Taking Advantage of Trump's Contentious Style
Make Taiwan Great Again?
With Taiwanese companies losing global presence and opportunities, Jack Hou, vice general manager of UNEO and a columnist at Crossing, thinks that Taiwan has a unique chance to increase its global footprint by seeking out opportunities to engage in dialogue with the U.S. by any means necessary.
Make Taiwan Great Again?By Jack Hou
I will base my comments on Donald Trump’s foreign policy fundamentals from his interview with Oprah Winfrey back in 1988. In that interview, he was critical of how the U.S. was getting “ripped off” in international trade by countries such as Japan. He commented on the trade deficit U.S. had with its allies, how Japan was conducting what he called unfair and protectionist policies in their domestic market to prevent foreign competition but taking advantage of the free market economy in the U.S. However, he said that the Japanese were “smart” and deserved respect for their shrewd trade practices, and it was the U.S.’ lack of retaliation that was making the phenomenon possible. Three decades later, if we replace Japan with China, we can see that, although his primary target has changed, how he thinks and what he is trying to achieve has not changed at all.
In U.S. politics, discerning the personality of the president is easier in the realm of foreign politics than in domestic politics, as in the latter, the power of the executive branch is balanced by the legislative and judiciary branches. As we know, in the domestic politics arena, he has had numerous setbacks and could very possibly lose out in the upcoming midterm elections. In foreign policy, however, we can easily decipher his true political intentions as follows: The U.S. has remained a global leader since the end of the Cold War; he has all the leverage he can, thus the upside will take care of itself should he aim high and maximize his options. His target market is still rust belt Reagan Democrats to whom he is beholden and who could still propel him to victory in 2020 as he plays golf at his own golf courses. He has stuck to this playbook across numerous topics and enjoyed much more “success”, which he defines as a great deal of press and attention.
In April, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The European leaders attempted to convince Trump not to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has repeatedly referred to as a “policy failure”, and to retract his “fair trade” policy. By the time they left, both leaders had largely given up trying to convince Trump that he was wrong and instead focused on how to adjust to his demands. Merkel argued for exempting Europe from steel and aluminum tariffs that would take effect on May 1, which was soundly rejected by Trump, who pressed for “reciprocal trade”. Similarly, on the issue of NATO, Trump continued to state to Merkel his longstanding grievance that he believes the U.S. is paying too much. This would usually be considered a diplomatic affront, but to Trump, he is simply “pushing and pushing and pushing” to get what he’s after. As a brief side note, in 2006, members of NATO pledged to spend two percent of its GDP on defense; however, currently, of the 29 current members, only five countries beside the U.S. are meeting this goal, with Germany at 1.2 percent.
Marcon, whom many in the media sought solace in after Trump won in 2016, and Abe have been branded as “Trump whisperers”. Both men are said to talk to Trump frequently on the phone, and Abe has already met with Trump numerous times, cozying up to Trump and giving him the spotlight he desires. Both of them came to “ask for the blessing” of the “Don” like Luca Brasi in the film The Godfather, asking for a change of heart on multilateral issues, showing the ways in which Trump has rewritten the rules of international negotiation. In return, though they failed to change his mind, Trump gave Macron the honor of a state visit and exempted Japan from the steel and aluminum tariff.
More than a year into Trump’s presidency, they have realized how to tactfully deal with policy disagreements with this eccentric American leader.
On Iran, Merkel told reporters that she told Trump that the current deal "is anything but perfect," and concluded, "We had an exchange of views on the current state of affairs of the negotiations, and the respective assessments on where we stand on this. And the decision lies with the president." Though Macron went on to reject parts of Trump’s vision in his address to Congress, he still needs to pay his respect at the “Don’s court”, which he did. He advocated for more active U.S. involvement on the world stage, asking the U.S. to “preserve and reinvent” multilateralism for a new generation. From this note, we might predict that, though there are constant calls for #resistance against Trump’s policies, we can tell from these two visits that the U.S. is enjoying more leverage, and European leaders have little choice but to revert to his ways.
Moving to Asia, Trump has also upended the traditional step-by-step process of major international negotiations. He stunned his aides by agreeing to direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, aka “Rocket Man” with “a button smaller than [Trump’s]”, placing himself again at the center of attention (on twitter), right in between the leaders of North and South Korea. Trump aimed high, i.e. ending the state of war on the Korean Peninsula, protecting his downside with twitter threats, and kept pushing. While foreign policy experts were shocked at Trump’s acceptance of the meeting and uniformly doubted Trump’s character fitness to negotiate with an equally wild Kim, Trump nonetheless took credit for his own bold and innovative diplomacy, which may bring major changes to the peninsula. "It's certainly something that I hope I can do for the world," Trump said, taking credit (again) for helping South Korea open the door for talks and through his support for the Winter Olympics held there in February. With Trump's blessing, South Korea invited North Korea to send athletes and dignitaries, transforming the games into a spectacle of sports diplomacy after nearly 70 years of conflict. While praising himself, he also mocked the experts who told him that issue of North Korea is a complicated conundrum.
With the meeting between the Korean leaders in the past, Trump has established that his foreign policy approach is one that rests largely on the pride he takes in busting the old conventions of diplomatic negotiations and remaking them in his image. Trump quickly called President Moon after the meeting to suggest that he, Trump, is the ultimate stakeholder in the negotiation, setting the stage and hyping the subsequent meeting between him and Kim much in the vein of a Don King boxing match promotion, as if President Moon were simply an underdog boxer. Trump's foreign policy maneuvers, particularly on North Korea, carry great risks, which is why it will draw huge (yuuuuge) “ratings”. Pyongyang has proven an unreliable negotiator in the past, but world powers have been negotiating with them for decades, much as they have with Iran. A failure of talks now could reignite tensions, taking things back to where they were only months ago, or for the past six decades. There are also concerns that a military confrontation will become more likely, again like six decades ago. Therefore, much like the Iran deal, Trump will be under pressure to come up with a new approach to keep Pyongyang’s and Tehran's nuclear ambitions in check, something at which every president since Harry Truman has failed; we simply have not realized they have failed and accepted them as the “norm” and mock any effort of changing the norm as “unconventional” at best.
Again, in his trade wars with China, which many experts and members of his own party fret might lead to severe consequences, Trump is adhering to his “elements of the deal” fundamentals. As there are already numerous articles discussing this topic, I will just elaborate on just a few points. Following his contextual framework, the U.S. has a prime “location” in global trade, giving it the most leverage in any trade negotiation. Therefore, all he has to do again is simply aim high and keep pushing for China to open its market and rescind its trade barriers. There has been fear that China might ban Apple in retaliation for the U.S. banning the sale of ZTE and potentially Huawei, but when we think about where Apple products are made, such an action would be considered suicidal. China has limited options to retaliate against the U.S. since its economic success is built upon unfair trade practices taking advantage of the global economic supply chain by using its huge domestic market as negotiation leverage, but when global powers no longer tolerate such acts, it actually does not have many bargaining tools at its disposal.
Looking back to Taiwan, as I always do, with Trump being an iconoclast upending conventional wisdom and protocol in foreign policy, we have a unique chance to increase our global footprint. One common thread we can discern from his numerous actions is that he tends to forego international institutions, multilateral meetings and chooses to instead undertake bilateral engagements where his negotiation leverage can be maximized to ultimately flex his muscle unilaterally. Since Woodrow Wilson and the failed establishment of the League of Nations, U.S. policy over the past century has been focused on building international organizations one after the other, with itself acting as the selfless and just deity while taking up most of the costs and overheads. However, in Trump’s mind, these institutions have become unchecked and wasteful bureaucracies that sabotage the U.S.’ own interests. Under his presidency, his delegates to these meetings have become debt collectors and critics of these institutions while he sought to unilaterally pursue his own deal-making and “bromances” (Netanyahu, Abe, Macron, bin Salman). Like an orphan who is barred from all these organizations, we ought to seek out opportunities to engage in dialogues with the U.S. by any means necessary.
Yet I am also fearful that our current administration and our lobbying group in the U.S. lack the proper understanding of how the current administration’s “deal making” is done. We are still fixated on self-pity and sulking in defeatism rather than exploring potential opportunities for a breakthrough. At the same time, our foreign policy minds in Taiwan and the U.S. also fail to realize this new norm of global politics in which the US wields its might unilaterally and are instead still pouting from the shocking defeat of their preferred candidate.
Yes, Trump might be unfit to be president, and his actions might be deeply controversial, unsettling, cringeworthy and appalling, but let us not be obsessed with his flaws but instead look for previously unavailable avenues on which we can potentially capitalize.
North Korea was shrewd in working itself to the negotiation table, and while we are not a rogue nation like them, we ought to think about prospective breakthroughs as well.
Trump thinks “outside the box” of traditional politics, so let us also leave the box.
Jack Hou is the vice president of UNEO and a columnist at Crossing.
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.
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