China-US relations

Bombastic Trump leads the paradigm shift to ‘ashtray diplomacy’

Tom Plate says from trade to the South China Sea, Donald Trump has taken a page from ashtray-hurling scientist Thomas Kuhn, reacting to challenges with a disruptive leadership style. And, looking at China, Russia and even Malaysia, he’s not alone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 7:53pm

Is there something in the nature of political discourse that defaults to the “ashtray”? What if we were to conjure an ashtray metaphor to shed perspective on China-US relations?

The story at hand is legendary among scientists because it originated with an iconic historian of science. Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922-1996) was brilliant, imperious, egomaniacal and maybe – just maybe – a touch crazy. In other words, he was not unlike other scientists you may know.

So, when the famous professor in the cave of his office at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton once hurled an ashtray at a graduate student under his tutelage, it soon became, for historians and philosophers in the know, a defining moment in high-level eccentricity, questionable mentorship and academic drama.

Even more than a half-century later, it’s difficult to get the unsettling image of the flying ashtray out of our minds; neither can the target of the propelled ashtray, Errol Morris, who grew up to become a celebrated film director (The Fog of War, and many others) – and very fine author.

In his just-published The Ashtray: (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) – usefully philosophical; engagingly unstuffy – Morris admits taking on the late Professor Kuhn, then (as indeed even now) a global superstar for his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a masterpiece that popularised “paradigm shift” to explain scientific progress.

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The grad student was unimpressed; stop acting as if you were some philosophical god, said the brash Morris, you pile on serious and unnecessary confusion to our sense of reality. Truth might be elusive, but it is not inaccessible; its existence should not be undermined by obfuscation. Facts are facts are reality.

Kuhn was emotional, insisting that his grand paradigms were designed not to wall off reality but simply to take its measure. Recalls Morris of the famous 1972 explosion: “Then he looked up and threw the ashtray at me. And missed. I saw the arc, the trajectory … I thought: ‘Wait a second. Einstein’s office is just around the corner. This is the Institute for Advanced Study!’ … I call Kuhn’s reply ‘The Ashtray Argument’. If someone says something you don’t like, you throw something at him. Preferably something large, heavy and with sharp edges”.

Has not argument by ashtray been a major factor even on today’s world stage? You throw something “large, heavy and with sharp edges” at someone or some country with which you disagree. Aim a missile, plant an explosive, blow up a bus in a third world country, or even – arguably – fire off a hideously personal bombastic tweet; It’s almost an ongoing international paradigm shift.

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Shifts happen, even in the United States. In the past, a US columnist might have only cited examples of nasty foreign leaders throwing ashtrays (Kim Jong-un) and let it go at that, noting by contrast America’s “exceptionalism”. No more.

The current president of exceptional America swoops across time zones as if one giant human ashtray, hurling insults rather than invitations, tearing apart old fabric rather than stitching together new consensus, withdrawing from international organisations, tearing up treaties, sending carrier groups through the Taiwan Strait, insisting intolerantly on one and only one version of reality – more provincially than any president in memory.

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America is by no means alone with the ashtray. You might point to Russia (Ukraine) and China (South China Sea). Whenever you hear the loud crash of something hitting something or someone else, look for the ashtray and who threw it at whom. President Donald Trump’s decision to risk a global trade war with a level of tariff-hurling not seen since early last century is a high-priced ashtray if there ever was one.

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A smart, strategic-thinking America would be helping China continue its rise so that, every step of the way, the Chinese would know that such a helpful America really had to be “exceptional”. Trying to throw a wrench in China’s rejuvenation is like throwing – well – “something large, heavy and with sharp edges” into the machinery of history.

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Large, heavy, sharp objects hurled onto the world stage would include Russia’s hacking invasion of America’s election last fall. An invasion is an invasion, whether technological or territorial. And a calmer China would cool down its heated South China Sea expansion. It has made its point; everyone gets the message.

Rubbing it in will only backfire. Japan is not without its own supply of ashtrays. Even ordinarily mellow Malaysia is taking a quizzical look – from its new, fresh-faced 92-year-old prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad – at China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This otherwise potentially valuable initiative will only engender suspicions if Beijing itself effectively undermines it for “ashtray” indifference to national sensibilities and interests.

No international issue is immune to amelioration via persistent and inspired diplomacy as long as a common language exists with which to discuss it, along with a strong will to solve it. But what if some issues resist commonality? The late Professor Kuhn may well have been the thug his student thought he was, but he was also touched by genius.

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In his mind, some scientific systems were like separate worlds – apples versus avocados – and had to be accepted as incompatible entities. He called this incommensurability – with scientists talking past each other, muddled by confusions about terms and consequences.

Let’s end with Morris: “Perhaps we were engaged in a [sincere] debate on the nature of meaning and reality,” he writes; or – he wonders – “maybe we just wanted to kill each other”. Whatever, the powerful Kuhn pushed him out of Princeton Graduate School and forever locked the promising student out of the halls of academic philosophy.

Such was the default of reason half a century ago. At Princeton. Throw an ashtray. How about today – has enough changed?

Professor Tom Plate, author of Yo-Yo Diplomacy and the Giants of Asia book series, is Loyola Marymount University's Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Pacific Century Institute’s vice-president