The troubling question haunting US foreign policy

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This photo composite shows, from left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A troubling question haunts U.S. foreign policy: What is the endgame of American strategy? One thing that it appears not to be is an effort to find a balance of interests and power, which through history has tended to be a cornerstone of a stable order.

To listen to the White House, one could be forgiven for concluding that the goal is a coalition of like-minded democracies living happily ever after, while major powers with contrary views – like China and Russia – either accept U.S. primacy or succumb to regime change. Never mind that, according Freedom House, democracies have been in decline for nearly two decades, or that the U.S. political system is broken, dysfunctional, polarized and at grave risk.

It is difficult to imagine a stable and prosperous world order in which the largest trading power and exporter of capital and two mature nuclear weapons states are isolated and outside some framework and guardrails in which their interests were factored in. Look no further than the Ukraine war and current tensions over Taiwan, both volatile situations that could easily escalate into direct U.S. conflicts with Russia and China, respectively.

This predicament of a world near spinning out of control was astutely summed up by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. in a recent interview, he told the Wall St. Journal, “We are at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to.”

The current state of geopolitics seems reminiscent of the prelude to World War I. It was also a time of unprecedented globalization, yet one of misperceptions and miscalculations among the major powers of the time. These erupted into conflagration in response to the trigger event, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand. Could Ukraine or Taiwan be contemporary equivalents?      

I’m not a fan of catastrophism, but some of the hysteria with regard to Taiwan is worrying. The D.C. commentariat have been fear mongering for almost two years that China is about to invade Taiwan.

Taiwan is an existential issue of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party, and it is committed to reunifying with Taiwan. But that is not imminent. The outrageous Beijing military provocations are mostly designed to deter Taipei from declaring formal independence and, as seen in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan, find an excuse to simulate a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) joint forces blockade of Taiwan and air and naval exercises.

The U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), has been harshly criticized as outdated. Under the TRA, the U.S. is obliged to help Taiwan defend itself, but there is no treaty-like commitment to militarily intervene in case of a Chinese attack.

The TRA has underpinned stability in the Taiwan Strait for nearly 50 years. What critics get wrong is that U.S. policy is aimed at preventing any unilateral change in the status quo by either side. PLA planning must assume an attack would mean U.S. intervention regardless of stated U.S. policy. So abandoning ambiguity would not have much effect on Beijing. But it could tempt some in Taiwan who favor independence to formally declare it, which would trigger a Chinese attack.      

An invasion of Taiwan would require an amphibious lift capability not seen since the U.S. and allied landing at Normandy during World War II. The Chinese do not have any such capability. In fact, Beijing has many non-kinetic means of coercing Taiwan, and may employ such methods to win, as Confucian philosopher Sun Tzu advised, without fighting. A military assault could occur, but it’s unlikely before the last years of this decade.

Both the U.S. and Taiwan would be far better off if we laid off the symbolism and quietly worked with Taipei to build the strongest porcupine defense and strengthened economic ties with steps like a U.S.-Taiwan trade accord.

U.S. policy toward the Ukraine war has been more cautious, uniting allies, providing key military hardware and training, but ruling out direct U.S. intervention. Unlike Taiwan, the U.S. has no defense obligation to Kyiv. As D.C. chants of “total victory” have given way to the harsh reality of a drawn out, less decisive outcome, concerns about escalation are rising as increasingly sophisticated weapons are supplied to Kyiv. And Kissinger’s question of how it ends echoes: with a negotiated outcome, a stalemate or Putin using tactical nukes?

Can Russia simply be cancelled? Economic sanctions will, over time, make it impossible for Putin to sustain a competitive, modern nation, regardless of how Ukraine ends.

Are Ukraine and Taiwan crowding out broader U.S. relations with two nuclear weapons states? In the case of China, a broad range of overlapping interests and previous areas of cooperation (such as climate change, counter-narcotics, an uncertain $657 billion bilateral trade relationship and strategic dialogue to reduce risk) remain in limbo.

In sum, there are more questions than answers about U.S. strategy. For example, can Asia be the top priority if the U.S. is deepening commitments and resources in Europe and the Middle East? The tyranny of the inbox always plagues U.S. administrations. But we are at an inflection point in history, with all the balls of global order in the air. A little clarity would go a long way.

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Previously, he was director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags China China-Taiwan tension Russia Russia-Ukraine war Sun Tzu Taiwan Relations Act Taiwan Relations Act Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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