The president-elect stumbles over the protocols of geopolitics and war, tweeting all the way.
It's not just insane. It's awkward.
"Since 1979," The Guardian points out, "the U.S. has acknowledged Beijing's claim that Taiwan is part of China, with relations governed by the 'One China' set of protocols."
But here's what Donald Trump did: He took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen. In so doing, he became the first U.S. president or president-elect to speak directly to the Taiwanese leader in 37 years. Furthermore, he referred to her as the president of Taiwan, not the president on Taiwan, seemingly implying that the island province is actually an independent nation, totally freaking out mainland China -- and jolting our relations with that country big time. You don't want the wrong preposition to start World War III.
Furthermore: "Weeks before President-elect Donald Trump's controversial phone call with Taiwan's president," the Guardian story continues, ". . . a businesswoman claiming to be associated with his conglomerate made inquiries about a major investment in building luxury hotels as part of the island's new airport development."
These claims "add to growing concerns about potential conflicts of interest between Trump's business empire and U.S. foreign policy."
This is the emerging framework for a Trump presidency: He's a geopolitical know-nothing who refuses to sever ties to his vast array of business interests, turning the American presidency into an endless opportunity for conflicts of interest and, in the process, endangering national and global security. That's the "insanity" part.
But the "awkward" part is even more disturbing. The arrogant one revealed it in his own self-defensive Tweet afterward: "Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call."
Well, yes, the Obama administration authorized a $1.83 billion arms sale to Taiwan last year, Reuters reported. The package included lots of missiles, two frigates, amphibious assault vehicles, guns and ammo, all courtesy of two of America's military-industrial stalwarts, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
So while no U.S. president has talked to the leader of Taiwan since 1979, or carelessly used an inappropriate preposition in referring to him or her, we've been selling high-tech weapons of war to the Chinese province all along. Six years ago, there was an even bigger arms deal, totaling $6.4 billion, including 60 Black Hawk helicopters and $2.85 billion worth of missiles. How can this be?
It's simply the world we live in: preposterously volatile but at the same time lucrative and dispassionately self-justifying. Here's how Max Fisher explained it in The New York Times a few days ago: "By selling Taiwan arms, the United States ensures that the island can deter an invasion from the mainland's far larger military. This maintains a balance of power that, while fragile, is intended to prevent war."
Our One China policy turns out to be a tad strange. In establishing ties with mainland China, we've gone so far as to acknowledge that there is a single entity that is China and that entity includes Taiwan. But because Taiwan is also our ally and a fellow democracy, we have also honored, over the years, an obligation to "protect" it by selling it lots and lots and lots of weapons. This is called the Taiwan Relations Act.
"United States arms sales to Taiwan have indeed been controversial, particularly with Beijing," Fisher acknowledged: "But they are an approach intended to maintain the status quo."
Mr. Trump's behavior, on the other hand, by "granting Taiwan's leader informal recognition . . . is different because it disturbs the status quo."
So there you have it. But pardon me if I sit and ponder for a moment, with open-mouthed incredulity, the status quo being explained to me. The weapons sales, unsurprisingly, do push China to the edge of fury, but . . . they're weapons. Presumably, they're also what keep that fury contained. So it's all neat and clean: This is the volatile peace of Planet Earth, a.k.a., the status quo, maintained by billions of dollars of weapons circling the planet annually, mostly thanks to the U.S.A., which accounts for nearly half the planet's annual weapons sales.
"Arms deals are a way of life in Washington," William Hartung wrote recently at TomDispatch. "From the president on down, significant parts of the government are intent on ensuring that American arms will flood the global market and companies like Lockheed and Boeing will live the good life. From the president on his trips abroad to visit allied world leaders to the secretaries of state and defense to the staffs of U.S. embassies, American officials regularly act as salespeople for the arms firms. And the Pentagon is their enabler. From brokering, facilitating, and literally banking the money from arms deals to transferring weapons to favored allies on the taxpayers' dime, it is in essence the world's largest arms dealer."
This is the status quo: dark, quiet . . . lucrative. The Obama administration has approved the sale of more than $200 billion worth of weapons during its tenure, some $60 billion more than George W. Bush did. Generally, weapons sales aren't seriously questioned, or even discussed, except at the political margins. They come wrapped in the language of salesmanship: They ensure the safety of the customer; they ensure everyone's safety, including our own. No matter the weapons of war circulate the globe endlessly and keep everyone armed, friend and foe alike.
Mr. Trump, who of course is married to the status quo in his own special way, nonetheless saunters clumsily and cluelessly through the corridors of power, exposing its volatile secrets as he goes. Maybe this is how the world changes -- in spite of itself.