Reagan, Nixon, the ‘Shoeless Cannibal Monkeys’ … and China




A story out today has some revelations from the Nixon tapes — a timely reminder about why impeachment hearings are useful to get information that is being improperly withheld under a claim of “executive privilege,” but that’s a discussion for another time.  Former President Ronald Reagan (when then California Governor) called former President Nixon to deride the Tanzanian delegation to the United Nations as “monkeys” who were “uncomfortable wearing shoes.”  Nixon later told others that Reagan had referred to them as “cannibals.”  You may think that this is headed towards a comparison of these two Republican Presidents to Trump, and his much more overt racist attacks, but that’s not where it’s going.

It’s headed towards a comparison between the United States under Trump and the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China.

What had gotten Reagan’s goat (as he would put it) was that Tanzania had voted to recognize the PRC (then known as “Red China” or “mainland China” as the legitimate representative of the nation of China, thus being seated at the United Nations and — most significantly — on the UN Security Council.  Until then, the Republic of China (which we know as Taiwan, which we previously called Formosa) was the legal representative of all of China, over which it still claimed sovereignty, in the UN. When the vote came, the Tanzanian reps started dancing in celebration.  They may have danced barefoot, that’s not clear from the story, but I’m pretty sure that they were comfortable wearing shoes when they had to.

Here’s what you should be wondering: why would Tanzanians — part of East Africa, not Asia, let alone East Asia — be dancing in celebration at the success of mainland China is wresting the UN seat from Taiwan?

I don’t think that I would know the answer except for one thing: my first job after graduate school was in Political Science at the University of Illinois, and my department Chair was a man named George Yu.  Yu’s area of study, which most people seemed to think was sort of weird, was Chinese-African relations.  It wasn’t weird; it was vital to understanding the world then and now.

Mainland China had set out years before to gain the seat — and it realized that the voting bloc that it needed most to do so was in Africa, which held somewhere around 30% of the seats on the UN, the majority of which had only around 1960 or so started to win their freedom from their previous colonial powers.  (The process still hadn’t yet worked in most of Southern Africa, with the Portuguese colonies such as Angola being the main hold-out. And, frankly, Spanish Sahara still belongs to Spain.)

Chinese foreign policy involved lots of foreign aid to these countries; support for whomever happened to be in charge; non-intervention in their affairs (including a blind eye to human rights concerns, which they have largely maintained through today; and respect for their cultures in the name of Third World solidarity.  When the time came to choose between the claim of the PRC and the claim of Taiwan — which had been strongly supported by the U.S., which had had an interventionist policy in Africa that included opposing and deposing leaders it considered unfriendly, including assassinations and coups — it was an easy call for the African delegations.  And so China got its way.

The face that the U.S. shows to the world today is one that rejects self-determination of what we used to call the “Third World,” demands respect from and control over them, degrades their cultures, and tries to rule the world by fear rather than respect.  (That’s not just me saying that: that was the explicit approach pushed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld during the Aughts, which Trump is sort of clumsily recapitulating.  “Better to be feared than loved” — straight outta Machiavelli.)

China — asking only for economic cooperation, and for other countries to overlook its own dismal human rights record — has been successfully engaging the rest of the world.  Trump doesn’t care much about human rights anyway — he seems to admire dictators and envy their powers — and so the world no longer has even the degree of U.S. leadership on human rights (whether sincere under the likes of Carter or merely professed under some others) to counter China and Russia.

Trump’s most lasting impact will have been his shredding our relations with most of the rest of the world, as well as the remnants of our moral leadership.  Because so much of the population has been won over, it’s not clear whether or when we will ever get that back.

The Tanzanians — and much of the rest of the world — will be dancing in the aisles when he’s gone also.  Unfortunately, they will also likely be embracing the Chinese view of human rights.  And it won’t be because they’re like monkeys — it will be because they like being respected and their determining their own courses in peace.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)