Michael Flynn at a hearing (photo/Xinhua)
At a hearing on foreign cyber threats to the U.S. on January 5, 2017, Senator Tim Kaine used part of his time to question the judgment of Michael Flynn, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security advisor. Kaine noted Flynn’s record for sharing fake news, and said Flynn showed himself to be either gullible or malicious. “These are stories that most fourth graders would find incredible,” Kaine said. “That a national security adviser would find them believable enough to share them causes me great concern.” According to multiple news sources, one fake news story shared by Flynn on his Twitter account accused Hillary Clinton of being involved in an illegal sex ring. Kaine makes a solid point. It is concerning that a former military intelligence officer who will be the next national security advisor is either unable or unwilling to separate fact from fiction.
Not only has Flynn promoted fake news stories, but his worldview is rather troubling for such a key role in the new administration. As a former military intelligence officer, Flynn views the U.S.-China bilateral relationship in a more competitive, confrontational way. In testimony on Iran in June 2015, for example, Flynn said, “Just look at the cooperation with North Korea, China, and Russia. Connect those dots, and you get the outline of a global alliance aimed at the U.S., our friends, and our allies.” In his book The Field of Fight, which was published in July 2016, he suggests that we are at war with China, and all his tweets about China emphasize conflict rather than cooperation.
Good policy advice is the foundation of effective problem solving and decision making. As Trump’s national security advisor, Flynn will have to advise the incoming president on important national security issues. Trump, who lacks military or foreign policy experience, will need to rely heavily on Flynn for sound guidance on foreign and national security policy decisions, including American foreign policy toward China. If the foundation is flawed, the decisions that follow will be flawed too.
David Rothkopf, an expert on American foreign policy and national security policy, has identified two national security advisors who ended on a strong note: Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Both placed high value on developing the China-U.S. relationship. Even today, both former advisors want the U.S. handle this key bilateral relationship with the utmost care and respect. There is good reason for that. If Flynn wants to see further than others, he will need to stand on the shoulders of these two giants.
One helped open China’s door, the other helped strengthen that foundation. Both can take credit for the strong relationship that exists today.
Kissinger served as national security advisor to President Richard Nixon, and he played a pivotal role in developing relations with China. His secret visit to China created the opening for a new era of diplomatic relations and extensive people-to-people contact. In February 1972, President Nixon visited China, and the two sides issued the Shanghai Communiqué, an international document which provides the basis for the development of China-U.S. relations. In January 2011, Kissinger wrote in an opinion piece on the bilateral relationship. He said care must be taken “lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophecies.” His point still rings true today. If American foreign policy toward China becomes thoughtless and provocative, these policies will play a role in transforming China-U.S. relations into a zero-sum game of conflict.
Brzezinski served as national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, and he personally negotiated the one-China policy with Deng Xiaoping. In December 1978, the U.S. agreed to recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. The Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and the U.S. all benefit from this key policy, which is the backbone of today’s peaceful and prosperous relationship. Given the importance of this policy, Brzezinski has advised the U.S. not to treat China as an enemy. In December of last year, for example, Brzezinski said that America’s global influence depends on cooperation with China. “A world in which America and China are cooperating is a world in which American influence is maximized,” he said.
The strength of the China-U.S. relationship comes from giants such as Kissinger and Brzezinski, who wisely advised their presidents to emphasize cooperation rather than conflict. If Flynn wants to offer good advice to Trump, he would be well-advised to follow in the footsteps of those who have worked vigorously to weaken rather than encourage rivalry between the two sides.