In Niccolò Machiavelli's 1517 «Discourses on Livy» the famous Italian historian and political philosopher argued that sometimes it is «a very wise thing to simulate madness». The «Madman» theory was indeed a consciously deployed facet of President Richard Nixon's foreign policy. The Nixon administration carefully projected a deliberate image of President Nixon as a volatile, erratic, almost deranged hot head. The objective was to create confusion among American adversaries, primarily in the Communist world, and unnerve them due to the unpredictability the «madman» Nixon engendered thus keeping them off balance allowing America to set the agenda, control responses, seize the initiative, keep US enemies constantly guessing and keep hostile provocations to the minimum for fear of a disproportionate response from the «unhinged» Nixon. President Nixon's infamous Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, wrote that Nixon had confided to him:
«I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, 'for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button' and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace». Nixon's National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, the brilliant Dr Henry Kissinger, was in on the act and portrayed the 1970 US incursion into Cambodia as a symptom of Nixon's «instability». I can just imagine Nixon conferring with Kissinger before a diplomatic meeting and telling him: «Right Henry, this is how we are going to play. I'll storm in and wave my arms around, talk about how I feel like bombing the hell out of such and such, spit some profanities out and then storm off. You will then rush in and say ' now you can understand what I have to deal with! Leave it to me. I'll calm the old man down». Could it be that the new President-elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is also employing the «Mad Man» theory? Indeed, as Polonius put it in Shakespeare's Hamlet: «Though this be madness, yet there is method».
Over the weekend of December 2nd the news came through that the new President-elect had broken with over 35 years of diplomatic precedent and protocol with regards to the United States most strategically important bilateral relationship. Mr. Trump did something which would on the surface seem fairly innocuous. He took a congratulatory phone call from the President of Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen.Then, all hell broke loose within the normally calm and ordered world of diplomatic affairs. This was due to the fact that no American President or President-elect has spoken with the President of Taiwan since 1979 when the Carter administration, building on the great legacy of Nixon and Kissinger's visionary 1972 «Opening to China», embraced the Chinese concept of «One China» and officially terminated diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan), though unofficially relations continued much as they had with American arms shipments to Taiwan. The American Embassy in Taiwan became the American Institute, a private nonprofit corporation though still staffed by American diplomats. Under the Taiwan Relations Act signed into law by President Carter the United States would maintain «unofficial» relations with the people of Taiwan, but all official inter-governmental relations between the American Government and Taiwanese Government ceased , including official interactions between American and Taiwanese Presidents.
All of this diplomatic ambiguity was due to the dispute between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China dating all the way back to 1949 and the Communist victory over General Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang US backed nationalists in the Chinese civil war. The Kuomintang nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan were they set up shop and claimed to be the sole and legitimate Chinese Government for all of China including the Communist controlled mainland. Until Nixon's «Opening to China» in the 1970s the United States maintained the fiction that the tiny island of Taiwan under the defeated nationalists represented all of China's billion plus people and recognised it as the sovereign Chinese Government rather than the authority of the People's Republic in Beijing. President Nixon, Dr Kissinger and later President Carter determined that this fiction could no longer continue and it was unwise to continue to try to isolate and alienate Beijing. So they prudently switched American recognition away from Taipei towards Beijing. While Taiwan had always claimed to be the rightful China, the People's Republic had always viewed it as part of it's true China.
So from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr to Bill Clinton, George Bush Jnr to Barack Obama, none of them have engaged officially with their Taiwanese counterparts and American Presidents have embraced officially the «One China» position of Beijing while still conducting unofficial relations with Taipei. This all changed, to a certain degree, over the weekend of December 2nd 2016, with the telephone call between US President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wei. Trump tweeted with regards to the phone call: «The President of Taiwan CALLED ME (Trump's capitals) today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!”. The President-elect followed this up with a further tweet: « Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call».
The Chinese Foreign Minister reacted in the usually calm, measured, nonchalant style of Chinese diplomacy brushing off the phone call as nothing more than a «petty trick» on the part on the Taiwanese. But soon after Trump went on a the rampage on Twitter once again with critical tweets regarding China: «Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency and build a massive military complex?» I don't think so!» Well, of course not Mr. Trump, the fact is China is a sovereign, independent country who does not need to «ask» the permission of the United States to do anything! After this fracas the Chinese Government lodged a «solemn representation» with the White House reminding the Americans of the «One China» policy and the delicate equilibrium that has existed over the issues of Taiwan and has served American-Sino relations well for over three decades.
There was much amusement in the press that the incoming President seemed to be oblivious to the finer points of US-China diplomatic relations and that this latest blunder was evidence that Mr. Trump was clueless about international affairs. A Bull in a China Shop? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was more calculated than that. Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager (who reminds me of something straight out of The Stepford Wives or the Brady Bunch) shot down the notion that Trump is ignorant of the nuances of America's relationship with the second largest economy on the planet and rising superpower. Reports surfaced that Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican Presidential nominee, had his law firm lobby the Trump campaign on behalf of the Taiwanese Government for a new approach to US-Taiwan relations and the Republican Party Platform unveiled at their 2016 Convention evidenced stronger language on the subject of China. By accepting a phone call, and on the surface superficially that is all it was, Mr. Trump and his advisers could have calculated that with a low grade act they could at once signal a coming change in how the United States deals with China without inflicting any serious material damage on the relationship. Trump repeatedly throughout his campaign spoke in negative terms regarding China and how, falsely, it is «raping» the American economy.
There are some such as the deeply objectionable John Bolton and other neoconservative nutters, dinosaur Cold War Warriors and ultra nationalists around Mr. Trump who are itching for a confrontation, if not outright fight, with China. Please forgive the lapse into science fiction but when it comes to some of the things I hear and read about the foreign policy team around Trump I am reminded of the words of the Shakespeare quoting Klingon General Chang to Captain Kirk during the Battle of Kitomer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country while he is bombarding the defenseless Enterprise: «Now be honest Captain, warrior to warrior. You do prefer it this way don't you? As it was meant to be. No peace in our time. Once more on to the breach, dear friends».
Shortly after the protocol breaking Trump-Tsai phone call and the Trump China bashing twitter rampage the President-elect appointed his Ambassador to China, the Republican Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, who also happens to be a good, old friend of President Xi Jinping. They have known each other since the 1980s. It was probably one of Trump's best appointments to date and the Chinese Foreign Ministry was delighted. Was this a master class in the madman theory attempting to confuse the Chinese and keep them off balance? Maybe so. But Mr. Trump should also be aware in the Chinese he has more than met his match, perhaps even his superior. These type of «mad man» stunts will not keep the Chinese off balance. They are far more adept at gaining the upper hand. In many ways when it comes to the American-Sino relationship, they already do enjoy the upper hand. Trump beware.