We’ve all done it. That late evening tweet which seemed like a good idea at the time: a witty retort to a critic perhaps, or a comment combining insight with mass appeal. For most of us, the worst that can happen is that the uproarious gag turns out to be a bad dad joke; the wise comment on world affairs disappears into the internet’s unappreciative ether.
Not for Donald Trump though. For him, the intended dad joke turns out to be a key foreign policy statement; the internet ether, his oxygen.
Trump’s attachment to Twitter is hardly a new phenomenon. His late night exclamations on social media were a hallmark of his campaign for the White House and he has dispatched a fairly impressive 34,100 tweets or so since 2009. Still, it is notable that there appears to have been little restraining of his bombastic style since he won the presidential election last month. And with close to 17m followers, a swift deletion can’t easily undo a misguided missive.
The reaction to Trumpian Twittery varies from delight among supporters, to disbelieving guffawing among those opponents who believe nonetheless that he can be kept in check by America’s political system; and to hair-pulling despair from those who suspect a misplaced tweet or snap from The Donald will probably spark World War III.
China-baiting is particularly liable to frighten people in this third category, so there are likely to be a few folk hiding under beds after Trump’s latest outburst. “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency…, heavily tax our products…or build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?” he demanded to know on Sunday, openly challenging the Chinese administration to explain a series of longstanding policies.
This followed hot on the heels of his chummy chat with the President of Taiwan, which appeared at a stroke to be a departure from the United States’ commitment to the ‘One China’ policy which has guided relations with Beijing since 1979. The Chinese government was evidently less than happy about the phone call and made its unease clear: Trump’s subsequent comments on Twitter have all the hallmarks of a two-fingered salute.
Since Donald Trump is as much a reality TV star as he is a real businessman – and more of both than he is a politician – his approach to the presidency is perhaps no surprise. His world is about winners and losers, about public appeal and above all about playing the game. Social media is a key tool in the battle for hearts, minds and ratings.
Being President of the US is not a game of course, as many have dejectedly pointed out. But the issue here is not so much that Trump appears to think international diplomacy is a TV show, but that his approach seems to pay no regard for basic ethics. This, his fans might say, is simply indicative of an attitude that can ensure things get done, rather than dilly-dallying at the fringes, second-guessing every last government statement for possible nuances or hidden meanings. With Trump, the non-establishment politician, what you see is what you get. Why get tied up in ethical niceties when you can simply get down to business?
But such an approach has two drawbacks. First, it presumes that sovereign, foreign powers will be as beguiled by Donald Trump as his supporters among the American electorate have been. That’s a fairly meaty assumption and one that manifestly ignores both diplomatic convention and the very real risk that the words of Trump the President-elect are likely to affect overseas governments rather more than the words of Trump the TV celebrity.
Second, Western foreign policy has for decades sought to base itself on a widely understood and accepted moral code. It has not always succeeded – and critics would contend with some justification that various parts of the world are much worse off after the West sought to impose its values on distant lands. Indeed, it is the supposed moral failures of established liberal democracies on which Trump and other anti-establishment figures have played in their march to the fore.
Yet the danger is that the substitute for a “failed” moral code is not a new moral code devised by Donald, or Nigel, or Marine or Beppe – but rather no morality at all.
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