Last weekend, Donald Trump took a diplomatic call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, for which he received a great deal of criticism. The issue, they say, is that Trump’s assuming a careless approach to foreign policy, from his naive comments towards British PM Theresa May (“If you travel to the US, you should let me know”), to his about-face on Pakistan (“terrific,” “amazing”), and, now, this overture towards a nation which America – along with much of the world, really – does not formally recognize. The reason, in Taiwan’s case, is what China’s image signifies. The reason, in every other case, is international norms. And Trump’s reason, Trump’s inner reason, is to undermine these norms, which is both a little spooky and far less exceptional than it sounds.
The fact is, politics operates on two levels, and two levels only: that which is said, is ritualized, and that which merely is. Call it statesman’s ontology, or deception, or whatever else might fit your ideological need, but this is the psychology to which all politicians – even Trump – are beholden. It is true that, on the one hand, America does not recognize Taiwan, and that China has issued a stern but toothless warning in response to Trump’s mild little stunt. This is what’s called ritual. Yet it is also true – as Trump has claimed – that America has sold billions of dollars of military equipment to Taiwan to better control China; a fact that China is aware of and does not really comment upon. And that’s because, in a way, they don’t have to, for just as Taiwan is America’s proxy in Asia, China still has North Korea, Pakistan, and a rather predictable Russia to serve as diplomatic shields they could use, re-use, and recycle at will, only to be taken up by some larger power when the world adjusts. These alliances shift constantly, for they are predicated upon impermanent values: notions and modes and ways of being that might be in one day, yet transform into a crisis the next. And while the details often change, the phenomenon – the inner pattern – does not.
Now, that’s politics, and while I can’t give Trump credit for understanding them, Trump does understand at least one thing: that power can come from the predictability of one’s unpredictability, that if one is willing to gamble, lose, win, create, and re-create things in whatever image that happens to fit, there will be motion – any motion, really – even as the world around you is less willing to budge. This, more than sheer stupidity, is probably why Trump’s said so many idiotic things, and why Trump has turned his back on them, too, throwing his fringe supporters to the wayside and embracing policies that, in the aggregate, have been the least ideologically Republican since Richard Nixon’s. And while I predict Trump will be a screw-up, he will be less of a screw-up than most Republicans of the last few decades. This is not bold, it is not crazy, it’s not meant to be edgy, but is simply consistent with what Republicans have done in the past, and what they’re capable – and incapable – of doing now.
Yet for all the realpolitik that’s played between two or three world powers, something essential gets lost. And that’s because, for every self-serving action that a state takes, whether on Taiwan, or other issues, it becomes crowded with resentment from all sides. This is not merely because a less powerful actor might feel exploited, but because they, as bit-players, don’t get to do what the big players do, even though, were the tables turned, they would be just as ruthless to each other, just as unfair. Taiwan, after all, once treated its people as poorly as China does theirs, refusing to extend their reach merely because they could not.
At the same time, if resentment is the ever-filling bottom half of an hourglass, it could be argued that classical, liberal values are at the top, dribbling away, wasting into the bottom, being transmuted, which is precisely why America has such a bruised reputation abroad. Taiwan, after all, is a decent nation, with a functional democracy, and more than a veneer of human rights. It has a population overwhelmingly in favor of independence. It has a culture that, rejected by way of China’s intransigence, has now come into its own. Yet the hypocritical sneers surrounding Trump’s call has everything to do with not following American protocol, as opposed to questioning the justness of this protocol: the sort of questioning the electorate thinks it got with a pro-Trump vote, but will likely play out very differently than it expects.