Henry Kissinger was in Beijing just before president-elect Donald Trump decided to upend decades of diplomatic protocol and speak on the phone with the Taiwanese president. The details of Kissinger’s conversation with Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, were undisclosed, but clearly the aging statesman was trying to resurrect his role as a go-between between China and Washington. Perhaps he even conveyed to the Chinese sentiments similar to those he expressed to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, essentially trying to present Trump as a statesman without “baggage,” beholden to no one.
Give Trump a chance, Kissinger said. Let’s not box him in. “We must give him time to develop his philosophy.” “We hope,” Kissinger told Xi in Beijing, “to see the China-U.S. relationship moving ahead in a sustained and stable manner.” Then Trump pulled the rug, raising doubts about Washington’s decades-long One China policy and confirming China’s worst fears. On Tuesday, Kissinger trekked to Trump Tower to huddle with the president-elect.
One of two things happened: Either Kissinger was sandbagged by Trump—after all, he’d spent weeks making the case that Trump might prove a stabilizing influence, capped by his Beijing conclave, only to be caught off guard by the paradigm-shattering call from the Taiwanese president. Or Kissinger was in on the stunt, playing the sober realist to Trump’s reckless adventurism, helping Trump to establish dominance, to lay down a strong opening bid for future negotiations.
Celebrants of Kissinger—at this point they include the entire liberal and conservative establishment—might believe the former. Kissinger is a longtime Sinophile. It is largely his policy, made possible by Nixon’s and Kissinger’s famous rapprochement with China, that Trump is threatening. And Kissinger Associates, the consulting firm he set up after leaving public office in 1977, has long represented US corporations moving into China, in particular helping them negotiate the confusing status of China and Taiwan. In a recent fawning interview, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg asked Kissinger if he feared “all of this talk, emerged by Trump, about a trade war with China?” Kissinger answered: “More than anything else, a balanced, peaceful world order depends on a stable U.S.–China relationship. Xi Jinping has described our economic interdependence as the ‘ballast and propeller’ of our broader bilateral relationship; a trade war would devastate both of us.”
During the presidential campaign, however, Trump floated not a “trade war” but real war, telling The New York Times: “That’s the problem with our country. A politician would say, ‘Oh I would never go to war,’ or they’d say, ‘Oh I would go to war.’ I don’t want to say what I’d do because, again, we need unpredictability.”