Home Uncategorized In Pursuit of Nietzsche’s “Rope”: President Carter Talks about U.S.-China Relationship

In Pursuit of Nietzsche’s “Rope”: President Carter Talks about U.S.-China Relationship

On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivered a lecture to about 30 students in Professor Yawei Liu’s class on his experiences and interest in China over the course of his long life. Fitting his wisdom and practical experience, the lecture Carter delivered was more about imparting moral lessons from his experience negotiating with Chinese leaders than instructing the students on the specific details of the history of the relationship. One of these lessons can be found in President Carter’s decision to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) almost 40 years ago. That lesson implies that one should not let orthodox beliefs detract from your ability to see the opportunity that can come from a shift in thinking. The other lesson comes from his long perspective, suggesting that Chinese and American leaders should acknowledge how far they have come since moving into a new era of engagement in 1979.

President Carter’s Personal  Negotiation Strategy 

The Carter Center’s Director of the China Program, Yawei Liu, gave a personal introduction on how President Carter’s decision altered the course of his life.  To this day, he vividly remembers the day he heard the radio broadcast of President Carter’s decision to announce normalization of relations with China on December 15, 1978. Only a college freshman, Professor Liu thought Deng’s decision was perplexing because Chinese propaganda indoctrinated him into believing that China’s purpose was to expose and topple American imperialism. Yet he acknowledged that his initial instinct could not have been more wrong, emphasizing that the decision enabled him to come to the U.S. to study, work, and raise his two girls with his wife. All of this was made possible by President Carter’s courageous action that so many Americans opposed. Professor Liu ended his remarks on the note that the opportunities made possible to him by President Carter have inspired him to dedicate the last 20 years of his life to fostering a better bilateral relationship at The Carter Center.

President Carter started his lecture by remembering his first encounter with China when he served during the Chinese Civil War as an American naval officer in a submarine off the coast of Qingdao, the last port under the control of the U.S.-backed Nationalists. Like Professor Liu, President Carter acknowledged that he was a product of the Cold War rivalry between communism and democracy, and that everyone he knew feared the advance of communism. When Qingdao finally fell to the Communists shortly after Carter briefly left China in April 1949 and the Nationalists began their retreat to Taiwan, he disliked the news because Americans “had a close alliance with the Nationalist Chinese and despised the Communists”.[1] However, Carter noted this hatred for the Communists was partially driven by an absence of any attempt to understand them and the abuses by the Nationalist government. For example, he frequently witnessed the conscription of young soldiers. Boys, sometimes as young as 12 years old, were impressed by the Nationalist Chinese to serve in the military. He implied that the appeal of the Communists would have not that been difficult to understand if Americans paid more attention to these signs of abuse.

A photo Jimmy Carter took off the coast of Qingdao when he served as a naval officer in 1949.

Even though Carter acknowledges that the mentality prevailing during the Cold War initially prevented him from reaching out to understand the Chinese people, he nonetheless saw the opportunity to normalize relations with the PRC long before most of his American colleagues. Shortly after Chairman Mao’s death during the second presidential debate against the incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, Carter accused President Ford of betraying the U.S.’s commitment to the PRC as specified in the Shanghai Communique signed between the U.S. and China in 1972. During that debate, he signaled his intention to move forward from that 1972 communique and normalize relations, asserting that the position of the U.S. “ought to be an inclination toward friendship.”

Unlike an abstract call for friendship, President Carter recognized that reentering negotiations to clarify that the “one China” mentioned in the Shanghai Communique refers to PRC was an unpopular position among the general American public. He was not oblivious to the fact that almost all Americans thought the correct policy was to refrain from recognizing the Communist PRC as the one true China. Yet he had the foresight to know that the potential impact of normalization would likely be so significant that it was worth spending precious political capital on these negotiations. Individuals on both sides of the Pacific are still benefiting from this courageous vision, as Professor Liu attested in his introduction.

In the negotiations with the PRC, which were started at the beginning of 1978, President Carter and his lead negotiator, Leonard Woodcock, sought to set aside ideological differences, accommodate on issues that detracted from common goals, and maintain mutual respect. In Carter’s view, building a diplomatic relationship based on these principles was the key to achieving success in the negotiations with the leader of China, Deng Xiaoping. For his part, Deng had an equally practical perspective on the potential for engagement with Americans. From Deng’s point of view, diplomatic normalization could lay the groundwork for making the relationship even more open once China had reached the sufficient progress in the market reform policies he initiated in the same year. An open relationship with the U.S. would build upon improvements in the standard of living, which is widely regarded as Deng’s guiding focus during his tenure as the undisputed leader of China.

President Carter’s strategy of building a relationship based on mutual respect paid off when it came to time to negotiate on the terms that would settle the Taiwan issue. Deng requested that Americans declare that Taiwan was a province of China, break-up the existing treaty agreement with Taiwan, and end American military assistance. Carter responded by emphasizing that he could not agree to the last two points. He could not immediately leave the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which had been effective since March 1955, per Deng’s request because it would contravene the one-year notice requirement specified in that treaty. He also could not forsake American defense commitments to the island and wanted the assurance from Deng that whatever differences that existed between the PRC and Taiwan would be resolved peacefully. If mutual respect did not exist, this blunt insistence on defense assistance may have been too great an obstacle to overcome even if Carter conceded the other requests. Instead, Deng agreed to the terms on December 13, 1978, and made the announcement public in both countries two days later.

President Carter also noted how establishing a rapport with Deng paid dividends for their ability to work on issues of common interest within China. He told a story that typified the reciprocal nature of their friendship at a White House banquet following their announcement of diplomatic rapprochement. Appreciative of the initiative President Carter took, Deng wondered what he could personally do to help President Carter. Remembering Lottie Moon, a missionary who is widely admired in the Baptist community for her service in China and Japan, President Carter saw an opportunity to capitalize on Deng’s offer to promote religious freedom in China. Specifically, he requested that Deng authorize unrestricted freedom of worship, resume the distribution of bibles, and permit the return of Christian missionaries to China. After considering his request for one day, Deng agreed to reopen churches, return pastors to the official churches, and resume bible printing.

Conveniently, China’s new approach toward religion coincided with Deng’s initiatives to attract foreign investment. Even though Deng did not accept Carter’s final request regarding missionaries, President Carter still lifted restrictions on the free flow of dollars shortly after the banquet, leading some scholars to believe that Deng had other motives beyond helping out a friend. These motives notwithstanding, President Carter maintained that there are few things that make him more proud as a Christian than this action, pointing out that China already has more bibles than any other nation and will soon have more Christians too.

When Deng arrived in the U.S. following the official instatement of normalization on January 1, 1979, he was surprisingly adept at altering the strong negative attitudes toward normalization, which were initially expressed by the American public. Contrary to the common portrayal of the Communist menace during the Cold War, Deng was full of humor, flexible in his statements, and demonstrated knowledge about the culture of the U.S. By attending public events and giving face to American cultural practices (such as this stop at a Texas rodeo) during his stay in the U.S., he made a “great, beneficial impact on American public [opinion].”[2] Carter appreciated this impact as well as the way he reciprocated his respect for Chinese people, culture, and beliefs.

A power point slide in the background of President Carter’s lecture included photos that showed Deng and Carter’s friendship, which was a key part of negotiations to normalize relations with the PRC in 1978.

Their cooperation continued well after President Carter was forced to leave office after Reagan’s election in 1980. When he founded The Carter Center during his post-presidency, he was aware that Deng’s inclination toward openness presented an unprecedented opportunity for his NGO to work together on a common respect for human rights. Carter worked closely with Deng’s disabled son, Deng Pufang, on the Global 2000, a project launched to help disabled people overcome physical obstacles to realize their creative potential and live a productive life. The project consisted of two initiatives. The China Special Education Project equipped Chinese teachers with the skills they needed to effectively teach blind and deaf students. In addition to this basic training, teachers learned practical techniques to spot the onset of hearing impairments and mobility techniques for students with visual impairments. The other disability initiative involved the Carter Center assisting Deng Pufang’s goal to provide modern prosthetics technology to the 3 million amputees living in China.

According to President Carter, both initiatives demonstrate how much progress has been made in China-U.S. relations, and others abound if you choose to look carefully. The reality of this progress means that young students in the audience should not succumb to widespread cynicism that the relationship is worse than it has ever been. He reminded everyone that it used to be the case that both the Americans and the Chinese actively wished for the destruction of the other country. Now we have cooperated on numerous occasions to bring about unprecedented prosperity and cultural exchange. The challenge for the young generation will be to sustain this cooperation even in the face of opposition from nationalists on both sides who insist that even simple engagement is a sign of weakness.

The Challenge of Make-Our-Country-Great-Again Nationalism

In analyzing China’s path over the course of his life, Carter made a bold claim—China has “greatly expanded its [positive] influence internationally and opened up freedom to its own people.” On the issue of freedom, China allows much more freedom of movement within China than it did before Deng. While there is still substantial state control of the economy, China is very far from Mao’s command economy which allowed zero opportunity for people to keep what they earned.

Yet China’s embrace of openness with the outside world has been even more striking. Almost nobody has failed to notice that China’s footprint on every continent is growing. Carter added that China’s reputation on these continents is sometimes even better than the U.S., which has squandered most of its soft power on expensive destabilizing wars. For example, Nigerian diplomats and ministers are praising China’s infrastructure investment and suggesting that their country should follow China’s example. Carter’s point is that the fact that these relations exist at all demonstrate how much things have changed since the Mao era. Before normalization, China only maintained limited contact with the outside world to demonstrate revolutionary brotherhood.

In addition to diplomatic openness, cultural openness has also enriched the opportunities of the Chinese people, Carter contended. He noted that China has more English speakers than any other country in the world, increasing opportunity for students to have meaningful interactions with English speakers around the world. Overall, he implied that China does not yet meet his personal standard for human rights, but that there needs to be a more conscious effort to acknowledge China’s improvements, and not just lecture its leaders on areas where it continues to fall short.

Of course, these improvements should not detract from the backsliding that is currently taking place in the country’s domestic politics, Carter clarified. When prompted by a student, Carter acknowledged that President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power is an exception to the overall trend toward openness and political reform started by Deng and continued by his successors. The CCP under Xi permits less challenges on the grounds that it will diminish its legitimacy to carry out the people’s will.

Nonetheless, he also felt the need to correct exaggerated media reports, which allege that Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao. Given the authority Deng had to make decisions unencumbered by restrictions, these reports are not just wrong but dangerous, he implied. The danger for Western media is that they risk conflating China’s partial step backward on political reform into a complete reversal.

Another way Xi is strengthening the authority of the CCP is by severely restricting the operation of foreign NGO’s, who cannot help but notice rising suspicion regarding their work. A law issued by Xi’s administration last year even permits police to question foreign NGO workers and inspect their files if their work is suspected of undermining the CCP’s authority. As a result of its concern with foreign NGO’s interfere in China’s political affairs, The Carter Center has not been allowed to conduct observations of village elections even before Xi began his first term in 2012, Carter noted.

Carter’s final point was that China’s overreliance on hard power in Xinjiang and Tibet, undermines the basic human rights of the people who live there. In Xinjiang, reporters have noticed that police patrols are rounding up young men for re-education camps. Additionally, severe restrictions are placed on the practice of Islam and surveillance watches them everywhere. These three issues must be monitored because the U.S. has an obligation to promote human rights, but we must also not let this obligation prevent opportunities to engage, Carter concluded.

The primacy of bilateral engagement between the U.S. and China was a common theme throughout President Carter’s remarks. Following the era of globalization that has tied the two countries’ fates, engagement should be more fundamental to the strategic thinking of each country’s leadership, not less. President Carter therefore cautioned against the anti-China and anti-American hysteria that is currently rising in each country. He started by clarifying that blame for the deterioration in the relationship does not solely rest on American shoulders. Escalating tensions are not simply a product of an established power responding irrationally to the threat of colliding with a rising power, as suggested by one interpretation of the Thucydides Trap. Instead, we are trapped in a tit-for-tat game, where each hostile action requires an equally hostile response from the other side.

President Carter did not offer solutions for this problem, but he did offer one insight that he hoped would inspire the young students in the audience to work on solutions. That insight was that sustained people-to-people interactions between Chinese people and Americans will likely sweep away the comparable waves of xenophobic nationalism that both countries are currently experiencing. In the U.S., millions of voters pinned their hopes on Donald Trump with his promise to Make America Great Again and put America First. Likewise, in China, ordinary people frequently support the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to move beyond its century of humiliation into a new era where China feels embowered to apply its muscular power abroad. The CCP’s current ambitions are not that distinct from Donald Trump’s pledge to Make America Great Again. They are promising an ambitious agenda—from One Belt One Road to Taiwan reunification— that will revive the former greatness of Chinese imperial power. Young Americans and Chinese who will determine the future of the relationship should not feel as if they have to abandon nationalism altogether, Carter clarified. But they do have the obligation to the health of the relationship to balance nationalism with restraint so that their leaders do not feel compelled to reflexively reject engagement and compromise. They also must seek out cross-country interactions, so that “they better understand each other and the reasons for harmony, cooperation, and mutual respect”.

The Consequences of Retreating American Influence

On the day after this lecture, President Carter also held a Q&A session with all the Carter Center interns. In that Q&A session, he made one wise remark that clarifies the challenge as well as the opportunity in China-U.S. relations. He noted that mankind is in a transitional phase, where it reverts to its animal instincts to dominate others just as often it realizes its better angels to work together on issues that threaten global stability and existence, such as nuclear proliferation and climate change. Whether consciously or not, President Carter evoked an image originally conceived by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “Man is a rope stretched between animal and superman—a rope over an abyss.” In this metaphor, the animal is the impulse to adopt zero-sum strategies and return to blood and soil. On the other end of the rope, the superman cooperates on issues that are so critical to the future of humanity that they are bigger than any differences in ideology, nationality, or religious affiliation. So long as the U.S. and China are both looking in front of them, they are forced to acknowledge that they cannot let petty disagreements stand in the way of global cooperation, lest they fall into the abyss.

Book written by Carter describing the decline of American superpower.

The problem is that the U.S., the country that forged the post-war international system, does not currently appreciate the complexity of the challenges of the 21st century because it is looking backward. The Trump administration has abandoned the U.S.’s traditional commitment to global leadership. Since Trump’s election, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on trade, abandoned UN talks on migration, neglected to prioritize nuclear proliferation issues, and cut funding on scientific research.

President Carter is likely too modest to fully take credit for this prediction, but he has been warning Americans about the decline of American superpower for more than a decade. Now, he says that it is inevitable that the U.S. will be forced to “relinquish its number one superpower title [to China]”.[3] As China is looking forward by building infrastructure and sticking to a long-term strategy, the U.S. will continue to experience the ill-considered effects of its trillion-dollar wars. Carter believes that the U.S. would be more than willing to accommodate Chinese superpower so long as it reverses some of the policies promoted by Xi and resumes the previous progress it made with respect to freedom, openness, and human rights. Subtly referring to the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq, Carter added that China should learn from our example and not seek to impose its vision on others.

Overall, President Carter’s analysis of the emerging void of global leadership is accurate, but he neglected to mention that China is unlikely to make this progress unless the U.S. is active in global leadership. The reality is that the China’s domestic environment lacks the openness that is necessary to develop a vibrant civil society on the scale of their American counterparts. No country is capable of applying the soft power (i.e. ideas) that glues the international system together without the U.S.’s leadership.


At a fundamental level, the problem of U.S.-China relations is that China is too strong to create an alternative to the U.S.-led post-war international system without colliding with American power but too weak to preside over this system without the U.S.’s active participation. For this reason, the U.S. can neither afford to rebuff China’s efforts to garner more influence over global institutions nor can it afford to abandon its leadership role in those institutions. Representing each faction of the current Trump administration, both actions would unleash equally chaotic repercussions on the international order. The flaws in each strategy suggest that there is a need for an alternative, or third way.

The last time China changed as substantially as now was when Deng moved on from the devastation of the Mao era by initiating the Reform and Open-Up policy. Even during these changes, many American leaders were paralyzed by two inviable policy options for how the U.S. chose to conduct its relations with the Communist country. In this political environment, President Carter proposed a shift in how Americans view China. Rather than insisting on China as a sworn adversary, Carter saw the opportunity that China’s initiative to open-up its economy could promote— freedom, economic development, and cultural exchange. By normalizing relations, he altered official U.S. policy to reflect the changes that had already begun to materialize in China.

The progress China has made since normalization began in 1979 has changed the dynamics of the relationship to such an extent that it requires another leader who will bring about a similar shift in thinking. But President Carter did not fully explain what kind of shift is necessary to realign foreign policy objectives with the new reality of a rising China and its relation to the global order. He left the task of constructing a new paradigm to the next generation of young leaders.

One thing is certain though. Young leaders in both countries will be responsible for pulling Nietzsche’s rope away from reflexive nationalists toward the side of reason, perspective, toleration, and incremental progress. President Carter expressed hope these leaders will overpower the nationalists who are currently in charge, and the relationship will continue to prosper. Naturally forward looking, young people know what is at stake. They know that the abyss is far too deep to risk a misstep.


[1]Carter, Jimmy. “President Carter Remembers His Experiences Dealing with China-U.S Relationship.” 14 Feb. 2018, Atlanta, GA, Emory University, Mathematics and Science Center.



The following summary was prepared by Vincent Palumbo-Smith, an intern at The Carter Center’s China Program for Spring 2018.