Amid mounting concerns over his administration’s mistruths, Trump has been telling it like it is on issues of foreign affairs — and the consequences of that could be dire.
By Massoud Hayoun
Copies of the Chinese magazine Global People is seen at a news stand in Shanghai, China, on November 14th, 2016. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
By this point, President-elect Donald Trump’s unique relationship to facts is extremelywell-documented. But while Trump’s propensity for lying typically garners the biggest headlines, it’s his frankness on matters of foreign affairs that has policy analysts particularly worried.
Where previous administrations dealt in diplomatic finesse, Trump’s proto-administration has made it clear it won’t mince words. In both East Asia and the Middle East, experts warn the inelegant truth, spoken so plainly, could drag the United States into costly conflagrations.
In the East
Almost immediately after his victory, Trump’s team began to reverse America’s longstanding politic of diplomatic duplicity and detente over Taiwan. On its face, this may have marked a welcome conclusion to a decades-long song and dance on the matter, but it runs counter to expressions of a preference for peace and the status quo on all sides.
Since 1979, the U.S. has acknowledged Beijing as the only Chinese government, and remains ostensibly committed to Taiwan’s reunification with the Chinese mainland. So too has most of the world and the United Nations.
Still, Washington continues to support the Taiwanese military. This and other diplomacy is brokered not by Taiwanese ambassadors, but by unofficial Taiwanese “representatives” to the U.S. There are no totally blatant challenges to Chinese sovereignty, but a para-autonomous, U.S.-backed Taiwan continues to check China’s growing power in the region.
The U.S. was, to be blunt — since these are blunt times — two-timing China. And despite occasional upsets, China often overlooked this; so too did the Taiwanese.
There are certainly discomforts in this set-up: The Taiwanese view themselves as a people separate from the Chinese, according to a recent study published by the Washington Post. Still, functional arteries to the mainland were crucial to the island’s survival; Beijing is Taiwan’s largest trade partner. An overwhelming 92.8 percent of Taiwanese approve of maintaining the status quo, according to government statistics published in June by Taiwanese news site TaipeiTimes.
“If the Trump-Tsai phone call was not based on a plausible and well-considered strategy, or, if you think China will react like a cornered animal, it doesn’t look so good either for Taiwan or for regional stability.”
Even now, before his inauguration, Trump’s team has effectively begun to edge that status quo toward a point of no return.
Trump would later say on Fox News that he wasn’t committed to the policy of Taiwanese reunification with the Chinese mainland — that support for the policy should be used as leverage in trade and other negotiations with Beijing.
No more kid gloves for China, was the apparent message — no more placating Beijing verbally so that the U.S. could continue to support Taipei without it amounting to a formal attack on Beijing’s sovereignty and an ipso facto call to arms.
If the call and heady rhetoric are part of an attempt to “deter China from using military force against Taiwan and cause China to seek reconciliation with the U.S.A.,” then “you might applaud what President-elect Trump has done,” says Roy Denny, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center think tank. “But if the Trump-Tsai phone call was not based on a plausible and well-considered strategy, or, if you think China will react like a cornered animal, it doesn’t look so good either for Taiwan or for regional stability.”
Where questions of armed conflicts do arise, they become more high-stakes under the rule of a president who has pledged to reverse U.S. commitments on nuclear non-proliferation.
While Trump’s strategy remains unclear, his message to Beijing and Taipei was exceedingly transparent: that he would cut the echelons of political finesse — the artful phrasing elevating the cold, hard facts on the ground — that had held things together in the Pacific.
And Americans were likely left with a number of unanswered questions: Trump said Tsai had called him, but a spokesman for Tsai told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that it was Trump who had, in fact, initiated the call. Who, then, to believe? And just what, exactly, did they talk about anyway? How does one congratulate someone for a whopping 10 minutes?
Some may still find that honesty over Taiwan refreshing. It remains crucial, in all this, to remember that Trump’s words and proposed action on foreign affairs are not a casual middle finger to the politicos Americans have come to detest; they are actionable calls that would undeniably provoke world powers that heretofore had been allies to act in defense of their sovereignty.
In the Middle East
As with Taiwan, America’s backing for Israel is another topic enshrouded in officialese and politesse. And, as with Taiwan, analysts are concerned Trump’s efforts to dispense with artful rhetoric could stoke tensions.
The U.S. has brokered a number of failed peace negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and expressed concern, typically in the form of routine Department of State briefings, over the ongoing siege of Gaza and the increasing occupation of the West Bank. And yet never until last week had such a high-ranking official as Secretary of State John Kerry so strongly and publicly rebuked Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israel remains one of the key recipients of U.S. aid, and yet Washington’s gestures in defense of Palestinians have had no practical teeth — fiscal or otherwise.
After decades of Washington’s ostensible concern for the rights of both, Trump has offered overwhelming, gloves-off support for what many on both sides of the conflict call Israel’s farthest-right. He’s pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—the latter currently split between Palestinians and Israelis — which would signal a kind of unqualified support for the Israelis that supersedes international conventions. Trump aims to nominate as ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a Long Island bankruptcy lawyer whom the New York Timescharacterizes as an inexperienced hardliner who is “hostile” to the two-state solution.
The message to the Palestinians is that, where the U.S. has before bothered with at least the pretense of concern for Palestinian lives in the past, it will now offer its unabashed support for the Israeli side. In many ways, this is a more resolute conclusion to what have been mounting trends in U.S. policy on the conflict, particularly within the Republican Party.
“As unique as Trump is, he is representative of a shift on Israel policy in the GOP, which is broad. This is a party that increasingly views Israel either through the biblical lens preferred by many evangelical voters or a national security lens which sees Israel on the same side of the U.S. in a ‘Judeo-Christian’ battle with Islam,” says Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and noted political analyst on Palestinian affairs.
The consequences of this kind of unqualified support for Israel's hardliners action could be dire, many say.
Moving the embassy — a drastic shift that would make more explicit Washington’s at-times more even-handed-sounding support of Israel over Palestinians — is “a reckless and dangerous move that, in advance of a comprehensive agreement on the status of Jerusalem, would deeply upset and alienate Palestinians and the Arab world, and which could further ignite regional tensions, endangering Israelis,” says Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for the pro-Israel non-profit J Street.
Friedman, in keeping with Trump’s style of gloves-off-on-foreign-affairs, has labeled J Street and other Jews who oppose the settlement of the West Bank “kapos”—inmates who were also guards at concentration camps during the Holocaust.
“Anytime a political leader has direct financial ties to political outcomes it should raise series questions, and this case should be no different.”
A 2013 Pew poll found that, while little over 40 percent of Israeli Jews believe West Bank settlements will help their security, only 17 percent of American Jews agree with that statement. While Trump clarifies and highlights Washington’s traditional support for the rightist administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, questions remain as to whether American perceptions factor in his diplomatic calculus.
What's made painfully clear abroad continues to leave so many questions unanswered at home.
Moving so adroitly — without reservation or even a verbal acknowledgment of the need for Palestinians to enjoy human rights — along this route of wholesale support for Israel’s right could be dire though, say supporters of both Israel and Palestinians.
“If a Trump administration were to go forward with this step, abandon U.S. leadership toward a two-state solution, and give tacit or explicit support to settlement expansion or annexation in the West Bank, this would have devastating consequences for both Israelis and Palestinians,” Bayroff says. “Abandonment of the two-state solution would also seriously threaten U.S. and Israeli relationships with many moderate states of the Arab world.”
In other words — though Arab states have yet to express consternation over Trump’s pledge to ban foreign Muslims and register American Muslims — Trump stands to turn the key Arab allies into enemies.
Munayyer agreed with Bayroff that gestures to undo the settlements would upend painstaking work done across U.S. party lines. “A tolerance for, or embrace of, Israeli settlement expansion would be a reversal of bipartisan stated U.S. policy for decades and that looks very much like what will take place,” he says.
Much as foreign policy iterated 140 characters at a time may seem easy, it can also serve to complicate things down the line. And despite the sudden abundance of clarity abroad, some worry Trump’s pre-presidential international business endeavors in these parts of the world may again muddy the waters of a freshly drained swamp.
“Anytime a political leader has direct financial ties to political outcomes it should raise series questions, and this case should be no different,” Munayyer says.
East West Center’s Roy agreed. “It will often be difficult to disprove that his personal business interests were not a consideration in his policy decisions.”
Trump’s call to Taiwan came amid Taiwanese reports of plans to build hotels in Taiwan. At home, Trump has assured Americans his businesses — successful and otherwise — will not affect policy. Trump’s staff did not respond to requests for further comment on the issue.