By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Recently, the Daily Beast ran an article, “Henry Kissinger Pushed Trump to Work with Russia to Box in China.” It described the attempts by the former Secretary of State to persuade the Trump administration to use Russia as a lever in containing China.
In the 1970s, Washington enlisted China to aid in its attempts to contain the Soviet Union. Now, Kissinger believes that the inverse of that same strategy could be useful for the U.S. in containing Beijing’s moves in East Asia. This time, however, Russia would play the spoiler. At least, that’s the theory.
About two weeks ago, I wrote that Trump’s grand strategy and his infatuation with Vladimir Putin could be explained by that approach. Although Dr. Kissinger’s idea that Moscow could help put “Beijing in a box” does not fully validate my theory, it provides further evidence that China is a top priority for the Trump administration and that the President is willing to go to great lengths to fulfill his agenda.
Kissinger Diplomacy Would Allow Russia and US to Pursue National Interests
The Daily Beast article quotes several administration officials with whom the former Secretary of State spoke, along with expert input on the viability of the plan. One flaw in the article, and in much of the ensuing analysis, is the insinuation that Kissinger is promoting not only renewed ties with Russia, but also something akin to an alliance.
In researching Kissinger’s writing and his more recent interviews, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Kissinger has close ties with both Putin and China’s president, Xi Jinping.
He speaks to both of these men – at times independently and sometimes as a U.S. emissary – because China and Russia both view Kissinger as a constant in a Washington that frequently changes.
Kissinger approaches Russia as a nation that is not necessarily friend or foe. Instead, he views Russia as a regional power with interests that cannot be ignored. His approach is more akin to pursuing a diplomatic course that would allow both Washington and Moscow to pursue certain interests without encroaching on each other’s spheres of influence.
In his book “Diplomacy,” Kissinger recalls Germany’s attempt in 1895 to court Great Britain into some sort of an alliance, which London rejected because it simply didn’t suit Britain’s interests. Kissinger writes that Germany should have pursued an “entente-type arrangement” that would have encompassed a “benevolent neutrality.”
That would have allowed for freedom of action when needed and cooperation between the two powers when their respective interests aligned. This is a frequent theme in much of Kissinger’s writings and is likely the template for diplomacy with Russia that he advocates.
On the recent Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Kissinger told the Daily Beast, “It was a meeting that had to take place. I have advocated it for several years.”
He would expand on his remarks in an interview with the Financial Times. Kissinger noted, “I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world. I have conducted innumerable summit meetings, so they didn’t learn this one [Helsinki] from me.” His concern is evident and although he advocates improved ties with Russia, the outcome of the recent summit was far less than he desired.
Kissinger’s Works Provide Insight into His Concerns about China and Russia
The Daily Beast article called attention to a strategy that Kissinger advocated, but without actual details of how it would work. That only leads to several misconceptions. Fortunately, the former secretary of state is a prolific author and his works give us insight into his concerns about China and his proposed approach to Russia.
Overall, Kissinger seems more concerned about a U.S. foreign policy set adrift than the rise of a regional competitor. In the Financial Times interview, Kissinger expressed his concern over the U.S. removing itself from any semblance of the Atlantic alliance, not just NATO, predicting that Europe would turn into “an appendage of Eurasia.”
This appendage would then be subject to the whims of Beijing. It would leave the U.S. as “a geopolitical island, flanked by two giant oceans and without a rules-based order to uphold.”
This situation is similar to the British experience in the 18th and early 19th centuries. As Kissinger points out in his books “Diplomacy” and “World Order,” London managed a balance of power on the European continent by abstaining from alliances and involving itself only when the balance tipped too far in any one direction.
The U.S., on the other hand, expressed interest in a balance of power approach during the Cold War only as a means to contain the Soviets. Since then, Washington has tried to spread democracy as a means of solidifying and growing a liberal international order. The approach, though noble, simply hasn’t worked.
Being the diplomat that he is, Kissinger advocates dialogue and continued U.S. involvement in an international order. That doesn’t mean a continuance of the liberal international order in its current form, but rather an adjustment of the existing U.S.-dominated order that is geared to the realities of the world as it is now, not based upon a Cold War period that no longer exists.
In one form or another, Kissinger has warned of this fallacy in many of his books since the Soviet collapse. Trump may well heed Kissinger’s advice and may even pursue his recommendations in isolating China.
But this president is not one who likes to stick to the script. Trump’s grand strategy, along with the Kissinger’s plan, may approach the same end, but how U.S. power is wielded to that end is what truly concerns the lifelong diplomat.
Kissinger’s next move seems crafted to push the U.S. toward a balance of power approach. Considering Kissinger’s influence in Washington, Moscow, Beijing and beyond, his wisdom is difficult to ignore.