The “Reverse Kissinger” Theory of Trump and Putin Doesn’t Hold Up

Observers want to believe there’s a grand strategy behind the president’s incoherent, disastrous foreign policy. There’s not. By FRED KAPLAN JULY 27, 20186:29 PM

President Donald Trump’s behavior on the world stage has been so uninformed, incoherent, and sometimes so inimical to U.S. interests that a few observers have tried to make the case that something else must be going on here—that he’s following a clever strategy or, alternately, that U.S. policy is the same as it always was, so pay no attention to his public antics.

The latest example of seeking a rational template for Trump’s bizarre behavior, in this case his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is an article in the Daily Beast, reporting that it was Henry Kissinger who pushed Trump to revive good relations with Russia in order “to contain a rising China.”

Kissinger apparently sold the idea as a mirror image of his own diplomatic triumph in the early 1970s, when, as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, he orchestrated the big overture to China, mainly to contain an expansive Soviet Union. The Daily Beast contends that this is where Trump may have got the idea to warm up to Putin, though the authors note that Kissinger wouldn’t have endorsed the obsequiousness Trump displayed during the meeting.

There are some problems with this whole notion. First, I’m skeptical that this is where Trump got the idea. (I also suspect the article oversimplifies Kissinger’s argument, since he has long sought to tout, and to ease fears about, Chinese expansion.) Trump’s meetings with Kissinger are said to have taken place during the post-election transition—a long time ago. And, of course, Robert Mueller is looking into less intellectual roots for Trump’s kowtowing toward Moscow.

Second, the theory behind the idea—its supposed similarities to Kissinger’s opening of China—makes no sense. Back in 1971–72, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong’s China formed a sort of geostrategic triangle; bringing China into the world (or so Nixon and Kissinger hoped) might dispel Moscow’s influence in the communist world and disrupt the Sino-Soviet alliance, including its support for Hanoi in the Vietnam War.

Kissinger’s stratagem didn’t accomplish either goal: Mao was already moving away from Moscow’s orbit (though the Nixon-Kissinger opening did help him move farther and faster), and Hanoi kept advancing in the war.

But even giving Kissinger full plaudits for the maneuver, there’s no reason to think that a reverse ploy would work today. The three countries no longer form a geostrategic triangle: Though Russia and China cooperate in many spheres, with mixed results and spurts of tension, neither country is crucial to the other’s goals or operations. China in particular is expanding its influence—political, economic, and increasingly military—across many routes, on many continents, far beyond Russia’s access. It is hard to see how a budding U.S.-Russian alliance would contain China at all.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Daily Beast’s sources are mainly Trump administration officials. Their aim is clearly to present the president’s actions as driven not just by a smart, rational strategy but by a Kissingerian smart rational strategy. Good luck on that.

Still, a story in the Financial Times, published shortly before the Daily Beast piece, reports that at least some Chinese officials are mulling, and maybe even believing, the same notion. Their view is that Trump is tearing up trade deals and destroying the Western alliances not because he’s a populist or an isolationist but because he’s a “master tactician” and “strategist” who is taking “a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favorable to Washington.” In fact, the article goes on:

They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the U.S. nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr. Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.

A few points need to be made here. First, as with the Daily Beast article, it’s not clear how much the FT article reflects the full reality. Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me in an email that she was at a conference in Beijing two weeks ago and found no Chinese officials or other prominent figures hailing Trump in anything like these terms. Rather, she said, their “most dominant effort was to find common ground with the EU and Russian participants on the need for a new rules-based order based on China’s idea of a community of shared destiny. They kept saying, ‘The system is broken’—the system of U.S.-led alliances, with its exclusionary nature, is outdated.”

The Chinese line on this is obviously self-serving, but it stems not from fear that Trump is trying to isolate them but rather from a certain glee that Trump’s own self-isolation is opening opportunities for them.

I asked Daniel Sneider, an Asia specialist and lecturer at Stanford University, about the Chinese comments quoted in FT. He replied that policy thinkers in China, Japan, and to some extent South Korea “tend to ascribe a greater rationality and logic, even consistency, to what he is doing.” This tendency, he adds, stems in part from “an almost desperate desire to ascribe something cogent and purposeful to the chaos of the Trump administration.” Some Americans—possibly including the sources and authors of the Daily Beast article—share that desperate desire.

For those who don’t, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had an alternate explanation—and a psychic way out—for the spectacle of Trump’s belligerence earlier this month at the NATO conference in Brussels and his kowtowing to Putin at their summit in Helsinki. Pompeo’s formula: Just keep saying, It doesn’t matter, so forget about it.

At a July 25 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrats and a few Republicans, including Chairman Bob Corker, expressed dismay about Trump’s performance at both venues and asked repeatedly what promises Trump made to Putin at their two-hour-plus private session (with not even note-takers present). They also asked whether even Pompeo knew what was discussed (high-ranking Pentagon officials have said they don’t yet know).

Pompeo breezily and brusquely waved away all questions. He opened the hearing by releasing a statement, signed by Trump, condemning Russia’s continuing occupation of Crimea. Trump may have said something different on the issue, but it doesn’t matter, Pompeo insisted; this is U.S. policy. Every question, about every issue, he batted away in a similar tone of undisguised contempt.

If Trump is some grand strategist, playing shrewd moves on a Realpolitik board game, why do the guardians of his policy insist that what we see and hear him doing and saying isn’t really what’s going on?

It may not matter much whether Pompeo persuades a panel of senators because, for now, the Republican majority votes for whatever Trump wants anyway. Outside Washington, and especially overseas, things are different. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis make frequent trips to Europe and Asia, telling U.S. allies not to worry, we’re committed to their security, regardless of whatever Trump just said. But the allies are getting worried. The EU recently signed an economic partnership with Japan—with the U.S. not included. The German foreign minister is trying to form a political pact, with other European and Asian countries, dedicated to preserving the postwar Western order—bypassing Washington, which seems bent on wrecking it.

Trump is abandoning America’s place of prominence in the world. It’s a natural instinct to look for some redemptive plan behind all this—whether it’s driven by indifference, idiocy or menace—or to pretend that it doesn’t matter. But there is no such plan, and it matters very much.

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