Foreign Policy Is Three-Dimensional Chess

Foreign Policy Is Three-Dimensional Chess


Leonard Zwelling

For the most part, this blog does not comment a great deal about foreign policy for a number of reasons.

First, I really bring no expertise to the table. Second, it doesn’t seem like our leaders do either.

One thing I am pretty sure of though is that foreign policy is a complex transaction requiring a deep knowledge of past history and pretty good crystal ball.

The most recent evidence may be in Saudi Arabia where Mr. Biden made a fool of himself fist-bumping MBS, murderer of Jamal Khashoggi, expecting some consideration for all the arms and protection the US affords the Kingdom only to have MBS slow the pumping of oil when the US needs the price of oil to drop for our own drivers and to starve the Putin war machine. So much for the sanctity of a fist bump. Mr. Biden might consider ending military aid to Saudi Arabia and let the Kingdom defend itself against Iranian drones. MBS is not a reliable ally.

Our relationship with Russia is now even more complicated.

Mr. Biden is right to invoke the Cuban Missile Crisis as a parallel to the current war in Ukraine. This may be the closest we have come to nuclear confrontation with the Russians since then. The roles are reversed though. In 1962 our homeland was threatened. Today Putin thinks his is.

For those too young to remember 1962, the Soviets had stationed missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from Florida and they were nuclear-capable. President Kennedy was shown the evidence of their deployment using U-2 spy plane photos and eventually had Adlai Stevenson show them to the world at the United Nations. Would the Soviets back down and remove the missiles? Would Kennedy’s naval quarantine cause the launch of World War III?

It turned out that back-channel discussions between the Soviet ambassador and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy eventually bore fruit and a secret deal was hatched getting the missiles out of Cuba and our missiles out of Turkey. That last part no one knew about until years later. The book Thirteen Days by Bobby Kennedy or the movie of the same name tell the tense story.

Today, we again face the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, this time in Ukraine. Putin’s war is going badly for him. He is being backed into a corner between an effective and aggressive Ukraine force backed by the west and hardliners in Moscow wanting a true victory. Putin now claims four provinces in Ukraine as Russian and thus the Ukraine troops driving Russians out of these territories have officially invaded Russia. What does America do to continue to support Ukraine toward a victory, yet somehow encourage Putin not to use nuclear weapons as he is losing?

We can only hope that there is a back-channel to Moscow today that is making clear to Putin what would happen should he deploy nuclear weapons (or biologic ones), yet Mr. Biden must resolve in his own mind never to use nuclear weapons no matter what Russia does. He should, however, never say that to the Russians or anyone else. There is no upside to an American nuclear response to the Russian use of small nuclear weapons. That would only escalate the conflict and further drive a wedge into NATO.

Mr. Biden needs to learn how to play three-dimensional chess with both the Saudis and the Russians, let alone the Chinese. I have seen no evidence thus far that this White House is capable of that, but there is no way that I should be aware of efforts to play that game on the world stage. Let’s hope that, as Dr. Kripke used to say, diplomacy now is like a duck on a pond. The duck seems to be floating along, but there’s a lot going on under the surface and out of sight.

President Kennedy figured it out. But it was close. It’s close again. Let’s hope Mr. Biden can present Mr. Putin with some face-saving alternative off-ramps that avoid nuclear war yet protect the integrity of NATO and the well-being of the western alliance.

It will take some short-range and long-range planning. Our lives depend on it.

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