Politics & Law

Taiwan, Rousseau, the EU: the games we play

20 February, 2024

In dealing with diplomatic challenges, Taiwanese diplomats can draw on the experience of their European allies and counterparts and lessons from Jean Jaques Rousseau.


By Jerome F Keating


When one looks at today’s world, it’s easy to imagine that it’s going to hell in the proverbial hand basket.


Russia continues to press its attacks in Ukraine. Hamas’s recent attack on Israel and Israel’s harsh reprisals have taken their toll on all involved. And then there are the brewing troubles in the Taiwan Strait. One wishes all nations would somehow sing the song: “Why can’t we be friends?” But unfortunately few can escape the challenges we see.


As democratic Taiwan faces its particular situation to determine a course of action, it might well look back to an early proponent of democracy, Jean Jaques Rousseau. Taiwan could take cues from him, especially as regards social contracts, the individual, the state, and even international organisations.


In writing my book: The Paradigms that Guide Our Lives and Drive Our Souls, I noted that we operate in three realms: physics, metaphysics, and phenomenology.


Physics or science regularly progresses with each new scientific discovery. Metaphysics on the other hand, operates differently. As the ontological realm of ideologies, religion, etc., we face in it challenges from the numerous communities that we create, as well as from the allegiances that they subsequently demand. Phenomenology, the final realm, is strictly personal. It calls on us to follow a private path based on the world as we personally see it. 


In short, this creates an unending dialectic between our metaphysical/ontological communities, as they press us to conform and our individuality, which pushes us to pursue personal goals. And further, while all this is happening, we find ourselves caught within a developing paradigm shift from Marshall McLuhan’s global village to that of a global home.


So what has all this to do with Taiwan, nation states, and Rousseau?


First, Rousseau presents a simple but achievable basis for social contracts between individuals and community. Progressing further, once Rousseau’s role in this dialectic is grasped and understood, it can then become a microcosm for a larger macrocosm.


In that macrocosm, individual nation states are challenged to belong to and participate in larger, international organisations and communities, such as APEC, NATO, the UN, etc.


In his Discourse on Social Contract, Rousseau opens with the classic line: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Here, he differs from his predecessor British philosopher Thomas Hobbes.


For Hobbes, all governments, even unaccountable governments, are needed to rescue man from a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Rousseau felt the opposite. For him the state, and larger communities too often shaped man in the wrong direction. Any unrestricted sovereign or power too easily takes away an individual’s natural freedom with stifling laws and impositions.


In Rousseau’s social contract, individuals agree to live within a larger society primarily for the benefits gained from that unity. If the ruler or ruling body does not provide those benefits, the contract is broken. Included here is the fact that no sovereign should ever be given unrestricted carte blanche in ruling.


Rousseau’s social contract is not complicated; its argument is simple and straightforward. The devil, however, is often in the details as we shall see.


This is particularly true when it comes to the application and expansion of the social contract concept from that of the individual within a national community to the macrocosm where individual nation states join international organizations and/or larger communities. 


Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. In addition to its meeting the basic requirements of the Montevideo Convention, I have already presented Taiwan’s independent reality in previous Euroview articles as: The Cairo Declaration Unpacked and Debunked, and Taiwan, China and the San Francisco Peace Treaty.


How other nations also operate within this double view is seen by how they often nominally agree with China’s proclamations, but act otherwise in reality. For example, though a mere 12 nations officially recognize Taiwan’s independence, ironically by the Henley Passport Index, 144 countries give Taiwan passport holders visa free entry. In comparison with how only 80 countries give Chinese passport holders the same privilege, it is obvious who has the greater privilege here.

Similarly, the US is officially “undecided on Taiwan’s status. However, Taiwan is one of 38 countries that the US grants visa free entry; but China is not. Chinese must apply for B1/B2 visas to the US.


In this game, Taiwan must recognize how other nations and organizations solve the problems that arise from existing social contracts. It is often a matter of seeing how to thread the needle.


A salient example is found in the way the social contract theory has played out in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), a decision commonly called Brexit.


In this case, the British weighed the various options and by a slim majority (51.89 % to 48.11) voted to leave. Many now feel that they have buyer’s remorse, but thus far they remain outside the EU. In the vote, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, but they had to bow to the will of the majority.


However, with that Brexit vote, a different problem was created with a previous social contract. Years earlier, Northern Ireland and Free State Ireland had, after years of turmoil, solved different problems with what is called the Good Friday Peace Agreement (April, 1998).


With the Brexit vote, Northern Ireland was now out of the EU, but Ireland remained in; this created trade and border crossing problems. However, these would be resolved with the Northern Ireland Protocol and the subsequent Windsor Agreement.


In short, the above allowed de facto border/trade crossings between Northern Ireland and Ireland while still recognizing Northern Ireland’s de jure leaving of the EU. This interplay of de facto and de jure terminology, brings up Taiwan’s existence as a de facto independent nation with limited de jure recognition.


A different example of how in social contracts, one member of a group affects the purpose of all, is found in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Finland and Sweden, two nations that had long resisted joining NATO, suddenly saw the advantages of NATO membership benefits within its social contract; and so they made application for admission in May 2022. 


Finland was quickly accepted in May 2023, but Sweden continues to have problems with Turkey, a NATO member. NATO has a rule in its “social contract” that for any new members to join, they must be accepted and approved by all current members.


Turkey has thus far refused Sweden entry because Sweden had allowed a protest by Kurdish rebels in Sweden to go unpunished. Turkey considers said Kurds as terrorists and seeks an extradition treaty to cover them.


Turkey has also upped the ante in this matter. It would be willing to consider Sweden’s membership in NATO if in turn the EU would grant Turkey membership in the EU. Thus far, the EU has declined.


A different contract to be solved is the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) where Taiwan participates but must do so under the name of Chinese Taipei, a name similarly used in other organizations including the Olympics.


Taiwan often must play the nomenclature game to balance its de facto independent recognition with its lack of de jure acceptance by other nations.


The list goes on and on. Taiwan has diplomatic missions in 111 nations, but it technically has only 12 embassies around the world.


Given how these realities present problems and challenges, Taiwanese diplomats must learn to be as wise as serpents but as gentle as doves. Nonetheless, in this, they can also continue to look to the experience of their European allies and counterparts for guidance in negotiating diplomatic social contracts. In this way, they can maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence even while fending off China’s challenges.


All nations face these social challenges as we slowly make the paradigm shift from the said global village of the 1960s, to the developing global home paradigm needed for planet sustainability. In this a knowledge of Rousseau’s aims and implications is helpful.


Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan. He is the author of “The Paradigms that Guide Our Lives and Drive Our Souls”.

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