Sunday, January 15, 2017
Tweets His Own
Many believe that Donald Trump’s post-election continued use of Twitter as a vehicle to announce diplomatic policy is simply a naïve and undisciplined rant of a thoroughly unprepared president-elect applying old habits to clearly bigger-picture issues. Others believe that The Donald is crazy like a Fox, manipulating foreign powers the way his Tweets irked his way to a presidential victory. Savvy experts liken this Trump effort to Richard Nixon’s purported “Madman Theory” of foreign policy decades ago, one that provoked and needled, even as then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, worked behind the scenes to bring order and stability to what was perceived as undisciplined rants. More on this later.
We’ve seen the firestorm of his Meryl Streep tweets, Donald Trump’s explosion against the allegations of possible ‘kompromat’ – damaging personal information – that may have been gathered by Russia (unsubstantiated) as well as the media that reported the story and his use of Twitter to attempt to diffuse allegations that Russia literally did influence the outcome of the presidential election.
But what remains of concern internationally, among our allies as well as those who oppose us, has been Mr. Trump’s reliance on Twitter to set out his diplomatic policies. Even as his nominees contradict many of such statements in their testimony on Capitol Hill, it is still difficult to believe that Mr. Trump – the boss – will not in fact dictate those policies no matter what his cabinet officers may assert. So let’s look back on this “diplomacy by Twitter,” and perhaps the underlying philosophy, as it impacts our relationship with China.
Using a bit of color (blue for Trump – how ironic – and red for the People’s Republic of China), I’d like to look at the recent exchange of communications between the president-elect and the PRC. Note that the Chinese press is very much a mouthpiece for the government itself. As Mr. Trump has railed against Chinese purported currency manipulation, the militarization of an artificial island in the South China Sea and trade barriers, China has fired back. The exchanges have grown more heated over time. But the biggest issue to China is and always will be the battle over whether there is one China, including Taiwan, or not. It may well be an issue that China will resist with everything in its power, from breaking diplomatic ties with the United States to so much more.
China has long-maintained that Taiwan is and always has been a part of greater China. The world has lived with the ambiguity of Taiwan (the Republic of China vs the People’s Republic of China) operating independently, even openly trading with the PRC. To open the door with Beijing in the early 1970s, the GOP Nixon administration established an acceptance of that “one China” policy, downgrading its diplomatic status with Taiwan to “unofficial” and recognizing the PRC as the real China with a right to sit on the U.N. Security Council.
When Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, he breached decades of that political protocol –– effectively questioning whether America’s acceptance of the “one China” should still be acknowledged. When challenged about this breach, Trump did his usual double down and Tweeted (on December 2nd): “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
“[China’s] Foreign Ministry warned that any damage to that [one China] principle could rupture diplomatic ties. State media called him ‘as ignorant as a child,’ and Chinese social media users upbraided the future leader for his comments.” Los Angeles Times, December 13th.
December 17th Tweet: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.” Trump corrected an earlier misspelling – “Unpresidented” – which provoked this response from the People’s Republic:
“On Sunday [12/18], the Chinese Communist Party–linked Global Times newspaper questioned Trump’s response in an editorial and highlighted his misspelling in the headline: “‘Unpresidented’ Trump adds fuel to fire… He seemed emotionally upset, but no one knows what he wanted to say,’ read the article. ‘Trump is not behaving as a President who will become master of the White House in a month.’” Time.com, December 19th.
Later on the 17th, after China agreed to return the drone, this Tweet: “We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”
“‘We don’t like the word steal. That’s totally inaccurate,’ China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. ‘The Chinese navy found the device and examined it in a professional manner … It’s as if you saw something on the street and someone asked you for it, you’d have to examine if it really belongs to them.’
“An editorial in the [PRC] state-run tabloid, The Global Times, went further, issuing a threat. It said if Mr. Trump ‘treats China after assuming office in the same way as in his tweets, China will not exercise restraint.’” CBS.com, December 19th. In his December 20th Daily 202, Washington Post journalist, James Hohmann, examines whether Trump is actually smarter than his Tweets might suggest, deploying a destabilizing rant as a precursor to negotiations that might give the United States the edge. It is a policy that worked in Trump’s business experience and may have so decimated his opponents that it drove him to ultimate victory in November.
“A generation ago, Nixon wanted to convince the Soviets and their North Vietnamese clients that he was a hot-head willing to use nuclear weapons. The goal then was to scare the communists into negotiating. In some ways, this was the nub of the secret plan he talked so much about during the 1968 campaign – just as Trump insisted that he had a secret plan to get rid of ISIS during the 2016 race. ‘I call it the Madman Theory,’ the then-president explained to H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, as they walked along a foggy beach one day. ‘I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘For God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button!’ And Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.’
“Elites in Washington and across the world think Trump is crazy, but the president-elect has demonstrated repeatedly that he can be crazy like a fox. He knew exactly what he was doing when he called for a Muslim ban, for instance, or picked fights with people on Twitter to distract the press from much bigger problems. We’ve already learned that Trump’s phone call with the leader of Taiwan was not some spontaneous faux pas but a carefully-planned recalibration of U.S. policy. [Abetted by GOP icon, Bob Dole.]
“For Trump’s stratagem to work, foreign leaders must continue to believe that he’s erratic and prone to irrational overreaction. ‘We must as a nation be more unpredictable,’ Trump often said on the campaign trail. ‘We have to be unpredictable!’
“This is a dangerous gambit in the current geopolitical risk environment. Nixon played the game in a bi-polar world, with two superpowers and nothing like the Islamic State to worry about. The world that Trump must lead is multi-polar. Asymmetric warfare is now a top-tier concern… What alarms so many foreign policy greybeards is that Trump is a flame thrower, not a firefighter, by his very nature. Since Teddy Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War, every American president has prided himself on at least trying to defuse global tensions, not heighten them. As Billy Joel sang, we didn’t start the fire. We didn’t light it, but we try to fight it…
“The international order, which the U.S. sits atop, depends to some degree on stability, certainty and predictability. Allies need to know they can count on us, and America’s enemies need to know that the security guarantee for countries from Estonia to South Korea is real… Trump seems either unable or unwilling to pivot into using diplomatic speak. That should not come as a big surprise, and it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. A big part of his appeal during the campaign was his refusal to be ‘politically correct.’ Why would he change now?” But Trump doesn’t back down or admit mistakes.
Donald Trump may have made a tactical mistake with his tweets, or maybe he believes he can force the most populous country in the world to let go of one their most basic and longest-held commitments. He just continues to follow his usual “never admit a mistake and always double down” response… now in follow-up interviews about the tweets on China. “China’s foreign ministry issued a thinly veiled rebuke of Donald Trump, following a statement by the U.S. president-elect that the ’One China’ policy—which has underpinned bilateral ties for almost four decades—was negotiable.
“Mr. Trump told The Wall Street Journal in a Friday [12/13] interview that the longstanding policy, under which the U.S. agrees not to recognize Taiwan diplomatically, was up in the air. Mr. Trump said he wouldn’t commit to the policy unless he saw progress from Beijing on issues such as trade practices and currency… ‘Everything is under negotiation, including ‘one China,’ ’ he said.
“Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the policy was the foundation of U.S.-China ties and was nonnegotiable… ‘There is but one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,’ Mr. Lu said in a statement that was posted on the foreign ministry’s website on Saturday.” Wall Street Journal, January 15th. Right after China sailed her new aircraft carrier right between the “two Chinas” suggested by Mr. Trump.
Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is very much dedicated to letting his own people and the world know that he means business… in fighting corruption against his own senior officials, in controlling media and entertainment, in making China the dominant power in the region (hence the militarization of that artificial island among the Spratly chain) and in filling any regional power vacuum abandoned by the United States (e.g., China rapidly stepped in to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord trashed by Donald Trump with its own substitute that excludes the United States).
Were President Xi to cave to Trump’s destabilizing efforts, all of that would be for naught. President Xi is also very much casting himself as a cult hero, an effort reminiscent of Chairman Mao Zedong decades ago. When two stubborn ‘strongmen’ butt heads, I suspect nothing particularly good is going to come of that confrontation. And I most certainly do not expect China to give in… because the world is watching. Oh, and one more thing: according to a new Quinnipiac University survey, the majority of Americans want Trump to give up on tweeting permanently now that he's officially President-elect. China officially agrees.
I’m Peter Dekom, and playing in this diplomatic yard requires a rather in-depth and well-read understanding of all the issues, the underlying historical background and the dominant players involved… which just might be missing from the current strategies of the president-elect.