Several times over the past ten months, I have thought about writing something about the crazy American election for this blog. Each time, I have decided against it. This is, after all, a blog about elections in Taiwan, not elections worldwide. Now, a few hours after watching the shocking election result come in, I feel the need to grapple with the idea of President Trump.
As an American, I am a solid blue partisan. I strongly prefer the Democratic Party over the Republican Party. The fact that the Trump and the Republicans will now reverse much of what Obama and the Democrats put together is very painful to me. The thought that national health care will probably be gutted and the Supreme Court will continue to be dominated by conservatives makes me sick to my stomach. %$#@%#!
However, these are the ordinary partisan pains of victory and defeat in democracy. Elections are supposed to have consequences, and the only thing worse than President Trump and the Republicans implementing (stupid) Republican policies would be if there were no elections so that (wrong-headed) voters didn’t have the opportunity to put (cartoonishly misguided) people in office. We Americans can survive another cycle of (fundamentally flawed) policy missteps.
I am much more worried about two other things. As a Taiwanese and as an American, I worry about Trump’s understanding and commitment to democratic norms. During the campaign, he attacked various minorities and the media, both with tacit invitations for other actors to bully and attack them and also with explicit threats to use the courts to cow them into submission. His threat to put Hillary Clinton in jail is not reassuring.
The other big thing I worry about is Trump’s commitment to maintaining American alliances around the world. He seems to view foreign relationships as zero-sum trading equations. If you run a trade surplus, you are winning. If you run a trade deficit, you are losing and the other side is probably playing you for a sucker. He does not seem to think in terms of mutual gains from trade. In this zero sum economic view of the world, he does not seem to value security relationships as highly as previous presidents have. At least in his campaign rhetoric, he did not see the mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, or NATO as non-negotiable. Quite the contrary, he sees these as questions of cash. If the USA is paying a lot of money to maintain these military positions, Trump sees a problem. They are playing the USA for suckers; they should pay their own way. This is a position that no American president has taken since WWII, and it is a fundamental threat to us here in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s continued existence as an independent political entity depends on the American protective umbrella. Unlike Korea, Japan, or NATO, Taiwan does not have a formal mutual defense treaty with the USA, so this umbrella is more tenuous. If Trump doesn’t think it is worth it to clash with Russia over NATO, I shudder to consider how he might feel about a clash with China over Taiwan. Over the past 25 years, Taiwan has been able to point to its democratic system, its close economic ties with the USA, and its fiercely pro-American public opinion, and Washington has always seen the relationship as a vital American interest. This has been a bipartisan position: both Democrats and Republicans shared fundamental assumptions about the need for American leadership in the world, both to maintain stability and to maintain alliances of friendly democratic allies with similar values. Trump is challenging those fundamental underpinnings.
Make no mistake: Trump’s election does not mean – as many experts here in Taiwan seem to think – we will have business as usual between Taiwan and the USA. The common wisdom seems to be that foreign policy depends on large bureaucracies, dense relationships based in government, think tanks, and businesses, so Trump won’t be able to single-handedly upend them. The problem is that the president has enormous freedom in foreign policy. Trump has just completed a hostile takeover of the American establishment, so he owes very little to all those elite networks. We do not yet know who he will put in charge of the State Department, but I do not expect President Trump to simply hand over all decisions to a standard Republican. Republican elites seem to be gambling on the idea that they can control or guide Trump, but that hasn’t worked yet. So far, Trump has seemed quite capable of pushing back and bending the Republican elites to his will. If Trump wants to do something, he won’t be easily dissuaded by experts at Brookings, CSIS, the American Enterprise Institute, or even the State Department.
We could hope for benign neglect. Trump apparently knows very little about Japan or Korea, much less any of the smaller countries in Asia. His (cursory) knowledge of the outside world seems to be focused on Europe and the Middle East. I’ve never heard him mention Taiwan. Of course, he has mentioned China, but only in very shallow terms. (Their leaders are very smart, they outcompete Americans, they take away American factories and jobs, and they brilliantly manipulate their currency.) As with most countries, he seems to think that what is needed are new terms of trade: he is going to negotiate a better deal. The vision of China as a place that steals American jobs is not comforting to me. I am terrified of a possible deal. As long as Trump doesn’t see democracy as fundamentally important, Taiwan might easily become a bargaining chip that Trump could dangle in front of China.
I wish I didn’t have to write that previous sentence. It is terrifying and nauseating to me. However, this is now a concrete danger. Taiwan could become a bargaining chip. (Scenario: China slows down the exports of manufactured goods to the USA, and America might quietly inform the Taiwanese government that military support might not be forthcoming so Taiwan might want to negotiate a peace treaty with China.)
What is Taiwan to do? First, Taiwan needs to watch the new Trump administration very closely over the next few months to see just how far Trump will follow his campaign rhetoric in designing his foreign policy. However, while we might hope for the best, we should probably be preparing for the worst.
Second, Trump doesn’t like the idea of anyone free-riding off the American military budget. If that is the trigger, then Taiwan has to demonstrate that it is not a free-rider. For years, the USA has been pushing its allies to spend 3% of GDP on military budgets. Now is the time for Taiwan to reach for that goal. As I understand, Taiwan currently spends about 2.3% of GDP on the military. It might not be efficient to shower the military with new equipment, higher salaries, more personnel, or better facilities. (In fact, I have been told several times in recent months that American diplomatic and military no longer stress the 3% goal since other uses of precious budget funds may do more to strengthen allies’ economies and militaries.) However, it might be good strategy to spend 3%, even if it is somewhat wasteful, just as a means of preventing Trump from singling Taiwan out as a free-rider. Taiwan must not give him an excuse to make an example of Taiwan to the rest of the world.
Third, Trump has repeatedly lambasted the Washington elites, especially those from the Bush administration, for trying to create democracy in the Middle East. The Iraq war was a colossal mistake because it was always going to be impossible to miraculously transform Iraq into a democratic society. “Promotion of democracy” is proof that the Washington elite are completely out of touch. The challenge for Taiwan is to separate itself from Iraq in the American political discourse. Taiwan should cooperate with other democratic countries to stress that there is no need to create or build democracy. Taiwan is already a thriving democracy. Taiwan already shares American values. Taiwan is already a natural friend and ally for the United States. It might be folly to try to create democracy where none exists, but it would also be folly for the USA to abandon friendly democratic allies that already exist. This is about defending democracy.
Finally, Taiwan may have to be more conciliatory toward China for the next few years. Trump is not predisposed to want to actively project American power around the world. The hard truth is that the USA is now less likely to support Taiwan in a clash with China. Taiwan may have to work a little harder to prevent such a clash from happening. I am not suggesting a unilateral surrender to China. Rather, I am suggesting that Taiwan might not want to scream so loudly about international diplomatic indignities, and it might even want to explore some alternate fuzzy formulations of the relationship between China and Taiwan. What Taiwan does not want to do is the sorts of overt, aggressive nationalist acts that Chen Shui-bian engaged in toward the end of his term. That was important yesterday; it will be even more important tomorrow.
Donald Trump has been elected president of the USA. This marks an enormous upheaval in American politics. Many ideas that were previously considered sacrosanct are about to be challenged. Very few Americans cast their votes with foreign policy in mind, but foreign policy will (probably) nonetheless experience some fundamental shifts. Friendly people in the Washington establishment might reassure Taiwanese that they still value the American relationship with Taiwan and hope to maintain its stability, but those people may suddenly have far less influence than they did yesterday. The worst thing we in Taiwan could do is to ignore the new reality, however unpleasant it may be. Changes are afoot, and we had better be prepared for them.