Linkage as a Foreign Policy Technique for the Trump Administration

Linkage, first given foreign policy meaning by Henry Kissinger, hasn’t been around for a while. He defines it on page 129 of White House Years:

“In our view, linkage existed in two forms: first, when a diplomat deliberately links two separate objectives in a negotiation, using one as leverage on the other; or by virtue of reality, because in an interdependent  world, the actions  of a major power are inevitably related and have consequences beyond the issue or region concerned.”

The first is like a parenting style, bargaining with a child to obtain good behavior.  The second is experienced by the exhausted parent at an evening meditation session, contemplating  the connectedness of all things.

Ronald Regan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, repudiated linkage.  Quoting from The  NY Times, October 19, 1984, “SHULTZ SAYS U.S. SOVIET RELATIONS ARE LIKELY TO IMPROVE, BUT SLOWLY”:

Aside from his assertions that the way is open for improved relations in coming years, the most novel aspect of Mr. Shultz’s speech dealt with his argument against the policy of ”linkage” – retaliation against the Russians in one area for something done in another. ”There will be times” when linkage might be appropriate, he said, but on the whole, ”linkage as an instrument of policy has limitations.”

The rejection of linkage was based on the  failure, in the preceding dozen years or so, to prevent the numerous Third World revolutions sponsored by the Soviet Union. So Schultz relegated it to “tactical” status, meaning that although it might fit a specific problem, it was not the overarching theme of American foreign policy.

 We give something a name, and it suddenly becomes real. But linkage comes naturally to any good negotiator. “You give me this and I’ll give you that.” And Kissinger was arguably the best negotiator the U.S. has ever had in foreign policy. Most of those who came before and after learned by OJT (on-the-job-training), too late and too little.

Schultz served an ideologue, Ronald Reagan, albeit one of the better ones. An Ideologue simplifies reality to fit a framework. To an ideologue, the failures of the previous ideology, or lack of one, resulted from errors. Schultz  logically concluded that the error was linkage. It may not have occurred to him that his own counterfactual history, featuring some word other than linkage, might have turned out pretty much the same.

With linkage off the table, we’ve had a theme shortage. Since 2000, we’ve seen these second-rate, long winded themes:

So what is linkage, anyway? Before it was inducted into textbooks, it was the natural tool of the skilled negotiator. It’s not the only note, but a strong one. It’s not a solution, but it’s a note to hit.

How can such a useful concept be rejected, as Kissinger asserts, in favor of “the pragmatic tradition”? The word itself is a call to be skillful. If you bluster too much, too often,  people will tune you out. But nobody tunes out linkage.

To be continued.