Kissinger was talking with Edward Luce of the Financial Times about the current US President: “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”. Later in the conversation, he qualifies this assessment by adding, however: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”
Luce, as might be expected, imputes Trump’s meeting with President Putin to signal a possible putative nadir in American diplomacy, and a betrayal of US intelligence claims of Russian disruption of the 2016 elections – even citing the N.Y. Daily News headline that what Trump uttered there, constituted “Open Treason”.
But Kissinger, who briefs both Trump and Putin, evidently refuses to be drawn - to take Luce’s bait. Rather, he says, matter-of-factly, that the Trump summit had to happen: “It was a meeting that had to take place. I have advocated it for several years. It has been submerged by American domestic issues. It is certainly a missed opportunity. But I think one has to come back to something.”
Why was the meeting so crucial? And what is ‘that something’, to which we must “come back”? Luce dwells on Kissinger’s opaqueness of messaging and complains that it is hard to discern the direction of his economical discourse. But in fact, Kissinger lays it all out clearly, and in plain view – and that to which he is leading – is indeed, crucially important.
Now, is the moment when Russia and China are both challenging the US-constructed global order – in concert: which is to say, challenging America – if not in a fully formal alliance – then in a strategic political and economic partnership. “The mistake NATO has made”, Kissinger says, “is to think that there is a sort of historic evolution that will march across Eurasia - and not to understand that somewhere on that march it will encounter something - very different to a Westphalian [western idea of a liberal democratic and market orientated state] entity.”
Precisely. For years, both Republican and Democratic administrations have argued that the gravitational pull of U.S.-dominated international institutions, trade flows, even pop culture, would gradually reshape both Russia and China, turning both into enthusiastic, compliant (and subservient) participants in a global, consumerist, world set-up, led by the US.
NATO, the military adjunct to spreading this global order across the globe, however, relentlessly hurtles on – oblivious to Kissinger’s point that its ‘historic’ march across Eurasia would eventually crash upon two culturally, non-Westphalian, large rocks: Russia and China.
And just to be clear, Kissinger – referring to Brzezinski’s recent death – actually spells out to Luce why Trump’s Helsinki summit was so important: “Zbig was almost unique in my generation”, Kissinger says: “We both considered ideas about the world order to be the key problem of our time. How could we create it? We had somewhat different ideas. But for both of us, we were above all, concerned to raise diplomacy to that level of influence.”
Luce asks: [And] who is asking such questions today. To which Kissinger replies flatly, and devastatingly: “There is no debate today.”
There is Luce’s answer: Through happenstance or design – Trump is, in Kissinger’s, view, marking the end of an era – forcing it to give up its ‘old pretences’ (such as its conceit concerning Fukuyama’s End to History and the Last Man, and its notion of convergence on western liberal values). “In the 1940s European leaders had a clear sense of direction” Kissinger observes, but, “Right now they mostly just want to avoid trouble.” “They are not doing a very good job of it”, Luce interrupts: “That’s true” comes Kissinger’s laconic reply, given with “a cryptic smile”.
And avoiding trouble, in EU terms, has essentially come to mean a Europe comfortably ensconced in its core foreign policy role, as being a springboard for the battle to ‘counter Russian aggression’ – pleasing Washington by acclaiming NATO and echoing the refrain of ‘Russian aggression’ has been the unquestioned path, the sine qua non for those Europeans harbouring ambition, or a hankering for state office. The stance of countering Russia has been unreflectively, and unquestioningly adopted. Unquestioningly, that is, until Trump dumped this ‘old pretence’ by initiating his détente with Russia.
The “grave, grave” dangers to which Kissinger is alerting us – does not sound much like him simply his urging the re-adoption of his old ‘triangulation’ tactics of the Nixon era - dividing China and Russia, whilst keeping the US at the hub, fanning the competitive rivalry and antagonisms between the remaining two triangular poles.
Perhaps Kissinger understands that ‘triangulation’ too, has become another ‘old pretence’. He does emphasise how NATO has completely failed to understand Russia’s ‘almost mystical’ tolerance for suffering, Luce relates. Kissinger’s key point being that NATO misread Russia’s deep-seated craving for respect – to be respected as ‘Russia, as it is’.
He is not warning that the US lacks a ‘triangulation strategy’; but rather that we are unthinkingly heading to war, based upon some utopian fantasy that the world is destined towards an exclusively American-centred future. The meeting had to happen, but, “I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world”, Kissinger warns.
Trump cannot, in any event, ‘triangulate’ – even if he wanted. Trump has almost nothing to offer Mr Putin. Congress, and the Deep State have done their utmost to cage all Trump’s potentialities with respect to Russia. Trump’s political capital is too attenuated. He is continually threatened by possible legal action or impeachment. What then, can he do?
And too, there is no chance to separate Russia from China. Both states are facing hybrid war from the US and Europe – but more particularly, the latter are engaged in a dollar-based financial, tariff, and sanctions war. To counter this weaponised dollar hegemony, plainly China and Russia must co-ordinate and align, their financial counter strategy, if they are to mount any successful defence.
Here is the nub of Kissing’s very grave period for the world. He suggests later in the discussion that America may find itself an island between two oceans – and with no global order in hand. In an era of fragmented and disordered ‘order’, in other words. In an era where America may still have ‘channels of communication’, but which are de-potentiated, because America is polarized and no longer a unitative state. Effectively without any brakes.
What then can be done? Well Kissinger calls it out: Keep ‘diplomacy’ going, at the very least. Trump can at least try to ‘make bricks out of straw’ with the very limited political possibilities at his command – and hope that after November, he may find himself sufficiently a President plenipotentiary, in order to take his tentative détente through to fulfillment.