What’s the Big Deal about a Phone Conversation?

What’s the Big Deal about a Phone Conversation?

Why is a phone call between Donald Trump and the President of Taiwan a big deal?

I have no doubt that for supporters of the President-elect, this seems like a non-issue and another ridiculous thing to make a big deal about. It was just a call, right? A ‘private call’ between Donald Trump and a foreign leader who wanted to congratulate him. As Trump has pointed out on Twitter, the reality is that the U.S. and Taiwan do have a de facto strategic relationship.

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This may seem like the sort of maddening nonsense that ‘Coastal Elites’ continuously engage in, while the rest of us have to live and work in the real world. Why can’t the President of the United States of America have a phone conversation that he wants to have, just because it might offend the Chinese? And on the face of it, I understand this.

There are some significant problems with this view though, which we ignore at our own peril. I briefly highlight three here. First and most basically, the President of the United States does not just have personal phone calls with other foreign leaders, which can be compartmentalized into the ‘not strategically important’ pile. The President is the Commander in Chief and the chief diplomat of the United States of America, as explained in Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

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What the President says and how he or she says it represents policy of the United States. When he or she speaks with foreign leaders, it is not personal. It is as the representative of the United States that he or she communicates. Within this context alone, the general cavalier pattern that Donald Trump has shown in his  calls to foreign leaders since his election is troubling. A number of specific concerns come to mind. The conversation that he had with British Prime Minister Theresa May was embarrassing and may have increased consternation about the state of our relationship with one of the United States’ most important allies. The one he had with Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif was embarrassing and indicates an extremely shallow understanding of the international affairs and of U.S. relationships. The one that he had with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte adds another to a lengthening list of indicators that Donald Trump’s understanding of and attitude toward the relationship between the state and society is in deep friction with the liberal philosophical foundations of the United States of America (liberalism in the traditional sense of the word, and not its association with the Democratic Party). His meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised similarly troubling questions, particularly relating to personal conflicts of interest, nepotism, and a lack of transparency.

The one that he had with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was reckless and risked the security of the United States as well as Northeast Asia. To understand why, requires that one appreciate the unique role that the United States plays in international relations. This is the second point. The U.S. is not just any state, and the responses its actions generate are not just any responses. It is the only global power in the world. It has by far, the largest military in the world. It is the largest economy in the world. It is the leading power in the international order that has provided a framework that for the past 71 years has prevented the sort of catastrophic war between great powers that ravaged the first half of the twentieth century.

The strategic behavior of the U.S. has a substantial impact on the security, political, social, economic, and environmental wellbeing of everyone in the world. Americans and non-Americans live and die because of what the U.S. President does and says. The interests of other states are profoundly influenced by the course of U.S. foreign policy, and they have no choice but to respond in a serious way when they interpret U.S. actions as running counter to their own. This is true across the board. In the case of the Sino-American relationship, it is especially significant, given that it involves the two largest military spenders globally. Indeed, of the top ten military spenders in 2015, 4 are in close geographical proximity to any conflict arising over the status of Taiwan (China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea). Of course, the U.S. would be a central participant in such a conflict as well. Taiwan would fall at 22 on this list, which is worth pointing out. This means that one must be extremely careful about doing anything that could lead to an escalatory spiral or otherwise destabilize the regional system.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2016. Accessed at https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2016. Accessed at https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex

And that leads to the third point. That is that the phone conversation that is of particular interest here jeopardized one of the cornerstones of the Northeast Asian order. Whether due to ignorance or an intentional provocation, Donald Trump acted in contravention to the One China Policy that has been the framework within which normalized relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China have operated since President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972.

The approach that the U.S. has taken toward Taiwan since that time has indeed been to strike an uneasy balance between recognizing that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it and attempting to insure that eventual reunification is not achieved through force. This has translated into the sales of weapons systems to Taiwan and the need for intermittent demonstrations of American willingness to respond to mainland aggression against Taiwan; while at the same time reassuring China that the U.S. does not support Taiwanese independence.

I have long said that this is not a tenable strategy for the long-term. It is arguably more of a reflection of the Cold War context within which it was formed than it is of today’s strategic environment. It is most certainly a flashpoint upon which major war could erupt without anyone intending such an outcome. This, in my view, is inescapable given the combined logical incoherence of the American strategy, the occasional push by Taiwanese leaders toward independence, and the strategic prioritization of the issue by the PRC. So by all means, I am supportive of a serious evaluation of our current approach to the issue. That said, signaling such a major strategic shift must be done carefully. One cannot simply remove a pillar upon which regional order rests and expect the result to be continued stability. And make no mistake, instability in Northeast Asia could quite easily lead to disastrous consequences.

Hans Morgenthau was one of the leading thinkers on international relations in the last century. In laying out the six core principles of his theory of political realism, he asserts “…prudence-the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions-to be the supreme virtue in politics. Ethics in the abstract judges action by its conformity with the moral law; political ethics judges action by its political consequences.” If prudence is the supreme virtue in international politics, the President-elect’s decided imprudence in his initial interactions with foreign leaders and his management of the American relationship with China is a cause for serious concern.

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