After Tiananmen: The Struggle over U.S. Policy toward China in the Bush Administration

By Skidmore, David; Gates, William | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

After Tiananmen: The Struggle over U.S. Policy toward China in the Bush Administration


Skidmore, David, Gates, William, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The end of the Cold War alters the making of U.S.. foreign policy along two routes. Most directly, the Cold War's conclusion shifts the character of the international environment at which U.S. foreign policy is targeted, including the distribution of power and interests. Less directly, the end of the Cold War works changes in U.S. foreign policy through its effects on the domestic political climate. In particular, the lessened perception of external threat removes the unifying influence that the Cold War exacted upon the domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy. Absent a single, unifying external threat, the foreign policy agenda becomes more diffuse, domestic cleavages intensify and proliferate, and deference to the executive branch recedes. The end of the Cold War ushers in a more pluralistic environment for the making of U.S. foreign policy. These changes complicate the president's task in building domestic support for a coherent foreign policy and, on balance, weaken presidential authority in favor of Congress and contending societal groups.

Yet presidential power over U.S. foreign policy is not hopelessly compromised in this new environment. By playing upon the cross-cutting cleavages characteristic of this increasingly pluralistic domestic setting, a president can shift the terms of debate over particular issues across different axes of conflict, seeking the resting place that is most favorable to his preferred policy outcome. Such a strategy does not ensure presidential success in maintaining control over U.S. foreign policy in the face of domestic challenges. Yet it does suggest that presidential authority in the foreign policy realm is less compromised by a more pluralistic policymaking environment than might at first be assumed.

These points are illustrated through an examination of the debate over U.S. policy toward the People's Republic of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. President Bush's conciliatory approach to dealing with Chinese authorities was deeply unpopular at home within both Congress and the public at large. The resulting debate constituted the first important executive-congressional clash of the post-Cold War era. Although the policy that emerged was a somewhat confusing compromise between punitive and conciliatory approaches, President Bush retained a surprising degree of control over U.S.--China policy by skillfully manipulating domestic cleavages.

Threat Perceptions and the Structure of Domestic Opinion

Shifts in the structure of domestic opinion regarding U.S. foreign policy can be linked to changing perceptions of external threat. The Cold War consensus of the 1950s and '60s was founded upon widely shared beliefs about the threatening nature of Soviet power and intentions. A bipolar structure of opinion emerged in the post-Vietnam War period, when sharp disagreements arose between liberals and conservatives over the degree of the continuing threat posed by the Soviet Union, communism, and revolutionary movements in the Third World.(1)

Since the end of the Cold War, perceptions of external threat have generally declined among a large majority of interested domestic actors. Moreover, those threats that persist emanate not from a single source but from multiple and diverse sources, leading to a more complex foreign policy agenda. Absent a singular, threatening rival, such as the former Soviet Union, the structure of domestic opinion over foreign policy issues has entered a pluralistic phase. In a low threat perception environment, domestic unity is harder to sustain. The foreign policy agenda becomes broader and less focused. Particularistic interests gain ascendance over general or national interests. Cleavages multiply as confusion reigns over the central purposes of U.S. foreign policy and who should have a say in its making.

Four sets of domestic cleavages, or axes of conflict, are particularly important for tracing domestic debates over U. …

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