PARIS – At first glance, former United States National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President-elect Donald Trump would seem to have nothing in common. In one corner stands the experienced, sophisticated grand old man of US diplomacy; in the other hulks the crude, braying archetypal man of Twitter.
And yet, in a recent appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, Kissinger lavished praise on Trump, calling him a “phenomenon.” That is an intriguing word choice: a “phenomenon” usually describes a savant, artist, world-class athlete, or rock star.
Sixty years ago, the young Kissinger was keen on introducing the US to Europe’s complex history and arcane style of diplomacy. He wanted American leaders to resemble such sophisticates as Klemens von Metternich and Otto von Bismarck. But, as the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan famously put it, “The times, they are a-changin’,” and today Kissinger wants to explain Trump’s uniquely “American style” to the world – a reversal that may reflect his disappointment at having failed in his original venture.
Substantively, Kissinger’s message to his sophisticated European and Asian colleagues seems to be, “Don’t panic.” Trump may look and sound strange, Kissinger might say, but he is quintessentially American, and America today needs to overhaul its relations with the world. By this reasoning, Trump’s unorthodox approach might be just what America – and the world – needs.
A Kissinger-Trump alliance certainly seems unnatural, but it is worth remembering that their relationship is not new. During the Republican primary, Kissinger refused to join a group of Republican foreign-policy mandarins who signed an open letter denouncing Trump as a dangerous amateur and usurper.
During the campaign, the question on many people’s minds was, “How could voters give such an unpredictable and inexperienced person control of the nuclear codes?” Kissinger’s silence on this question was deafening, especially given that he was one of the inspirations for Stanley Kubrick’s classic political satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
One explanation for the two men’s unnatural alliance is that they have compatible views on Russian President Vladimir Putin, even if their larger foreign-policy outlooks differ. Whereas Trump admires Putin’s muscular nationalism and authoritarian decisiveness, Kissinger has long believed that there is no better alternative for Russia.
Beyond this, a more straightforward explanation is that Trump has played on Kissinger’s vanity, not least by seeking his advice early in the campaign. To be sure, Kissinger may be more sagacious than his fellow elites in claiming that there is more to Trump than meets the eye. But it is just as likely that, at 93, Kissinger is simply more susceptible than ever to flattery. By asking for his advice, Trump is intimating to Kissinger that he considers him a man of the present, not the past. And Kissinger, for his part, may be hoping for a future role in the new administration, such as a “special envoy” responsible for resetting relations with Russia or even China.
Of course, this is a marriage of convenience. Trump desperately needs to boost his gravitas, and Kissinger can offer that in spades. A reassuring foreign-policy mantra for the president-elect would be, “Don’t worry, I’ve got Kissinger behind me.”
But, an alliance with Trump would carry risks for Kissinger, whose defense of the president-elect might further tarnish his image in the US and around the world. Almost a half-century later, many people have not forgotten that Kissinger was behind such dark episodes as the 1969-70 “secret” bombing of Cambodia, which set the stage for the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule there, and the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in the 1970s. It is possible that Kissinger’s most reactionary tendencies are now reemerging.
Putting aside ideology, we know that Kissinger is fascinated, if not obsessed, with power. He may be unable to resist the temptation to be close to it, and to have an enduring influence relatively comparable to that of Elizabeth II. But Kissinger should remember what the young queen’s private tutor taught her about British politics: the prime minister must be “efficient,” and the Crown must be “dignified.” Is it dignified to offer reassurances about Trump’s fitness to lead the world’s most powerful country through a period of far-reaching change?
Historians studying the twenty-first century may one day conclude that the “American Century” ended – and the “Asian Century” began – on November 8, 2016, with Trump’s election victory. If so, it is only fitting that the man who helped open China to the world in the early 1970s should join forces with the president who will unwittingly pass the torch of history to the Chinese.