It began with President-elect Donald J. Trump arranging a telephone call with the president of Taiwan, thus breaking a four-decade understanding between the United States and China that has been the basis of their diplomatic relationship.
China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, not a sovereign state, responded with muted anger and diplomatic protest, suggesting that perhaps the new American president didn't fully appreciate the importance of his gesture.
Trump responded by saying that he understood the situation very well, and that he doesn't consider himself bound by America's past support for a "one-China" policy.¹ China blustered back in an editorial Thursday in a state-run Communist Party newspaper, suggesting that "it might be time for the Chinese mainland to reformulate its Taiwan policy, make the use of force a main option and carefully prepare for it."
"It is hoped that peace in the Taiwan Straits won't be disrupted," the Global Times wrote. "But the Chinese mainland should display its resolution to recover Taiwan by force. Peace does not belong to cowards."
UPDATE at noon: China's navy has seized an unmanned, underwater U.S. Navy vehicle in international waters of South China Sea, according to a U.S. defense official.
The world awaits Trump's response.
Also this week, our president-elect announced the nomination of David Friedman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Friedman in turn announced that he intends to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to "Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem." That too represents a sudden and major shift in longstanding U.S. policy, with both Republican and Democratic administrations treating Jerusalem's status as an item to be negotiated in a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Friedman is also an ardent advocate and financial sponsor of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which also directly contradicts longstanding U.S. policy. He has likened American Jews who oppose settlements to the Jews who assisted Hitler during the Holocaust, calling them "smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz describes him, Friedman "makes Netanyahu look like a leftie." In fact, the Israeli government at this very moment is trying to evict illegal settlers whom Friedman has financed with tens of millions of dollars, with leaders of the illegal settlers pleading with the Israeli army to defy the government's eviction order. (That settlement was built on private land owned by Palestinians, without government permits.)
From Israel, look south to Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally that Trump has angered by proposing an embargo against any importation of Saudi oil. Look north to Syria, where he has promised to abandon Syrian rebels to the tender mercies of the Assad government. Look east to Iran, where Trump has promised to break a nuclear arms treaty painstakingly negotiated with the help of American allies who still strongly support it.
Look north to Europe, where Trump has questioned the future of NATO and suggested he would not be bound by pledges of mutual defense among NATO members. As the well-respected German weekly Der Spiegel reports, European leaders are now quietly debating whether they need to develop their own nuclear arsenals if they can no longer count on American protection. "Such a debate, one diplomat warns, could trigger an 'avalanche,'" Der Spiegel writes. "The foundations of the trans-Atlantic security architecture would be endangered if this 'Pandora's box' were to be opened."
Finally, look closer to home, where Trump has demanded that our NAFTA partners renegotiate the 22-year-old trade pact, and where Trump has angered and offended our southern neighbor by insulting its citizens and by pledging to build a wall and to make Mexico pay for it.
Set aside, for the moment, the critically important debate about the wisdom of any one of these moves. Whatever their merits, each represents a dramatic shift of U.S. policy, upending longstanding arrangements and agreements that those in the affected regions have come to count upon. Unless managed with care and sophistication, each change has the potential to set off a string of events that could put this country in a place that we really do not want to be.
But these changes are not being handled with care and sophistication. No one acting with even a minimal degree of thought would attempt to implement so many wide-ranging changes simultaneously in so many corners of the world, with so little preparation. Trump and his advisors are acting less like statesmen and more like heedless five-year-olds set loose on Christmas morning without adult supervision, ripping open everything they see without even pausing to notice what they've done.
You could say the same about their approach to domestic policy as well, but at least in that realm the range of damage to be done is finite and somewhat within our control. That's not the case internationally, where foreign countries will respond according to their own needs and perspectives, in ways we can neither predict nor control. For more than 60 years, the United States has been the essential nation, the source of global stability and leadership. Now we are undertaking a massive, reckless transformation of global policy with a secretary of state who has worked his entire career in the oil industry, a national security adviser who believes that Muslims are plotting to implement Sharia law in the United States, and a U.N. ambassador who served competently as governor of South Carolina but has no diplomatic experience.
All this, overseen by a president-elect with an exceedingly short attention span and an aversion to study, who has been too busy traveling the country and reveling in the worship of his fans to sit down and listen to intelligence briefings. I'm sure it's going to work out well.
¹That policy goes back to the 1972 Shanghai Communique, negotiated under Nixon and Mao, in which "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves."