From the reaction of many professional pundits and print-media prognosticators, you would’ve thought that he had just started World War III.
It was not the content of the call, so much as the reception of the call, which ignited the furor. Didn’t President-elect Trump know that we have adopted a “One China” policy since the days of Nixon? Was he not aware of the fact that Jimmy Carter largely formalized this arrangement in American policy by breaking relations with Taiwan in 1978?
A wide range of criticisms have been leveled at Trump for his actions. For many in the political class, this call represents the erratic, impulsive caricature they have created of Trump—so they conclude he must be “winging it.” Before The New York Times could even reach into their stable of Trump critics in one attack piece, they had already labeled his communications with foreign leaders as “breezy” and “freewheeling.”
This hysteria does not reflect the actual facts on the ground. Former GOP senator and presidential candidate, Bob Dole, lobbied for and helped arrange the call. Trump’s foreign policy team had been planning such a move for months. In other words, this call was intentional, carefully planned, and even telegraphed. Throughout much of the presidential campaign, Trump promised a much tougher line against China. It turns out those promises were neither breezy nor freewheeling.
Acknowledging these facts doesn’t obviate the question: was this move prudent? Should we be so ready and willing to discard a foreign policy precedent that dates back four decades? Dare we risk agitating China—a strategic competitor at best and a significant economic and military threat at worst? Yes, yes, and yes.
President-elect Trump is inaugurating a new foreign policy—one that does away with equivocation and pretense. For years, there has been no method to the madness of U.S. foreign policy. We issue “red lines” and then retract them. We empower our enemies, like Iran, at the expense of allies, like Saudi Arabia. We engage in undeclared wars, as in Libya, with no clear rationale or objective. We insult our greatest allies. We have lost our sense of identity and role in the world and our foreign policy reflects that disorientation.
So what will this new foreign policy entail? At bare minimum, we will have clearly defined national interests that do not necessitate consultation with other world powers. As former ambassador, John Bolton, put it recently, the “[p]resident of the United States should talk to any foreign leader he thinks it’s in the best interests of the United States to talk to.”
Second, in line with looking only to national interests, the new foreign policy will be marked by realism. After the call with the Taiwanese president, Trump tweeted a retort to his critics that asked if China consulted the U.S. in devaluing their currency, taxing our products, or building military outposts in the South China Sea. We all know the answer. China does what is perceived to be in the best interests of China. We live in a real world and every country has real interests, including the U.S..
And it is no longer in the best interests of the U.S. to kowtow to China. We do not need them to counterbalance the aggressions of the Soviet Union. Nor do we need to abide by their frequent provocations, such as those mentioned by Trump, and the infamous shooting down of a U.S. spy plane at the beginning of President George W. Bush’s term. They have constantly tested (and often mocked) our resolve. I have a feeling that they will be more reluctant to do so after this phone call.
This is the beginning of a clearly thought-out shift from the Wilsonian idealism of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to the realism of President Reagan. The difference between Reagan and Trump is the basis of the pivot. For Reagan, foreign policy was profoundly moral. He believed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) lived down to its acronym and was willing to declare the morally-vacuous Soviet Union to be an evil empire and the locus of evil in the world. For Trump, the pivot is grounded in populist pragmatism and notions of fairness and victory.
One commonality between the realism of Trump and Reagan is already evident—it will further the undying enmity of progressive bureaucrats, politicians, and journalists. While China will follow the lead of the Soviet Union in respecting U.S. power more and engaging in more compromise, it will be Trump’s domestic critics who are most threatened and outraged.