LIMA — Donald J. Trump is the first person in U.S. history to become president without any prior experience in either politics or the military. That may be why, when it comes to foreign policy, he draws on lessons he claims to have learned in the world of business, many of which were spelled out 30 years ago in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal.
This, however, poses a serious problem: there is a qualitative difference between doing business deals and negotiations among state actors. Business talks generally proceed within the bounds of the laws of one or more states, and when firms have irreconcilable clashes of interests, they submit to the authority of tribunals or arbitrating bodies envisaged in by the laws of the jurisdiction. If a firm then refuses to recognize the relevant ruling, the state has the coercive means required to eventually make it comply. In other words, companies do not settle their disputes with force. Nor do they lay siege to the offices of their competitors.
But that, of course, is not necessarily the case when it comes to nations. Thus, warning China that the United States might reverse its longstanding support of the One China principle — which deprives Taiwan of international recognition as the "Republic of China" —is not akin to warning a rival corporation of a possible "hostile" takeover. Eventually, if a standoff between nations is not resolved, things could get hostile in a very real way.
States seek allies is to share the cost of attaining common objectives
In the 19th century, powers like Britain forced China to grant trading concessions through the Opium Wars, which, alongside other conflicts, contributed to China's territorial dismemberment. It was forced, for example, to cede Hong Kong to Britain at the end of the First Opium War. In the second half of the 19th century, during the Second Opium War, China's empire suffered the Taiping Rebellion, possibly the deadliest civil war in history.
Such historical events may give use clues as to why the Chinese have ruled out any talks until the U.S. government drops its One China threat. Indeed, the Trump administration already seems to be backtracking — albeit as quietly as possible.
One might also look at another incident in the early days of the presidency: Trump's treatment of Prime Minister Michael Turnbull of Australia, a solid U.S. ally. One reason states seek allies is to share the cost of attaining certain common objectives in the international system. But unlike corporations, states cannot always turn to an arbiter to force compliance with the terms of an alliance. That's why they go to such great lengths to reassure each other, to demonstrate time and again that they are trustworthy partners.
Australia did this by engagaging in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It even participated in the U.S.-led Iraq War, perhaps for no other reason than to honor its alliance. Certainly it would be hard to argue that Iraq represented a security threat to Australia. But trust must be reciprocal, and after Trump's aggressive telephone exchange with Turnbull last month. Australia is waiting for clear signals that it won't be left by the wayside in critical times. The same goes for other U.S. allies. At the very least, they expect to be treated with respect, ally and adversary alike. Trump should know that whatever his experience in the world of business, there are standard operating procedures that must be applied to international diplomacy.