Political theater doesn't accomplish much. Quiet diplomacy might be less satisfying, but it tends to lead to better outcomes.
“Russia is a hurricane. China is climate science.”
— Rob Joyce, former cybersecurity director, National Security Agency
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a sort of “Trump doctrine” on telecommunications technology, targeting China and aiming specifically at Huawei, New York Times correspondent David Sanger found an apt analogy to this bombshell: the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Sanger, presumably, was inspired by President Donald Trump’s fondness for walls of all sorts. But Sanger amended his comparison by citing the relative porousness of Trump’s virtual wall against China compared to the concrete, rebar, barbed wire and machine guns that literally cut off East Berlin from all the world.
In sum, Trump would love a Berlin Wall all his own. But he ain’t got one.
Meanwhile, the parallel that hit me was not Cold War Germany but 21st-century Venezuela. Lately, Trump has been rattling sabers and advocating “regime change” against the ruthless kleptocracy of Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. This policy, though rife with machismo, has accomplished nothing. The U.S. mission to Venezuela has fled in confusion. A popular insurgency against Maduro, led by upstart Juan Guaidó, has foundered.
So, despite the incompetence and cruelty of Maduro’s rule, he’s more entrenched than ever. By putting all its eggs in the now-empty Guaidó basket and withdrawing all contact from the Maduro camp, America has rendered itself powerless to affect the starving and brutalized people of Venezuela. We could invade, of course, launching a Third World jungle war that would stir the ghastly ghost of Vietnam.
Speak softly, and carry a big stick
I remember when President Obama attended a tumultuous Summit of the Americas in 2009. American critics vilified Obama for shaking hands and conversing at length with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Chavez was, of course, a creep. He had called President George W. Bush the “devil” and Obama an “ignoramus.” Nevertheless, Barack shrugged this off, made nice with Hugo and calmly listened to condemnations of America by Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Bolivian president Evo Morales.
Mike Pompeo (Source: State Dept.)
Obama humored Chavez and tolerated the Yankee-go-home diatribes because his long-range goal was to ease tensions in the hemisphere. There are hints, indeed, that Obama’s gentlemanly tactics worked. Before he left office, the U.S. had ended its pointless and petulant half-century embargo on Cuba. In 2012, Chavez — somewhat to Obama’s chagrin — endorsed his re-election as President of the United States.
As we look back, the president’s diplomatic restraint clearly did America no harm. Citing Venezuela’s state control of several major oil companies, Obama said then, “It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”
In turn, Chavez relaxed his bulldog persona and said, “We have a different focus, obviously. But we are willing. We have the political will to work together.”
In that moment, the world’s most powerful leader extended an olive branch to a tin-pot dictator. This marks a stark contrast to the current standoff between the world’s two most powerful leaders, Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping, who seem mutually incapable of conventional courtesies.
The Huawei ban, intended to include every American ally from Japan to Great Britain, is hardly unjustified. For years, cybersecurity experts have expressed legitimate fears of Huawei using its fiber-optic networks and satellites to spy on western countries and wage cyber espionage.
Such concerns evidently compelled the U.S. to fire a shot across China’s bow last year, ordering the arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO and the daughter of founder Ren Zhengfei. Meng has languished in opulent house arrest since, awaiting extradition to the U.S., to face “unspecified charges” that will almost surely be laughed out of court.
As trumped-up as Meng’s arrest appears, the U.S./China clash is serious. It cannot be treated like a gambit in a high-tech revival of the Cold War. In explaining the proposed Huawei ban, Secretary of State Pompeo exhumed the specter of world communism, implying that 5G networks infiltrated with Chinese technology will somehow turn smartphone-addicted American youngsters into a nation of commie dupes.
This is just silly. Ostensibly, a Communist Party rules China, but communism is an ideological gloss over an imperial regime that has ruled China for 4,000 years. Xi Jinping is an autocrat — ruling a state historically unruly — no less than was the Qing dynasty in the19th century and the iron grip of Mao Zedong in the last century.
Sanctioning Huawei, a technology company, citing Pompeo’s pretext of “democratic values,” violates every sensible norm of international diplomacy. The future of wireless communications and the ubiquity of the internet — in a world now wired together vastly and irreversibly— require that nations both friendly and adversarial stay in touch, talk out their differences and, at the very worst, agree to operate parallel networks that don’t compromise cybersecurity.
Moreover, the United States is in a poor position to pick up its ball and go home. By any measure, China not only has its own ball. It’s a better ball. As Ali Wyne, a policy analyst as the RAND Corporation told David Sanger, “We’re not thinking about the way this will boomerang when we are dealing with a China that is much more self-reliant, much larger, and much less dependent on the U.S. We need to be careful what we wish for.”
“Made in China 2025” has been a unified national technology initiative in that country for several years, absorbing huge investments in brainpower, manpower, and venture capital. “Made in America” is a bumper sticker.
Attempting cordial conversation with Xi Jinping, a crafty and jealous defender of his own power, is hardly an appealing prospect. But for the sake of an interconnected world in which America has fallen perilously behind China in developing key elements of telecom technology, a little humble diplomacy is not just good policy. It might come right down to survival.