LESSONS IN FAILING INTERVENTIONS

by , July 23, 1999

The flap over Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s comment that Taiwan’s relations with mainland China should properly be viewed as "country-to-country, or at least as special state-to-state" relations has been curious and amusing at one level. After all, it merely reflects what has been the reality for several decades at least, and in context what all the involved parties have acknowledged implicitly for several years.

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). His exclusive column now appears every Thursday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns

Lee’s statement – defended and reiterated in the face of threats of various sorts from Beijing – does represent something of a departure from the convenient fictions that have been an important component of keeping the long-running Taiwanese-mainland dispute more diplomatic and rhetorical than military. But the biggest danger here is that the United States might feel impelled to intervene to manage the matter. In fact, to some extent it was the Clintonian impulse to insert himself that helped to push President Lee toward committing an undiplomatic moment of honesty.

The convenient fiction that there is only One China – lubricated by the fact that everybody knew the two sides understood the matter differently but nobody would be so impolite as to insist on pointing this out – has been generally helpful in the two countries. Henry Kissinger’s Shanghai communique after Nixon "opened" China was creatively ambiguous, in essence pretending to agree with and mollifying both sides. Through the various twists and turns of U.S.-China-Taiwan policies over the years the United States has managed to be creatively ambiguous and vague on the matter – even though at earlier stages the United States had actively pushed for a "two-China" policy.

But when President Clinton uttered his "three noes" during last summer’s campaign swing through China, he abandoned creative ambiguity and came down solidly on the side of Beijing’s interpretation of what "one China" means. It’s hard to imagine that this shallow opportunist thought through what he was about to do with the guidance of anything more than polling data and a residual aging sixties activist’s natural sympathy for the mainland vis-a-vis Taiwan. But that thoughtless and heedless remark almost certainly contributed to President Yee’s decision to try to change the rules and the game by changing the terminology.

I talked with Stephen Yates, a senior Asia policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and he pointed out that as much as it might seem like a stereotype it would be unwise to discount the importance of "face" in Yee’s decision to make a statement.

Taiwan has done everything our global reformers in the State Department claim they want countries to do. It has converted itself from an authoritarian one-party state to a reasonably open democracy with an reasonably free press. In the process it has grown its economy and established a relatively open free-market system with a lot more transparency than the Federal Reserve or the International Monetary Fund, that does twice as much business with the U.S. as the mainland. You might think Taiwan would be held up as an example of how to do it right.

But Taiwan can’t get no respect. Between a small island democracy and a gigantic totalitarian kleptocracy the idealistic Clintonites tilt toward the totalitarians every time – though the tilt doesn’t prevent them from bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Small wonder Mr. Yee wanted to shake things up.

Note, however, that he left himself plenty of room to claim that he hadn’t said anything new at all. Taiwan renounced the desire to rule the mainland back in 1991, he reminded the German interviewer – significant in that Germany has recently accomplished a reunification that would probably not have been possible without some acknowledgment of mutual sovereignty. Taiwan is interested in thinking about rejoining to make One China when the mainland becomes democratic, but since 1991 everybody has known and acted as if Taiwan and the mainland are different countries with equal status. Nothing new here.

The point is that the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Straits know how to play the delicate diplomatic game they are playing. The United States is like a bull in … well, you know. It should resist the impulse to choose up sides, lecture either side or do anything more than be willing to sell weapons to paying customers.

THE NORTHERN IRISH FAILURE

The breakdown of the "peace process" in Northern Ireland highlights one of the most important shortcomings of the diplomatic approach taken by the "world community" when meddling in local disputes. The Good Friday agreement of a couple of years ago, brokered by former US Sen. George Mitchell and the British and Irish governments, fell apart over the issue of "decommissioning" – the preferred jargon for making them turn in their weapons – the Irish Republican Army. Since decommissioning hasn’t occurred yet and might never occur, the Protestant parties refused to attend any meetings of the "unity" government and it fractured.

Everybody knew that decommissioning was going to be the toughest issue. But the professional diplomats who were hovering over the area wanted to have an agreement signed, sealed and delivered. Diplomats get their kicks from signing ceremonies where they can wearily reflect on their tireless efforts to bring the sides together with smarmy self-satisfaction. So they came up with an agreement that postponed all the tough issues until later and the toughest one until last of all, hoping against hope that by the time various deadlines rolled around some miracle would occur that would make the tough issues go away.

They didn’t, and now the diplomatic operation is exposed as a a bit of a fiasco. It might work out. There was a great deal of war-weariness all around in Northern Ireland and there’s a large reservoir of popular support for some semblance of peace. Perhaps that desire to have at least a long-term cease-fire will impress itself on the parties strongly enough that some kind of make-believe formula can be developed.

But the bottom line is that those who wanted to be viewed as heroes for intervening and imposing a peace settlement on the warring parties let their eagerness outrun their realism. They are not heroes.

THE QUESTION OF JERUSALEM

The pattern is repeated in the Middle East, where Ehud Barak’s election as prime minister of Israel has revived hopes that the United States can rev up the endless "peace process" yet again and look forceful, decisive and wise. But here again all the hardest issues have been left for last. Perhaps the most divisive is the status of Jerusalem. Both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders (the people are divided) insist that Jerusalem is to be the capital of their state. It’s difficult to envision a compromise acceptable to either side, let alone both.

But the diplomats and politicians, who would rather have signatures on a piece of paper and an impressive signing ceremony dutifully covered by the courtier media than an actual settlement on the ground, have postponed the issue until last and don’t even talk about it. (Well, Hillary Clinton did a 180 now that she wants to run for Senate in New York, where Palestinians aren’t much of a voting bloc, boldly declaring that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel. But those with anything resembling actual responsibility for shepherding the arduous "peace process" are mum.)

Is it too much to hope that our imperial do-gooders might simply remove themselves from the process and tell the Israelis and Palestinians to settle the problems as best they can? Nah! That wouldn’t give them a chance to pretend they can buy peace in the Middle East with promises of yet more money extracted from American taxpayers as the diplomatic equivalent of a signing bonus.

Read more by Alan Bock