by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: White House/Public Domain

What Are America’s “Ally” Relationships Fundamentally Founded Upon?

A RECENT DIPLOMATIC flap between American president Donald Trump and German chancellor Angela Merkel provides an important object lesson for what Taiwan can expect in attempts to lure America into closer diplomatic relations under Trump’s presidency. In a bizarre incident between the US and it’s NATO alliance counterpart Germany, Trump reportedly handed a $374 million invoice to Merkel in the form of a printout, apparently as a demand of payment from Germany for NATO defense, inclusive of American bases in Germany. The incident was denied by the White House, which is not surprising given the Trump administration’s increasing tendency to disavow through outright lies any actions which might lead to criticism. Moreover, reports of the event saw little circulation, as at the time of the Trump-Merkel meeting, international media largely focused on other signs of visibly strained ties such as Trump’s refusal to shake hands with Merkel.

Such theatrics are not unexpected from the Trump administration, which is theatrical if nothing else. But while the anecdote is a funny one, it is also instructive. Either way, the substance of the tale seems to be believable, seeing as Trump’s recent Tweets emphasize the administration’s claim that Germany owes “vast sums” of money to America for defense spending on Germany’s behalf under NATO treaty commitments.

Strained relations between America and Germany under the Trump presidency provide an example of what US-Taiwan relations could look like if Taiwan is able to more solidly cement its diplomatic relations with America under the Trump administration. Namely, Taiwan’s dilemma is on multiple fronts. While America has in the past decades adhered to a policy of strategic ambiguity as to whether or not it would intervene in Taiwan’s defense against China, Taiwan relies on America as a major guarantor of its de facto independence from China. But unpredictable shifts in American foreign policy under Trump has led to America abandoning many of its foreign policy commitments.

Though this has led to the suggestion that US-Taiwan relations might actually improve through America becoming more willing to openly support Taiwan, this also raises the possibility that US-Taiwan relations could worsen through such scenarios as America abandoning any semblance of a commitment to Taiwan in order to secure a more favorable negotiating position with China. Nevertheless, Trump’s recent anger towards Germany also illustrates questions Taiwan needs to ask about the fundamental relations it wants to have with the United States. The recent spat between Trump and Merkel brings to the fore what undergirds the diplomatic relationship between America and Germany.

Ironically, many of those who write on US-Taiwan relations react angrily to the suggestion that Taiwan is a subordinate party in US-Taiwan relations or that Taiwan has imperial relations to America as an empire. They claim that “allies”, even ones that the US is as loathe to openly commit to such as Taiwan, are hardly subordinate to the US. In theory, nations which are allies of each other, whether in regards to bilateral relations or within international treaty organizations, are equal.

But we do well to remember that international diplomacy is a zero-sum game. No nation acts in the interest of any other only for altruism’s sake, except that it is in that nation’s own interest to ally with other nations against shared threats. While international treaties prettily claim that nations stand together on the basis of shared values or longstanding ties of friendship, these are merely empty words aimed at misdirection from the fundamental nature of diplomacy as a zero-sum game between all nation-states in the Hobbesian war of all against all.To think otherwise is to live in a fictive world and confuse a romanticized view for reality. Even international alliances such as NATO contain internal struggles for power between member nation-states, and US dominates most international alliances in which it is a member state, as a world superpower which has gone unchallenged for decades.

Indeed, along such lines, what spilled into the open in the Trump-Merkel spat reveals how the US demands obedience from weaker nation-states in international alliances, such as Germany. Germany, as the dominant European power, still pales in size and power in comparison to the United States. Returning to the nature of America as an empire, sometimes America’s demands for obeisance quite directly take the form of economic extraction, even from western countries with as strong relations with the United States as Germany.

As such, Trump’s demands of payment from Germany are actually less an aberration from the norm of international relations and more a revealing of international relations’ fundamental nature. What is unexpected about the Trump-Merkel flap is America’s rapid intensification of demands for obedience from Germany, as well America’s willingly airing this sort of dirty laundry in a highly public manner. In the broader scheme of world affairs, because Germany is so much weaker, America hardly needs to worry about Germany challenging its place in the world because of the vast, unsurmountable gap in power between two countries. America largely is dominant over Germany in international affairs, and there would never be a time when Germany could negotiate with America as an equal. However, due to Trump’s lack of knowledge of international affairs, Trump seems to have not gotten the memo about the unspoken rules of international relations and the list of what should not tacitly be mentioned. As a result, Trump’s interaction with Merkel is unexpectedly revealing about America’s relations with not only Germany but other “allied” nation-states. Does Taiwan really want to have this kind of relation with America, or at least to imagine that such a relation would be without similar costs?

Taiwan’s Significantly Weaker Bargaining Position Than Germany As A Nation-State

AND SO THERE is a lot for Taiwan to be learned from this incident in terms of seeking closer relations with the US. To begin with, Taiwan’s bargaining position in the world is far, far weaker than Germany’s. This is not only because of Taiwan’s exclusion from the international community or its smaller population and economy compared to Germany, but because it is an Asian country and not a European one.

It is ironic that some commentators writing in English on Taiwan seem to think that Asian countries are treated the same as “western” countries in international affair and so relations between Taiwan and the US are the same as relations between the US and Germany or another European country. Perhaps this returns to the fact that many such commentators are from western countries and still have difficulties seeing the world from outside the perspective of western countries.

The relation between the US and “western” countries and the US and Asian countries has simply, fundamentally, never been the same. The current international order is largely the political order that emerged after World War II, in which the US and Soviet Union were the two superpowers left after a war which had devastated the world, and European and Asian countries were left to rebuild.

Yet the way in which the US secured its position of power in the world relative to Europe and Asia after World War II was fundamentally different. The US was happy to help western European governments rebuild so that they could counter the growing power of the Soviet Union and its subordinate Eastern European countries through funding European reconstruction by way of the Marshall Plan. The US also built a number of bases in western Europe as a bulwark against the possibility of Soviet invasion.

But while the US also built military bases across Asia and similarly financed the rebuilding of Asia through massive financial subsidies, a major factor in the supposed East Asian economic miracle, America took a far more pro-active role in shaping post-war Asian politics, which was both wider-reaching and longer lasting. For example, although America and other Allied Powers occupied former Axis Powers during the post-war political transition, they eventually withdrew direct control of governance, although American bases may have remained in those countries and are still present today. On the other hand, America’s active role in propping up East Asian governments, often right-wing ones, continued for decades after World War, as observed in American backing Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorial regime for decades, backing the successive dictatorial regimes which took power in South Korea, and the Liberal Democratic Party’s continued near-one party rule in Japan through the failure of any real multiparty democracy to develop. As such, while the European powers rebuilt in the wake of World War II still have subordinate relations to the US, this is many times more so for Asian countries. The roots of this imbalance may be in longue durée history returning to unequal relations between western and non-western powers which have always historically been uneven in nature.

What Can Taiwan Learn From the Recent US-Germany Diplomatic Row In Terms Of Possible Alliance With the United States?

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S treatment of Germany is probably a moment from which Taiwan should take lessons regarding the question of its fundamental relations with the US and what the US would potentially demand from Taiwan if the US were to take a stronger stance on the issue of Taiwan. In the past, Trump himself has justified a closer relationship with Taiwan by virtue of Taiwan buying American weapons, and in that way, being economically benefited by Taiwan. What if that were to turn to direct bullying that Taiwan continue to buy US weapons or face being abandoned to China? Arguably, Taiwan’s relation to America has always been characterized by this sort bullying but, again, the Trump administration threatens to take this behavior to a different level altogether. And if Germany of all countries, as the major European power, faces such treatment from America, Taiwan’s bargaining position is significantly weaker as an Asian country and one excluded from the international community

Taiwan has little chance of being allowed into treaty organizations such as NATO and some have taken Trump’s shift away from international treaty organizations or free trade bodies as a sign that Taiwan should pursue closer bilateral relations with the US. But, either way, whether under Trump or anyone else, the relations between the US and Taiwan is founded on a zero-sum game and one which Taiwan could never hope to be equal to America at the negotiating table. The relationship between Taiwan and the US is marked by fundamental unevenness, whether within treaty organizations or through direct bilateral relations with the US, and that relation will always be marked by dominance and subordination. The Trump administration makes that much clearer than ever.

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