Friday, April 25, 2014

Triangular Diplomacy

Politicians, mostly but not entirely Republicans, urge President Obama to adopt a more “muscular” foreign policy. There are headlines to be won with hawkish talk, and members of Congress, especially those who are considered Presidential hopefuls, are not averse to headlines. So there are those who chide the Administration for taking a “wimpish” stance on Syria and Ukraine. At times the President and his Secretary of State seem to be bending with the wind and threatening tougher sanctions against our presumed enemies.

Who are these enemies? Russia heads the list, and seldom a day passes without Obama or Kerry delivering a volley of threats against Putin and his associates. China is not far behind. The President’s trip to Asia this week is designed to reassure Japan and the Philippines that we will back up their territorial disputes with China with our muscle.

It is time for a reality check. There are three major powers in the world: the United States, Russia, and China.  We can out-muscle Russia or China, but we can’t take on both of them. If we threaten both, we will simply drive them to join forces in an attempt to defeat us. In a new Cold War, not just against Russia but against Russia and China combined, we would either (a) lose or (b) win at a cost that would leave the world in shambles.

Henry Kissinger, in his excellent book Diplomacy, outlines the background of Nixon’s “opening to China” in 1969:

Nixon decided to concentrate on the broader issue of China’s attitude toward a dialogue with the United States. Priority was given to determining the scope of the looming Sino-Soviet-American triangle. If we could determine what we suspected – that the Soviet Union and China were more afraid of each other than they were of the United States – an unprecedented opportunity for American diplomacy would come into being.

So it’s time, hawks, to decide whether to make nice with Russia or China.  Threatening both just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic. Decide whether some islands in the East China Sea are more important to the United States than Crimea, whether North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are more important than NATO’s interest in extending its reach.

Of course, best of all would be a world in which the United States is friendly with both Russia and China, but that seems highly improbable.

Whatever else one might think of Nixon, his trip to China was a master stroke. In these turbulent times we need more negotiations, less bluster, more give-and-take, less "you do this, or else."  We need triangular diplomacy.