Earlier this week, intelligence chiefs briefed U.S. senators on the Select Committee on Intelligence about global threats. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ 42-page written report read like a middling Obama-era update, with more space devoted to concern about climate change, Brexit, and social justice issues than Islamist terrorism or border disputes and violations.
Still, it’s worth considering the first and most serious global security threat Coats flagged for senators, which is the strengthened alliance of China and Russia as they seek to expand their global influence.
The “U.S. Officials Cite Alignment of Moscow, Beijing as Threat” blared the Wall Street Journal’s top-of-the-front-page headline:
“Threats to US national security will expand and diversify in the coming year, driven in part by China and Russia as they respectively compete more intensely with the United States and its traditional allies and partners,” the first line of the report said, adding that the two countries were closer than they’d been in more than 60 years and were significantly expanding their cooperation in the energy, military, and technology spheres.
You don’t say. Even the most casual observer can see where such an alliance poses a threat to the United States, particularly as the United States seeks to take on China’s unfair trade practices and growing influence throughout the world. Communist China engages in dumping, forced technology transfer, high tariffs, other barriers, and industrial subsidies that make it difficult for companies from other countries to compete throughout the world. At the same time, China has been spreading its reach globally and building up militarization of the South China Sea.
Since even before his 2016 election, President Donald Trump has made rebalancing with China a major goal, one made more difficult if the United States must take on nuclear Russia as well. This is among the reasons Trump sought an improved relationship with Russia.
It’s also related to why the Obama administration tried to have a “reset” with Russia. The logic underlying that move was sound, even if it was poorly implemented. The strategic reasons for trying to build alliances where you can with Russia were, and still are, defensible, because it’s not in the U.S. interests to have Russia as a vassal of China. Unfortunately the relationship between Obama and Putin, and between the U.S. and Russia, soured, making the situation worse.
The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib did an excellent quick video titled “Why Does Trump Want a Good Relationship With Putin?” It explains the issues around the globe where a good relationship with Russia is in the United States’ interest.
Seib notes that conspiracy theorists think Trump wants a good relationship with Russia because he owes them something. He instead suggests it’s because of geo-strategic goals. In Syria, the United States wants Russia to use its influence to settle the region down in a way that doesn’t increase Iran’s power or hurt Israel. In North Korea, the United States wants to encourage Russia to not provide an economic safety valve for the regime there. In Ukraine and other border areas with Russia, the United States wants to encourage Russia to behave itself and not expand further. And in China, it wants to have a good relationship with Russia so the two countries can be played off against each other instead of forming a tight alliance.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon implemented triangulation diplomacy. He talked about how peace comes through a balancing of power. He said he wanted a world in which the United States is powerful, but one in which the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan were also strong and healthy.
As Henry Kissinger put it, “Balancing China against the Soviet Union from a position in which America was closer to each Communist giant than they were to each other was, of course, exactly the design of the evolving strategy.”
The situation in the 1970s had a different focus, but by improving the relationship with China, the United States was able to improve its negotiating position with the Soviet Union, and improve relations with both countries. Nixon’s foreign policy achieved major aims, including the ending of the Vietnam War, the first major arms control agreement with the Soviet Union, and the opening of China.
Yet when Trump has talked about developing a good relationship with Russia, a key aspect of triangulation approach, conspiracy theorists in the media and pundit class have lambasted him as a Putin stooge who is compromised. It’s not just an unverified and ridiculous conspiracy theory, but one that results in real harm to the United States as well. And intelligence agencies, which has members who conspired to selectively leak information in support of this conspiracy theory, helped cause the very thing they’re now lamenting — driving Russia into the arms of China.
Just a few weeks ago, President Trump tweeted “I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President. At the same time, & as I have often said, getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. I fully expect that someday we will have good relations with Russia again!”
It’s true that he has often said getting along with Russia is a good thing. Jimmy Kimmel made a video mocking him for saying it over and over and suggesting it meant he was an agent of Russia who was being blackmailed. He littered his monologue with the words “collusion, obstruction, treason” and the like:
Kimmel’s foreign policy views match closely with much of the serious establishment Washington, which ran to social media to call Trump a Russian agent, again.
The Los Angeles Times raised the specter of collusion in an editorial criticizing Trump for saying getting along with Russia is a good thing even as he expelled 60 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Skripal murder. “You don’t need to be a psychologist or an FBI investigator to suspect that his odd aversion to criticizing Russia is tied to allegations that Russia interfered in last year’s election on Trump’s behalf — a fact that Trump is reluctant to acknowledge because he sees it as undermining the legitimacy of his victory.”
It is the media’s obsession with increased tension with Russia — even in the face of Russia’s alliance with China — that might need to be analyzed by a psychologist. This odd aversion to thinking about the best interests of the nation when pushing a conspiracy theory about treasonous collusion with Russia is dangerous.
Apart from the Wall Street Journal, much of the media seems to be pushing the idea that the real threat from the security briefing is that Trump and his intelligence chiefs aren’t in perfect alignment. This groupthought has a few problems in addition to overstatement.
For one, the purpose of the intelligence agencies is to provide information to the president, not set U.S. policy. In fact, the danger seems to arise when intelligence agencies attempt to analyze and set policy, be it about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the threat posed by Al Qaeda prior to the 9/11 terror attacks, the reaction to the Arab Spring, whether to intervene in Libya, and various other mistakes of recent vintage.
Several decades’ worth of abject intelligence failures, combined with duplicitous efforts to oust the president the intelligence community reports to, have severely eroded the credibility of those tasked with providing accurate intelligence to the president. Going forward, if these agencies wish to regain that trust, they should focus on getting the facts right and leaving foreign policy to those actually elected by the American people to conduct it.