US president-elect Barack Obama completed his victory on Tuesday night with a speech as stirring as it was carefully worded. It would come as no surprise if his fine words moved as many people of other nations as the people of his own.
Indeed, his words included a pledge that credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world is an important part of the US agenda once again: “… our destiny is shared,” he said, “and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
He spoke in a way that will encourage individuals and nations that are struggling against oppression by adjacent states or even their own.
“To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you,” he said. “To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”
These words are a profound and essential statement of what the US represents to people all over the world who hope for self-betterment and self-respect while acknowledging the need to admit to mistakes and heal past wounds.
But the mechanics of Obama’s foreign policy are yet to be enunciated.
Worse, the words and actions to date of Obama’s aides with responsibilities for Taiwan and China sit very awkwardly — if not contradict outright — the inspiration and principles in his speech on Tuesday night.
The extent to which this situation should worry Taiwanese is limited by military and diplomatic reality in the Asia-Pacific region. The received wisdom among hawks and doves alike is that US policy on Taiwan over the last 30 years has been remarkably stable and consistent, though under President George W. Bush there has been a subtle but unnerving change from “acknowledging” to supporting China’s claim to Taiwan.
Concerns that a Democratic Congress would erode Taiwanese interests may also be overstated given the marginal role it plays in executive operations.
To the incoming Obama administration, Taiwan’s fate will likely fall under the radar for some time, and predicted overtures by Washington to Beijing could extend this period of superficial peace for as long as Zhongnanhai can behave itself.
China’s agenda, however, requires this stability to end at the very moment that its strategy of coaxing Taiwan and offering economic inducements fails.
This moment is inevitable; the question is whether Obama will be prepared for it should it happen under his watch.
Supporters of Taiwanese democracy must have listened to Obama’s invocation of Abraham Lincoln with a mixture of admiration and wistfulness. Based on the evidence available, despite the warning signs from China and pro-China forces in Taiwan, and despite all the energy that hope can generate, no one can really say if an Obama administration would act to stop a Taiwanese government of the people, by the people and for the people from perishing.