Maybe there’s a reason why Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow’s Essence of Decision, a book that looks at the multiple — and often conflicting — levels involved in government decision-making, remains a classic of political science writing.
Again last week, Washington demonstrated that the manner in which governments formulate policy is anything but rational, and seldom the result of a decision by a single actor. On the Gordian knot that is the Taiwan Strait, Washington has long been of two voices — the Pentagon’s and the State Department’s. While the former emphasizes arming Taiwan in a balance-of-power struggle with China, the latter strives for better relations with Beijing, often to the detriment of Taipei, democracy and human rights in general.
What happens when two such lines of direction clash is mixed signals, which is what we were served last week in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the impact of last month’s election.
In the past 30 years or so, regardless of which voice was loudest, the US was seen as seeking to achieve or facilitate a peaceful resolution in the Strait, and both sides — the Pentagon and the State Department — generally stuck to that premise. So committed were they to peace, in fact, that on numerous occasions since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2000, the White House and the State Department would berate it, or its “troublemaking” president, for endangering the peace or “straining” relations with Beijing.
From their perspective, it seemed that President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) “antics” were the main reason why we couldn’t start untying the knot. Everything Chen did, from the UN referendums to the WHO bids and his trips abroad, was painted as causing trouble, and the White House and the State Department would often act in a manner that undermined his efforts and was favorable to Beijing.
Underlining all this was the premise, from the Pentagon’s perspective, that the US, busy as it is fighting its “war” on terror, could ill afford to see the situation in the Strait deteriorate to such a degree that its forces might be called upon to intervene.
One should not be surprised, then, if in the past year or so, this resulted in a sometimes overt, sometimes underhanded, support for Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who was seen as key to diminishing tensions in the Strait. While it would be unfair, given the wide margin of victory, to blame the State Department for the DPP’s loss in the election, it remains that eight years of heavy criticism cannot have helped its candidate’s cause. When Ma won, we could almost hear the sigh of relief blowing across the Pacific. At last, friendlier ties in the Strait, a chance for peace.
The festive mood lasted a week or so, whereupon other voices in Washington began to resonate. It now seemed that Taiwan may perhaps be growing too close to China, which, as the CRS report stated, could threaten US interests in the region and have a negative impact on weapons sales to Taiwan. All of a sudden, peace no longer seemed to be such a good thing.
What this all means is that rather than speaking in a single voice, governments (at least democratic ones) have at their core conflicts of interest and Washington’s wavering over the past eight years was an expression of that reality. It may very well be that in the next weeks and months, the voices clamoring for not-so-friendly ties in the Taiwan Strait will be in the ascendance.