Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Can ‘Clissinger’ save the US relationship with China?

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally at the Dickerson Community Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally at the Dickerson Community Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday.

It’s tempting but still too early to call this election with certainty. According to the RealClear Politics average of polls, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump is now 2.9 percent, down from 7.1 percent two weeks ago. In the 2015 British general election, the pollsters underestimated the Conservative lead by an average of 6.5 percent. I keep reminding myself: 2016 is the Year of the Improbable.

Regardless of who wins, however, one thing is certain: The new president will have the opportunity to reshape American foreign policy. Indeed, there is an urgent need for that to happen.

The bombing of Aleppo and the atrocities inflicted on its civilian population are only the most egregious illustration of President Obama’s failure as a statesman. The president believed he had an ingenious strategy to establish geopolitical balance between Sunni and Shia. But by treating America’s Arab friends with open disdain, while cutting a nuclear deal with Iran that has left Tehran free to wage war and sponsor terror across the region, Obama has achieved not peace but a fractal geometry of conflict and a frightening, possibly nuclear, arms race. At the same time, he has allowed Russia to become a major (and malign) player in the Middle East for the first time in 40 years.

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Meanwhile, little remains of the president’s much-vaunted pivot to Asia. “If you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea,” the president boasted to Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview published in March in The Atlantic, “we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.” The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, apparently did not receive this memo. Earlier this month he went to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to announce his “separation from the United States.” So much for America’s oldest ally in the Pacific. So much for the “first island chain” that has been crucial to US strategy in the region since the 1940s. So much for “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

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Let us make the assumption that the next president will, as the polls predict, be Hillary Clinton. What should we expect of her foreign policy? The conventional wisdom is that Clinton would be a more hawkish president than Obama. I certainly hope that is true where the Kremlin is concerned. But what about China? In Beijing, they indignantly quote her statement that she doesn’t want her grandchildren “to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.” Yet there is a reason to doubt that, as president, Clinton would automatically play hardball with Beijing. That reason is Henry Kissinger.

In one of the more unlikely exchanges of the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders gratuitously attacked Clinton for her positive view of Kissinger (who is not Bernie’s “kind of guy”). Revealingly, Clinton’s response praised Kissinger’s “opening up China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China [which] is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America.” It was not the first time she had praised Kissinger’s China policy. In a rave review of his most recent book, “World Order,” for The Washington Post, she made it clear that his “building a cooperative relationship with China” was her idea of “smart” diplomacy.

A central argument of “World Order” — also the bottom line of Kissinger’s previous book, “On China” — is that the United States should not pursue a policy of containment, much less confrontation, of China. In his view, such a strategy risks an escalating strategic rivalry between the established power and the rising power — of the sort that repeatedly throughout history has led to war.

My former colleague Graham Allison calls it the “Thucydides Trap,” in honor of the ancient Greek historian who first identified the phenomenon, and he estimates that rival powers have fallen into it multiple times over the centuries.

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How can the United States and the People’s Republic steer clear of the Thucydides Trap? According to Kissinger, only by adopting a policy that he calls “co-evolution.” Rather than attempting “to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade,” the United States would do better to work in partnership with China to build a new “Pacific Community.”

If she is elected president, Clinton will face a choice: to continue with the policies of the Obama administration, in which she served as secretary of state, despite their evident failure — or to become Hillary Clissinger.

Doing so would mean, of course, dropping the China-bashing rhetoric she has sometimes indulged in. But why not? Her husband did precisely that when he was president. During one of his 1992 debates with George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton had accused Bush of “coddling” dictators, notably “the butchers of Beijing.” And yet, amid the usual pomp and ceremony, the Clintons visited China in June 1998.

E-mails notwithstanding, I would much rather see Clinton back in Beijing than Donald Trump in Moscow, glad-handing the butcher of Aleppo.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.