On Tuesday, August 3, 2021, the US State Department issued a string of tweets, listing all the countries that had received free COVID-19 vaccines from America. The numbers were impressive, the imagery magnificent. Each entry included an emerald green box with a white check mark in it. Next came the name of each recipient country, the number of doses delivered, and an emoji of that country’s flag.
The tweets told a story of international goodwill and inclusiveness. The narrative of unity in the face of a global pandemic was enhanced by the attractive colors, shapes, and symbols of all flags on proud display.
This was American diplomacy at its finest. Already, the US government had shipped 110 million life-saving shots to all points of the compass. It pledged to deliver nearly half a billion more vaccines in the coming months.
President Joe Biden announced that the donations were given freely, without any demands, conditions, or coercion attached. The United States was doing this for all the right reasons: to save lives and end the pandemic.
There was, however, one place on the State Department list where coercion reared its ugly head: the entry for Taiwan.
INSULTING A FRIEND
Initially, the State Department had given Taiwan the same full measure of dignity it accorded to every other country. But then, without a word of explanation, it deleted Taiwan’s flag and reposted the thread. When later asked, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the original inclusion of Taiwan’s flag “an honest mistake.”
Given the context, Psaki’s remark was an Orwellian turn of phrase. When accidentally confronted with a fact, the US government chose to discard it and revert to an official falsehood. Today, Taiwan is the one country on that long list that is inaccurately portrayed as flagless. It looks like an international pariah.
This diplomatic slight is a microcosm of the US government’s treatment of Taiwan, encapsulating in miniature the abnormal relationship between the two countries and — by way of extension — the corrosive effects of Chinese Communist Party influence on American public policy. Officials in Washington would rather humiliate democratic Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) than risk aggravating the one-party dictatorship in China (People’s Republic of China, PRC). And so, they do, all the time.
In defense of America’s public servants, their intentions are altruistic, their purpose true. Keeping the Taiwan Strait flashpoint from igniting is an extraordinary mission. The political-military terrain is menacing, and the stakes are sky high. It’s easy to see why so many senior leaders make the choice to fudge the truth when it comes to Taiwan’s existence as a free and independent country worthy of being treated like everyone else.
Nonetheless, the State Department’s ultra-cautious approach to Taiwan policy is not something indicative of a wise and creative spirit, but rather the spirit of a sterile hivemind.
Consider this: a tightknit group of bees in a comfortable tree will go about their daily projects earnestly in spite of an approaching forest fire. By the time they see the smoke and feel the heat, it is too late to fly away and escape. Bees are capable of cooperating with one another to achieve amazing things, yet an inability to think about the bigger picture routinely seals their fate.
The same tragic design flaw is hardwired into large human groups with hierarchical organizational structures. Bureaucrats imbibe ideas and approaches inherited from past generations and silence skeptical inquiry with words like “consensus view” and “expert opinion.” They inadvertently normalize disfunction, rendering themselves unable to question the fundamental assumptions guiding their actions.
By their very nature, government departments are defined by groupthink and intellectual inflexibility. These are necessary for the humdrum, day-to-day maintenance of office efficiency. But, in times of rapid change and crisis, such traits can be dangerous.
WHY IT MATTERS
The Chinese Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist political organization. In the Bolshevik tradition, it is interested in power and glory, but also aims to alter minds and create a radical new world order. It seeks to deliver a secular gospel of territorial expansion and fanatical nationalism to the willing and impose it on those who resist. Exhortations to achieve the “China dream” and “national unification” are little more than thinly-veiled calls for cross-Strait conflict and state terror.
In the interconnected, globalized world of the 21st century, few punishments top those associated with political isolation — especially for a country like Taiwan, which faces the constant threat of an attack that could end its existence. China’s government has dedicated itself to the task of asphyxiating Taiwan, compressing its international space, and severing its linkages to the global community (and especially the United States) as a precursor to invasion and occupation.
Recently, the Pentagon has responded to the threat by conducting a series of complex defense drills, maneuvering forces across the Pacific in simulated combat conditions to ensure that the American military is ready to assist Taiwan in an emergency. Admiral John Aquilino, the commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific theater, expressed confidence in his troops’ ability to defend Taiwan, saying “The US is ready.”
At a time when military professionals are risking their lives in training exercises to keep the peace and prepare for disaster, shouldn’t State Department officials be expected to take some calculated risks in the political arena? The military’s efforts at deterring aggression are undermined when America’s diplomats lack the ability or the will to stand up for freedom.
No woman or man in a position of trust at the State Department can honestly claim to be keeping faith with the American people and maintaining the best traditions of American foreign policy when they ostracize Taiwan. That is the wrong way to peace. At best, it plays directly into Beijing’s hands. At worst, it could lead to the supreme and final failure of diplomacy.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
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