Face Trumps Diplomacy, Again

Author Gary Moreau

With North Korea’s recent launch of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile that experts believe is capable of reaching the US mainland, President Trump took to Twitter to publicly reprimand China. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” Trump tweeted.

That’s the President’s opinion, of course, and everyone expects the President of the United States to have one. Both here and abroad American politicians are known both for having opinions and for sharing them.

The bigger issue for me, however, is not whether the President is right or wrong, but whether or not his is the best strategy for influencing Chinese behavior. Diplomacy is not a real estate transaction, and even if it were, the Chinese negotiate employing a very different model than Westerners do.

All Chinese culture revolves around personal relationships and the obligations that flow from them. Both are governed by universally accepted norms established over centuries that include elements of Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion. The public expression of those norms, and whether or not they are being adhered to, is generally referred to as “face.”

There is good face and bad face. You can give face or lose face. You can save face and you can fritter it away.

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Face is a lot like respect, but broader and more nuanced in meaning. It is both subtle and fragile. Volume and vulgarity, or even gestures involving the lone digit, have little to do with it. Content is everything. What you say and what you do is all that matters when it comes to face.

The other big difference between respect and face is that respect is essentially one-directional. If my enemy disrespects me I may show disrespect in return. Each incident of disrespect, however, stands on its own. When face is lost, on the other hand, it is bi-directional from the start. He who causes a loss of face generally loses face at the same time.

President Trump’s tweets regarding China’s alleged non-intervention—I say alleged because the Chinese government is criticized by the West for nothing more vehemently than it is criticized for a lack of transparency, so how do we know what China has done or not done diplomatically—may or may not be a loss of face for President Xi Jinping. The norms of obligation are complex and delicate. North Korea shares both a border and a history with China and the North’s current intransigence with the West keeps American troops on the far side of the 38th parallel.

Trump’s behavior is, nonetheless, clearly a loss of face for Trump and the United States. I am merely observing, but for right or wrong, the President will not change the opinion of a single Chinese with his public rant. And, admittedly, that’s probably not his intent. He is talking to the American public, not the Chinese. (Perhaps, anyway. I don’t pretend to know the man’s thinking.)

I do wonder if he will change many American minds either, however. Since returning to the US in 2016 it has been my impression that most Americans have pretty set opinions on China and Chinese intentions. And they certainly have rigid opinions about Trump himself. It’s hard to imagine anything that he or his critics could say that is going to change many minds.

Having traveled the world for much of the four decades of my working career I have come to accept face as a more effective model of behavior than respect or the lack thereof. Our choices do have consequences for all involved, after all. They might as well be acknowledged. Most of life’s worst pain is self-inflicted in the end.

Because it is an individualistic standard, moreover, a social contract built around respect naturally encourages the marauder and the bully. Face, in contrast, is a collectivist perspective. It tempers the excesses of the wolf that defies the pack.

The other benefit of the standard of face is that it really eliminates the gambit as an effective strategy of influence. A barrage of insults may impair the insulter more than the insulted since, in the world of face, the intent of the blow is more meaningful than the landing of the blow itself.

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It does seem that Trump’s pre-emptive negotiating ploy is to start every negotiation with, “Screw you, just in case.” That will work some of the time, particular where victory and domination are both measured in the moment. It’s seldom a good long-term strategy, however, which is why mobsters make sure to kill the son along with the father. Revenge doesn’t expire.

North Korea will be a nuclear power. That much seems certain. China will not stop it because it is not in its best interests to do so. And Trump, of all people, should understand that. He got to Pennsylvania Avenue on the “me first” bus, after all.

President Trump claims he has a solution. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times. Trump is quick to bluff, however. And bluffing is a bit like taking hostages. Once you kill the hostage, or show your willingness to bluff, you lose all leverage.

One of the keys to face is knowing when to hold your tongue. Silence can speak volumes, but empty threats are more than just unproductive. In a world governed by face, they are counter-productive.

The thing about face is that it trumps all other considerations (pun intended). Even what China wants will be subordinated to what China must do to save face. “Just in case” is now a sure thing. Trump should face it. He’s on his own, now more than ever.

Contact: Reach the author directly at gary@gmoreau.com