Is Donald Trump More Rational Than We Think?

A classic 1986 skit on the US comedy television show Saturday Night Live, titled “President Reagan, Mastermind,” portrayed him as a cunning and focused operator within the confines of the Oval Office. The bit was meant as a comedic rebuke to Reagan’s professions of ignorance about the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal, and it quickly became seen as a brilliant example of political humor since it offered a reinterpretation jarringly at odds with the genial but clueless figure the Gipper’s critics often sketched out.

A similar redefinition of President Trump appeared last week on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times. Mark Leonard, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reports that Chinese elites hold a very different perspective on Trump’s foreign policy than what is offered by the conventional wisdom in the West, which regards the president as a geopolitical naif and a reckless, impulsive leader.

In stark contrast, Leonard writes that the officials and experts he recently visited in Beijing are “awed by [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician.” According to Leonard, his Chinese interlocutors describe Trump:

“as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skillful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. ‘Look at how he handled North Korea,’ one says. ‘He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.’ But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.”

And while many of Trump’s detractors in the West regard his policy toward Moscow as craven and sycophantic, Leonard’s sources perceive a wily geopolitical strategy: “They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.”

The Chinese assessment of Trump, at least as presented by Leonard, offers a strong counterpoint to the prevailing narrative about the cogency of the president’s foreign policy as well as to the partisan accusations alleging that the president, as one Democratic senator charges, has somehow become “a Russian asset.”

Indeed, the Daily Beast reports that Henry Kissinger himself, who has met at least three times with Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign, has advanced the idea that Washington should attempt a rapprochement with Moscow in order to counter Beijing’s growing global power, and that the pitch has found receptive ears inside the administration. And one former administration official describes Trump’s approach toward Russia as “the reverse of the Nixon-China play.”

Last week’s meeting in Washington between President Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive arms of the European Union, offers additional evidence for the narrative Leonard advances. For months Beijing has been wooing EU leaders with offers of an anti-US alliance, and Juncker showed up at the White House fresh from his own summit in Beijing where Chinese officials renewed their pitch.

Yet for all of the talk about Trump pushing key U.S. allies into Beijing’s embrace, Trump and Juncker emerged from their meeting to announce a high-level push for a new U.S/EU trade accord. Indeed, according to Trump’s chief economic adviser, Juncker also signaled that the EU “will be allied” with the United States in countering China on global trade issues.

If Trump is indeed attempting to pull off a Kissingerian power play with Russia and China, the prospects for success are in doubt. The Nixon administration was able to capitalize on years of bitter ideological dispute between Moscow and Beijing, not to mention the outbreak of actual military conflict in 1969 that threatened to escalate to the nuclear level.

Fissures do exist in the current Russian-Chinese relationship, and it must grate Vladimir Putin’s nationalist sensibilities that Moscow is widely seen as Beijing’s junior partner in global affairs. Nonetheless, there does not appear to be much in the way of strategic opportunity for the Trump administration to exploit.

Still, Trump’s machinations may be having some geopolitical effect. Leonard reveals that because of the multiple pressure points Trump is creating, “many Chinese experts are quietly calling for a rethink of the longer-term strategy. They want to prepare the ground for a new grand bargain with the US based on Chinese retrenchment. Many feel that Mr Xi has over-reached and worry that it was a mistake simultaneously to antagonize the US economically and militarily in the South China Sea.”

The scope and depth of this sentiment are unclear, though one China expert reports hearing similar arguments in Beijing. Nonetheless, it is a striking development at a time when the general narrative within the US foreign policy commentariat is about China’s global ascendancy amid Trump’s fecklessness. And it does underscore the possibility that the current U.S. president may be a more multifaceted leader than his most vocal critics allow.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and former director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy.