Advising Presidents: The Importance Of Maurice Greenberg

Advising Presidents: The Importance Of Maurice Greenberg

Richard Nixon’s chief interlocutors included a contemporary international business executive, Maurice R. Greenberg, as immersed in international commerce as Nixon was in geopolitical strategy. His unique insights into global affairs have been invaluable to American presidents.

In Congressional debates, while the rhetoric of retribution reverberated, a few statesmen embraced the views Greenberg and Nixon urged. For one, Senator Alan K. Simpson on November 21, 1989, on the Senate floor, lauded Nixon’s insights. He urged colleagues to learn more from him, putting into the Congressional Record Nixon’s contemporary piece, “The Crisis in Sino-American Relations.”

Senator Simpson stressed a broader point about the under-tapped value of former U.S. presidents in ongoing foreign policy, calling it a “tragedy that we do not utilize the energy, the background and the history that former Presidents can bring to us,” listing Ford, Reagan, Carter, and Nixon. While such an aspiration remains unfortunately remote in American political life today, Nixon’s influence, as well as Greenberg’s, was felt on China in the early 1990s.

THROUGHOUT THOSE years, they continued to press for sustained economic and other exchange between the United States and China. They pressed particularly on free trade, which they believed was the route to economic prosperity and ultimately political reform in China. They supported granting MFN status to China, including giving the president more autonomy on trade negotiations with less Congressional oversight (called fast-track authority). This outlook was reflected in a series of letters between the two men in mid-1991. In a May 1, 1991 letter to Nixon, Greenberg reported on AIG’s public advocacy on this issue:

Our company recently ran a full-page ad in major national newspapers in support of retaining the President’s trade negotiating authority under the “fast track” procedure. We feel strongly about this issue and its importance to enhancing American competitiveness. I thought you would be interested in seeing a copy of our ad.

The letter contained a handwritten note in black felt tip pen in Hank’s hand: “P.S.: I am increasingly concerned about MFN for China.” Nixon wrote on June 4, 1991 agreeing, calling one of Greenberg’s recent op-eds on the point “right on target.”

As you point out, while punishing China for its human rights abuses would be detrimental to American business interests, such action would be even more detrimental to those who favor human rights in China.

As we learned in Korea and Taiwan, economic reform inevitably leads to political reform. While it would take more time that also will be the case in China. If we isolate China economically and diplomatically, we will go back to the situation which existed before our opening in 1972 when there was no trade between the two countries, no Chinese students studying in the United States, and no American tourists visiting China.

 I have often made the point that the Great Wall of China is very thick. It is very difficult to be heard when you are inside the Wall. When you are outside the Wall, it is impossible to be heard. If we want to have any chance whatever to influence the hardline leaders in [China], it is indispensable that we be inside the Wall rather than outside.

Beyond Nixon, Greenberg maintained a vibrant correspondence with all former presidents, even those, such as Jimmy Carter, with whom he did not generally see eye to eye. On momentous issues of the day at the center of foreign policy and the national interest, views often coalesced. President Carter wrote to Greenberg on June 25, 1991, calling their published views “very compatible.” Carter explained:

Because I am known to be both a major advocate of human rights and someone committed to China’s future, I put a lot of thought into my recent trip to China and the way in which I have addressed the current situation. I believe that our moral pressure on behalf of human rights has a better chance of working if we keep the channels of communication open with China rather than effectively closing the door in retribution.

My move, as President, to normalize relations with China and subsequently to grant Most Favored Nation status was certainly not without its detractors. I believe that those actions had a major impact on the positive change we have seen in China.

Reaching out to Nixon would prove a helpful channel in the ensuing presidential election, where Bill Clinton mounted what would be a successful campaign against President Bush. Tidings of this concern began to appear in the Greenberg-Nixon correspondence as that campaign heated up. Greenberg stressed the need for both continuity and quiet diplomacy, in a letter to Nixon of August 26, 1992:

China policy should be fairly clear. As you have so frequently stated, we must not cut off a billion people. Staying engaged in trade and economic success will ultimately bring about political reforms. Be frank and discuss issues that we consider to be problems; i.e., human rights, sale of weapons systems, nuclear proliferation, etc., but talk privately and quietly. China rejects interference in its internal affairs and hence a delicate balance is needed. China will play an increasingly important role in Asia especially as trade and investment within the region increases. We must maintain a positive relationship.

Nixon replied on September 8, 1992:

I found your letter of August 26 to be very perceptive and at the same time very troubling. Perceptive because of your analysis of the situation in Asia is right on the mark based on my observations over the years. Troubling because there is no chance … for any administration initiatives until we get past the election. With foreign policy rated only in single digits in the polls, neither Bush nor Clinton can be expected to endorse a bold new initiative.

To keep President Bush up-to-date, Greenberg wrote to the president on October 2, 1992: “I have just returned from Beijing and AIG has been granted the first insurance license since the Communists took over the country in 1949. This is further evidence of the reform movement gaining strength and opening more of the economy to the outside word.”

The Greenberg-Nixon vision was working, as Greenberg reported to Nixon on October 27, 1992, but seemed at risk: “I met with Li Peng and Jian Zhemin. All are concerned about a Clinton victory and the linking of trade and human rights to MFN. China’s economy is moving ahead very well … Foreign investment is increasing and if we change our bipartisan policy to China, American investment will be left behind.”

In Nixon’s November 2, 1992 letter to Greenberg, after saying he found Greenberg’s report to be “fascinating,” he continued: 

With regard to China, a crisis may develop if the polls are right and Clinton is elected President. He has strongly criticized the Bush Administration’s position on MFN which you know is absolutely sound. We can only hope that he will resist the advice of radical activists who demand that we punish China for human rights abuses by rescinding MFN to China. . . . [P]olitical progress inevitably follows economic progress as has been demonstrated by what has happened in Korea, Taiwan and Chile. Rescinding MFN, therefore, would hurt the cause of human rights rather than help it.

On November 3, 1992, Clinton was elected president. Two days later, on November 5, 1992, Greenberg spoke by phone with President Carter, and afterward sent a letter recapping his recent visits with Chinese leaders. A classic letter of bipartisan appeal in a matter of U.S. foreign policy, Greenberg wrote in the spirit of promoting policy continuity between the outgoing Republican and incoming Democrat administrations: 

During this visit I met with the top leaders in Beijing. All expressed concern about future U.S.-China relations—principally MFN. MFN has had the support of each President since relations were re-established under your Administration. Conditioning MFN would put our relations in a deep freeze and would benefit most of our competitors—the Japanese, Germans, French, Italians, etc. Moreover, it is hard to see how the United States can have an Asian policy without including China. One needs only look at the map. As you know, Mr. President, AIG was founded in Shanghai, and we have extensive operations throughout Asia. I personally visit the region several times a year and know most of the leaders in the region and would be concerned about our influence in Asia if we caused change in the bi-partisan approach that has existed for a number of years.

We don’t have to agree with China on everything and indeed we don’t. Our differences should be discussed quietly and privately. Negotiating with China in the press is a poor strategy. The Chinese do not succumb to public pressure. The economic progress taking place in China is enormous. Zhu Rongji has been added to the Standing Committee (former Mayor of Shanghai and a very good friend) and put in charge of virtually all aspects of the economy. I strongly believe that political progress will follow economic progress. In fact, punishing China by conditioning MFN will play right into the hands of the hardliners and set back reform that would otherwise take place. … [I]t would be very useful if there was some indication of President Elect Clinton’s views on [this] subject.

Greenberg’s ensuing correspondence with President Clinton likewise demonstrated mutual respect and a shared sense of the national interest. In at least a half dozen letters during 1993 and 1994, President Clinton expressed his thanks to Greenberg for input on U.S. foreign policy. In a letter to Greenberg dated June 15, 1993, Clinton confirmed his commitment to China, echoing Greenberg’s views: