THE NEXT TIME I MET with Medvedev in person was in late September, when heads of state and government from around the world converged on Manhattan for the annual opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. “UNGA Week,” we called it, and for me and my foreign policy team it represented a seventy-two-hour, sleep-depriving obstacle course. With roads blocked and security tightened, New York traffic was more hellish than usual, even for the presidential motorcade. Practically every foreign leader wanted a meeting, or at least a photo for the folks back home. There were consultations with the U.N. secretary-general, meetings for me to chair, luncheons to attend, receptions to be hosted, causes to be championed, deals to be brokered, and multiple speeches to be written—including a major address before the General Assembly, a sort of global State of the Union that, in the eight years we worked together, Ben and I somehow never managed to finish writing until fifteen minutes before I was due to speak.

Despite the crazy schedule involved, the sight of the U.N. headquarters—its main building a soaring white monolith overlooking the East River—always put me in a hopeful, expectant mood. I attributed this to my mother. I remember as a boy, maybe nine or ten, asking her about the U.N., and having her explain how, after World War II, global leaders decided that they needed a place where people from a diversity of countries could meet to resolve their differences peacefully.

“Humans aren’t that different from animals, Bar,” she told me. “We fear what we don’t know. When we’re afraid of people and feel threatened, it’s easier to fight wars and do other stupid things. The United Nations is a way for countries to meet and learn about each other and not be so afraid.”

As always, my mother possessed a reassuring certainty that despite humanity’s primal impulses, reason, logic, and progress would eventually prevail. After our conversation, I imagined the goings-on at the U.N. to be like an episode of Star Trek, with Americans, Russians, Scots, Africans, and Vulcans exploring the stars together. Or the “It’s a Small World” display at Disneyland, where moon-faced children with different skin tones and colorful costumes would all sing a cheerful tune. Later, for a homework assignment, I read the U.N.’s 1945 founding charter and was struck by how its mission matched my mother’s optimism: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” “establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained,” and “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

Needless to say, the U.N. hadn’t always lived up to these lofty intentions. Like its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations, the organization was only as strong as its most powerful members allowed it to be. Any significant action required consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council—the United States, the Soviet Union (later Russia), the United Kingdom, France, and China—each possessing an absolute veto. In the middle of the Cold War, the chances of reaching any consensus had been slim, which is why the U.N. had stood idle as Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary or U.S. planes dropped napalm on the Vietnamese countryside.

Even after the Cold War, divisions within the Security Council continued to hamstring the U.N.’s ability to tackle problems. Its member states lacked either the means or the collective will to reconstruct failing states like Somalia, or prevent ethnic slaughter in places like Sri Lanka. Its peacekeeping missions, dependent on voluntary troop contributions from member states, were consistently understaffed and ill-equipped. At times, the General Assembly devolved into a forum for posturing, hypocrisy, and one-sided condemnations of Israel; more than one U.N. agency became embroiled in corruption scandals, while vicious autocracies like Khamenei’s Iran and Assad’s Syria would maneuver to get seats on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Within the Republican Party, the U.N. became a symbol of nefarious one-world globalism. Progressives bemoaned its impotence in the face of injustice.

And yet I remained convinced that, for all its shortcomings, the U.N. served a vital function. U.N. reports and findings could sometimes shame countries into better behavior and strengthen international norms. Because of the U.N.’s work in mediation and peacekeeping, cease-fires had been brokered, conflicts had been averted, and lives had been saved. The U.N. played a role in more than eighty former colonies becoming sovereign nations. Its agencies helped lift tens of millions of people out of poverty, eradicated smallpox, and very nearly wiped out polio and Guinea worm. Whenever I walked through the U.N. complex—my Secret Service detail brushing back the crowds of diplomats and staffers who typically milled along the wide, carpeted corridors for a handshake or a wave, their faces reflecting every shape and hue of the human family—I was reminded that inside were scores of men and women who pushed against boulders every day, trying to convince governments to fund vaccination programs and schools for poor children, rallying the world to stop a minority group from being slaughtered or young women from being trafficked. Men and women who anchored their lives to the same idea that had anchored my mother, an idea captured in a verse woven into a tapestry that hung in the great-domed General Assembly hall:


Human beings are members of a whole

In creation of one essence and soul.

Ben informed me that those lines were written by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’adi, one of the most beloved figures in Iranian culture. We found this ironic, given how much of my time at UNGA was devoted to trying to curb Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Apparently, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad didn’t share the poet’s gentle sensibilities.

Since rejecting my offer of bilateral talks, Iran had shown no signs of scaling back its nuclear program. Its negotiators continued to stall and bluster in sessions with P5+1 members, insisting that Iran’s centrifuges and enriched uranium stockpiles had entirely civilian purposes. These claims of innocence were spurious, but they provided Russia and China with enough of an excuse to keep blocking the Security Council from considering tougher sanctions against the regime.

We continued to press our case, and a pair of new developments helped bring about a shift in Russian attitudes. First, our arms control team, ably headed by nonproliferation expert Gary Samore, had worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a creative new proposal meant to test Iran’s true intentions. Under the proposal, Iran would ship its existing stockpile of LEU to Russia, which would process it into HEU; Russia would then transport the HEU to France, where it would be converted into a form of fuel that met Iran’s legitimate civilian needs but had no possible military application. The proposal was a stopgap measure: It left Iran’s nuclear architecture in place and wouldn’t prevent Iran from enriching more LEU in the future. But depleting its current stockpiles would delay “breakout capacity” by up to a year, thus buying us time to negotiate a more permanent solution. Just as important, the proposal made Russia a key implementation partner and showed Moscow our willingness to exhaust all reasonable approaches when it came to Iran. During the course of UNGA, Russia signed off on the idea; we even referred to it as “the Russia proposal.” Which meant that when the Iranians ultimately rejected the proposal at a P5+1 meeting held later that year in Geneva, they weren’t just thumbing their noses at the Americans. They were snubbing Russia, one of their few remaining defenders.

Cracks in the Russia-Iran relationship deepened after I handed Medvedev and Lavrov an intelligence bombshell during a private meeting on the margins of UNGA: We’d discovered that Iran was on the verge of completing construction of a secret enrichment facility buried deep inside a mountain near the ancient city of Qom. Everything about the facility—its size, configuration, and location on a military installation—indicated Iran’s interest in shielding its activities from both detection and attack, features inconsistent with a civilian program. I told Medvedev we were showing him the evidence first, before we made it public, because the time for half measures was over. Without Russian agreement on a forceful international response, the chance for a diplomatic resolution with Iran would likely slip away.

Our presentation seemed to rattle the Russians. Rather than try to defend Iran’s actions, Medvedev expressed his disappointment with the regime and acknowledged the need for a recalibration of the P5+1’s approach. He went even further in public remarks afterward, telling the press that “sanctions rarely lead to productive results…but in some cases sanctions are inevitable.” For our side, the statement was a welcome surprise, confirming our growing sense of Medvedev’s reliability as a partner.

We decided against revealing the existence of the Qom facility during a U.N. Security Council meeting on nuclear security issues that I was scheduled to chair; although the iconic setting would have made for good theater, we needed time to thoroughly brief the IAEA and the other P5+1 members. We also wanted to avoid drawing comparisons to the dramatic—and ultimately discredited—Security Council presentation regarding Iraqi WMDs made by Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq War. Instead, we gave the story to The New York Times just before G20 leaders were scheduled to meet in Pittsburgh.

The effect was galvanizing. Reporters speculated about possible Israeli missile strikes on Qom. Members of Congress called for immediate action. At a joint press conference with French president Sarkozy and British prime minister Brown, I emphasized the need for a strong international response but refrained from getting specific on sanctions so as to avoid boxing in Medvedev before he’d had a chance to work through the issue with Putin. Assuming we could keep Medvedev engaged, we had just one more major diplomatic hurdle to clear: convincing a skeptical Chinese government to cast a vote for sanctions against one of its main oil suppliers.

“How likely is that?” McFaul asked me.

“Don’t know yet,” I said. “Turns out avoiding a war is harder than getting into one.”

SEVEN WEEKS LATER, Air Force One touched down in Beijing for my first official visit to China. We were instructed to leave any non-governmental electronic devices on the plane and to operate under the assumption that our communications were being monitored.

Even across oceans, Chinese surveillance capabilities were impressive. During the campaign, they’d hacked into our headquarters’ computer system. (I took it as a positive sign for my election prospects.) Their ability to remotely convert any mobile phone into a recording device was widely known. To make calls involving national security matters from our hotel, I had to go to a suite down the hall fitted with a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF)—a big blue tent plopped down in the middle of the room that hummed with an eerie, psychedelic buzz designed to block any nearby listening devices. Some members of our team dressed and even showered in the dark to avoid the hidden cameras we could assume had been strategically placed in every room. (Marvin, on the other hand, said he made a point of walking around his room naked and with the lights on—whether out of pride or in protest wasn’t entirely clear.)

Occasionally, the brazenness of Chinese intelligence verged on comedy. At one point, my commerce secretary, Gary Locke, was on his way to a prep session when he realized he’d forgotten something in his suite. Upon opening the door, he discovered a pair of housekeepers making up his bed while two gentlemen in suits carefully thumbed through the papers on his desk. When Gary asked what they were doing, the men walked wordlessly past him and disappeared. The housekeepers never looked up, just moved on to changing out the towels in the bathroom as if Gary were invisible. Gary’s story generated plenty of head shakes and chuckles from our team, and I’m sure that someone down the diplomatic food chain eventually filed a formal complaint. But no one brought up the incident when we sat down later for our official meeting with President Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation. We had too much business to do with the Chinese—and did enough of our own spying on them—to want to make a stink.

This about summed up the state of U.S.-China affairs at the time. On the surface, the relationship we’d inherited looked relatively stable, without the high-profile diplomatic ruptures we’d seen with the Russians. Out of the gate, Tim Geithner and Hillary had met repeatedly with their Chinese counterparts and formalized a working group to address various bilateral concerns. In my meetings with President Hu during the London G20, we’d talked of pursuing win-win policies that could benefit our two countries. But beneath the diplomatic niceties lurked long-simmering tensions and mistrust—not only around specific issues like trade or espionage but also around the fundamental question of what China’s resurgence meant for the international order and America’s position in the world.

That China and the United States had managed to avoid open conflict for more than three decades was not just luck. From the start of China’s economic reforms and decisive opening to the West back in the 1970s, the Chinese government had faithfully followed Deng Xiaoping’s counsel to “hide your strength and bide your time.” It prioritized industrialization over a massive military buildup. It invited U.S. companies searching for low-wage labor to move their operations to China and cultivated successive U.S. administrations to help it obtain World Trade Organization (WTO) membership in 2001, which in turn gave China greater access to U.S. markets. Although the Chinese Communist Party maintained tight control over the country’s politics, it made no effort to export its ideology; China transacted business with all comers, whether democracies or dictatorships, claiming virtue in not judging the way other countries managed their internal affairs. China could throw its elbows around when it felt its territorial claims being challenged, and it bristled at Western criticism of its human rights record. But even on flashpoints like U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Chinese officials did their best to ritualize disputes—registering displeasure through strongly worded letters or the cancellation of bilateral meetings but never letting things escalate to the point where they might impede the flow of shipping containers full of Chinese-made sneakers, electronics, and auto parts into U.S. ports and a Walmart near you.

This strategic patience had helped China husband its resources and avoid costly foreign adventures. It had also helped obscure how systematically China kept evading, bending, or breaking just about every agreed-upon rule of international commerce during its “peaceful rise.” For years, it had used state subsidies, as well as currency manipulation and trade dumping, to artificially depress the price of its exports and undercut manufacturing operations in the United States. Its disregard for labor and environmental standards accomplished the same thing. Meanwhile, China used nontariff barriers like quotas and embargoes; it also engaged in the theft of U.S. intellectual property and placed constant pressure on U.S. companies doing business in China to surrender key technologies to help speed China’s ascent up the global supply chain.

None of this made China unique. Just about every rich country, from the United States to Japan, had used mercantilist strategies at various stages of their development to boost their economies. And from China’s perspective, you couldn’t argue with the results: Only a generation after millions died of mass starvation, China had transformed itself into the world’s third-largest economy, accounting for nearly half of the world’s steel production, 20 percent of its manufacturing, and 40 percent of the clothing Americans bought.

What was surprising was Washington’s mild response. Back in the early 1990s, leaders of organized labor had sounded the alarm about China’s increasingly unfair trading practices, and they’d found plenty of congressional Democrats, particularly from rust-belt states, to champion the cause. The Republican Party had its share of China critics as well, a mix of Pat Buchanan–style populists enraged by what they saw as America’s slow surrender to a foreign power and aging Cold War hawks still worried about communism’s godless advance.

But as globalization shifted into overdrive during the Clinton and Bush years, these voices found themselves in the minority. There was too much money to be made. U.S. corporations and their shareholders liked the reduced labor costs and soaring profits that resulted from shifting production to China. U.S. farmers liked all the new Chinese customers buying their soybeans and pork. Wall Street firms liked the scores of Chinese billionaires looking to invest their newfound wealth, as did the slew of lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists brought on to service the expanding U.S.-China commerce. Even as most congressional Democrats remained unhappy with China’s trading practices, and the Bush administration filed a handful of complaints against China with the WTO, by the time I took office, a rough consensus had emerged among U.S. foreign-policy-making elites and big party donors: Instead of engaging in protectionism, America needed to take a page from the Chinese playbook. If we wanted to stay number one, we needed to work harder, save more money, and teach our kids more math, science, engineering—and Mandarin.

My own views on China didn’t fit neatly in any camp. I didn’t share my union supporters’ instinctive opposition to free trade, and I didn’t believe we could fully reverse globalization, any more than it was possible to shut down the internet. I thought that Clinton and Bush had made the right call in encouraging China’s integration into the global economy—history told me that a chaotic and impoverished China posed a bigger threat to the United States than a prosperous one. I considered China’s success at lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty to be a towering human achievement.

Still, the fact remained that China’s gaming of the international trading system had too often come at America’s expense. Automation and advanced robotics may have been the bigger culprit in the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs, but Chinese practices—with the help of corporate outsourcing—had accelerated those losses. The flood of Chinese goods into the United States had made flat-screen TVs cheaper and helped keep inflation low, but only at the price of depressing the wages of U.S. workers. I’d promised to fight on those workers’ behalf for a better deal on trade, and I intended to keep that promise.

With the world’s economy hanging by a thread, though, I had to consider when and how best to do that. China held more than $700 billion in U.S. debt and had massive foreign currency reserves, making it a necessary partner in managing the financial crisis. To pull ourselves and the rest of the world out of the recession, we needed China’s economy growing, not contracting. China wasn’t going to change its trading practices without firm pressure from my administration; I just had to make sure we didn’t start a trade war that tipped the world into a depression and harmed the very workers I’d vowed to help.

In the run-up to our China trip, my team and I settled on a strategy to thread the needle between too tough and not tough enough. We’d start by presenting President Hu with a list of problem areas we wanted to see fixed over a realistic time frame, while avoiding a public confrontation that might further spook the jittery financial markets. If the Chinese failed to act, we’d steadily ratchet up the public pressure and take retaliatory actions—ideally in an economic environment that was no longer so fragile.

To nudge China toward better behavior, we also hoped to enlist the help of its neighbors. That was going to take some work. The Bush administration’s total absorption with problems in the Middle East, as well as the Wall Street fiasco, had led some Asian leaders to question America’s relevance in the region. Meanwhile, China’s booming economy made even close U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea increasingly dependent on its markets and wary of getting on its bad side. The one thing we had going for us was that in recent years China had started overplaying its hand, demanding one-sided concessions from weaker trading partners and threatening the Philippines and Vietnam over control of a handful of small but strategic islands in the South China Sea. U.S. diplomats reported a growing resentment toward such heavy-handed tactics—and a desire for a more sustained American presence as a counterweight to Chinese power.

To take advantage of this opening, we scheduled stops for me in Japan and South Korea, as well as a meeting in Singapore with the ten countries that made up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Along the way, I’d announce my intention to pick up the baton on an ambitious new U.S.-Asia trade agreement the Bush administration had started to negotiate—with an emphasis on locking in the types of enforceable labor and environmental provisions that Democrats and unions complained had been missing in previous deals, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). We explained to reporters that the overall goal of what we later called a “pivot to Asia” wasn’t to contain China or stifle its growth. Rather, it was to reaffirm U.S. ties to the region, and to strengthen the very framework of international law that had allowed countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region—including China—to make so much progress in such a short time.

I doubted the Chinese would see it that way.

IT HAD BEEN more than twenty years since I’d traveled to Asia. Our seven-day tour started in Tokyo, where I delivered a speech on the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance and met with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to discuss the economic crisis, North Korea, and the proposed relocation of the U.S. Marine base in Okinawa. A pleasant if awkward fellow, Hatoyama was Japan’s fourth prime minister in less than three years and the second since I’d taken office—a symptom of the sclerotic, aimless politics that had plagued Japan for much of the decade. He’d be gone seven months later.

A brief visit with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace left a more lasting impression. Diminutive and well into their seventies, they greeted me in impeccable English, with him dressed in a Western suit and her in a brocaded silk kimono, and I bowed as a gesture of respect. They led me into a receiving room, cream-colored and sparsely decorated in the traditional Japanese style, and over tea they inquired about Michelle, the girls, and my impression of U.S.-Japan relations. Their manners were at once formal and self-effacing, their voices soft as the patter of rain, and I found myself trying to imagine the emperor’s life. What must it have been like, I wondered, to be born to a father who’d been considered a god, and then forced to assume a largely symbolic throne decades after the Japanese Empire had suffered its fiery defeat? The empress’s story interested me even more: The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she’d been educated in Catholic schools and graduated from college with a degree in English literature; she was also the first commoner in the twenty-six-hundred-year history of the Chrysanthemum Throne to marry into the imperial family—a fact that endeared her to the Japanese public but reputedly caused strains with her in-laws. As a departing gift, the empress gave me a composition she’d written for the piano, explaining with surprising frankness how her love of music and poetry had helped her survive bouts of loneliness.

Later, I learned that my simple bow to my elderly Japanese hosts had sent conservative commentators into a fit back home. When one obscure blogger called it “treasonous,” his words got picked up and amplified in the mainstream press. Hearing all this, I pictured the emperor entombed in his ceremonial duties and the empress, with her finely worn, graying beauty and smile brushed with melancholy, and I wondered when exactly such a sizable portion of the American Right had become so frightened and insecure that they’d completely lost their minds.

From Tokyo, I traveled to Singapore to meet with the leaders of the ten ASEAN countries. My attendance wasn’t without potential controversy: Myanmar, one of ASEAN’s members, had been ruled for more than forty years by a brutal, repressive military junta, and both Presidents Clinton and Bush had declined invitations to meet with the group so long as Myanmar was included. To me, though, alienating nine Southeast Asian countries to signal disapproval toward one didn’t make much sense, especially since the United States maintained friendly relations with a number of the ASEAN countries that were hardly paragons of democratic virtue, including Vietnam and Brunei. With Myanmar, the United States had comprehensive sanctions in place. Our best chance of influencing its government beyond that, we decided, would come from showing a willingness to talk.

Myanmar’s prime minister was a mild-mannered, elfish general named Thein Sein, and as it turned out my interaction with him went no further than a brief handshake and didn’t cause much of a stir. The ASEAN leaders expressed enthusiasm for our message of U.S. reengagement, while the Asian press emphasized my childhood ties to the region—a first for an American president and evident, they said, in my fondness for local street food and my ability to greet the Indonesian president in Bahasa.

The truth is that I’d forgotten most of my Indonesian beyond simple greetings and ordering off a menu. But despite my long absence, I was struck by how familiar Southeast Asia felt to me, with its languorous, humid air, the whiffs of fruit and spice, the subtle restraint in the way people interacted. Singapore, though, with its wide boulevards, public gardens, and high-rise office buildings, was hardly the tidy former British colony I remembered from childhood. Even in the 1960s, it had been one of the region’s success stories—a city-state populated by Malays, Indians, and Chinese that, thanks to a combination of free-market policies, bureaucratic competence, minimal corruption, and notoriously stringent political and social control, had become a center for foreign investment. But globalization and broader growth trends in Asia had sent the country’s economy soaring even higher. With its fine restaurants and designer stores packed with businessmen in suits and young people in the latest hip-hop fashion, the wealth on display now rivaled that of New York or Los Angeles.

In a sense, Singapore remained exceptional: Most of the other ASEAN countries still struggled with varying levels of entrenched poverty, just as their commitment to democracy and the rule of law remained wildly uneven. One thing they seemed to have in common, though, was a shift in how they imagined themselves. The people I talked to—whether heads of state, businesspeople, or human rights activists—remained respectful of American power. But they no longer viewed the West as the center of the world, with their own countries inalterably cast as bit players. Instead, they considered themselves at least equal to their former colonizers, their dreams for their people no longer capped by geography or race.

As far as I was concerned, that was a good thing, an extension of America’s faith in the dignity of all people and a fulfillment of the promise we’d long made to the world: Follow our lead, liberalize your economies, and hopefully your governments and you, too, can share in our prosperity. Like Japan and South Korea, more and more ASEAN countries had taken us at our word. It was part of my job as U.S. president to make sure that they played fair—that their markets were as open to us as our markets were to them, that their continued development didn’t depend on exploiting their workers or destroying the environment. So long as they competed with us on a level playing field, I considered Southeast Asia’s progress something for America to welcome, not fear. I wonder now whether that’s what conservative critics found so objectionable about my foreign policy, why something as minor as a bow to the Japanese emperor could trigger such rage: I didn’t seem threatened, as they were, by the idea that the rest of the world was catching up to us.

SHANGHAI—OUR FIRST stop in China—seemed like Singapore on steroids. Visually, it lived up to the hype, a sprawling, modern metropolis of twenty million cacophonous souls, every inch of it bustling with commerce, traffic, construction cranes. Huge ships and barges loaded with goods bound for the world’s markets glided up and down the Huangpu. Throngs of people strolled along the expansive river walk, stopping every so often to admire the futuristic skyscrapers that stretched in all directions and at night were as bright as the Las Vegas Strip. At an ornate banquet hall, the mayor of the city—an up-and-comer in the Communist Party who, with his tailored suit and jaunty sophistication, somehow reminded me of Dean Martin—pulled out all the stops for a luncheon between our delegation and Chinese and American business leaders, with rare delicacies and wine pairings that would suit a high-end wedding at the Ritz. Reggie Love, my ever-constant body man, was most impressed with a waitstaff made up entirely of stunning young women in flowing white gowns, as slender and tall as runway models.

“Who knew Communists looked like that,” he said, shaking his head.

The contradiction between China’s official ideology and such conspicuous displays of wealth didn’t come up when I met with several hundred college students at a town hall that same day. The Chinese authorities, wary of my usual unscripted format, had handpicked the participants from some of Shanghai’s most elite universities—and although they were courteous and enthusiastic, their questions had little of the probing, irreverent quality that I was used to hearing from youth in other countries. (“So what measures will you take to deepen this close relationship between cities of the United States and China?” was about as tough as it got.) I couldn’t decide whether party officials had prescreened all the questions or the students just knew better than to say anything that could land them in hot water.

After shaking hands and chatting with some of the students at the end of the program, I concluded that at least some of their earnest patriotism wasn’t simply for show. They were too young to have experienced the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or witnessed the crackdown in Tiananmen Square; that history wasn’t taught in school, and I doubted their parents talked about it. If some of the students chafed against the way the government blocked their access to websites, they likely experienced the full weight of China’s repressive apparatus mainly as an abstraction, as remote from their personal experience as the U.S. criminal justice system might be to middle-class, suburban white kids back home. For the entirety of their lives, China’s system had lifted them and their families along an upward trajectory, while from a distance, at least, Western democracies seemed stuck in neutral, full of civic discord and economic inefficiency.

It was tempting to think that the attitudes of these students would change over time, either because a slowdown in China’s growth rate would thwart their material expectations or because, having reached a certain measure of economic security, they would start wanting those things the GDP couldn’t measure. But that was hardly guaranteed. In fact, China’s economic success had made its brand of authoritarian capitalism a plausible alternative to Western-style liberalism in the minds of young people not just in Shanghai but across the developing world. Which of those visions they ultimately embraced would help determine the geopolitics of the next century; and I left the town hall acutely aware that winning over this new generation depended on my ability to show that America’s democratic, rights-based, pluralistic system could still deliver on the promise of a better life.

Beijing wasn’t as flashy as Shanghai, though driving from the airport we passed what seemed like twenty straight miles of newly built high-rises, as if ten Manhattans had been erected overnight. Business districts and residential areas gave way to government buildings and imposing monuments once we reached the city’s core. As usual, my meeting with President Hu Jintao was a sleepy affair: Whatever the topic, he liked to read from thick stacks of prepared remarks, pausing every so often for translations to English that seemed to have been prepared in advance and, somehow, always lasted longer than his original statement. When it was my turn to speak, he’d shuffle through his papers, looking for whatever response his aides had prepared for him. Efforts to break the monotony with personal anecdotes or the occasional joke (“Give me the name of your contractor,” I told him after learning that the massive, columned Great Hall of the People had been built in less than a year) usually resulted in a blank stare, and I was tempted more than once to suggest that we could save each other time by just exchanging papers and reading them at our leisure.

Still, my time with Hu gave me the chance to put down a set of clear markers on U.S. priorities: managing the economic crisis and North Korea’s nuclear program; the need to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea; the treatment of Chinese dissidents; and our push for new sanctions against Iran. On the last item, I appealed to Chinese self-interest, warning that without meaningful diplomatic action, either we or the Israelis might be forced to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, with far worse consequences for Chinese oil supplies. As expected, Hu was noncommittal on sanctions, but judging by his shift in body language and the furious notetaking by his ministers, the seriousness of our message on Iran got his attention.

I took a similarly blunt approach on trade issues when I met the next day with Premier Wen Jiabao, who, despite the lesser title, served as China’s key economic decision maker. Unlike President Hu, Wen seemed comfortable exchanging views extemporaneously—and was straightforward in his defense of China’s trade policies. “You must understand, Mr. President, that despite what you see in Shanghai and Beijing, we’re still a developing country,” he said. “One-third of our population still lives in severe poverty…more people than in the entire United States. You can’t expect us to adopt the same policies that apply to a highly advanced economy like your own.”

He had a point: For all of his country’s remarkable progress, the average Chinese family—especially outside the major cities—still had a lower income than all but the very poorest of Americans. I tried to put myself in Wen’s shoes, having to integrate an economy that straddled the information age and feudalism while generating enough jobs to meet the demands of a population the size of North and South America combined. I would have sympathized more had I not known that high-ranking Communist Party officials—including Wen—had a habit of steering state contracts and licenses to family members and siphoning billions into offshore accounts.

As it was, I told Wen that given the massive trade imbalances between our two countries, the United States could no longer overlook China’s currency manipulation and other unfair practices; either China started changing course or we’d have to take retaliatory measures. Hearing this, Wen tried a different tack, suggesting that I just give him a list of U.S. products we wanted China to buy more of and he’d see what he could do. (He was especially keen on including military and high-tech items that America barred from export to China for national security reasons.) I explained that we needed a structural solution, not piecemeal concessions, and in the back-and-forth between us, I felt like I was haggling over the price of chickens at a market stall rather than negotiating trade policy between the world’s two largest economies. I was reminded once again that for Wen and the rest of China’s leaders, foreign policy remained purely transactional. How much they gave and how much they got would depend not on abstract principles of international law but on their assessment of the other side’s power and leverage. Where they met no resistance, they’d keep on taking.

Our first day in Beijing ended with the obligatory state dinner, complete with a cultural program that included classic Chinese opera; a medley of performances by Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongolian dance troupes (the emcee helpfully noted that all minority groups were respected in China, which would have been news to thousands of Tibetan and Uighur political prisoners); and a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by the People’s Liberation Army Orchestra in my honor. (“We know he’s your favorite,” President Hu leaned over to tell me.) After five days on the road with our clocks turned upside down, our entire crew was running on fumes; at the table next to ours, Larry Summers was fast asleep, his mouth open and his head lolling back, causing Favs to shoot out an email to the group: “It looks like SOMEONE’s in need of a second stimulus.”

Groggy but determined, everyone (including Larry) fought through their jet lag the next day to visit a nearby section of the Great Wall. The day was cold, the wind cutting, the sun a dim watermark on the gray sky, and no one said much as we trudged up the steep stone ramparts that snaked along the mountain’s spine. Sections of the Great Wall had been maintained since 200 B.C., our guide explained, although the portion where we were standing dated to the fifteenth century, an effort by the Ming dynasty to keep out Mongol and Manchu invaders. For hundreds of years, the wall had held. This prompted Reggie to ask me how the Ming dynasty finally ended.

“Internal strife,” I said. “Power struggles, corruption, peasants starving ’cause the rich got greedy or just didn’t care…”

“So, the usual,” Reggie said.

I nodded. “The usual.”

THE PRESIDENCY CHANGES your time horizons. Rarely do your efforts bear fruit right away; the scale of most problems coming across your desk is too big for that, the factors at play too varied. You learn to measure progress in smaller steps—each of which may take months to accomplish, none of which merit much public notice—and to reconcile yourself to the knowledge that your ultimate goal, if ever achieved, may take a year or two or even a full term to realize.

Nowhere is this truer than in the conduct of foreign policy. So when, in the spring of 2010, we began to see results from some of our major diplomatic initiatives, I felt pretty encouraged. Tim Geithner reported that the Chinese had quietly started letting their currency appreciate. In April, I flew back to Prague, where Russian president Medvedev and I held a signing ceremony for the New START, which would cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads by a third on each side, with rigorous inspection mechanisms to ensure compliance.

And in June, with key votes from both Russia and China, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1929, imposing unprecedented new sanctions on Iran, including a ban on weapons sales, a suspension of new international financial activities by Iranian banks, and a broad mandate to bar any commerce that could help Iran expand its nuclear weapons program. It would take a couple of years for Iran to feel the full effects, but in combination with a new set of U.S. sanctions, we now had the tools we needed to bring Iran’s economy to a halt unless and until it agreed to negotiate. It also gave me a powerful rationale for counseling patience in conversations with Israelis and others who saw the nuclear issue as a handy excuse for a U.S.-Iran military confrontation.

Getting Russia and China on board had been a team effort. Hillary and Susan Rice spent countless hours cajoling, charming, and occasionally threatening their Russian and Chinese counterparts. McFaul, Burns, and Samore all provided critical strategic and technical support, helping us knock down or work around whatever objections the Russian and Chinese negotiators might present. And my relationship with Medvedev proved decisive in getting the sanctions finally in place. On the margins of each international summit I attended, he and I carved out time to work through logjams in the negotiations; as we got closer to the Security Council vote, it seemed as if we talked by phone once a week (“Our ears are getting sore,” he joked toward the end of one marathon session). Time and again, Medvedev ended up going further than either Burns or McFaul had thought possible, given Moscow’s long-standing ties to Iran and the millions that well-connected Russian arms manufacturers stood to lose once the new sanctions went into effect. On June 9, the day of the Security Council vote, Medvedev surprised us once again by announcing the cancellation of S-300 missiles sales to Iran, a reversal not only of his previous position but also of Putin’s. To offset some of Russia’s losses, we agreed to lift existing sanctions on several Russian firms that had previously sold arms to Iran; I also committed to speed up negotiations on Russia’s belated entry into the WTO. Still, by aligning with us on Iran, Medvedev showed himself willing to stake his presidency on a closer relationship with the United States—a promising sign for future collaboration on our other international priorities, I told Rahm, “so long as Putin doesn’t cut him off at the knees.”

The passage of sanctions, the signing of the New START, some movement by China on improving its trade practices: These didn’t qualify as world-changing victories. Certainly none of them merited a Nobel Prize—although had they happened eight or nine months earlier, I might have felt a little less sheepish about receiving the award. At most, these were building blocks, steps on a long and uncharted road. Could we create a nuclear-free future? Would we prevent another war in the Middle East? Was there a way to coexist peacefully with our most formidable rivals? None of us knew the answers—but for the moment, at least, it felt like we were on the path forward.




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