Trump, says Kissinger, is tearing up the old world order – but he could just be an unwitting agent of change, writes Alan Philps
How an accidental president is abandoning the pretences of the past three decades
Henry Kissinger is not known for revealing to the world the insights that, at the age of 95, he still whispers in the ears of the powerful, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin. This week he delivered a Delphic assessment of the US president to the Financial Times: "I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences".
From the man who orchestrated president Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, which opened relations with Mao's China and turned the Cold War power balance against Moscow, this sounds like high praise. But it is not quite so simple. Mr Kissinger goes on to say that Mr Trump may not know what he is doing or have any idea what he is replacing the old order with: "It could just be an accident".
So the accidental president is the unwitting agent of the change that the times demand. What might be the "old pretences" which America is throwing out? Here are four suggestions:
The first pretence is that the US can continue to control the Middle East through the exercise of military power. This was clearly in the mind of his predecessor Barack Obama, who railed against a Washington foreign policy establishment that was pressing him to use military force, despite clear evidence that it only creates more trouble.
Mr Trump has gone further: he seems not averse to outsourcing the Syrian conflict to Russia. And why not? Syria is close enough to be both an opportunity and a challenge for Mr Putin while in Washington it is an old movie no one wants to watch again.
The second pretence is that Russia will always be America’s enemy, a strongly held view in Washington. But Russia, in Mr Trump’s “America First” view, is not a commercial competitor – it has nothing to sell but oil and gas, with which America is well-supplied. So why is Russia a foe? If Mr Putin is offered partnership – and a blind eye is turned to his annexation of Crimea – Russia could be an ally in Mr Trump’s bid to stabilise the oil market as sanctions against Iran bite.
While we are talking of grand strategy, there might even be the possibility of repeating Mr Kissinger’s winning chess move of the 1970s: he moved the Chinese out of the communist orbit and into an American one. Why not bring the Russians on to the US team against China and Iran?
The third pretence is that China is just a useful source of cheap manufactured goods that Americans can splurge on, thanks to credit provided by prudent Chinese savers. In the Trump view, China is set to gobble up all America’s technical advances, dominate the Eurasian landmass and drive the US navy away from its shores and over the horizon.
How different this is from the previous administration is laid bare in a new memoir of eight years in the White House called The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s speechwriter and big thinker. In this book, China appears almost exclusively as a partner in Mr Obama’s drive to secure the Paris climate change agreement. Mr Trump has abandoned the Paris accord and treats Beijing as a threat to American power, prosperity and technological dominance.
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The fourth pretence – and perhaps the key to understanding the Trump phenomenon – is that the US is so rich that it can afford to be the world’s policeman and arbiter of right and wrong, thanks to its network of alliances and the international agreements it supports.
This was true after the end of the Second World War when Europe was in ruins, China had withdrawn from the world and Russia (then the Soviet Union) was strong in military terms but not competing in the same economic league. At that time, America, with its unrivalled industrial capacity, profited mightily from being the rule-maker. It is still the world’s richest country but its edge is being trimmed daily by the rise of China.
Mr Trump’s response to America’s relative decline is to take a sledgehammer to the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the North America Free Trade Agreement, forums in which he believes America is outvoted, and to the European Union, which has transformed 28 countries into an economic bloc to rival America. By undermining these organisations, America will regain the power to bully individual states.
The first fruits of this policy can be seen in America’s renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal and his abandoning of the international consensus on the status of Jerusalem by recognising the city as Israel’s capital.
Wil Mr Trump achieve all these goals? Certainly not. It would require more subtlety and patience than the Trump administration has to divide Russia from Iran, its partner in propping up the Assad regime in Syria, and to reverse the growing diplomatic and economic alliance between Moscow and Beijing.
Mr Trump might not succeed in demolishing the international order that Washington nurtured for so many years. It might be that his focus on taxing imports in order to reduce trade deficits will make Americans poorer. But the mere fact of issuing threats can achieve results.
America’s European allies, long berated for not spending enough on defence, are hurriedly thinking how they might take more responsibility for their own security. China is likely to scale back what now seem to be provocative plans to dominate artificial intelligence and other high-tech fields by 2030. The European Union is likely to give some ground on tariffs.
In the absence of any convincing Democratic challenger to unseat him in the 2020 election, the world will have to get used to an America which is abandoning the pretences of the past three decades. An era has ended and past certainties are melting away, but the author of the disruption is not sure of his end point.
Alan Philps is editor of The World Today magazine of international affairs