WASHINGTON -- There they were, two such fine young men. Tall and smiling, handsome and well-groomed, both with beautiful wives and Harvard connections, strolling through the glorious California sunshine and, for the most part, agreeing to agree.
This is surely not the usual way American and Chinese leaders get together. In fact, the meeting just finished at the sumptuous California estate of Sunnylands between President Obama and the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, was like nothing ever held before. Never had there been this level of cordiality and casualness between the leaders of the world's two great powers.
In fact, when Harvard's perceptive political scientist Joe Nye Jr. commented afterward that this was "the most important meeting between an American president and a Chinese leader in 40 years, since Nixon and Mao," it served as a useful reminder to remember just what those dramatic first meetings between America and the Chinese communists in 1971 were really like.
Chairman Mao Zedong was still alive when Henry Kissinger met with his premier, Zhou Enlai, that year. Mao was a big lump of a man who unsmilingly killed more millions of Chinese than Stalin did Russians. He liked to deflower teenaged girls during dances while his people were sent to the countryside to starve. His wife, the nefarious Madame Mao, looked and acted for all the world like the mad Witch of the East.
After those years of hope for change, China suffered a series of sobersides, ending with the gentlemanly but eternally unsmiling Hu Jintao. In between, of course, was the brilliant and long-suffering Deng Xiaoping, who put China on the road to economic freedom and prosperity.
But now what? In the two days of meetings at Sunnylands, President Xi repeated the recent Chinese foreign and strategic policy thinking that the U.S. should accept there are two "great powers" in the world, and not only America. He avoided talk on specifics like cyber warfare, economic pilfering and currency manipulation, issues that President Obama brought up diplomatically.
"China and the United States must find a new path," the Chinese president said, "one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past."
This may sound at first like the good old diplomatic talk about "hands across the seas" and "the war to end all wars," but in this situation, the words seem to have palpable meaning. Although the Chinese are building their military machine to unusual strength, there is much evidence that they do want the two powerful countries to work together.
And if this intention turns out to be true, it would be history-making indeed. It might even, our leading strategists are saying, mean a challenge to the old truism that, when a new power rises in the world, it automatically goes to war with the dominant power.
A year ago this spring, I heard Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the capital's pre-eminent resident scholar, speaking on China. "We've never been in a situation like this before," Brzezinski said. "The idea has always been that, when two powers rise, they will fight. If the Chinese don't fight, the theory will have to be redone."
Interestingly enough, Dr. Henry Kissinger, America's other prominent strategist, said of the dialogue after the Sunnylands meeting: "If it works well and both sides are lucky, then at the end of 10 years, this may have become a habit that has transformed international relations."
Another challenge to traditional American thinking, especially since the end of World War II, is that the U.S. can "spread democracy" into other countries through military means, as with Central America, South Asia and the Middle East. But the Chinese experience also disproves this idea.
Before the communist takeover of China after the end of the brutal Japanese occupation in World War II, the U.S. had expended vast wealth and thousands of American lives fighting the communists as well as the Japanese from Burma to the Pacific Islands to China, sure that our hero, Chiang Kai-shek, would win in the end.
But military means did not work. In her book "Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-'45," Barbara Tuchman ends with poignant and evocative words about Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell's desperate failure to bring democracy to China through military means. She writes that "the mission failed in its ultimate purpose because the goal was unachievable. The impulse was not Chinese ....
"China was a problem for which there was no American solution. The American effort to sustain the status quo could not supply an outworn government with strength and stability or popular support. It could not hold up a husk nor long delay the cyclical passing of the mandate of heaven. In the end China went her own way as if the Americans had never come."
After America's military role in Asia in and after World War II, China reacted in dramatic fashion, as have so many other nations, by using America as an example. Watching us, learning from our famous people, stealing our economic secrets, sending their children to America for education to become the leaders of the future: This is what changed China, and this is what will democratize the China of the future.
President Xi sort of looks like a Midwesterner -- that's not so funny because he worked and studied in agriculture in Iowa. President Obama studied at Harvard; today, he might well run into President Xi's daughter, who is studying there. This is the way the world really changes.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)