Sometimes the clue to political behaviour is to be found in the Chinese proverb, “If you ride a tiger, you can never dismount.” The reality of the tiger’s teeth is inescapable. Yet in recent months, three powerful women forgot the teeth and tugged on the tail.
Liz Truss, likely to be the next prime minister of the UK, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine said she would countenance British men going to fight in Ukraine; Sabina Higgins, wife of our second-term president, two weeks ago penned a public letter in which she called for ceasefire and negotiations in the war between Russia, the ferocious aggressor, and Ukraine, the innocent casualty; and Nancy Pelosi, the third most powerful politician in the US, despite threats from China and pleas from her president, made a high-profile visit to Taiwan.
At first glance there is little common theme in their purpose. When Truss made her gung-ho statement about “Brits” going to Ukraine, the growl from the tiger was instantaneous: Putin said he would regard it as an act of aggression from a Nato member and would retaliate accordingly. Truss — hard to believe now — was silenced and the issue faded. Until the leadership contest, that is, where it has followed her relentlessly.
But Truss is fleet of foot and shockingly disingenuous. The whole thing, she says, was merely “travel advice”, as though men going off to a foreign war were the subject of a TripAdvisor review.
Sabina Higgins’s tail tweak, by contrast, elicited a sinister purr: Russian diplomacy was pleased. As interpretations polarised between the price of peace and appeasement, nobody doubted Sabina Higgins’ empathy for Ukraine. She has an artist’s sensibility and a keen sense of the presence of warp in the human heart: in interviews, she revealed a nuanced understanding of domestic violence. But just as nobody would expect a victim of rape to sit with their rapist without a process of restorative justice, how can there be reconciliation without some form of retribution; or forgiveness of violation without acknowledgment? Everyone wants peace and it takes courage — but, like courage, empathy can be catastrophically misplaced.
Exactly one year ago, as the US pulled out of Afghanistan, supposedly because of a deadline “inherited” from Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi pronounced that “any policy the Afghans pursue ... must have women at the table.” That worked, right? That was the day female workers all over Afghanistan were being replaced by men and women teachers were forced to wear the chador (head to toe burka).
Nancy Pelosi is proud of her long tradition of standing up to presidents. As a high-ranking official she has famously defied Bill Clinton, George W Bush and twice tried to impeach Donald Trump
Girls were actually allowed to go to high school, then. Today women are invisible behind mandatory burkas, cannot work outside the home except in very restricted sectors, must have a male chaperone if they travel more than 75km and have no political representation whatsoever. The only table Afghan women sit at is the kitchen table.
Nancy Pelosi is proud of her long tradition of standing up to presidents. As a high-ranking official she has famously defied Bill Clinton, George W Bush and twice tried to impeach Donald Trump. Though it was clear that all that awaited women under the Taliban was oppression, she didn’t make a stand.
Ignoring all counsel
Last week she decided to defy Joe Biden and go to Taiwan. She ignored his national security team’s pleas and cited her long-time advocacy for human rights in China, declaring that “American solidarity with Taiwan is more important today than ever”. American solidarity with Taiwan was never in doubt. The real challenge for the US was to leave sleeping tigers lie, to avoid fighting on two fronts by giving grievance-hunting China an excuse to align itself with Russia, which desperately needs Chinese drones.
Yes, for one day Pelosi brought comfort to 23 million Taiwanese and to its brave and hard-pressed president, Tsai Ing-wen. But she also aroused the indignation of 1.4 billion people. “Nothing good will come of this,” warned all the wise counsels. Alas, a lot of bad has come already. China has engaged in “coercion”, firing missiles, forcing planes out of the sky and fishermen out of the sea. The words “exercise zones” are ominous. The cost imposition on Taiwan over the Pelosi visit has only begun.
Retiring politicians have many temptations. The pursuit of legacy is among the most seductive and dangerous
Why did she do it? She said that 30 years ago she had travelled in a bipartisan congressional delegation to China, where in Tiananmen Square, they unfurled a black and white banner that read “To those who died for democracy and China”. Clearly China bookends Pelosi’s political journey. The problem with a long political journey is the destination sometimes gets lost in the ego trip. It is no secret that Pelosi will soon be stepping down from her positions. Behind her she has decades of mainly good causes: standing up for small democracies, fighting racism and discrimination. Before her? Assessing what she leaves for the future. Legacy.
Retiring politicians have many temptations. The pursuit of legacy is among the most seductive and dangerous. “What has posterity ever done for me?” demanded Groucho Marx. As always, his wit is full of wisdom. Legacy is the coinage given to posterity, but posterity, as Groucho points out, is an ingrate.
In their recent actions, Liz Truss. Sabina Higgins and Nancy Pelosi separately embody the three prongs of political career: vanity, humanity, posterity. Not all pretty, but they can own them as their legacy. Because in the past, legacy for women often came only in the gift of poetry or proverb. One can imagine Yeats on Pelosi’s visit. “Was there no other Tiananmen for her to burn?”