The Mar-a-Lago search could lessen America’s global position — and embolden China

A flag flies in the air near former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
A flag flies near former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 10, 2022.

A fundamental aspect of politics is that domestic events impact international ones and the reverse. This month we have witnessed two events that appear to capture this truism. 

The visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Aug. 3 received considerable attention and triggered a major reaction from China. In the latest of the many public threats directed against Taiwan, China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian warned that China will use all means necessary to compel the unification of Taiwan and China. This message has been repeated by the new white paper, “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era,” by Chinese diplomats and media, but without the effect Beijing desires.  

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Taiwan’s independence will remain a flashpoint in Sino-American relations and a threat to stability in the Indo-Pacific. 

Half a world away, and not quite a week later, the Aug. 8 FBI search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence was another significant event. This seemingly wholly domestic event could have major international consequences for America’s global interests, its allies and partners, and its enemy, China. 

The U.S. is a valuable ally for three reasons. First, because of its power — it possesses the military, diplomatic and economic might to advance the interests of allies and partners for security and prosperity. 

Second, the U.S. is respected and prized as an ally because of the health of its political system. Global allies and partners understand this is a major reason that America has been a reliable ally since it entered World War II in 1941. To be sure, at times of domestic political turmoil, U.S. credibility has waned — such as when Richard Nixon’s fall because of Watergate emboldened China to seize the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974, and a year later for North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam without fear of U.S. intervention to save Saigon.  

The “fear of another Vietnam war” hindered also the U.S. response to the Angolan civil war, which began in 1975; to the Iranian Revolution and Somoza’s overthrow in Nicaragua in 1979; and to the expansion of Soviet and Soviet Bloc power in the Third World. In the 1980s, this fear also weakened Washington’s ability to support insurgents fighting Soviet-supported regimes.

Third, the U.S. stands as an example to the world because of its ideology and political culture.  The Washington Consensus model of democratic governance, free-market capitalism, and low levels of political and economic corruption serves as a template for developing states to follow, unites allied governments, and distinguishes the U.S. from its adversaries. Washington’s model for the world demonstrates that states can be democratic, prosperous and stable. All of this provides better allies for the U.S. and better protection for human rights. 

Thus, the U.S. example is important for the values that the country projects and also as a political lodestar. It is a force multiplier in ideological warfare with China. This is significant because Beijing has realized that its grand strategic goal of dominance is hindered by the absence of a narrative that will allow China to advance its ambitions while minimizing resistance against it.  China’s new strategic narrative, the “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” is intended to advance that aim and legitimize China’s tyrannical surveillance state as the model for world governance. 

This means that, as it did during the Cold War, the world has two competing ideologies and worldviews.

Although these international considerations were probably far from the minds of those who authorized the search at Mar-a-Lago, the act weakens America’s distinction and violates American principles and political culture. The world expects that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will employ any means against his domestic political enemies, but the U.S. has been different. Under its political culture, a president would not act against political enemies, particularly a former and possible future president. Those who came close to violating this understanding, however indirectly — such as with Nixon’s coverup after the Watergate break-in — were disgraced and hounded from office.

Until now, the political culture of the United States forbade such an act. The Biden Justice Department’s move against Donald Trump could erode U.S. political principles and culture, so that the distinction between the political systems of the U.S. and China no longer appears to be as sharp as before. The Biden administration may have handed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a weapon to be used to expand its influence in international politics and to challenge the position and legitimacy of liberal democracy in the minds of the Chinese people and others around the world. 

The search of Trump’s home will have multifaceted domestic effects and could have adverse international effects, as well. The great strength of the U.S. in its competition with China is that its ideology, political culture and values, rule of law, and respect for human rights stand in direct contrast to the odious and repressive regime that is the CCP.  No administration should be allowed to jeopardize U.S. values and global image, but the Biden administration just did.  

President Biden just gave the CCP an unearned and undeserved victory in the ideological fight.  The Mar-a-Lago search now has a life and legacy in global politics, to the detriment of the U.S. and its allies in the struggle against China.

Bradley A. Thayer is director of China policy at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and coauthor of “Understanding the China Threat.” 

Tags China aggression China–United States relations Donald Trump global leadership Mar-a-Lago FBI raid Nancy Pelosi

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