Dr. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state for President Richard Nixon (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Dr. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state for President Richard Nixon (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

As the president-elect gets set to announce  the next US Secretary of State, we may find Donald Trump's foreign policy to be as unconventional as his campaign and as his appointment techniques have been so far.  

But make no mistake, policy will be made by the White House and by the President himself. The new Secretary of State’s job will be to do the President’s bidding; not the other way around. That has been the pattern of presidential decision making on foreign policy since George Marshall relinquished his post as Truman’s Secretary of State.

We can also expect a return to Kissinger-style realpolitik in US foreign policy under Trump; a realpolitik that allows Russia and China to manage their respective spheres of influence and where great powers, both rising and falling, are conceded a key role by the United States in managing what Henry Kissinger earlier this year referred to as the “new equilibrium.” 

One redeeming feature is that Kissinger, a longstanding friend of the president-elect, met with Trump shortly after the election which speaks volumes about the new direction US policy will take.

Kissinger is a champion of dialogue and accommodation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He was part of a joint Russian-American study group of ministers and former diplomatic and military officials who met from 2007-09 to ease tensions between the two countries. Since then, he has quietly stressed the virtues of diplomacy and engagement with Putin. With Trump he now has an eager student who repeatedly said on the election campaign train that he is prepared to negotiate with Russia's leader.

The days of American-led, democratic nation building are now clearly over. That enterprise began under President Bill Clinton after the Cold War ended during the brief moment of American global hegemony that allowed America to transport its democratic values around the world. The Balkans, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Central America were just some of the targets of those post-Cold War nation-building efforts.

Although George W. Bush and his then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice wanted to get out of the nation-building enterprise, they were dragged back into it with a vengeance by the subsequent US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.  

President Obama tried to disengage from nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq, but did so half-heartedly and with muddled intentions. In Syria and throughout the Middle East, the US has been unable to disengage itself from its democracy-building soft power instincts, at least rhetorically, even as it lets Russia exploit the security vacuum left by indecision and self-erasing “red lines.”

Trump clearly has no such hang-ups. Democratic nation-building is not on his score card. He is ready to do business with Putin just so long as Putin is allied with the US in the war against terrorism, which is Trump’s top security priority. The desire to cuddle Putin may backfire. Putin may not be satisfied with half a loaf in Ukraine and if his ambitions extend to the Baltic states more than the NATO Alliance will be dead. If as expected Trump advocates a relaxing of sanctions against Russia, that will put him on a collision course with many Republicans in Congress and quite possibly with his Secretary of Defense.

China is another matter. Trump has already tweaked President Xi’s nose by taking a call from Taiwan’s leader, a longstanding “no no” in American diplomacy. He is likely to be a lot tougher with the Chinese on trade and on their territorial claims in the South China Sea.

What is perplexing, is that Trump plans to  shelve the Trans Pacific Partnership, which was also intended to bring America’s allies in the Asia-Pacific more into North America’s economic orbit and thus reduce China’s regional influence. The death of TPP will only serve to erode America’s ties to the region while giving China carte blanche to deepen its economic linkages and spheres influence. Worst of all for Trump would be actions that drive China and Russia together against the US and the West, especially in what is becoming China's century.

Mr. Trump clearly does not understand the importance of calibrating economic diplomacy with America’s broader strategic and security interests. That same calibration is also important in a North American context if Mr. Trump wants a stronger, more deeply integrated North America to serve as a bulwark against China.

Henry Kissinger’s new student clearly still has much to learn about the finer points of realpolitik and the importance of deft not unconventional diplomacy.


Derek H. Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993.

This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Fen Osler Hampson

    Fen Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of the Global Security & Politics program, overseeing the research direction of the program and related activities. Previously, he served as director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and will continue to serve as chancellor’s professor at Carleton University. He is the recipient of various awards and honours and is a frequent contributor to the national and international media.

  • Derek Burney

    Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.

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