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.