Argument

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The Case for Defending the Little Guy

Sticking up for smaller powers and Westphalian principles is worth it.

By , a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Taiwan's national flag hangs from a long cable beneath a helicopter.
A U.S.-made CH-47 helicopter flies Taiwan’s national flag at a military base in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on Sept. 28. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The question of Taiwan is preoccupying Washington. On the one hand, there is the issue of Washington’s “strategic ambiguity”—the uncertainty of whether a Chinese attack on the small island it claims would be met by a U.S. military response. On the other, there is a debate around whether Taiwan would be “worth” a military confrontation that could escalate into a major conflict between the United States and China.

In many ways, the Taiwan question mirrors myriad others over the decades. Washington agonized over how to address Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. There was substantially less agonizing over Russia’s incursion into Georgia and the “frozen conflict” it imposed over Abkhazia and Ossetia. NATO’s expansion has been beset by worries over provoking Russia. Indeed, in July 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump infamously slammed Montenegro’s accession to NATO, telling Fox News host Tucker Carlson it “is a tiny country with very strong people. … They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”

Then there are the so-called gray zone conflicts that bedevil the United States and its allies—unconventional attacks, cyber meddling, and the like. Difficult to combat, most of these actions fall well short of war as conventionally defined but are clearly over the line of acceptable international interaction. Sure, Washington can sanction bad actors, reinforce internet security, harden weak points in infrastructure, and call out election interference. But will those measures deter a power intent on fomenting civil war, as Russia is doing at this very moment in the Balkans? Or stem a crisis like the one Russia recently brewed at the Polish-Belarusian border?

The question of Taiwan is preoccupying Washington. On the one hand, there is the issue of Washington’s “strategic ambiguity”—the uncertainty of whether a Chinese attack on the small island it claims would be met by a U.S. military response. On the other, there is a debate around whether Taiwan would be “worth” a military confrontation that could escalate into a major conflict between the United States and China.

In many ways, the Taiwan question mirrors myriad others over the decades. Washington agonized over how to address Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. There was substantially less agonizing over Russia’s incursion into Georgia and the “frozen conflict” it imposed over Abkhazia and Ossetia. NATO’s expansion has been beset by worries over provoking Russia. Indeed, in July 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump infamously slammed Montenegro’s accession to NATO, telling Fox News host Tucker Carlson it “is a tiny country with very strong people. … They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”

Then there are the so-called gray zone conflicts that bedevil the United States and its allies—unconventional attacks, cyber meddling, and the like. Difficult to combat, most of these actions fall well short of war as conventionally defined but are clearly over the line of acceptable international interaction. Sure, Washington can sanction bad actors, reinforce internet security, harden weak points in infrastructure, and call out election interference. But will those measures deter a power intent on fomenting civil war, as Russia is doing at this very moment in the Balkans? Or stem a crisis like the one Russia recently brewed at the Polish-Belarusian border?

The cost-benefit calculus of such geostrategic challenges is difficult. Partisans of intervention and deterrence argue that allowing a rapacious power to snack on small fry without consequence will only encourage larger adventures. Certainly, Europe and the United States’ near indifference to Russia’s predations in Georgia may have encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to believe there would be little consequence to his invasion of Ukraine. Partisans of restraint, however, argue that reacting too harshly to lesser challenges to the international order can quickly lead to a spiral of conflict and war.

Who is right? In general, proponents of restraint have a harder time pointing to teapot tempests that have boiled over into overt conflict. The proxy battle between the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan didn’t spill over into a world war. Yes, the United States and Soviet Union stepped up to the line (with the United States escalating its threat level to DEFCON 3, the same level that followed the 9/11 attacks) during the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, but they quickly stepped back. Ditto for the Berlin airlift, which naysayers believed would spark World War III but instead reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to hold the line against the Soviets and reassure allies in Western Europe it had their backs. Even the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of the most controversial foreign-policy decisions in recent memory, did not spill over into regional conflict as some predicted—let alone a great-power war.

Then there are others who point to a triggering event when tempers are high, suggesting that absent a crisis, all may have been resolved amicably. Call this the “Archduke Franz Ferdinand school,” in honor of those who believe World War I was precipitated by the assassination of the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ferdinandians point to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as such events—cataclysmic attacks on the U.S. homeland that drew the United States into war.

Proponents of this accident-of-history argument against escalation also inveigh against the dangerous entanglements of military alliances—hence their affection for “strategic ambiguity” in U.S. foreign policy. Much as Trump decried the possibility of being drawn into a war for Montenegro, former U.S. President Barack Obama lamented the NATO fetters that drew him into conflict with Libya. Years earlier, politicians with similar leanings fingered the hapless Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) for drawing the United States into the Vietnam War.

History cannot be rewritten, but the analysis that underpins warnings against NATO expansion, defending Taiwan, or opposing the annexation of Crimea—not dissimilar to the arguments against Lend-Lease in the 1940s or the Reagan Doctrine in the 1980s—harps on escalation’s risks. But that analysis’s main weakness is that it denies the enemy’s agency, embracing an incremental or accidental theory of geostrategic chess that bears little scrutiny.

Germany had been planning for war long before Ferdinand’s assassination and was looking for an advantageous juncture to challenge a modernizing and threatening Russia. Similarly, Pearl Harbor was far from a “mistake” that dragged the United States into a war Japan would ultimately lose; rather, U.S. domination of the Pacific and its chokehold on Japanese supply lines was intolerable to Tokyo. Even 9/11 was far from the lucky fluke some describe; al Qaeda had planned a similar attack as early as 1995.

Nor do alliances necessarily entangle the United States in conflicts it otherwise would have avoided. Indeed, far from SEATO being an inescapable contract compelling Americans to defend South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam, deliberations at the time make clear it was South Vietnam’s fall to communist domination that itself was intolerable to the United States during the Cold War. Ditto NATO and Libya: Nothing in the NATO charter compelled Obama to join France and the United Kingdom in taking on former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Far from being an inexorable glide path to conflict, the defense of smaller powers and Westphalian principles—like the existence of alliances—serves more to deter rapacious revisionists’ ambitions. Perhaps emperors and dictators’ designs cannot be blocked, and any such risk demands a hardheaded analysis about costs and benefits, but it is hard to argue persuasively that simply allowing expansionists to chew slowly on their neighbors until they are ready for a larger war is a wise policy.

China has spread, unchecked, into the South China Sea and Hong Kong. And while the United States, Japan, and Australia begin to up their game in the region, ambiguous rumblings from Washington regarding the defense of Taiwan are unlikely to shut the door on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans for Asia. There is little reason to believe Xi’s acquisition of Taiwan will sate his appetites.

The better choice is to unambiguously draw a line for Beijing and make it clear that the United States will defend Taiwanese democracy and oppose its subjugation to communist China. Far from an incentive to war or a provocation, a clear sense of Washington’s priorities will force China to weigh the costs and benefits of its expansionism. It is too late to nip those plans in the bud, but there is still time to ensure a rapacious power intent on domination recognizes the limits to its ambitions. If history teaches us nothing, it is that without a clear delineation of such limits, conflict becomes inevitable.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka

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