HE YEAR before he died in 2017, one of America’s leading twentieth-century strategic thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sounded an alarm. In analyzing threats to American security, “the most dangerous scenario,” he warned, would be “a grand coalition of China and Russia…united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” This coalition “would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.”
Few observers heard his admonition then. Even fewer today recognize how rapidly this grand alignment of the aggrieved has been moving from the realm of the hypothetical toward what could soon become a geostrategic fact. Defying the long-held convictions of Western analysts, and against huge structural differences, Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer together to meet what each sees as the “American threat.”
For two proud nations with long memories, their convergence also serves as a kind of cosmic revenge on the diplomatic maneuver Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger orchestrated a half century ago.
When Nixon became president (in 1969), he and his National Security Advisor Kissinger sought to establish a relationship with Communist China to widen the divide between it and the Soviet Union, which they rightly regarded as the preeminent—indeed, existential—threat.
Even as they watched communists pursue “wars of national liberation” around the globe, Nixon and Kissinger embraced George F. Kennan’s strategic insight about containment: that nationalism would prove a sturdier pillar than communism. They also recognized that the crack in the Eastern Bloc between the Soviet Union and its junior Chinese partner could be widened by deft U.S. diplomacy at the expense of the Soviets.
We know how the story turned out—so it is difficult to appreciate how radical this thought was in 1969, though Nixon had noted a year earlier in an essay in Foreign Affairs , “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Had Nixon asked his government’s interagency process to consider the possibility of the United States establishing a relationship with Mao’s Communist China, this option would doubtless have been rejected as not just unrealistic, but unsound. So instead, in a cloak of invisibility worthy of Harry Potter, Nixon sent Kissinger to Beijing for a series of meetings so secret that even his secretaries of state and defense were unaware of them. Ultimately, this led to Nixon’s historic visit in 1972 to China, recognition of Beijing (rather than Taipei) as its capital, and the creation of an uneasy but selectively cooperative relationship that contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Evil Empire.