For our president-elect, history starts now. Except for a slogan referring to some vague, bygone time of American greatness, Trump's understanding of history appears to be limited only to what has personally happened to him, as he has built casinos and golf courses and hotels here and abroad.
Nowhere has that been more clear as he stepped into foreign affairs last week, clunking and stomping around on an equilibrium of highly nuanced policies on Cuba, on Pakistan and India, and on China and Taiwan. Our relations with these nations have run a course of balancing inconsistencies and quasi-fictitious arrangements that have led to a calm, stable, even muddle-through status quo. As a result, potential areas of distrust, resistance to U.S. interests, and even conflict have been avoided.
With a Twitter threat to Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro, Trump vows to break the recently restored diplomatic relations. As if the Obama administration's overture to Cuba in 2014 were a real estate sale, Trump wrote "If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal."
Prior to the normalization of relations, 55 years of policies that sought to overthrow Castro, even kill him, isolate the country and penalize its people economically fed Castro's iconic reputation as the man who stood up to the United States. After the Cuban missile crisis and Castro's forays into the proxy wars in Africa and Latin America, Cuba became a symbolic talking point in U.S. politics, an easy throw-away line to garner a small, but influential voting block in the state of Florida.
What Obama accomplished in his overture to Cuba extended beyond the island nation and advanced U.S. interests in the rest of the hemisphere that was tired of American views toward Latin America that focused on a small island nation. Obama's breakthrough allowed the U.S. to approach the region with a clear understanding of where our interests truly lie: in large trading partners such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile or in states threatened by criminal organizations whose populations are fleeing to the U.S. to seek refuge.
China policy upended
In taking the phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Trump stepped into another untidy region with a complex history. With one simple tweet, "The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the presidency," Trump upended 35 years of a one-China policy balancing act that gave our diplomatic recognition to the Beijing China government, but also, according to the Taiwan Relations Act, "promote(s) extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland "
That law passed in 1979 commits the U.S. to support Taiwan's self-defense. It's not "interesting" that the U.S. sells Taiwan military equipment, as Trump defended his call in a subsequent tweet, it's the law. The U.S. doesn't refer to the Taiwan leader as president, because, in the law the U.S. doesn't recognize Taiwan as a country.
The Taiwan-China relationship is a third-rail, highly potent issue for both the island and the mainland. For the past 35 years, the U.S. has been careful not to touch it. Until now.
The call raised all kinds of questions whether the president-elect received any prior briefing where these issues might come up. Trump's communications advisor, Kellyanne Conway, insisted on CNN that Trump receives briefings prior to these foreign calls. That implies that his actions and statements were not errors, but part of a conscious strategy.
However, in the one transcript released from a call - with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - the nature of those briefings raises further questions. The transcript read: "Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you prime minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people."
Is it remotely possible that one of his advisors actually briefed the president-elect and told him to say those things, or that it might be advantageous to say "I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems?" What exactly might those outstanding problems be?
It has been widely reported that Trump is not attending the daily intelligence briefings, delegating that responsibility to his Vice President-elect. However, if there were in fact briefings by members of his new foreign affairs team, one must wonder what the strategy behind the calls might be.
History moves on
Conversations with foreign leaders are opportunities to advance U.S. interests, to push for a specific point. Of course, he is only the president-elect, and of course it is natural for foreign leaders to make congratulatory calls. If he claims that he doesn't require a strategy since he is not yet president, then he must surely be aware that these foreign leaders are pursuing their own strategies. Why, otherwise, would Pakistan be so eager to release a transcript from the call, except perhaps to send a message to its rival India? Or to embarrass Trump and the United States in front of the rest of the world? History didn't start on Nov. 8.
The candidate whose supporters overlooked egregious views and activities is soon to be our next president, interacting with peoples who may not be so forgiving. He will have no choice but to engage in corners of the world with long, untidy, complicated histories, with us and with their neighbors.
A President Trump will not be rewriting history from Jan. 20, 2017 on; he will enter the stage well into the play. And if he doesn't take these complicated pasts into account, he runs the risk of getting outmaneuvered and manipulated by other countries for their own interests, rather than defining and advancing our own.
John Dickson is a local historian and a retired diplomat.