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How the war in Ukraine could lead to war in Taiwan
A wartime psychology knows no bounds.
The title of this piece is potentially misleading. It could suggest a straightforward causal chain between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Like, for example: China concludes that the Ukraine war has attracted so much of America’s attention and resources that now would be a good time to seize Taiwan.
The causal chain I have in mind is more circuitous than that, and would be harder for future historians to document, because it runs through the messy realm of American political discourse.
The basic idea is this: How the Ukraine War is processed in America—in the media and on social media, by opinion leaders and especially by foreign policy elites—will influence America’s Taiwan policy, which will in turn affect the chances of China invading Taiwan. If we draw the wrong lessons from the Ukraine experience—lessons about which policies discourage invasions and which policies encourage them—Taiwan could pay the price. Plus, we could wind up with World War III.
So it’s very important that we think about the Ukraine experience clearly, and I worry that we’re failing to do that.
However lofty this concern may sound, I admit that the initial inspiration to write this piece was less exalted: Somebody said something about me on Twitter that I found annoying.
It started with my appearance on the Decoding the Gurus podcast—where, after an hour or so of grappling with the mind-body problem (seriously), the co-hosts and I shifted our focus to Ukraine so I could address their dissatisfaction with the content of my writing and podcasting on that subject. In case you’re new here: That content tends to highlight American policies that (in my view) increased the chances of war in Ukraine. You know: NATO expansion, etc.
In response to this podcast, one listener chastised me on Twitter for dwelling on the past. His tweet: “RW: ‘My arguments are all about what we might have done in the past to prevent the invasion.’ That means they're not pertinent to the current problem, which is what to do about an actual invasion. To interject into the argument now is confusing at best and shady at worst.”
Two thoughts went through my head when I read this tweet:
1) Who you callin’ shady?
2) The Ukraine war isn’t “the current problem.” The Ukraine war is a current problem. Other current problems include the possibility of Taiwan getting invaded. At this very moment, America’s finest foreign policy minds are arguing about which American actions (including a rogue Speaker of the House visiting Taipei) make war in Taiwan more likely and which make it less likely. And the question of whether American policies needlessly raised the chances of Russia’s invading Ukraine is relevant to that argument. So dwelling on the past is, I submit, urgently important.
Before elaborating, I want to be clear on my goal: I am not trying to convince you that my view of how war in Ukraine might have been avoided is correct. (If you’re interested in evaluating that view, I’ve laid it out in more detail here and here, among other places.) I’m just trying to convince you that (1) the debate my view is part of is relevant to the Taiwan question; (2) the way the debate plays out will likely influence America’s Taiwan policy; (3) it’s therefore important that this debate be vigorous and illuminating; (3) right now the debate is not very illuminating, in part because some influential people are trying, with some success, to marginalize one side of the debate.
Even if that side of the debate weren’t my side, which it is, I’d consider this unhealthy (though, granted, I’d spend less time complaining about it).
There are many differences between the Russia-Ukraine issue and the China-Taiwan issue (see postscript below for elaboration). Still, the question of how we should have handled Russia’s threat to Ukraine and the question of how we should handle China’s threat to Taiwan both involve a dilemma that is grounded in an irony: things you do to deter an invasion or defend against an invasion can under some circumstances increase the chances of that invasion happening.
President Biden continued the flow of US weapons to Ukraine that began under President Trump. Part of the idea was that the more weapons Ukraine had, the more Russia would be deterred from invading. Obviously, deterrence didn’t happen. What went wrong?
Theories differ, but here’s a theory I find plausible:
Suppose you’re Vladimir Putin, and you consider a Ukraine brimming with NATO weapons, and getting profuse guidance and assistance from NATO advisers and trainers—in short, a Ukraine that’s almost a de facto member of NATO—an unacceptable security threat, something worth going to war to prevent. (Leave aside whether this perception of a grave threat is accurate; I’m just offering a possible explanation for Putin’s behavior, not a defense of it or a justification of it.)
And suppose NATO weapons, and NATO advisers and trainers, have been flowing into Ukraine for several years, and joint exercises with NATO have started happening. And suppose the US has made it clear that all of this is going to continue. In that case—which was in fact the case as of the beginning of this year—the US-to-Ukraine weapons flow that’s supposed to deter Russian aggression could encourage Russian aggression by signaling to Putin that invasion is the only way to forestall his nightmare scenario.
In fact, the weapons flow may not just make invasion more likely but hasten its onset. After all, if you’re Putin and you’ve decided that military intervention is probably going to be necessary sooner or later, why wait until Ukraine is even better armed than it is now? The sooner you act, the better the odds of success.
Obviously, we can’t say for sure what factors went into Putin’s decision to invade. But the above is a plausible scenario, and it’s consistent with Putin’s own statements right before the invasion. And, in any event, it’s an illustration of how weapons transfers intended to deter an invasion could instead encourage one.
Should we give serious consideration to this explanation for Putin’s invasion as we calibrate our policy toward Taiwan? Apparently not. In May the New York Times reported that the Biden administration, after reflecting on the Ukraine experience, was encouraging Taiwan to buy American weapons that, like many of the weapons sent to Ukraine, permit “mobility and precision attacks.” The Times piece explained:
The push by the Biden administration has broadened and accelerated similar efforts by officials in the Trump and Obama administrations. Democratic and Republican officials and lawmakers say one lesson of the Ukraine war is the United States must help transform Taiwan into a ‘porcupine’ to deter potential attacks from China.
It may seem puzzling that “Democratic and Republican officials and lawmakers,” after watching as the transformation of Ukraine into a porcupine emphatically failed to discourage an attack from a larger neighbor, would conclude that transforming Taiwan into a porcupine is the best way to discourage an attack from a larger neighbor.
But if you’ve paid close attention to American discourse since the invasion of Ukraine, this should seem not so puzzling after all. Because the idea that arming Ukraine may have helped trigger the invasion has gotten virtually no air time.
One reason for this is that there has been a somewhat successful attempt to marginalize the view that war in Ukraine was made more likely by US actions—by, in particular, America’s oft-repeated commitment to eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and by the de-facto NATOization of Ukraine through arms transfers, training, and joint exercises. As a rule, attempts to marginalize this view involve trying to stigmatize people who express it. For example:
1) Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO and currently president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, has accused Americans who say NATO expansion made war in Ukraine more likely of reciting “a Russian talking point.” That’s a fairly mild form of McCarthyism, but it’s still a form of McCarthyism.
2) A single utterance by Sen. Rand Paul got him depicted (in a Rolling Stone headline) as repeating “Putin’s core argument” and (by Twitter influencer and former Vox reporter Aaron Rupar) as “parroting Putin’s propaganda.” And both charges, by the way, involved significant distortion of what Paul had actually said.
3) As if American elites weren’t doing a good enough job of stigmatization, the Ukrainian government recently—and officially!—designated a number of American thinkers “speakers who promote narratives consonant with Russian propaganda.” The list of alleged propagandists, compiled by an agency in Ukraine’s executive branch, includes people like Sen. Paul, journalist Glenn Greenwald, academic John Mearsheimer, think tanker Edwark Luttwak, and economist Jeffrey Sachs. These people span the spectrum from left to right, but all have argued that ill-advised American policies increased the chances of Russia’s invading Ukraine.
I could go on, believe me. It’s almost routine for people who deem America’s pre-invasion policy toward Russia unnecessarily provocative to be dismissed by someone or other as “justifying” the invasion (when in fact, as I’ve argued repeatedly, there are various ways to reconcile blaming Putin for the invasion with deeming pre-invasion US policy reckless and unwise).
All of this takes a toll. Sure, the people on Ukraine’s official list of propagandists will keep speaking out—it’s their stubbornness that got them on the list!—but how many people will choose not to speak out in the first place after seeing all these shots across the bow? To put a finer point on it: How many people, in the course of discussing future policy toward Taiwan, will be willing to suggest that arming Ukraine backfired—willing to risk being accused of “parroting Putin talking points” or “justifying” Putin’s invasion or being a Putin “apologist”?
Maybe I’m overstating the problem. If you suspect as much, I encourage you to scour mainstream media for examples of people doing what I claim is exceedingly rare—people warning of the perils of feverishly arming Taiwan by reference to the Ukraine experience. I don’t think you’ll find many, and I don’t think the dearth of such arguments is a reflection of their merit. I mean, even if such arguments are wrong, they’re not so outlandish as to warrant essentially zero airtime!
The problem here is in some sense a natural one: the predictably stifling effect of wartime psychology. When a nation is involved in a popular war, the range of debate gets narrowed—and one theme that is most subject to exclusion is that the nation in question may have done anything that is in any sense responsible for the hostilities. Apparently America, though not technically a belligerent in the Ukraine war, is involved in it deeply enough to be subject to this effect. And that may mean that a debate about Taiwan, which is half a world away from America and quite a ways from Ukraine, will be less robust than it would otherwise be.
The paradox I’ve been emphasizing—where measures you take for purposes of defense or deterrence can be seen as threatening and thus can increase the chances of war—is known in political science circles as “the security dilemma.” Hawks tend to emphasize the deterrent and defensive value of military buildup and discount the threatening effect, and “restrainers” tend to view things the other way around.
Again, I’m not here (not today, at least) to argue that we restrainers are right. I’m just arguing that (1) it’s in the interest of America and the world, as we calibrate our policy toward China, for the restrainer side of the Ukraine debate to get a fair hearing; and (2) right now that’s not happening, in part because some influential people and institutions are working to marginalize the view that American policies unwisely fostered a sense of threat to what Russia considered vital interests.
Of course, if we restrainers are right, then it’s all the more important that we get a fair hearing. That way maybe the people of Taiwan won’t have to endure what the people of Ukraine are now enduring.
Image: Photo of Nancy Pelosi with Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, released by Taiwan’s foreign ministry.
Postscript: As I said above, there are plenty of differences between the China-Taiwan issue and the Russia-Ukraine issue. For example, whereas for most of the Putin era Russia acknowledged Ukraine’s sovereignty, China has always considered Taiwan a part of China. (The world has acknowledged this claim, in the sense that most countries, including the US, don’t formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. And the US has traditionally said—as part of its “one China” policy—that China’s goal of eventual unification with Taiwan is fine so long as unification happens peacefully.)
Notwithstanding such differences, if you compare China’s traditional perspective on Taiwan to what seems to have been Russia’s perspective on Ukraine as of 10 or 15 years ago, I would submit that there’s this much commonality: Both great powers saw invasion as not necessary in the near term, if ever, so long as the status quo wasn’t threatened—with the status quo being, respectively, (1) a Taiwan that doesn’t formally declare independence, sharply ramp up its military ties to the West, or in other ways pose a vivid new threat to the decades-old narrative of the eventual unification of Taiwan and mainland China; (2) a Ukraine that’s part of Russia’s “sphere of influence” at least in the sense of not being too tightly aligned with the West economically or militarily. (Putin seems to have seen the first big breach of this acceptable status quo as Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which he apparently considers—with at least some supporting evidence—a coup abetted by the US as a way of deposing a pro-Russian president. But he was also extremely unhappy with George W. Bush’s insistence in 2008 on NATO’s pledging to eventually offer membership to Ukraine.)
It is this commonality between the Taiwan situation now and the Ukraine situation 10 to 15 years ago that, it seems to me, makes the runup to the Ukraine invasion relevant to the Taiwan question.