John J. Tkacik Jr’s editorial on US President Donald Trump, Jerusalem and Taiwan, while commendable for a thorough contextualization of the international legal status of the two territories, relies on a mythology that flatters Trump and absents his relationship to Israel and the reasons he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (“Trump, Jerusalem and Taiwan,” Jan. 29, page 6). It is also rashly optimistic about how the Trump administration could affect Taiwan.
On Dec. 6 last year, Trump proclaimed recognition, but he did little more than carry through the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by the 104th Congress on Oct. 23, 1995, by a 93-5 vote in the Senate and 374-37 in the House of Representatives.
From 1995 to last year, four successive presidents vetoed the implementation of this act every six months on the grounds of national security. Trump also vetoed implementation of the act for another half year, but broke rank to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and declare the US would seek to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Washington has since indicated that, rather than build a new embassy, the US will “upgrade” the existing consulate in Jerusalem to an embassy by next year.
Tkacik said that US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the “US had not taken a side in any final-status issues, including on the borders of Jerusalem itself.”
However, if the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and does not at the same time also recognize it as the capital of Palestine, the implication is clear: As long as the US maintains this contradiction between recognition and “final status,” Israel will continue to expand its occupation and control of East Jerusalem until such a time as it feels it can formally annex it.
At that time, no doubt the US will say “that is that” and recognize these new “facts on the ground” with the familiar performative regret it emotes when it has been caught surreptitiously supporting actions and values it claims to stand against.
Here is a president with no thought of how to carry through a policy, or its impacts, other than declare it so, as if he imagines himself Moses parting the Red Sea, the US’ exceptional military and financial power sufficient to convince the world to bend itself to a mold of his whimsy.
By inferring that Trump is a layman, “unschooled in international diplomacy” and having “no patience with legal fictions and diplomatic make-believe,” Tkacik reproduces complimentary myths that Trump has carefully cultivated about himself in ego-validating props such as Trump: The Art Of The Deal.
Indeed he built his presidential campaign around this fabricated persona of someone distrustful of bureaucracy and tradition, a “deal-maker” who would “clean out the swamp,” whose decisions are filtered through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis where only potential profit determines if an investment, or policy, has value — Trump as the Lady Justice or Judge Dredd of high capitalism.
We can see the internalization of this mythology when Tkacik said: “Unlike his predecessors, Trump’s brand of diplomacy is ‘transactional’ in the sense that he bargains.”
Trump is presented here as mold-breaking and unconventional, a rebel who gets down to business. Yet, all of international relations and diplomacy, for at least the past 500 years, have ultimately been a series of negotiations and deals, as nations seek to maximize the benefits of their relations with other states.
Trump’s “diplomacy” is not new, it just lacks any maturity, experience, nuance or aptitude. His “diplomacy” starts and ends with his brand. It is otherwise largely contentless.
Finally, Trump’s relationship with Israel is much deeper than his relationship with Taiwan. His ambassador to Israel is David Friedman, a man with extensive financial ties to the country, including leadership capacity in an organization that invests in illegal settlements such as Beit El.
The US has never had an ambassador so literally and deeply invested in the country he is assigned to.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, aside from being a close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whose family Kushner has often stayed, is codirector of a family foundation that donated tens of thousands of US dollars to Jewish settlement groups in the West Bank and also donated at least US$298,600 to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Trump also knows the power of approval from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which helped him get the Republican nomination in 2016 and again in 2020. He knows how many high-ranking Democrats he can continue to count on working on legislation with as long as his foreign policy remains staunchly pro-Israel.
Late last year, Trump met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the latter coming away with the impression that Trump would cut the Gordian Knot of the “peace” process in a way that would at least fall favorably for both sides, using a telephone call to tell Abbas that he was his “strategic partner” in making “real and serious” peace between Israelis and Palestinians, with support for a Palestinian state.
On Dec. 6, Trump apparently all but abandoned Abbas and the peace process.
For her part, Haley has spent more time in her tenure at the UN advocating for Israel than the US, going so far as to invite to an exclusive dinner those nations absent, abstained or who voted against the UN General Assembly declaring Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “null and void.”
The General Assembly voted 128-9 in favor, with 35 abstentions and 21 absent. The world does not approve of Trump’s unilateral adventurism.
Outside of the UN, Trump’s rash move appears to have started another intifada, and Abbas has declared that the US is unfit to mediate the peace process and cannot be trusted to act impartially.
In truth, Trump’s greatest sin here, other than rewarding a military occupation by a nation and its capital built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, has been to explode the enduring, but historical falsehood of US moral leadership.
No one can seriously still maintain that either the president or the US is the “leader of the free world.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that Israel’s mythology of the Israel Defense Forces being a “most moral army,” defending the only democracy in the region, is also imploding as the evidence of its brutal apartheid policies becomes more widely known.
Tkacik seems to assume that Trump could radically embrace Taiwan to snub China, yet Trump has almost no personal or business ties to Taiwan, an important metric in his decisionmaking. Why would he go to bat for Taiwan if the “profit” for the US appears so small?
Here is a man impressed by the size and cost of things. He is a bully who only respects other bullies. If Trump goes up against China, he will likely only do so in the hopes of engaging more deeply with China on what he thinks are better terms.
It is more likely, then, that Trump will abandon Taiwan, ignoring the arcana, legal fictions, the make-believe of the Republic of China (ROC) and the diplomatic minutiae that underpin the creaking strategic ambiguity of the US’ relations with Taiwan.
After all, in Trump’s simplistic world view, surely Taiwan has functioned as a Chinese territory in one form or another, nearly continuously, since at least 1683, “and that’s that.”
Tkacik describes Trump’s decision as “70 years of rock-solid diplomatic indeterminacy … upended by a self-assured US president who sees no use in US interests held prostrate by legal fictions.” Let us pray that Taiwan does not befall a similar fate.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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