foreignpolicy.com [original article contains links.]
image fromIn a call with China's President, Trump recognized, or at least nodded at, the one-China policy he'd earlier questioned.
On the evening of Feb. 9, U.S. President Donald Trump had what the White House described in a terse readout as a “lengthy” and “cordial” telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. That alone is newsworthy, as the two hadn’t spoken since Nov. 14. But Trump also appeared to walk back an earlier claim, alarming to some, that U.S. recognition of the “one-China policy,” which Beijing interprets as supporting the notion that Taiwan is part of China, would be up for negotiation. Chinese official media hastened to proclaim that, on the latest call, “Trump said he fully understands” the policy and would adhere to it. The significance of this turnabout is surely profound, given that Chinese authorities call the policy “the political foundation for China-US relations.” But what is the long-term impact of the call likely to be? —The Editors ...
Jorge Guajardo, Senior Director, McLarty Associate:
There’s a reason diplomacy is stodgy and boring and conducted in back rooms: because it gives all players options. The trouble with public diplomacy is it sets parameters and ends up narrowing the parties’ range of maneuver [JB emphasis]. Unlike President Trump’s self-vaunted real-estate negotiations, in diplomacy all parties are accountable, first and foremost, to their domestic audiences. And domestically, the perception of what is a good outcome may be entirely different from the diplomats’ actual desired outcome. In business there is a reason why a party goes to the negotiating table: to buy, sell, or prevent a take-over. Parties understand clearly what the ideal outcome is. In diplomacy, parties are often brought to the negotiating table unwillingly, or they can simply choose not to show up.
Trump fancies himself the ultimate negotiator. He promised to bring his acumen to the world stage and has now disturbed a beehive, causing plenty of headaches to US policymakers and global leaders and arguably limiting diplomatic options for the US. Just as he tried to do with Mexico, boasting that he would make it pay for a wall it did not need or want, Trump sought to “pre-condition” (in the words of Secretary of Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross) its negotiating counterparts by aiming high. In the case of China, he said everything was up for negotiation, including the sacrosanct one-China policy. And just like the Mexican president was forced to cancel a meeting with Trump after political backlash at home, so did President Xi seek to distance himself from Trump for fear of appearing weak to his domestic audience regarding the one-China policy.
It bears repeating: every international political leader has a domestic audience that is his or her priority. Contrary to what Trump could imagine, foreign leaders may choose to ignore him if by talking to him they risk appearing weak to a domestic audience. Even among foreign leaders, there are differences in the leeway they have dealing with an ” imperial” power. Leaders of countries with a historic sense of imperial oppression or victimization, such as China, Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, have to be particularly sensitive to nationalist sentiment in the face of a perceived foreign insult. For a politician like Theresa May, inviting Trump for a state visit can result in a petition against it or perhaps an uncomfortable Prime Minister’s Question Time. But for the leader of a country with a longstanding grievance about mistreatment by a stronger power, a slight from Trump could lead to massive protests and the threat of widespread social unrest. Such a leader would sooner snub Trump than risk upheaval at home. This is why Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled his scheduled visit to Washington, and why Xi preferred to stall, waiting for Trump to reach out and then conditioning the conversation to support for the One-China Policy.
This was unfortunate for the United States because it squandered the opportunity to engage with China assertively. The way to push back on China is not by humiliating it, not by painting it into a corner, and certainly not by bringing up the one thing no Chinese leader can agree even to consider negotiating: the integrity of the one-China policy. Instead of pre-conditioning the Chinese with his blustery tweets, Trump put them in the impossible position of not being able to come to the table, even to talk on the telephone, without appearing weak. This broke all communication at the highest levels and put all other cooperation on stand-by. I cannot see a case in which the United States wins diplomatically by not talking to its counterparts. The basis of diplomacy is communication, and if countries are not communicating they are hardly advancing their agendas and objectives. The biggest loser, in this case, is the country whose calls go unreturned: the United States.
Fortunately, Trump appears to have moves other than doubling down. The world’s largest and second-largest economies are back on speaking terms and we are all better off for that. To get there, President Trump had to tone down his bluster, walk back his comments regarding the One-China policy and behave, even if for a few moments, as a responsible statesman. The Chinese learned that Trump blinks; they took his measure and came out ahead. With hope he will not seek to regain his lost ground by proving his strength in other ways. The case for pushback was there, but Trump’s negotiating style gave it all away just to get the Chinese on the phone. I applaud his correction. I hope he learns and applies the lessons to other regions of the world. In diplomacy, you accomplish very little by bluster, and a lot by being boring and discreet. Here’s hoping for more boring relations between the United States and the world. ...