When President Jimmy Carter, in 1978, said he was ending diplomatic relations with the Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan, The Dallas Morning News, a journal widely admired at the time for its robustly conservative viewpoint, called the administration’s action “shameful.”
I should know. I wrote the editorial.
Why choose the word “shameful”? For a very good reason. By giving the back of his diplomatic hand to the Nationalists so as to embrace, and cavort with, the communists of the mainland, Carter brought shame to his country.
That is a strong statement: especially as it concerns our born-again 39th president, with his inexhaustible penchant for lecturing lesser beings on their lesser grasp of morality. The government that Chiang Kai-Shek had established on Taiwan in 1949, after the reds drove him from the mainland, was what you might call an inherited ally. We had fought alongside the Nationalists in World War II. Chiang was inarguably a defective leader, but he represented democratic, pro-Western government, as contrasted with the brutal prison-camp style of communism that Mao Zedong had imposed on the mainland. A period of isolation commenced between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. This period Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ended in the name of Realism.
In 1978, the government on Taiwan occupied the Chinese seat on the United Nations Security Council – that was when the U.N. still had two or three serious bones in its body – and enjoyed a certain prestige for political and military viability. There were, in essence, two Chinas: one free, the other oppressed.
Nixon’s visit to Mao, in 1972, changed the terrain. “Red China,” as many Americans still called the mainland, demanded our recognition of its claim to represent all Chinese as the one and only China. Taiwan had to be delegitimized: a task to which Carterian moralism proved very much equal.
Thenceforth, to American officialdom, there was but one China: Mao’s. The U.S. continued to sell the Nationalists arms and to guarantee their independence. That was on the practical side. On the moral side, the Americans spoke with forked tongue about the reds’ right to rule. We supported Chinese democracy – except when we didn’t.
Not to appreciate the hypocrisy of the position to which Carter gave flesh is to understand diplomacy in its most, shall we say, shameful guise. Nothing exactly new about it, but no fun to contemplate.
Think of it: American presidents ceased being able to talk to Taiwanese presidents on the phone, lest they incur the wrath of the dragon kingdom. The Chinese emperors of old used to call this sort of abasement the kowtow. A foreigner was supposed to beat his noggin on the floor before the throne, in pretended humiliation.
No more of this for America – or anyway, less of it than before. Donald Trump sliced, in Alexandrian fashion, through the Gordian moral knot. He spoke on the phone with Taiwan’s president. Hooray. A few of us superannuated hardliners, the sort who discern shame in shameful actions, hope Jimmy Carter, upon hearing the news, tipped over his morning orange juice.
The media and the “diplomatic community” are atwitter over the Trump phone call’s potential for undermining relationships with the still-very-red (for all their commercial success) Chinese. One might riposte that if Chinese censorship over the phone calls our president makes is the price of good relationships, that’s too high a price, and high time we quit forking over.
Clearly, no sane American, Trump included, wants bad relationships with China. On the other hand, relationships might prove more genuine and durable with American insistence on regaining control of our phone lines, in accordance with the good old theory that respect is the currency of the powerful, and shame is the pocket change of the nail-biters.
I look forward to seeing how our next president deals with the outmoded and not-always-creditable niceties that govern our relationships with other collaborators in the democratic enterprise: Israel, say.