Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, there was a confident assumption that Donald Trump would “pivot” and begin to act like a more conventional candidate. That never happened. After his surprise election win, it has been asserted just as certainly that the demands of the Oval Office would force him to act more presidential. The world is still waiting. For some, Trump’s disregard for precedent and protocol is refreshing and amusing; for many others, his actions are troubling and dangerous, with the potential to upend assumptions upon which rest regional peace and stability.
The most recent example of “unpresidential behavior” was the phone call that Trump took from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last week. The call was the typical congratulatory message that one head of state offers to another, with best wishes and hopes for a productive future relationship. The problem is that Taiwan is not, except to a handful of governments around the world, “a state.” It is, according to the “one China” policy that Beijing has demanded countries honor if they want to have relations with China, a “renegade province” that is slated to reunite with the mainland. In that light, Trump’s chat, however banal or benign, was a stunning breach of diplomatic protocol.
It is not clear, however, if it is anything else. Reports from the Trump camp indicate that it was a deliberate gesture, arranged ahead of time by individuals either in or associated with the Trump transition team, and is intended to signal a new era in the United States’ relationship with China and that long-established certainties are up for reconsideration.
Yet even if some in the Trump team intended the call to shake up U.S.-China relations — and there are many among his advisers who would like to do just that — the president-elect was sending a different signal. His tweets about the call indicate that he merely took a call from Tsai, suggesting that the impetus for the conversation was on her. As reports of the conversation generated controversy, Trump noted that the U.S. sells billions of dollars of weapons to Taiwan, yet “I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Neither message conveys an intent to transform the diplomatic status quo with Taiwan.
China responded in a relatively restrained manner. Rather than shrilly denouncing the conversation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement the day after the call saying “it must be pointed out that there is only one China in the world.” After noting that it had “lodged solemn representations with the U.S.,” the statement then “urge(d) the relevant side in the U.S. to adhere to the ‘one China’ policy, abide by the pledges in the three joint China-U.S. communiques, and handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall China-U.S. relationship.” Clearly, China has decided to lay down a marker rather than stoke a crisis, but Chinese foreign policy analysts have warned that any change in U.S. policy on this issue would herald a downturn in bilateral relations and the virtual end of cooperation with Beijing on other issues of importance to the U.S., such as dealing with North Korea, Iran or terrorism.
Trump fashions himself a deal maker and tough negotiator. He will soon learn, however, that the U.S. president, ostensibly the most powerful man in the world, has limited leverage in international negotiations and needs foreign partners as much as they need him.
That lesson will reinforce another one: While there may be advantages to relying on “gut instinct” in a campaign, diplomacy is another matter. Protocols exist for a reason. They represent years of effort to find common ground among countries with variegated interests, some that converge and many that do not. Trump despises political correctness (at least when it concerns the treatment of others) but much of diplomacy is political correctness. His failure to grasp those rules and norms will have profound consequences for international relations.
News that Trump has had only two of his daily intel briefings since the election and that he did not liaise with the State Department prior to these phone calls with world leaders is alarming. It is likely that the president-elect’s positive assessment of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (another caller) is more informed by the assurances of Jose Antonio, a Trump business partner who has been selected as special envoy to the United States in the wake of the election win, than official U.S. concerns about thousands of extrajudicial killings that have occurred during Duterte’s war on drugs.
Similarly, his call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is confusing, not only for the wild enthusiasm Trump displays — how should we interpret the offer to help “with any outstanding problems”? That the U.S. will intervene in the Kashmir dispute? — but also because of criticisms Trump leveled against Pakistan in the past, such as in 2012 when he tweeted: “Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect — and much worse.”
This confusion has two possible consequences, neither good. The first is that Trump is to be taken literally and he will launch a revolution in U.S. foreign policy, but without a strategy to explain it. That will be wrenching. The second is that there is no strategy and Trump does not appreciate the significance of his statements, in which case the world will ignore them and wait to see what actually happens. Neither is good for the U.S. or the world.
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