December 28, 2016

Winning Is Not Always the Smartest Objective

Every chess player knows that winning is sometimes a foolish objective. When victory is exceedingly unlikely (and probably impossible), the only sensible objective is to avoid a loss. A draw is always more desirable that an outright loss.

Apparently, Donald J. Trump is not a chess player, or, if he is, I doubt he’s a good one. For Mr. Trump, winning is always his objective. He acts as if his personal motto is that articulated by coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” (According to Wikipedia, this quotation was not original with Vince Lombardi.) Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that the United States is losing in its international relations, and he is going to make the country win consistently.

Unfortunately, winning in foreign affairs is not always the smartest objective.

Both the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) claim to represent all of China. Neither claim is completely credible, but the dispute is a sensitive one. China is represented in the United Nations; Taiwan is not. Despite that Taiwan is a thriving democracy with a vibrant economy, it is generally not recognized as a separate country, though it participates in world affairs almost as though it is. Should hostility every break out between the two Chinas, it is clear which country would win. It is even believed that China would be willing to use nuclear weapons in an open conflict with Taiwan. That would not be good.

President-elect Donald Trump, in seeming conflict with U.S. foreign policy, spoke personally with the President of the Republic of China. There is good reason to believe that Mr. Trump, who has shown great hostility toward China, would favor a formally independent country of Taiwan. However, U.S. policy has been to recognize China, to not recognize Taiwan, but to trade with and sell arms to Taiwan. High-level public contact with the Taiwan president violated longstanding policy and was guaranteed to upset the Chinese government. The status quo regarding the two Chinas is not ideal, but, for the moment, it avoids conflict and allows Taiwan the independence it would not have as part of China. Perhaps, in some distant future, China will develop into a democracy, and unification of Taiwan with China will become either acceptable or unnecessary. For now, everyone is happy enough to forestall conflict.

Can a President Trump accept the status quo, which is likely not a “win” for the U.S. in his mind? In chess terms, the current China situation is a draw; neither side “wins,” though the world wins through the avoidance of overt military conflict. This may not be good enough for the new president. Recognition of Taiwan as an independent country could theoretically be achieved by the new administration without retaliation, possibly military, by China. (By no means, however, could such a newly recognized country claim all of China without igniting conflict.) Such an outcome of a deliberate strategy, however, is almost certain to fail. The up-side of pursuing such a strategy is minor, and the potential for catastrophic failure is monumental. In other words, pursuing a “win,” as Trump, no doubt, is tempted to do, is something between reckless and suicidal. Winning is not the smartest objective.

In the Middle East, given Mr. Trump’s statements, his cabinet/ambassador choices, and his Twitter complaint about the recent U.N. Security Council resolution deploring Israeli settlements on the West Bank, there is a danger that the new president will want to pursue a “win” in Palestine. Such a “win” would see Israel progressively gobbling up land on which Palestinians would like to build an independent country. This land grab would naturally include all of Jerusalem, which the President-elect wants to see become the site of the U.S. embassy in Israel. Such moves, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued today, make a two-state resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict increasingly unlikely. Alas, we may have already passed the point of no return in Palestine with respect to a two-state solution. If, however, Palestinians can see neither two independent states in their future nor a single democratic, secular state, they (and surrounding states for their own reasons) may conclude that a final go-for-broke attack on Israel as the only reasonable path forward. That would not be a happy development and would be a win for no one.

Donald J. Trump has lived in a world where there are winners and losers, and his objective is always to be the winner. He believes that his mode of operation has served him well (though others might argue the point). World diplomacy is a more nuanced universe, however, than the commercial one in which Mr. Trump is used to operating. Wins are not always possible and are sometimes foolhardy. Draws, and even minor losses, have to be tolerated. Diplomatic success is not something that has to be maximized each quarter. In the diplomatic world, one has to take the long view. Unfortunately, the President-elect seems to have a very short attention span. His “winning” strategy may result in losses beyond his imaginings.

Mr. Trump needs a new motto: “Winning isn’t everything; sometimes it’s not the smartest thing.”

Chess pieces

Correction, 12/28/2016. In the original text, I indicated that Secretary Kerry’s speech today took place at the U.N. The speech actually was delivered in Washington, which the current text of my essay reflects.

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