When Richard Nixon went to China, he encouraged a Sino-Soviet split that redounded to America’s benefit. Today, Donald Trump could curb China’s ambitions by going to Moscow.
The United States’ armed forces are dangerously overstretched, its national debt is spiraling out of control, and its potential opponents are closing in on its military edge. And while Moscow has certainly been a headache for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the real long-term threat comes from China.
Just as many saw Nixon’s China visit as an acquiescence toward the communist scourge, some today grumble that working with Putin will facilitate the rise of a new Russian Empire, with “Vlad the Invader” on the throne. These notions may make sense to Russophobes, but the Kremlin is not set on world domination.
What the Kremlin does want is to have control of the region along its borders. Putin seems intent on pestering the West into staying out of its backyard, or at least to stop pressing for further NATO expansion. But beyond that, there is little for the U.S. and its allies to fear. Even if Moscow were set on marching through Europe, it would be unable to muster the resources or manpower to do so. Most reports indicate that the Russian economy does not have a very cheery outlook, and structural problems are key to its economic pain.
Others, of course, protest Putin’s poor record on human rights. The bottom line, however, is that the United States works with far worse regimes—such as Saudi Arabia, which executes its citizens at alarming rates and shares few if any of America’s values—and must work with such regimes in a world teeming with them.
China, by contrast, has rather positive prospects for the future. The country’s economic-growth rate could slow to 6.5 percent this year according to sources in Beijing—a figure enviable by almost any standard. And China is poised to be a longer and more formidable geopolitical challenge than Russia to the United States. Where Moscow aims to become a lasting regional power, Beijing appears to have larger designs, as evidenced by the much-vaunted One Belt One Road project, a highly ambitious development strategy that would stretch from Eurasia to Africa. It has also brazenly tested American power. China, in short, is the nation most likely to challenge the United States as a superpower on the global scene.
And for the time being, China is aligned with Russia against the U.S. Much has been said about this supposed Moscow-Beijing axis and whether the relationship will stand the test of time. There is speculation that Russia may assume a more adversarial stance toward China as the latter’s influence and clout increase. This will be more likely to happen if Trump encourages it.
In Nixon’s day, the assumption was that communist China and the Soviet Union were operating in lockstep against the United States. But Nixon’s statecraft proved that the Moscow-Beijing kinship was exaggerated and, indeed, susceptible to U.S. diplomatic exploitation. The Soviet Union was left with an uneasy communist regime to its south, ensuring that Moscow could be contained. As Nixon shattered the conception of monolithic communism, perhaps Trump could shatter the illusion of monolithic autocracy.
Russia can play a critical role in the Asia-Pacific. As Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, continues to court Beijing, the United States will need every partner it can get to ensure China can grow and remain a stakeholder in the global system—without being tempted to prey upon its neighbors. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces are already capable of resisting China, and the South Koreans actively train with the U.S. military and would be no pushover. The addition of Russian forces, which have shown improved effectiveness in recent years, would ensure that Beijing would not be tempted to test America’s or its allies’ resolve.
Certainly, in order for Trump to make any realistic headway with Moscow, a number of American concerns will have to be addressed. First among them is Russia’s harassment of NATO members such as Estonia—one of the rare few that is paying the suggested 2 percent of GDP to defense. Perhaps President-elect Trump could work out a deal with Moscow that protects eastern NATO members’ integrity (especially if others, especially Latvia and Lithuania, start paying their dues) while ensuring that NATO will not expand further into Russia’s backyard.
While there is no guarantee that Donald Trump will espouse realist ideals and take a play from Nixon’s book, there are indications that he will. The president-elect has been described as having a realist foreign policy as far back as April, though his campaign rhetoric never assumed coherence.
America’s current trajectory is unsustainable. Trump would be wise to seize this opportunity and initiate what Robert Zoellick cleverly termed a “reverse Kissinger.”
Blake Franko is an assistant editor at The National Interest.