First published SMH January 6, 2017
There’s widespread dismay and disbelief in the commentariat about president-elect Donald Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin, cosying up with Russia despite the despot’s Ukrainian moves, Syrian bombing, human rights record, suspected assassinations, US election hacking and general meddling against American interests.
Given the Republican Party’s length and depth of feelings about Moscow, it seems astounding. But within the world of Trump’s priorities, it makes perfect sense.
It’s a re-run with a twist of the Nixon/Kissinger playbook, itself straight from Machiavelli. Trump “goes to Russia” is simply the reverse of “Nixon goes to China”.
With the aim of increasing pressure on and isolating the Soviet Union, Nixon’s reopened Sino-American ambassadorial talks the year he was inaugurated. National security adviser Kissinger opened secret negotiations with Beijing through Pakistan.
“Ping Pong diplomacy” followed and Kissinger’s own secret visits in 1971 before Nixon visited China in February 1972. It was, in keeping with Nixon’s humble opinion of himself, a “week that changed the world”.
At the time, the Soviet Union was a bigger problem for Nixon than China. China was an opportunity. The price of the One China policy was American recognition of Taiwan as part of China – too bad, Taiwan.
Now China is the country Trump openly despises, the nation he perceives as an economic and perhaps strategic threat to America’s Global Number One status.
China, according to Trump, artificially lowers its currency to compete against the US (it hasn’t for some years now), “steals American jobs” (not really) and submarine drones (only borrowed and no big deal). As head of his National Trade Council, he has appointed one Peter Navarro who isn’t so much a China hawk as a rabid anti-China propagandist.
The election was barely over before Trump made his first foreign affairs foray – the phone call with Taiwan’s president that was a direct slap at China’s sensibilities.
Russia, on the other hand, is not an economic threat to the US. It’s not a trade competitor. It’s not a nation about to overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy.
Trump and his advisers may well see themselves as inheritors of Kissinger’s version of Realpolitik – happy to sacrifice pawns for the sake of the bigger game. NATO? Europe can pay for its own defence. Ukraine doesn’t matter. Eastern Europe can go back to being Russia’s sphere of influence, if it helps in the containment of China.
Beyond backing Israel to do whatever it fancies with Palestinians, Trump’s indications are that the Middle East isn’t worth the candle now that the US has effective hydrocarbon self-sufficiency.
Here he reflects the understandable views of Americans sick of interminable wars and alleged allies of dubious quality. Good heavens, the region is mainly Muslim. If Russia wants to play the Great Game, it’s welcome to it, starting with Syria.
It a tragedy, particularly for Australia’s longer-term interests with China, our present and future major trading partner. Obama’s attempts to encircle China, his “pivot to Asia”, has already done plenty to escalate tension.
The danger of Australia viewing the world through American eyes was bad enough before Trump. It could become disastrous if it continues with him and his China hawks.
The cynicism behind the Nixon/Kissinger Realpolitik was a terrible thing. Just how bad, how cynical, has been demonstrated by the belated proof that Nixon was a traitor.
Nixon found out, reportedly via Kissinger, that Lyndon Johnson was close to a Vietnam peace agreement in 1968. Fearing it would damage his election chances, Nixon set about wrecking the deal, “monkey wrenching” it, to use his term.
Nixon preferred to prolong the war, to cause countless extra deaths – American, Australian and, overwhelmingly most of all, Vietnamese – rather than risk his lead in the polls diminishing. Kissinger went on to be responsible for the covert and illegal carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia, among other things.
Such is the real cost of Realpolitik, the real cost of total cynicism. Such is the mantle Trump appears keen to assume.