(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Henry Kissinger traveled to China in 1971, he did more than end nearly a quarter-century of estrangement between Washington and Beijing. He also managed the diplomatic coup of splitting America’s foremost enemies — China and the Soviet Union — and thereby vaulting the U.S. from a position of strategic overstretch to one of strategic advantage.
Now that America is facing renewed hostility with Moscow and Beijing, the Donald Trump administration has reportedly been thinking about trying to repeat the performance, this time by conciliating Russia in hopes of turning it against an increasingly formidable China. It’s a neat idea for a superpower under strain, but it probably won’t work until things get both much better and much worse.
At first glance, the geopolitical logic of playing Russia and China off each other would seem impeccable. The two nations pose the greatest threats to American influence and the stability of the U.S.-led international system. They are conducting parallel campaigns to carve out spheres of influence, weaken U.S. alliances and partnerships, and project their power globally.
Yet in the past these nations have competed more often than they have cooperated; they have fought wars hot and cold against each other. Today, they remain rivals for influence in Central Asia and elsewhere, and history would suggest that two enormously ambitious, continent-sized countries with thousands of miles of shared border will eventually turn against each other, and they know it.
The U.S., meanwhile, could certainly use a reduction in the number of adversaries it faces. America is rapidly approaching strategic insolvency — the point at which its global commitments exceed its ability to uphold them. If it could reach a new détente with Russia, it might decrease U.S. defense burdens in Eastern Europe, where capabilities are badly stressed. Surely, then, a smart administration would avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, and perhaps even form a strategic partnership with Moscow to address the larger long-term threat from Beijing.
This is essentially the feat Kissinger and Richard Nixon pulled off decades ago, albeit with China in Russia’s position and vice versa. Observing the obvious hostility and growing violence of the Sino-Soviet split, the Nixon administration opened a relationship with the weaker party, China, in order to balance the stronger party — the Soviet Union.
Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. officials gradually built that relationship into an informal alliance geared toward containing and rolling back Soviet influence. “We can work together to commonly deal with a bastard,” Mao told Kissinger in 1973 — and this is just what the two countries did, through progressively greater cooperation in the diplomatic, economic, intelligence and even military realms.
The strategic gains this shift produced were immense. It profoundly disturbed the Soviet Union — the U.S. was creating “a new strategic alignment of forces in international politics in Asia and in the world as a whole,” one senior Kremlin official wrote. Kissinger’s “triangular diplomacy” confronted the Soviets, rather than the Americans, with the dilemma of confronting two powerful, colluding rivals, thereby contributing significantly to the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War.
This is undoubtedly the analogy that strategists both inside and outside the Trump administration have in mind when pushing for rapprochement with Russia as a way of exerting greater pressure on China. Alas, the analogy doesn’t really work, at least not yet.
The fundamental reason is that the forces pushing Russia and China together are far stronger than those driving them apart. In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union and China had reached the brink of war — perhaps nuclear war — due to their explosive rivalry for leadership of the communist world. Today, Moscow and Beijing are playing together nicely. They are cooperating extensively on issues such as development of military technology, military exercises in hot spots from the South China Sea to the Baltic, promoting pro-authoritarian norms of global governance (such as the concept of “internet sovereignty”), and strengthening autocratic rule in countries from Kazakhstan to Venezuela.
They are doing so because both countries seek to undermine a U.S.-led international order that they believe inhibits their influence and prestige, and because they both are ruled by autocratic regimes that perceive an existential ideological threat from a democratic superpower. Russian and Chinese leaders have been talking about formally about a strategic partnership in opposition to U.S. primacy since the 1990s; they seem to have achieved it today.
Diplomacy, however, is the art of finding opportunity in difficulty. So could America break this axis of autocracy by pursuing a less confrontational policy toward Putin? Maybe, but the price would probably be astronomical.
In the long term, China represents the larger threat to U.S. interests, as a result of its vast economic and military potential. Yet in the near term, Vladimir Putin has proved himself to be the more dangerous and disruptive actor. The Russian leader has launched three major military interventions over the last decade — in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria — and carried out audacious attacks on Western political systems. Putin probably thinks that this offensive is progressing fairly well right now, given Russia’s military success in Ukraine and Syria, his low-cost/high-payoff intervention in U.S. electoral politics in 2016, and the deep internal crises afflicting the European Union and NATO.
It would thus take a truckload of concessions for the U.S. to persuade Putin to stop pushing against an enfeebled West and strike up a new hostility with his erstwhile Chinese partner in the east. This would not be the “Ukraine for Syria” swap that some administration officials reportedly favor (whereby Washington would drop Ukraine-related sanctions on Moscow in exchange for Russian counter-terrorism assistance in Syria).
It would probably require a far broader range of accommodations, including, but not limited to, dismantling the deterrent to Russian aggression that NATO has begun to construct in Eastern Europe and the Baltic. Those concessions, in turn, would further compromise a U.S. alliance structure that is already reeling from the blows Trump has dealt it, most recently at the G-7 meeting in Canada and the NATO summit in Brussels. America might well find itself destroying some part of the international system in order to save it.
This does not mean that there will never come a chance to enlist Russia as part of an anti-China coalition. But doing so would likely require matters to shift, for the worse and also for the better. On the one hand, the threat that Russia perceives from China would have to worsen considerably: perhaps because Chinese power and assertiveness continue to grow as Russia’s long-term geopolitical potential continues to decline; or perhaps because Chinese expansionism begins to fundamentally threaten Moscow’s security interests in places such as Central Asia or even Siberia.
On the other hand, Putin or his successors would have to be convinced that Russia needs a better relationship with the West — that the price of confronting the U.S. and its European allies is simply too high — and that a more moderate posture is warranted. For Moscow to join the West in containing China, it must first conclude that it can’t beat the West by cooperating with China.
If and when these conditions are satisfied, America may need a new Kissinger who excels in the art of triangular diplomacy. Until then, trying to counter China by buying off Russia is likely to prove a costly mistake.
To contact the author of this story: Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."
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