Foreign-Policy Poker With Donald Trump

Who is the patsy at the table?

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Mayberry Machiavellis. That was the sharp and memorable term coined by John DiIulio in 2002 to describe those staff in the George W. Bush White House who imagined themselves cunning—but actually bungled everything. There needs to be an update for the would-be grand strategists of the Trump era. Perhaps Kleptocrat Kissingers?

People trying to make rational sense of Donald Trump’s foreign-policy moves describe something like the following idea:

Donald Trump “is playing Nixon’s ‘China card’ in reverse,” Simon Tisdall wrote in The Guardian. “His approach can be summed up: make nice with Russia, talk tough with China” in a grand global realignment to strengthen America’s position against its leading geopolitical competitor.

And perhaps Trump indeed has such a concept in mind.

But notice some important differences between the hypothetical Trump grand strategy and the Nixon strategy.

Nixon also took care that of the three great powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and China—it was the United States that always enjoyed the most freedom of maneuver. Nixon’s outreach to China occurred after years of deterioration in the Sino-Soviet relationship, culminating in a sequence of bloody border skirmishes in March 1969 in which dozens (maybe hundreds) of Soviet and Chinese soldiers lost their lives. Locked in mutual hostility, the Soviet Union and China each had to bid for American friendship in a triangular rivalry in which the United States pursued the most consistent and coherent strategy: Work with the third most powerful nation to defeat the second most powerful.

The United States pursued this goal while holding together its traditional alliance structure, including even the relationship with Taiwan. That U.S.-Taiwan relationship was downgraded in protocol—the U.S. Embassy was renamed “the American Institute in Taiwan”—but China accepted American protection of Taiwan as the price for American help against the Soviet Union. Indeed, Taiwan’s most flourishing days began after the Nixon breakthrough with Beijing.

Compare and contrast with Trump’s gambit, if gambit is what it is. Trump has consistently committed himself first, without receiving any reciprocal consideration from Russia. Trump jolted the Chinese with a phone call from the president of Taiwan. He violated the rule that a president-elect keeps quiet about foreign policy to tweet two provocative comments about the Chinese seizure of an American naval drone. Meanwhile, Trump also appears to have committed himself to a series of unilateral concessions to Russia: on Syria, on Crimea, and even on Putin’s human rights record. (“We kill people too, Joe.”) Trump has appointed a national security adviser once paid by a Russian television network and a secretary of state who accepted a Russian medal.

Along the way, Trump has done damage to NATO, by calling into question the certainty of the treaty’s security guarantees, and endorsed British exit from the European Union, an important milestone on Putin’s project of dividing the European Union into smaller, weaker parts, each dependent on Russian energy. The U.S.-German relationship, already cool in the Obama years, has chilled to its most frigid since the end of the Cold War.

Meanwhile the Russia-China relationship remains as cordial as it was back when Chinese President Xi Jinping pronounced the two nations “friends forever” back in the summer of 2016.

Does all this look like Trump is playing some brilliant gambit? Doesn’t it look rather more like that he is the one being played?

Imagine for a moment how all this looks from Vladimir Putin’s side of the table. Russia has a GDP about the same size as Italy’s. It is weaker than any of its political competitors: the U.S., China, or a united Europe. Putin's best strategy is to divide each of those potential competitors from the others—and then to subdivide them against themselves. That strategy has been hugely advanced by the election of Donald Trump. China and the United States have already been set at loggerheads. NATO has been turned against itself, the credibility of its security guarantees already visibly dented. Russia’s prestige is rising: Pro-Russian governments have been elected in the border countries of Estonia and Moldova, a pro-Russian coup was only last month thwarted in the Adriatic country of Montenegro, and pro-Russian anti-EU parties are rising across not only central but also Western Europe.

And the United States—the leader of the democratic world, the coordinating entity of all the treaties that enforce a world order that Putin experiences as constraining—has elected a president who admiringly adopts Putin’s foreign policy as his own and even often seems to share Putin’s scorn for democratic norms at home.

Friends and critics incessantly credit Trump with playing three-dimensional or five-dimensional or eight-dimensional chess. But maybe the proper analogy for Trump’s foreign policy is derived from a different game: poker. There’s a saying that there’s a patsy at every poker table. And at this poker table, Donald Trump is the one who doesn’t know who the patsy is.