It says a lot about the Qing emperors’ worldview that, for much of the time their dynasty lasted, relations with foreign powers were handled by an Office of Barbarian Control. Jump to late 2016 and the dawn of the Trump era in America, and life for the nearly 180 ambassadors resident in Washington, DC is almost as humiliating.
Before the election, modern-day envoys spent months talking to foreign-policy experts signed up with Hillary Clinton’s campaign – a veritable administration-in-waiting, housed in think-tanks, universities and consulting firms, comprising several hundred advisers organised into working groups and sub-groups and busy holding conference calls and sending one another memos. Even the farthest-flung country had friends within this system: a former National Security Council director with a passion for the Caucasus, say, who might soon serve as a principal deputy assistant secretary of state (an actual job title). In contrast, embassies anxious to know what Republican foreign-policy grandees were telling Trump faced an unusual hurdle. During 2016 dozens of conservative thinkers and bigwigs from both Bush presidencies signed “Never Trump” letters declaring the businessman a terrifying menace to global security – though since his win, Washington being what it is, some are now pondering whether they might work for him anyway.
For foreign envoys, Trump’s victory was as disruptive and confusing as a coup behind imperial palace walls. Diplomats and news outlets found themselves tracking down anyone with a sense of the new ruler’s thinking, from business partners to old friends to anyone in the small band of advisers who accompanied him on his journey from insurgent to president-elect. Even arranging phone calls of congratulation to Trump from heads of state and government was a source of angst. Foreign diplomats have spent days swapping wry tales of repeat-dialling the Trump Tower in Manhattan, the brass and pink-marble temple to 1980s style that has become the hard-to-access centre of American power, like a vertical Forbidden City. Some heads of government were offered calls with the president-elect at such short notice that they ended up talking to Trump on their mobile phones.
Soon after the election, in a street-corner conversation that felt like a cross between a joke and a bad dream, one diplomat confided that the Australian ambassador had patched his prime minister through to the president-elect after being given Trump’s private number by the Australian golfer, Greg Norman – a story that leaked in the Australian press some days later (it was a “pleasure and an honour” to help, Norman told reporters). More than one embassy had invested heavily in ties with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a garrulous bruiser who backed Trump early and became head of his presidential transition team. Alas for his foreign friends, Christie was abruptly demoted after the conviction of two of his allies for abusing their power in New Jersey.
Britain, traditionally one of the best-connected allies, had to watch Nigel Farage, boss of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a vocal admirer of Trump’s America First nationalism, visit Trump Tower before any minister from the British government. Trump then tweeted some advice to 10 Downing Street: that Farage should be made British ambassador to Washington. Others have it worse. The Washington Post caused a stir by reporting that scores of foreign diplomats attended a marketing event a week after the election at Trump’s new hotel in the capital, housed in a grand old post-office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, having been tempted by the chance to curry favour with the new president by booking delegations into his property. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’” an Asian diplomat told the Post.
Such tales of frantic sycophancy mask a more serious concern. In cables home, embassies should now be reporting on the new administration’s priorities in trade, foreign and security policy, drawing on conversations with an ever-expanding team of senior players and position papers written by influential members of Team Trump. This time it is different. Along with other journalists and diplomats, I have met, interviewed and lunched with people who bear impressive-sounding advisers’ titles in Trump-world. But when pressed in private, few dare to claim decisive influence over their boss. Insiders describe a leader who does not care to read policy memos, preferring to absorb information in person, ideally by peppering a small group with pointed questions. A frequent caveat in Trump-world is a nervous phrase like: “Now, this is just me talking, not Mr Trump.”
In a famous rebuff, the Qianlong emperor declared himself quite unimpressed by clocks, telescopes and other gadgets brought by the first British envoy to China, Lord Macartney. “We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures,” the emperor wrote to King George III. The next American president seems to feel much the same about ideas from outsiders. Asked in March about his preferred sources of geopolitical advice, he cheerily answered: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain.” Where that leaves foreign leaders is anyone’s guess. Barbarians grow “arrogant” if treated too well, the Qianlong emperor once grumbled. If President Trump proves half as imperious, allies face a bumpy few years.