Henry Kissinger once described diplomacy as “purposeful ambiguity” – don’t say too much, don’t say too little. Let the opposing party think that things are going their way, but also let your allies know you’re not selling them out – somehow. This is difficult. Creating effective ambiguity is an art, and perfecting that art takes practice. Years of experience help. A deep knowledge of what is in dispute, and the history of the dispute and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, helps too. It also helps to know exactly what you want, as long as you never blurt that out. Provide the illusion of flexibility – otherwise the opposing party will have no reason to talk to you at all. Or be flexible as a last resort. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, if you try real hard, you get what you need. Yes, hum that Rolling Stones tune. That might help too.
Otherwise it’s war – diplomacy carried out by other means, as Clausewitz put it. That won’t do. People die. Countries are ruined, on both sides, or on all sides. Years and years of uncomfortable ambiguity are preferable to even one week of war. The United States and the Soviet Union decided that in the fifties. We could blow them up. They could blow us up. Which would it be? Only fools wanted to resolve the uncomfortable ambiguity of “mutually assured destruction” – Stanley Kubrick made a move about that of course.
The closest we came to a resolution of that ambiguity was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – but that was resolved diplomatically. The Soviets pulled their nuclear missiles out of Cuba. We pulled ours out of Turkey. Only Curtis LeMay was unhappy – as Chief of Staff of the Air Force he had told Kennedy to just nuke the Soviet Union and be done with it. Kennedy ignored him. Everyone ignored him, except for Stanley Kubrick – “Mr. President, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. I do say, no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks…”
Everyone laughed at that line, and then in 1989 the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own weight, resolving all outstanding ambiguity. That would do. Diplomacy won. Purposeful ambiguity, extended over time, saved the world – but it was hard work, and it wasn’t pleasant work. Humans seem to be hardwired to hate ambiguity. It’s not bold. It’s not decisive. It’s uncomfortable. It must be wrong. Politicians will not advocate it, which is why presidents have secretaries of state. Let the secretary of state look like a wavering wimp. The president will be the bold leader.
Donald Trump will be the bold leader. That’s what he says, and he does seem to be hardwired to hate ambiguity, but he has yet to name a secretary of state, and more than three weeks after the election no one on his team has spoken to the State Department at all, where all the deep knowledge of what is in dispute here and there, and the history of those disputes and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, resides. He’ll be bold all on his own.
This has not been going well:
President-elect Donald J. Trump inherited a complicated world when he won the election last month. And that was before a series of freewheeling phone calls with foreign leaders that has unnerved diplomats at home and abroad.
In the calls, he voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.
Mr. Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.
Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka Trump – dispensing with the usual practice of using State Department-approved talking points.
Those unnerved diplomats at home and abroad don’t know what to make of all this. For example, India and Pakistan both have nukes. They have threatened to nuke each other for decades. He told the prime minister of Pakistan that he was a fine fellow, in a casual way, and that the United States would do anything he wanted to help out over there. Trump was just being nice, but do we now help Pakistan nuke India over Kashmir? Isn’t India our ally? A chat with the State Department before that call might have helped. A little purposeful ambiguity might have helped.
A day later it was this:
Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial president of the Philippines who has drawn widespread comparisons to Donald Trump, may soon be headed to the White House.
During a Friday phone call that a Duterte aide described as “animated,” Donald Trump extended an invitation to Duterte to visit the White House next year. Reuters reports that the conversation between the two leaders lasted about seven minutes.
Of course this may have been just business:
News of the invitation comes days after Duterte appointed Jose Antonio, a Trump business partner, to serve as a special envoy to the United States – raising yet another potential conflict of interest for the president-elect. Last month, he called for a “separation” of relations between the two countries, but later retreated from the statement.
Yeah, this is the guy who said the United States should get the hell out of the Philippines, the military, all American corporations – they’d align themselves with China now. He rethought that, but didn’t rethink this:
The Philippines leader, who once compared himself to Adolf Hitler, has drawn international condemnation for the thousands of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users that have taken place since he became president, and for similar killings when he was mayor of a city in the southern Philippines. He has also ranted against the United States and President Barack Obama, whom he once referred to as a “son of a whore.”
Our position, like the position of pretty much every other country on earth, is that a policy of allowing any citizen to kill any other citizen they think might be a drug dealer is absurd and immoral and assures anarchy. It’s a human rights thing. Our ambassador conveyed that to him. That was the United States’ position – and that’s why he hates Obama and America. He was personally insulted, but he likes the new guy:
Duterte has spoken favorably of Trump. After Trump’s presidential victory, Duterte said, “Long live Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest reason. We are alike.”
This guy is a bit odd, but Rodrigo Duterte has his White House invitation. Perhaps Trump didn’t know about that policy of allowing any citizen to kill any other citizen, and the world’s condemnation of that. The State Department might have explained that to Trump, but Trump has yet to speak to them about anything – or maybe Trump heard about Rodrigo Duterte calling Obama a “son of a whore” and liked that – or maybe Trump doesn’t know this guy from Adam. No one knows. A deep knowledge of what is in dispute, and the history of the dispute and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, might have been helpful here.
That might have been helpful considering what happened later in the day, as Doyle McManus explains here:
On Friday, Trump spoke on the telephone with Taiwan’s president, something no U.S. president or president-elect has done since 1979.
That’s a big problem, because ever since the Jimmy Carter administration the United States has officially recognized the People’s Republic of China – the very large country with its capital in Beijing – as the only fully legal government of China.
Not only that, the Trump transition issued a cheerful official statement about the phone call, lauding “the close economic, political, and security ties between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”
All of that was taboo under normal U.S. diplomatic practice – and virtually certain to enrage China. (Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that he wasn’t even allowed to refer to the government “of” Taiwan; he had to call it the government “on” Taiwan.) And China is, of course, a considerably more important country to the United States – economically, politically and militarily – than Taiwan.
This is a bit of a mess:
It wasn’t clear how the telephone call came about. It’s possible that President Tsai Ing-wen just got lucky, and that Trump and his staff made a rookie mistake.
But the Taipei Times reported that the call was “arranged by [Trump’s] Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan.”
And on Friday evening, Trump fired off a defensive tweet: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
Did Trump deliberately touch off a diplomatic tiff with China, the biggest power in Asia, even before settling on a secretary of State?
The answer might be yes:
The call to Taiwan is a serious problem. China’s communist government is sensitive about its recognition as a major regional power – and hypersensitive about anything regarding Taiwan. Don’t expect this one to go away easily.
It won’t, but is it time to reverse Nixon’s “Opening to China” and the “One China” policy we’ve had since 1979 and declare Taiwan the only “real” China? It seems so. China will not accept a “two China” policy from us. They could shut us out. Do we really need the mainland China market over there? Do we need their goods and services? Why not just deal with the little island? This is curious. Did America want this? Boeing and GM and KFC and many others won’t like this. Mainland China is the largest foreign market in the world. Oh well. They’ll have to do without. Trump won.
But perhaps Trump was just calling to ask for a business favor:
The mayor of Taoyuan confirmed rumors on Wednesday that US president-elect Donald Trump was considering constructing a series of luxury hotels and resorts in the northwest Taiwanese city. A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September… Other reports indicate that Eric Trump, the president-elect’s second son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, will be coming to Taoyuan later this year to discuss the potential business opportunity.
Kevin Drum adds this:
Who knows? But foreign policy wonks are blowing a gasket over this, and the question of the hour is: Did Trump set off this diplomatic shit-storm accidentally or deliberately? I have to believe it was deliberate. Even Trump’s team isn’t so pig-ignorant that they’re unaware of our policy toward China and Taiwan.
But if that’s the case, it means that Trump is dead set on pursuing a hostile policy against China from the get-go. Perhaps, thanks to his decades of steely negotiating victories, he believes the Chinese will eventually back down once they realize they can’t mess with him.
That’s possible, and there’s this:
It’s worth noting that Trump has an odd kind of advantage here. For a little while longer, anyway, he can do this kind of stuff just to see what happens – and then, if it blows up, he can pretend he wasn’t up to speed what with all the staffing work etc. etc. Then he calls someone in China and declares that everything is fine, China is a fantastic place, he has nothing but the highest respect for them…
Will this work? I suppose it might, but not for much longer.
And there is the background that Trump missed, as David Graham notes here:
It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.
That’s worth remembering:
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.
That would be the odd history here:
Why would Trump not speak with Tsai? Here’s where the strangeness starts. The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.
That’s purposeful ambiguity at work:
The roots of this particular fiction date to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was routed by Mao Zedong and the Communists, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. The U.S., in Cold War mode, continued to recognize the ROC in Taiwan as China’s rightful government, and so did the United Nations. But in 1971, the UN changed course, recognizing the People’s Republic of China – or as it was often called then, Red China – as the legitimate government. In 1979, the United States followed suit. Crucially, the communiqué proclaiming that recognition noted, “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
Officially, this has also been the policy of Taiwan for almost a quarter century. Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.
So we kept things ambiguous, until now:
Despite recognizing the PRC, the U.S. has kept close ties with Taiwan since 1979. The State Department notes that “Taiwan is the United States’ ninth largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner.” More importantly, the U.S. has sold some $46 billion in arms to Taiwan since 1990, which are intended as defensive. Last December, the Obama administration sold $1.8 billion in anti-tank missiles, warships, and other materiel to Taipei. Of course, the “defensive” purpose to all of this is against China, the most plausible aggressor against Taiwan. Naturally, the arms sales have consistently annoyed the Chinese. (Recently, China has been on a campaign of land-grabbing and saber-rattling across the South China Sea, trying to assert greater control and influence.)
Though the triangle between the U.S., China, and Taiwan sometimes flares up, the general goal of all three has been to maintain the fragile status quo. By speaking to President Tsai, and praising U.S. relations with Taiwan, Trump threatens to upset that delicate balance.
Reaction to the call was immediate and, for the most part, aghast.
“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House National Security Council, told the Financial Times. “Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”
Well, that might be the idea:
There are various reasons Trump might be intentionally poking China. Trump spoke harshly about China throughout his presidential campaign, accusing Beijing of currency manipulation, land-grabbing, and taking advantage of the United States. He also showed willingness, if not an eagerness, to slaughter nearly every sacred cow of American foreign policy.
Some Trump confidants have suggested existing policy on Taiwan should become one of them. John Bolton, who served as Bush’s ambassador to the UN, has been advising Trump, and Bolton has been a very public advocate of the U.S. cozying up to Taiwan in order to show strength against China.
That could be, or maybe not:
It’s also possible that Trump just stumbled into the matter, Being There-style. Trump tweeted Friday evening that Tsai had called him, presenting himself as just the guy who picked up the handset. It is unclear how studied the decision to take it was, or whether it was studied at all…
It’s also hard to know how big a deal Trump’s call is. China did not immediately comment. A White House official told The New York Times that the administration was only informed of the call after the fact, and said the fallout could be significant. There were other questions. Wouldn’t Beijing see that what Trump did was a blunder, but not a major shift in policy? Isn’t the Chinese government sophisticated enough not to take Trump at face value?
China is perhaps a more sophisticated foreign-policy player than Pakistan; it’s certainly a more important one. But a China that sees Trump as buffoon probably isn’t good for American interests either.
They may be grinning over there now. This guy is going to be a breeze to deal with. They sent him a dare:
On Saturday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in his government’s first official reaction, played down the call.
Stressing the good relationship between the United States and China, he said, “I also believe this will not change the One China policy upheld by the American government for many years.”
Mr. Wang, speaking to reporters in Beijing, characterized the call as initiated by the Taiwanese government. “We believe it’s a petty action by the Taiwan side.”
Okay, Donald Trump, work your way out of that one! The One China policy will stand. You’ll find that out soon enough. You have no choice. You really don’t want to pay the massive cost of ending that. You’ll just have to learn to live with uncomfortable ambiguity, and by the way, you’re being used by your little friends on that little island. Enjoy your little hotels in our province. Get richer. Knock yourself out. It makes no difference.
This diplomacy stuff is hard. Donald Trump needs to get himself a secretary of state, fast. And he might want to consider the virtues of ambiguity. That can save the world.