There was quite a flap last week when president elect Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. The Chinese saw it as a slap in the face. And of course, whether intentional or not, it was just that.
Many in the media played this up as a “rookie mistake” and “blunder” by Trump. It may well have been. Trump’s initial reaction to the criticism suggests that he did not know that receiving the call would be controversial. Whether creating this flap was intentional or not, Trump is now playing up the story line that it was planned and that it was brilliant. Mark Thiessen makes that argument. Ready? The argument looks like this. Taking the call was a signal to the Chinese that the US would not be pushed around any more, and the Chinese needed it.
Of course, neither Thiessen, nor Trump, nor anyone else knows where this will end up. It is possible that the Chinese will accept that they can not “push around” a “tough” US anymore and meekly do whatever the US wants. It is equally possible that the Chinese will seek to save face and return the slap. Or they may do nothing now and wait for the right moment to kick us in the balls later. We shall see. But make no mistake, Trump is playing with fire.
And there is more to the story. Trump is painfully aware that he did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Until he persuades people who voted against him to change their views of him, he will remain a weak and vulnerable president. The best way to persuade those voters is to anchor their attention on a “victory” other a nasty villain. Whether this call was planned or not, Trump has decided to use it to test out whether he can gain traction by further villainizing the Chinese. He will find a way to claim “victory” later. It will all be smoke and mirrors, but who cares?
Sadly, I think Trump is correct that some will applaud him, just as some applauded when the US invaded Iraq. BTW, Mr. Thiessen was a speech writer for Bush and Rumsfeld, so he has been down this road before. Invading Iraq seemed like a fun adventure at the time, and this seems like a fun adventure now. What could go wrong?
But does anyone dare ask, what do we expect to get out of this? Surely not a renewed alliance with Taiwan. And surely not any major concessions from China on climate change or anything else of substance. So exactly what is the point? As with many Trump related endeavors, there is only one. The self-aggrandizement of Donald Trump.
I post this with a rather larger concern. We watched Trump turn the US presidential race into a professional wrestling contest. It was entertaining for some, but it did nothing to move public debate forward on any major issues. My concern is that Trump will now turn US foreign policy into yet another professional wrestling contest. It will be full of phony bluster and exaggerated demonstrations of power against hapless foes.
And when it is over? Will the US be any more “secure”? Will our allies respect us more? Will we get anything out of this? I sincerely doubt it. At the same time, we will grind down our reputation as a reliable partner and instead assume the role of the petulant sandlot bully. Some have already argued that US military power is the main problem in the world today. Right or wrong, we might expect that argument to resonate more in the post-Trump world, except of course among folks who play the same game.
The comment from Star Wars is apt “I have a bad feeling about this.”