Trump rediscovers the missing linkage

 The president has unwittingly embraced a Kissinger-era foreign policy

“Linkage” was a term introduced to American diplomacy by Henry Kissinger at the outset of the Nixon administration. Linkage could be an explicit gambit — for example, making “progress in settling the Vietnam War . . . a condition for advance in areas of interest to the Soviets, such as the Middle East, trade, or arms limitation”. But it was also an implicit reality in an increasingly interdependent world.

Few commentators on international relations would credit Donald Trump with such sophistication. When we think of the current president, the word “links” tends to conjure up images of golf courses rather than grand strategy. And yet his administration’s foreign policy is too frequently underestimated. Linkage is central to it.

The context is different, of course, because the Soviet Union has dwindled into Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while China under Xi Jinping is now the rival superpower. And today there is no foreign policy mess like the Vietnam War, sapping American strength and tearing the country apart. Yet the world is even more interdependent in 2019 than it was 50 years ago. Linkage is all around.

Consider the following linked issues. First, there is the Trump administration’s use of tariffs to force China to change its behaviour with respect to trade. Second, there is the tech war, which is being waged not only against the Chinese firm Huawei but more generally in the area of artificial intelligence. Third, there is Washington’s effort to alter the Middle East balance of power to the disadvantage of Iran — an effort that nearly led to a retaliatory airstrike on Thursday after the Iranians shot down a US drone.

Finally, there is the president’s desire to keep the American economy growing, which explains his renewed pressure on the Federal Reserve and especially its chairman, Jerome Powell. Investors probably ought to be more worried than they are about the US-China trade war, as well as the danger of conflict with Iran. But as long as the Fed looks like giving Trump the rate cuts he wants, markets remain exuberant, consumers stay confident and the 2020 re-election campaign is on track.

A recent visit to Washington taught me two things about the new linkage that I had not fully grasped. First, the administration wants to ramp up the pressure on Xi. Tomorrow, the vice-president, Mike Pence, was due to deliver another key speech on China. The one he gave at the Hudson Institute in October focused on the geopolitical rationale for a tougher American stance. This new speech was going to come at Beijing from a different angle.

Pence’s speech was originally scheduled to be delivered on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but Trump himself responded to Chinese pleas to avoid that most sensitive of dates. (This is the kind of linkage the president loves. Giving Xi a low-cost break such as this ensures he has the upper hand at the G20 in Osaka.) Pence’s speech was to focus on the Chinese government’s mistreatment of political dissidents and religious minorities, both Muslim and Christian.

This would have upped the ante at a time when Beijing is reeling from the vast show of people power in Hong Kong that forced the suspension of a law to facilitate extradition to the mainland. The great vulnerability of Xi’s regime is not its lack of democracy; few Chinese expect to see free elections in their lifetimes. It is the lack of the rule of law that people resent — which is why so many yearn to invest their money in America.

As he loves to do, the US president has teased both Beijing and Wall Street by promising “an extended meeting” with Xi in Osaka. On Friday he postponed Pence’s speech. I suppose Trump might, on a whim, agree a trade deal over dinner. But that would run counter to all the other moves his administration has been making. It seems more likely that, unless there are big concessions on the Chinese side, Trump will slap yet more tariffs on Chinese imports. With the Fed poised to cut rates next month and the stock market at new highs, Trump has no incentive to let Xi off the hook. Better to save the trade deal for election year.

The other thing I now understand better is the administration’s Middle East strategy. As Trump revealed when he cancelled the planned airstrikes, he is not itching for war. Temperamentally, Trump is just not a war president. His goal is to maintain the pressure on — and the isolation of — Tehran for diplomatic reasons. No journalist I know takes seriously Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace initiative, the first part of which will be unveiled at a conference in Bahrain this week. “Dead before arrival” is the conventional wisdom. But I take the contrarian view that the timing is propitious and the design of the plan ingenious.

When you reflect on the changes there have been in the region since his father-in-law’s inauguration, two things leap out at you. The first is that Israel is no longer beleaguered, surrounded by foes. It has become part of an American-led Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran. The second is that the Palestinians, whose status as victims was once so useful to both Arab nationalists and Islamists, have been marginalised.

Previous peace initiatives put the big constitutional and territorial questions first. Big, but insoluble. Kushner’s goal is to begin with the small matter of money, which in reality is not so small. Large-scale investment in the West Bank and Gaza, funded in part by the oil-rich Gulf states, stands a chance of weaning at least some Palestinians away from Hamas. The lesson of the Arab revolutions was that there is a constituency of small businessmen who are as sick of the rackets run by terrorists as they are of the extortions of venal governments.

The unforeseen hitch has been the failure of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a new coalition, which is sending his country back to the polls in distant September. That is bound to weaken the linkage between economic opportunities and political concessions.

“Linkage . . . is not a natural concept for Americans,” Kissinger once admitted. “Our bureaucratic organisations . . . compound the tendency to compartmentalise. American pragmatism produces a penchant for examining issues separately: to solve problems on their merits.” That’s what they teach you to do at law school. But Trump’s contempt for the bureaucratic mindset means linkage comes quite naturally to him.

Still, let’s not get carried away. Linkage can backfire if a single failure causes a chain reaction. Linkage also needs allies to play their part — whereas the Europeans would prefer to be non-aligned in the tech war, neutral in the trade war and signed up to the old Iran nuclear deal.

No matter how ingenious, linkage may not compensate for the effect of Trump’s wrecking-ball style on American influence around the world, which can best be summed up in a single world: shrinkage.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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