December 3, 2016
Before even taking office, Donald Trump has managed to reverse decades of American policy on Taiwan by openly taking a phone call from their president and then bragging about it on his Twitter feed. The reaction to this led Trump to wonder how it was such a big deal to take a call from a nation to whom we sell so much military equipment, and others to wonder why Obama’s break with American policy on Cuba was so widely praised in the media, while Trump’s has been deemed reckless. The answer lies not in the policy itself, but in the manner with which it was undertaken.
I won’t deny that the media has been biased against Trump or for Obama, at least in so much as it is useful to talk about media bias in today’s decentralized media environment. However, in this case the condemnation of Trump is warranted. For all that criticisms one could level at President Obama and his foreign policy, no reasonable observer can deny that he is deliberate. Whether you thought his about-face on Cuba was smart policy or not, there is no question that he knew what he was doing, and had discussed the move with his advisors and experts prior to making it. There is plenty to find fault with the policy itself, but it was made in the right way.
Trump’s phone call from Taiwan is the exact opposite. He not only took the phone call and bragged about it on Twitter, he did so before assembling his team of foreign policy experts or having a full foreign policy strategy in Asia generally or China specifically. Not only is this the wrong way to make policy, it specifically confirms two major concerns about Trump as a president. The first is that he’s impulsive, acting before fully considering the implications or consequences of his actions. The second is that he fails to realize, as President of the United States, that his words have consequences. His twitter response fails to recognize that simply taking a phone call, and especially bragging about it on Twitter afterwards, is in and of itself a major foreign policy decision. When you’re President of the United States, a phone call isn’t always just a phone call. Though I wouldn’t discount the possibility at this point that Donald Trump knows exactly what he’s doing, the seeming impulsiveness of his decision-making process on Taiwan doesn’t do a whole lot to help me sleep easier, even if I’m generally supportive of the change in direction.
This is the difference between the two sea changes; Trump has done the right thing in the wrong way, and Obama did the wrong thing in the right way. Though I disagree with Obama’s Cuba move and believe that he did it out of liberal hubris, at least he took the time to fully consider how his actions would play out. Trump, though I’m generally supportive of greater recognition for Taiwan and a harder line on China, seems to have made a potentially seismic shift in American foreign policy without a second thought.