The Kissinger-Kushner Connection

The Kissinger-Kushner Connection
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File
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Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, former business partner, and current senior White House advisor, has been given two assignments reflecting diametrically opposed approaches to policy-making. 

On the domestic policy front, Kushner will head the newly created Office of American Innovation, with a mandate to bring fresh thinking from the business world to the government bureaucracy.  

Fair-minded observers of the workings of the federal government over the past few decades should welcome this as a long-overdue, albeit oft-tried, initiative. 

If Kushner can make even modest progress in this endeavor it will be an effort well worth undertaking.  More power to him and the president on this one.

New thinking in international affairs is even more urgently needed given the litany of intractable foreign policy problems that have eluded resolution over several administrations.  Here, Kushner has been given a broad trouble-shooting role, encompassing U.S. relations with China, the Middle East, Canada, and Mexico.

The multi-dimensional challenge from China—notably including its role in the North Korean nuclear threat-- is the most critical of the national security problems confronting the Trump administration. 

Yet, far from seeking fresh approaches on U.S.-China relations, Kushner seems to be relying heavily on guidance from Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon and the personification of ossified thinking on China—and its culpability on North Korea. 

Through his mentoring relationship with Kushner, Kissinger is once again playing the role he sought and played initially as President Nixon’s National Security Adviser—the back-door, secret channel between heads of state, while bypassing the federal department whose name encompasses government-to-government relations. 

There is certainly a role for less formal interactions in certain circumstances.  But with Kissinger and China, the danger is that Kushner will be persuaded to continue the failed China engagement policy in which Kissinger has invested his personal prestige and business and diplomatic careers for the past four decades.

Far from fresh thinking, and despite the erudition of his presentation, the staleness of Kissinger’s pronouncements on China is exceeded only by the formulaic clichés emanating from Beijing itself.  (See “Henry Kissinger on China: The Dangerous Illusion of `Realist’ Foreign Policy,” St. John’s Review. Spring 2012.) 

Even though Kissinger, as a Harvard professor and author, had initially shown little intellectual interest in China, he quickly seized upon Nixon’s bold initiative as a historic event he was happy to join in pursuing. 

He soon made the project his own even when Nixon himself, after his presidency, questioned whether the “strategic gamble” he had undertaken was working out the way he had hoped: “we may have created a Frankenstein,” he mused years later.

Unlike Kissinger, Nixon also gave up the idea of unification between Communist China and Taiwan.  Even before Taiwan had completed its transition from authoritarianism to democracy, Nixon understood the path it was on and concluded that “Taiwan and China are permanently separated politically.”  But Kissinger, echoing the Chinese leaders he diligently consults with, never gave up the unification mission.  He warned Taiwan in 2007 that “China will not wait forever” to take Taiwan by force if necessary. 

Despite Nixon’s growing disillusionment with his own landmark achievement, Kissinger soldiered on through eight administrations of both parties—and all five Chinese supreme leaders—leveraging his reputation in both Washington and Beijing as the ultimate China policy guru.  

American presidents and presidential candidates regularly make the obligatory pilgrimage to Kissinger’s China tutorials.  Yet, none seem to question why they should follow advice that has been so consistently wrong regarding China’s reliability as a good-faith negotiating partner or responsible international stakeholder. 

No issue demonstrates Kissinger’s credulity regarding Chinese intentions as much as his ever-evolving, and often conflicting, rationales for Beijing’s refusal to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions.  (See “China’s Complicity in North Korea’s Nuclear Program: Henry Kissinger for the Defense,”  Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Fall 2015.) 

Nothing herein is intended to question Kissinger’s intellectual prowess or mental acuity; he is remarkably sharp and vigorous, continuing to visit China at least twice a year, as he has for the past forty years (without ever setting foot in Taiwan).  Longevity was not the problem as he and fellow nonagenarian, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, jousted over the advisability of the Trump phone call with Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen. 

The problem is that it is often difficult to determine whose interests are better served by Kissinger’s remarkable shuttle diplomacy and intimate conversations.  If the test is confined to avoiding immediate outright China-U.S. conflict, he has certainly contributed to the cold peace that prevails.  But, measured by China’s standard of winning its objectives without fighting, Beijing has profited immeasurably with Kissinger as its prime interlocutor/advocate with Washington.  

The president should not allow himself to be diverted from the sensible arms-length China course suggested by his earlier statements.  Because of years of Kissingerian counsel, too much ground has already been ceded to China.  A strong American posture may well mean that relations will have to get worse before they can get better.

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