Thoughts on the Taiwan Call

Randall Hill

This morning I had an email exchange with a friend who said maybe it's not so bad that Trump got in the Chinese leaders' faces, shook them up a bit and knocked them back on their heels. After all, Taiwan is a democratic polity with free markets and free labor and has been now for many years. Why maintain the longstanding diplomat charade that we don't recognize the Taiwanese government when in fact they are a major ally and trading partner which we have armed for decades and to whom we extend what might be termed a contingent and intentionally ambiguous security guarantee?

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Indeed, this has been the argument of US China hawks for many years. Not every taboo or shibboleth has to be respected forever. Indeed, they should be inspected with some regularity. One of the nice things about being a great power is that you have a lot of choices. But in each of these choices the question is not really can we do it, or do we want to do it or do our values dictate we do it so much as 1) have we accurately thought through the potential costs and 2) are the costs sustainable in the face of the benefits we're trying to achieve?

In the late Clinton administration we had an arrangement with North Korea in which they had shuttered their nuclear weapons program in exchange for regular shipments of fuel oil, assistance with nuclear energy technology which could not be used for nuclear weapons and various other inducements. This arguably also involved a continuous cat and mouse game with the North Koreans, periodic shakedowns for more assistance, various care and feeding, etc. The incoming Bush administration viewed this deal as appeasement and an example of American weakness and set about a cycle of confrontation that eventually cratered the deal. North Korean quickly proceeded to become a nuclear state. What was termed the 'Agreed Framework' was unlovely and unsatisfactory in a number of ways; the alternative we got was considerably worse.

The key was that the Bush administration saw the Agreed Framework as appeasement but they were not - though they sometimes suggested they would be - willing to adopt the likely alternative of military confrontation. (We could soon see a similar set of events unfolded with Iran.) Thus the Bush White House was able to stand strong against appeasement (with all the psychological self-affirmation and self-satisfaction that entails) at the cost of allowing North Korea to become a nuclear state, which it has now been for more than a decade.

The hawks would claim the North Koreans were cheating all along. Scuttling the deal just brought that into the open a bit sooner. There is little evidence that this is the case.

Not surprisingly, the key driver behind this more confrontational policy was Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney's top East Asia hand was a man named Stephen Yates, a fierce China hawk as aggressive and militaristic in his view of the role of American power in the world as the parallel folks in Cheney's orbit, whose names you likely know better, who worked the Middle East front.

Today we learn that the guy who arranged for Trump's call with the President of Taiwan was none other than Stephen Yates. He's currently in Taipei and working for the Trump transition team. Yates has a post at The Heritage Foundation while also running his own international consultancy - a typical arrangement for high level foreign policy hands of both parties when their party is out of power.

[Late Update: After I wrote this post but I think before I pushed the 'publish button', Yates has now denied reports that he arranged the call, while saying he thinks he was a great idea. I would suggest keeping an open mind about whether the original reports or the denial are more credible. If it wasn't this Yates, it was likely another.]

For starters this leaves little doubt that this call was intentional - at least in the sense that Trump's advisors put it together with a full understanding of the diplomatic implications. Just how much Trump understood this or understood the full ramifications of taking this call isn't entirely clear. The fact that Trump's twitter freak out pushed the point that the Taiwanese President had called him, not vice versa, suggests an element of defensiveness and incomplete understanding of the situation. The response itself gave China an opening to pressure Taiwan, which was simply unnecessary, regardless of what you think of the policy level decision.

Defensiveness, ignorance, impulsivity, considered aggressive behavior, on-going real estate negotiations? Not having a clear idea about which of these factors is driving decisions is and will be one of the joys of the Trump years.

It is not as though any of this emerges against a backdrop of harmonious US relations with China. In addition to the long-simmering friction over trade, the US and China are currently engaged in a complex and increasingly perilous struggle over which country will be the dominant power in the maritime waterways of East Asia, through which a huge amount of the world's trade flows. That was already plenty perilous under Obama's more considered and deliberate management. It will unquestionably become more unpredictable and perilous now. Trump was already planning to heat up the trade equation dramatically. And now we have this - though it is important to realize that "this" really cannot be separated from the emerging disputes over trade and the South China Sea. Indeed, the staffers and advisors behind this move may see it as an aggressive move in one area where the US has more freedom of action to counter Chinese actions in these other two areas in which it has less.

I mentioned above that great powers have the good fortune and curse of having many options. The key predicate to wise action is understanding the range of potential outcomes and costs of different choices and whether you are ready and able to sustain them. One of the things I noticed early with the hawks in the Bush administration was a frequent willingness to commit leaders to future costs they may not fully understand secure in the knowledge that once the actions are taken the leader will have to pay those costs whether they like it or not.

Which brings us back to Trump, the phone call and Stephen Yates.

Some people think Trump has no actual foreign policy. This is not true. He is extremely ignorant. But he has an instinctive and longstanding way of thinking about and approaching foreign policy questions which goes back decades before he ran for President. It is one that sees international relations in zero-sum terms (for me to win, you have to lose), sees the US as being taken advantage of by allies (either through advantageous trade deals or expenditures on defense). This is why you see economic nationalism going back decades with Trump and either skepticism or hostility toward international treaty organizations like NATO.

Now, in practice this can mean opposing the Iraq War, supporting the Iraq War, depending on how things are going at the moment and the state of public opinion. But this prism through which he sees the world (not unlike the way he approaches business, political campaigns, etc.) is consistent over time. What you also have in Trump is someone who is impulsive and aggressive by nature - you see these qualities in primary colors in everything he does. These are highly dangerous qualities in a President. They become magnified when such a person is being advised by people who provide an ideological purpose and justification to such impulsiveness and aggression.

That is where I fear and believe we are with Trump. Not everything in foreign policy is sacred. But here we have an impulsive and ignorant man whose comfort zone is aggression surrounded by advisors with dangerous ideas. His instinctive aggression makes many of their most dangerous ideas possible; and their ideological formulations give his actions a rationale and logic that transcends psychological impulses and the anger of the moment. Even President Bush had a coterie of more Realist-minded and cautious advisors to balance out the hotheads. They lost most of the key debates - especially in the first term. But they provided a restraining counter-balance in numerous debates.

At present there is no one like that around Trump at all.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of