Foreign policy should not be conducted through social media
US president-elect Donald Trump may feel empowered by social media, but when it comes to policy, there are far wide ramifications to be considered before stating a position
Donald Trump is not going to stop using Twitter any time soon, no matter how much US bureaucrats and political leaders may want it. He in part won the presidential election through personally reaching out to voters through spontaneous 140-character bursts, and there is no reason why he would set aside a winning formula when in office. But as his tweets about Sino-US relations and a phone conversation with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen showed, unfiltered communication can have consequences far beyond merely letting his 16 million followers and the media know what’s happening. There is every need for him to follow basic ground rules for using social media.
No bilateral relationship in the world is as important as that between China and the US. But there is ever-growing rivalry and mistrust that require careful management. Sensitivities like Taiwan and the South China Sea mean that all decisions have to be exhaustively discussed at the highest levels of government before being announced to the world. Trump did not do that with his tweets last week, catching diplomats and officials off-guard with his revelation that he had had a phone conversation with Tsai and wondering after the subsequent commotion why that should be problematic given the billions of dollars in weapons that the US had sold to the island over the years.
The US has strictly observed the one-China policy since switching formal diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing 37 years ago. There have been no high-level contacts in that time, a matter that Trump, a political outsider, seemed unaware of in taking Tsai’s call. But as he does not become president until January 20, Beijing’s calm and measured response was the right reaction. Trump thought otherwise, though, criticising through tweets China’s handling of its currency and actions in the South China Sea. Some of Trump’s advisers espouse stepped-up ties with Taipei. That would be a mistake and the president alone cannot make that decision; it is for congress to debate and decide, with the advice of the state department and diplomats. The US president, as the leader of the nation with the world’s biggest economy and most powerful military, has to take care with every word given that what he says can have huge ramifications.
International relations have to be handled delicately. A poorly considered statement can cause offence or even spark a conflict. Trump may enjoy the way he is empowered by social media, but it is not a platform for a leader to conduct foreign policy.