Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen is just the latest example of the President-Elect’s upending of political apple-carts. Few politicians in recent decades have been the subject of so much cant and humbug as Donald Trump. But journalistic hysterics serve no-one. No politician is a pantomime character, and cartoonish mythology is bullshit. Some more dispassioned analysis is in order.
Trump’s closest foreign policy adviser to date is John Bolton, veteran diplomat and international relations scholar. Certainly Bolton is a controversial figure, but whatever one thinks of his politics, it cannot be denied that he is a genuine foreign policy intellectual. Bolton’s presence also indicates that Trump’s foreign policy direction will be one of hard-headed realism, with American interests unapologetically put first.
Even before he is inaugurated as President, Donald Trump is, if not “draining the swamp”, certainly upsetting the apple-cart.
In just two weeks Donald Trump has already delivered a startling jobs-saving announcement in the rust-belt state of Indiana. Now with a single phone call he has overturned years of conventional wisdom in international relations, and put a muscle-flexing China on the back foot.
For the first time in decades, a Western leader is showing a willingness to stand up for Western values in the face of Chinese expansion. This cannot be underestimated.
Samuel Huntington wrote that, “the survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity”. But American leadership has been increasingly reluctant to defend the uniqueness of Western civilization. For many Americans, the enduring image of the Obama years is of the President bowing and scraping before the Saudi King. Even Obama’s Iran deal for many merely roused the ghosts of the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis in the Carter years.
China emerged from its decades-long Maoist isolation just as the Decolonization movement reached its denouement. Guilt over the ghosts of colonialism and a jejune cultural and moral relativism in fashionable thinking created an atmosphere of timidity in the West. China, meanwhile, has been determined to reassert its place in world politics, and as a civilizational hegemon – the epicentre of global Chineseness – in its hemisphere.
China piously declares its adherence to a strict policy of rigid respect for national sovereignty. In practice, though, it expands its sphere by either simply declaring territory to have always been part of China (for instance, Tibet and Taiwan), history be damned, or just building new territory from scratch, as in the Scarborough Shoal, calling it “Chinese territory”, and then declaring it off-limits because of Chinese “sovereignty”.
The timidity of Western leaders to assert the values of Western civilization has conspired with Chinese muscle-flexing to ensure that China has been far too used to getting its own way as it has progressively expanded its power from its immediate region, to push out into the South China Sea, and lately into Africa.
But for all its muscle-flexing, China is still beset with the “dragon’s ailments”, the demographic and political problems resulting from decades of disastrous policy decisions coming home to roost. It may be big, but the dragon has creaking joints.
Firstly, China remains an authoritarian state. For all its size, its massive military is mostly needed to keep its people in, and in line. Like most authoritarian states, its military is more police force than defence force. When China tried to intimidate an incoming US President over Taiwan in 2001, and was met with swift resolve, it quickly backed down.
Moreover, China is old and getting older, and overwhelmingly male. See-sawing government population mandates – first encouraging as many children as possible, then panicking and instituting the One-Child policy – and traditional demand for boys, has seen China develop a crazily lopsided demography. As Mark Steyn has said, unless China plans on becoming the first gay superpower since Sparta, its gender imbalance has crippled its ambitions before it leaves the starting blocks.
And then there are all the old people: a teetering Jenga tower of codgers, with no-one to look after them. Certainly not the inverted generational pyramid of selfish, materialistic, highly-educated Chinese millennials. Watch the popular Chinese dating show, If you are the one, a show that paints such an unflattering portrait of Chinese society that authorities intervened to stop it spreading “wrong values”. Can you imagine that lot wanting to look after ye-ye in his dotage? Not bloody likely. It’s a home for you, gramps.
The only problem is – there’s no-one to do the dirty work. If Americans complain that no-one wants to do dirty jobs these days, young Chinese have been even more conditioned to expect better than changing lao lao’s Depends. China is going to need a massive pool of cheap, unskilled labor to take care of their ailing elders in the next ten years. Young, university-educated Chinese “Little Emperors” won’t want to do it. Which will inevitably mean a mass influx of foreign labor. In a notoriously insular society like China, the social implications will be shattering.
So China is running on borrowed time, and they almost certainly know it. They’re puffing themselves up and trying to intimidate the West while they can. They’ve certainly been getting away with it far too often for forty years.
The Chicken Little response to Trump’s phone call has been terror at poking the Chinese dragon. But the West has kow-towed to the dragon for too long. If Western leaders truly want to avoid war, boldness is needed, not appeasement.
As Huntington wrote, “avoidance of a global war of civilizations depends on world leaders accepting and cooperating to maintain the multicivilizational character of global politics”. In the post-Cold War world of clashing civilizations, Western leaders need to assert the values of Western civilization. For decades they have too often conspicuously failed to do so, never more so than in the last 8 years.
It also comes down to some simple, moral questions:
Who does America side with – an authoritarian, Communist dictatorship, or a free, liberal democracy? And when does an American President need to ask anyone’s permission to speak to any other world leader, anyway?
A bit of an explainer: In the introduction above, I mentioned that John Bolton would likely bring a “hard-headed realism” to Trump’s foreign policy. Realism, in international relations, is a somewhat technical term, describing a particular school of thought, or theory, of global politics.
Realism is basically the belief that global politics is characterised by nation-states competing with each other in the pursuit of power. Although realists believe that world politics is naturally anarchic (i.e. that supra-national bodies like the UN or the EU have no proper authority over states), states will act rationally to maximise their self-interest, at the same time as they try to enhance their power to ensure their self-preservation.