and historical debates at Vienna—as a sign of indiscipline and tactical ineptitude. Blinken and Sullivan would have been far better advised to stand up, thank the Chinese again for traveling all the way to Anchorage, ask that they let them know as soon as they were serious about talking business, and leave the room.

More concretely, Beijing’s emissaries showed no indication of believing the Blinken-Sullivan claim that the Biden administration’s efforts to reinvigorate America’s alliance relations enabled Washington to deal with China from a “position of strength.” As Yang Jiechi, the Communist Party’s foreign affairs chief, pointedly reminded, “Secretary Blinken, you said you just came back from Japan and {South Korea]. Those two countries are China’s second and the third largest trading partners. [The Association of Southeast Asian Nations] has now become China’s largest trading partner, overtaking the European Union and the United States.” Yang might have added that the EU, which recently signeda major investment agreement with China over Sullivan’s pre-inauguration protestations, is equally unlikely in Beijing’s eyes to cooperate meaningfully with Washington to confront the People’s Republic.


The unmistakable chance that China got exactly the wrong message from the Alaska meeting reflects all the worse on the Biden administration because the Alaska meeting seems to have been so thoroughly unnecessary. Certainly, no important American voices had been demanding one. Moreover, before the session, the State Department stated that the administration was expecting no negotiations on specific issues to take place, no joint communique to be issued at the close, and no thought being given even to resuming any regular, ongoing official dialogues with China.

Immediately after the meeting’s end, Blinken explained that American aims were “to share with them the significant concerns that we have about a number of the actions that China’s taken and the behavior it’s exhibiting—concerns shared by our allies and partners. And we did that. We also wanted to lay out very clearly our own policies, priorities, and worldview, and we did that too.” But hadn’t he and Sullivan made U.S. objections to Chinese policies abundantly clear already?

The administration did specify that it also sought to dispel any Chinese illusions that its private positions might be more accommodative than its public rhetoric, and that Beijing could use a divide-and-conquer to flummox Washington as it allegedly had during past presidencies. But there’s no reason to think that a single “one-off” event could accomplish that aim.

Throughout the last American presidential campaign, the nation was told that a Biden victory would return seasoned globalist “adults in the room” to control of U.S. foreign policy after the supposedly chaotic and dangerously reckless America First-y Trump years. But the Alaska meeting with the Chinese suggests that Mr. Biden’s top advisers could use considerable maturation of their own.

Alan Tonelson is the Founder of RealityChek, a blog on economics and national security, and a columnist for In 2016, he advised both the Trump and Sanders campaigns on international trade issues.

Image: Reuters.