Donald Trump is nothing if not unpredictable as president. But when it comes to foreign policy, that just might be his greatest foreign policy asset. After all, America's ability to swing between aloofness and overreaction are embedded in its DNA thanks to its inherently strong geopolitical foundation. A mercurial spirit in the White House might make some big waves, but can also — at least in some circumstances — be harnessed into an opportunity.
A grand strategist like Dr. Henry Kissinger, who has been known to advise Trump on occasion, likely detects such an opportunity in a Trump presidency. Kissinger, now 95 but lucid as ever, has made himself available to several presidents and candidates to help shape foreign policy and engage in quiet shuttle diplomacy. His guidance, delivered in long, gravelly monologues, centers on his quest to shape a new world order that has a chance at coping with centurial challenges. As the man who split the Sino-Soviet axis during the Cold War and gave rise to the phrase "Nixon Goes to China," Kissinger spends much of his time dwelling on the rise of China. Now, the veteran diplomat is trying to help craft a new order in a rapidly changing environment – starting with a solution to one of the United States' biggest headaches of the day, North Korea.
An emerging great power competition among the United States, China and Russia will define the international system in the coming years. As that competition intensifies, the Korean Peninsula, wedged between empires, will inevitably come into play. While many countries find U.S. President Donald Trump's tactics deeply polarizing, his overtures to North Korea are based on a deeper strategy that could usher in a balance of power with China in northeast Asia.
On a Collision Course
In his most recent book, World Order (2014), the veteran diplomat questions history to explain when, and under what circumstances, previous attempts to foster world order succeeded and failed. In Kissinger's view, the foundational template for world order was the Westphalian balance of power that emerged at the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. It was under this model that a system of peer powers, none powerful enough to defeat the rest, embraced the notion of sovereignty and shared a sense of legitimacy to maintain a relative and flexible equilibrium on the continent. If any one power tried to achieve hegemony or a second-tier power tried to force its way into the ranks of major powers through destabilizing actions, the unspoken rules of the order would effectively induce pragmatic alliances to counter the emerging threat.
Kissinger acknowledges the powerful (and perhaps unavoidable) forces that ultimately caused the Westphalian order to fray in the 19th century, including the rise of nationalism, the unification of Germany, Britain's aloofness and Russia's probing on the Continent. At the same time, he deeply laments the 20th century carnage that resulted from a series of miscalculations by state leaders who failed to read their geopolitical surroundings accurately. As many of his writings and testimonies imply, Kissinger is not a man for retirement; the mission of this bold nonagenarian is the prevention of global tragedy through the construction of a new balance of power.
In surveying the world today, the stresses on the post-Cold War global order are easy to pinpoint. The United States remains inherently powerful but is no longer unrivaled. China is rapidly rising as a peer competitor to the United States while a weaker and wary Russia, enticed by the prospect of weakening the U.S.-led order, has strategically aligned itself (for now) with Beijing. Squeezed between these two poles, Europe finds itself too divided to play the role of an effective mediator, while regional giants like Japan, Turkey and India are still trying to find their footing in the fluid space among these great powers.
In other words, the world is in a growing state of disequilibrium. China and the United States, two countries on opposite ends of the earth, each with their own claim to historical exceptionalism, together form the center of gravity in the present international system. After being the center of its own world for centuries, China was thrust into a Western-led order even though it took no part in writing the rules of the system. In time, as Kissinger warns, China will expect to revise the rules of the contemporary order to better suit its needs. Regardless of whether Trump is in the White House or Xi Jinping remains president for life, China's global drive for economic security is on a collision course with an American imperative to maintain global dominance. And unless the United States can find a way to both coexist and balance against a rising China, this century could bear witness to a new — and perhaps much more intense — tragedy in great power politics.
Unless the United States can find a way to both coexist and balance against a rising China, this century could bear witness to a new tragedy in great power politics.
The North Korean Litmus Test
The fate of the Korean Peninsula is Exhibit A in this emerging world order. Wedged between empires, Korea is no stranger to falling prey to bigger powers. If Korea is to attain a semblance of balance among its more powerful neighbors, it must find a path to unification, even if such a path has been riddled with pitfalls for the better part of seven decades. The first attempt at reunification ended in a draw among the great powers when Kim Il Sung exploited the deep paranoia of the Soviets and their Chinese allies in 1950, obtaining their endorsement to invade the south. But in another demonstration of American unpredictability, the United States rapidly shifted from ambivalence to decisiveness in its Cold War calculations to push the North Koreans all the way to the Yalu River on the Chinese border, putting unification under American tutelage within Washington's grasp. But as Kissinger explains, the same necessity that drove the Chinese in 1593 to repel an invading force (then Japanese) from the Yalu border compelled Mao Zedong to respond to the U.S. incursion. Not wishing to get in over its head with China at a time when the Soviet Union was a priority, the United States exercised strategic restraint to scale back its forces on the peninsula and respect a buffer line on the 38th parallel.
Will China and the United States once again succeed in reaching an understanding on Korea to manage their great power competition? Both have an interest in neutralizing North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Both know from history why an American military intervention in Korea could easily draw China into a war that both would rather avoid. And both are well-positioned through security, economic and political means to influence a Korean path to reunification. While the Korean Peninsula will remain a theater of competition for the United States and China in the long run, it also has the potential to reflect an emerging balance of power between Washington and Beijing in northeast Asia.
Commentators who were up in arms over the utter lack of detail on denuclearization in the final statement from the Trump-Kim summit should bear in mind that the traditional, decades-old approach to containing a nuclear rogue like North Korea has failed spectacularly.
The president's unconventional outreach to North Korea fits neatly into this strategic paradigm. His seemingly brash move to call off the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just days ahead of time seemingly forced Pyongyang to cede the unpredictability card to the U.S. president (at least for now, anyway). Commentators who were up in arms over the utter lack of detail on denuclearization, as well as the absence of any discussion on human rights in the final statement, should bear in mind that the traditional, decades-old approach to containing a nuclear rogue like North Korea has failed spectacularly. If Washington had commenced the top-level dialogue with denuclearization technicalities, much less human rights, the conversation would have immediately hit a wall. Instead, the Singapore summit demonstrated political will on both sides to break through their stalemate — not much more and not much less. And while the specter of collapse will naturally loom over future negotiations between two radical, short-tempered leaders on the prickly issue of denuclearization, the strategic foundation underlining their dialogue is undeniable. In fact, it's what gives these negotiations real legs.
Trump may be the most radical president in modern U.S. history. And radical tactics will, by design, make the traditionalists among us squirm. Agile alliance-making, after all, is a prerequisite to balance-of-power politics, and the president's hawkish economic agenda threatens to polarize many of the allies that it needs in this great power competition. But that does not mean that every move the president makes is entirely bereft of strategy. And with the aid of an old foreign policy hand like Kissinger, a Korean settlement could serve as one of many blueprints in the construction of a new world order.