Playing by the rules requires sincerity. But we have passed from a rules-based to a laws-based system, with a madman writing the laws.
International relations between the United States and China show signs of evolving into a scenario worthy of the most melodramatic soap opera. The script now alternates between one party’s acrimonious threats and the other party’s passionate pleas for sanity.
After a long crescendo on tariffs and counter-tariffs that seemed to be going nowhere, US President Donald Trump innovated with a new pretext for conflict as he accused China of attempting to meddle in the US elections. Is he serious or is he — out of desperation — just plagiarizing the Democrats? Reuters informs us that he “threatened further retaliation if Beijing takes aim at U.S. agricultural or industrial workers as he accused China of trying to sway U.S. elections by targeting farmers.”
This led the Chinese commerce ministry to shift the debate from reciprocal threats and invoke a moral consideration, as it voiced its plea to the other nations of the world: “China hopes the United States will show sincerity and take steps to correct its behaviour.” Do they imagine Trump will respond to an appeal to morality?
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A moral standard for dialogue now considered to be a relic of the past by those who have mastered “the art of the deal.” It supposes the existence of a minimal level honesty in the use of language, including respect for objective reality and the refusal to skew the terms of a debate, even in situations of negotiation where none of the parties is expected to reveal their hand.
For Trump, the debate centers on one thing: Who has more power to inflict maximum damage on the other? As a self-proclaimed expert negotiator, he mobilizes all the means at his disposal to gain an advantage, including — as we know — outright lies. At least here he appears to have learned from his own experience, aping the Democrats who had clearly demonstrated the value in the media of claiming that their bad luck was due uniquely to the manipulation by a foreign power of America’s sacred and purportedly inviolable democratic electoral processes.
A new chapter in the melodrama followed this one as Reuters revealed that the Trump administration had imposed immediately applicable “sanctions on the Chinese military on [September 20] for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia, in breach of a sweeping U.S. sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.” The State Department specifically cited the crime of “engaging in ‘significant transactions’ with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter.”
Some may find it ironic that, on the grounds of protecting its sovereignty, the US can refuse to recognize the jurisdiction and authority of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague and, at the same time, impose and immediately enforce “a sweeping U.S. sanctions law” on the entire globe, without considering the context. The terms of the punishment can be compared to viral blacklisting, which implies further threats to a wider and wider circle of parties. Beyond blocking the Chinese agency from applying for export licenses and denying it access to the US financial system, “it also adds them to the Treasury Department’s list of specially designated individuals with whom Americans are barred from doing business.” In other words, it also punishes Americans and restricts their scope for business.
An American official “insisted that the sanctions were aimed at Moscow, not Beijing,” presumably to reassure the Chinese. He chose to speak anonymously.
The Trump administration has made it clear that US foreign policy is about one thing: the will to power and the arbitrary nature of the exercise of that power. This is part of an ongoing assault on anything resembling a “rules-based” world order. Instead, it is laws-based and posits not only a single source of law, but also the empowerment of the source to enforce the law. However hypocritical the inherited rules-based international order was, it contained a notion of minimal respect and a possible appeal to reason. As Joseph Zammit-Lucia observed months before Trump was elected, the illusion was no longer tenable and Trump’s announced position of not wasting time with it made historical sense. As Zammit-Lucia noted, it was already the case that “weak countries have to follow the rules; strong ones do not.”
Following their complaint about the lack of sincerity on the question of tariffs, the Chinese expressed “strong indignation at these unreasonable actions.” They were right, because in a rules-based order, however favorable the outcome may be to those who have the most power, some form of reasoned dialogue is allowed to exist. More specifically, the Chinese argued that the sanctions could only harm the evolving bilateral relations and military ties between Russia and China, a major factor in regional and global stability. The Chinese spokesman pointed out that this is “not against international law or aimed at any third party.”
The original Reuters article amusingly (and mysteriously, albeit somewhat confusedly) points to — but avoids developing — a possible link between Trump’s new policy and the accusations against him concerning collusion with the Russians.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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