By Phil Cunningham
The desperate quality of Trump’s failing administration is painfully evident in the gross mishandling of the pandemic and the frittering away of diplomatic good will, so much so that influential Republican strategists have taken the tack, “Don’t defend Trump, blame China.”
The sudden and inadequately explained closure of China’s Houston Consulate announced on July 20, 2020 is in keeping with the erratic behavior of the embattled Trump administration. It is in keeping with Mike Pompeo's desire to combat, confront and taunt China, as outlined in his truculent and ignorant July 23, 2020 speech at the Nixon Library, calling for an end to bilateral engagement.
What crazy new provocation has the Trump administration triggered today? Expect more, on a more-or-less daily basis, in the months leading up to an election that polls and pundits alike say that Trump is likely to lose.
The expulsion of some 60 Chinese diplomats brings to a close to a long, productive chapter of US-China relations and raises fears about the rise of a new kind of US McCarthyism based on a bigoted hatred for China. The Houston consulate was the first consular mission to open during the honeymoon of the US-PRC relationship back in November 1979, not long after Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Texas during which he famously donned a cowboy hat. Given the recent precipitous decline in US-China diplomacy, the positive energy of those heady, early days has been replaced by petty bickering, if not a race for the exits.
A tit-for-tat dynamic is already painfully evident as the world’s two biggest economies tousle in trade and security affairs. Just as journalist expulsions have come to be expected in response to journalist expulsions, and withering diplomatic invective is met with incendiary, provocative language on both sides, it can be fully expected that a US consulate will be closed in China in response.
Informed speculation suggests that America’s Wuhan Consulate will be shuttered, but other missions are at risk, too. Wuhan is in some ways comparable to the Houston mission, located in the heartland and of regional importance, but low in international profile.
At least part of the ire being exhibited the by the US State Department under the belligerent leadership of former CIA chief Mike Pompeo is founded on diplomatic tomfoolery.
The US Consulate in Wuhan has largely been running on empty since a mysterious coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, first began ravaged the central Yangtse River region. Now they want to return.
Pompeo’s spokesperson and other underlings have asserted that “diplomatic immunity” should be extended to include allowing US diplomats to enter China any time they please without taking the same tests and preventative quarantine measures as everyone else.
Diplomats are traditionally accorded perks not available to ordinary citizens, such as diplomatic channels at airports, diplomatic pouch privileges, the right to rip up parking tickets and ignore petty violations of the law, but since when are diplomats free to ignore the laws of nature?
It’s neither good science or good logic to confuse diplomatic immunity with immunity of the Covid kind. It’s not fair, either, and not at all diplomatic, to put countless others at risk just because you don’t want to be delayed upon flying in from a hot zone.
Trump’s State Department has a weak record of compliance with public health guidelines and scientific protocol going back to the time when State arranged to evacuate Americans from Diamond Princess cruise ship. Passengers who tested positive were put on the same flight as those who tested negative. Early documented transmission of the virus on US soil dates mostly to the botched “rescue” of Americans who had been stranded in port or at sea on various commercial cruises.
What’s more, US diplomats who boarded the Diamond Princess in Yokohama Port in March 2020 did not take adequate safety precautions, and did not get tested on the arrogant presumption that healthy diplomats were immune to that sort of thing.
The same sort of cavalier attitude evident in Trump’s dismissive briefings on the virus threat was evident in the case of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had one of the most serious virus outbreaks in the US military to date.
The captain of the ship, Brett Crozier, grew frustrated with the Navy’s cavalier attitude towards the health of his sailors when it was painfully evident that the Covid outbreak raging onboard could not be humanely contained at sea. Frustrated, he made a complaint outside Navy channels for which he was ignominiously dismissed and lost command of his ship. Even so, he was honored by his crew and in the court of public opinion for putting a higher value on human life than the Navy’s face-saving protocol.
Unfortunately, the good ship America has no captain of similar moral fiber. Donald Trump has alternated between promoting himself and denying science, leading to a botched response to the pandemic. Mike Pompeo, an outright Trump sycophant, seems to share the belief of his boss that political privilege ranks higher than good science and common sense.
China has every reason to request that fresh arrivals from the US, which has seen nearly 150,000 deaths and has been, for months now, the world epicenter for the disease, to submit to quarantine until possible infection can be ruled out.
But America has a long history of setting rules and changing the rules but not playing by the rules. It uses consulates and embassies as spy centers, and yet protests, as alleged in the case of the Houston consulate, when other countries practice the same craft.
It demands war criminals be tried in the World Court, but refuses to join, for fear of jeopardizing Americans who might be guilty of war crimes. It ignores environmental protocols. It enforces its right to free navigation but denies the same to others.
Just as the US military enjoys something akin to extra-territoriality in its bases in Japan and other countries, angering locals when rape and murder charges go unanswered, America’s policy, prompted by Trump, club, capture and kill their own citizens with broad immunity as well.
If America wants to re-people the China missions it abandoned like a sinking ship last January it is only reasonable that diplomats, of all people, should support reasonable measures to contain the disease and respect science-based mitigation to that effect.
It could furthermore be expected that the said diplomats, given the courtesy of so many privileges already, would enjoy some of the best facilities China has to offer. An American university administrator who was quarantined for two weeks in Shanghai after a visit to Europe told me the hotel was clean and comfortable, the food good and the WiFi signal better than at home.
By most reports, the facilities used for the temporary quarantine of foreigners in China is superior to the equivalent in the US, where the sloppy, ad hoc response has left many stranded and without assistance.
What is the State Department asking for, other than to fatuously insist that American exceptionalism should be bowed down to even at the risk of endangering public health?
Science doesn’t work that way and neither should diplomacy.
Diplomatic immunity does not grant viral immunity and the sooner the America-firsters and anti-science bigots in the Trump administration recognize that, the better.