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Taiwan and Ukraine: Beyond ‘Great Power Competition’

Foreign Policy Blogs - Fri, 21/01/2022 - 22:36

They Really Don’t Know What We Want.  Do We?


At the outset of 2022, Russia has troops massed on the Ukraine border and China has heightened aerial testing of Taiwan’s defenses. While Russia and China may be coordinating their challenges, each has its own interest in reducing U.S. influence. China claims Taiwan and Russia aims to exclude the West from Ukraine. America, or its rules-based order, impede the interests and threaten the legitimacy of both. U.S. policy engages them in “great power competition,” but with too little thinking about what are we competing over.  As one for instance, do we value Taiwan as a free country or as a cog “in the defence of vital US interests”? If we do not give a coherent answer we let others interpret our goals for their purposes. If we ourselves do not know, we will keep “moving the goalposts” of our objectives as we did in Afghanistan. We will name incoherent priorities and pursue none fully, in a dissipation we cannot afford. No one will have reason to believe any intentions, much less values, we profess. Adversaries will use that mistrust to weaken our partnerships, rules-based order, and democracy.

America has a clear story to tell. Our nation conceived itself in a creed of rights, equal and unalienable to all persons, and of government to secure them by consent of the governed. In this self-conception, the creed defines our nationality. Betrayal, even by inattention, threatens this base of national legitimacy. Many U.S. interests are at stake in relations with China, Russia, and anyone else. Any nation must secure its tangible needs. But America must keep faith with our creed. Today our mounting self-doubts call us to reaffirm that existential base. Crises like Ukraine and Taiwan challenge our geopolitical position, but also offer a chance for reaffirmation. To conduct ourselves coherently across diverse and confusing issues, to answer the question of what we compete for, we need clarity in why we do what we do. With clarity, specific policies will fit together better than in serial reactions to today’s smorgasbord of challenges. If we orient policy by our founding tenets, we display consistent motives globally, set our international relations on our terms, and exhibit our core convictions to the world – and ourselves.

Parsing the Taiwan and Ukraine crises in light of our creed will illustrate how it could guide policy. Two step thinking is needed, one to stabilize the crises, the next to re-cast our relationships by the new theme. Actual dialogue will mix and mingle the two steps. Events, like an actual attack on Taiwan or Ukraine, could disrupt step two. Regardless of any outcomes, America can reaffirm our core purposes amid the crisis. If that potential fades, this speculation for a long term policy approach offers an image of opportunity for future reference.

Starting with Taiwan, Americans should understand that Taiwan is a free country as we understand the term, not some authoritarian regime with an electoral veneer. Like only a few dozen other countries it has repeatedly transferred power freely and without disruption, between parties of very different outlooks. In its entrenched democratic governance it supports not only elections and prosperity, but a society where individuals have great choice in how to live their lives. It grapples with the same issues, from food adulteration to language and gender diversity, as other advanced democracies. Taiwan displays as full a picture of freedom as any country in the world.  

Formally, U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s autonomy cites an old agreement with the PRC. Even we do not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, and though the agreement with the PRC remains in place, the idea of sovereignty gives China a claim to dominion. Also, our commitment to Taiwan originally supported a dictatorship, and we could squelch a PRC attack easily. Today, that geopolitical stance is outmoded and the PRC has developed a major military capacity. But Taiwan has developed in freedom, so America’s commitment to freedom is now on the line alongside Taiwanese autonomy.

Some policy discourse points this way. A Brookings paper of November 2021 rejects PRC faulting of the U.S. for “’creating Issues around’ China’s policies toward Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.” The rejection reflects America’s creedal core: “these issues touch American values at the heart of its national identity …” Defense Secretary Austin has also echoed strategist Michael O’Hanlon’s concept of “integrated deterrence,” targeting other PRC interests to discourage attack. This effectively elevates Taiwan as a U.S. priority, as China would respond by targeting wider U.S. interests. And even if we cannot win a war, the U.S. should make clear, as O’Hanlon suggested in an autumn panel discussion, that an attack will mean that U.S. – PRC relations “would never be the same.” We should assume the costs, including to our shared interests with China – and in our stretching of the sovereignty principle. Fidelity to our founding tenets demands this full, first, commitment to Taiwan’s freedom.

AEI’s Giselle Donnelly notes an ideological flavor to Sino-American relations, which a creed-based commitment to Taiwan will evoke. But the Cold War’s ideological conflict does not apply, at least not yet. Containment was waged against “an ’irreconcilable’ competitor presenting a ‘mortal’ challenge.” A zero-sum confrontation can spur one of the rivals’ demise, as happened to the USSR. Adopting that stance before explicitly finding China’s ideology irreconcilable and its challenge mortal will co-opt our core interest to the goal of defeating China.

How do we avoid weaponizing our soul on one hand, or appeasing a mortal threat on the other? The Brookings paper offers a start for a next step in relations with the PRC, calling for “calibrated, monitored collaboration” on our shared interests. If the U.S. names our creed as core national interest, we can calibrate relationships to that standard. Assuming a well-designed rubric, America might assess PRC compatibility with our core interest at (say) “2 out of 10;” and “3 out of 10” before their clampdown in Hong Kong, repression in Xinjiang, and increased social surveillance. The two “points” acknowledge the Chinese people’s rising welfare and the CCP’s public-institutional, rather than clan-based, rule. (North Korea would stand at zero.) Calibrated assessments carry our founding tenets yet respect China’s discretion to choose closer or cooler relations. Assessment should not be used as a rhetorical weapon – we could rate our own conduct on this scale too. Rather, the mechanism would set our long term stance in terms of our creed. If the CCP wishes to reduce tensions, it has clear markers of America’s priorities. If it chooses further divergence, free nations stand alerted. The idea that relations would ‘never be the same’ if China attacks Taiwan becomes more explicit.

Thus we can imagine ways, building on serious thinking, to orient policy by our creed.   But invoking our core national interest only over Taiwan would co-opt America’s identity to the purpose of opposing China. U.S. policies must carry our tenets globally. How should we address the Ukraine crisis?

Ukraine is an independent nation, recognized by Russia despite Russian-installed rule over their territory. Ukraine is also freer than Russia, and freedom doesn’t grow when sovereignty is threatened. That said, the U.S. did not contest Soviet invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Further, while Ukraine is growing in its democracy it does not exemplify our creedal values as Taiwan does. Freedom House rates Ukraine at 60 out of 100 in overall freedom and rights, where Taiwan rates a 94. Russia is rated at 20, well below Ukraine, but still retains electoral forms and Vladimir Putin enjoys some popular support, while Ukraine still suffers from corruption. It is more to the point that Russia’s aggressiveness poses a wider danger to European security, including that of deeply rooted democracies and others developing toward greater freedom. We must oppose Russian threats to Ukraine but our deepest reason is to protect freedom where it holds sway and support its growth in places like Ukraine. Rules of sovereignty and non-aggression serve this end, and we defend those as much as we defend Ukraine itself.

Russia also cites international rules, for its own reasons. As it took over Crimea and eastern Donbas Putin claimed that Ukraine posed a threat. This claim, however contrived, cites NATO expansion, against the historical backdrop of European invasions of Russia. The West can, easily, assure non-aggression against Russia. If we recast anti-Russian sanctions and arms sales to Ukraine as measures to protect international rules, we open a possibility, after Russia drops its threats, of common ground. We could rebase relations on a concept that Russia shares, however our interests in rules. On that new base we could engage Russia for the long term in pragmatic discussion of security, and still protect and nurture freedom. In that engagement we offer – with our allies – what Richard Haass calls “a diplomatic path (including) … a willingness to discuss with Russia the architecture of European security.” On a shared interest in rules, we would trade that voice to Russia for European democracies’ security and Ukraine’s, and others’, space to grow in freedom.

Before any new engagement, though, Putin  “should first put down his gun.” Our first step, underway as of January, must face him down. The second step aims for workable long term relations with Russia – not Putin’s forbearance. The prospect of that second step might nudge him to adopt a new strategy, but no change will be meaningful if negotiated at gunpoint.

Addressing each crisis for its specific impact on our core interest, we value Taiwan for its freedom rather than as a check on China, and open a possibility for clearer relations with China. We oppose Russian designs on Ukraine not over claims for Ukrainian democracy but by rules of non-aggression – which Russia espouses but which also support freedom. These approaches are illustrative speculations. But America’s purpose demands policy orientation around our core interest, keeping freedom’s ethos safe and vibrant, and leaving doors open even for rivals to evolve toward freedom. Full orientation to our creed names the purpose under any pragmatic dealings and gives substance to our abstract founding tenets. Crises, even as ominous as those over Ukraine and Taiwan, offer a reason to examine our policies, and a chance to realize our premises.

On Russia and the crisis on the Ukrainian border

Foreign Policy Blogs - Thu, 20/01/2022 - 22:35

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has been building for some time, and if recent reporting is any indication, the conflict appears to be coming to a head. If there is any way to avert fighting- now is the moment to bring ideas to the table.

If we are going to consider potential off-ramps, the first thing we need to consider is what each of the parties involved would need to see realized in order to walk away from the table satisfied. 

As the target of a potential invasion, it is simplest to identify the core Ukrainian interest. Ukrainian President Zelensky should be able to walk away from this potential conflict with his head held high if he can protect Ukrainian territorial integrity while keeping the long term prospect of Ukraine joining NATO on the table. The United States, coupled with partners in NATO, have a similar set of interests- prevent Russia from asserting itself as an imperial power in Eastern Europe and maintain the integrity of NATO in order to rebuff the threat of Russian expansion in the future.

Russia’s interest, especially if we are looking to identify potential off-ramps, is by far the most complicated to identify. Putin has demanded a promise that Ukraine will not be admitted into NATO now, or in the future. More than that, the Russian “President” has threatened that if this guarantee is not made, Russia may move to place nuclear weapons in Cuba or Venezuela- comfortably within striking distance of the United States and in clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The stakes are very high, for the United States, for Ukraine, and for the world as a whole.

The United States is likely to rebuff these demands, and beyond these measures, Putin has not identified other viable alternatives. However, there is one thing we can say with a high degree of confidence- given the very public nature of this armed escalation, Putin cannot afford to walk away from the table empty handed. Without some concession in the direction of Russia’s perceived security, it will be very difficult to avoid a conflict in Ukraine.

Despite these troubling signs, there is still an opportunity to avoid the worst case scenario. More than that, it very well might be in Putin’s interest to find an off-ramp. Given the slow and public build up of tension over the last few months, the Ukrainian military has had ample opportunity to prepare for an invasion. Coupled with direct military aid from the United States and other members of the international community, Putin knows that a conflict in Ukraine would be far from a painless endeavor. 

More than that, there is no avoiding the fact that, regardless of what happens over the next few days or weeks, NATO membership has become more attractive to other nations in Eastern and Northern Europe. Putin should be wary of this fact unless he envisions Russia as totally incapable of winning allies in the region through diplomacy. In a similar way, there are real questions about how willing individual Russians are to participate in a potential conflict, Putin’s preferences put to the side.

When these factors are coupled with the longer-term economic and political consequences that would come in the form of both sanctions and diplomatic distrust, Putin’s attempt to restore Russia to its historical greatness is at odds with alienating itself from the international community through a potential invasion of Ukraine. Personally, I find it unlikely that Russia finds itself better off in the year 2050 if Putin prioritizes small territorial gains over economic development and diplomatic integration. Perhaps Putin sees that truth as well.

Still, the question remains- what might a potential off ramp actually look like? I suggest that we use the Cuban missile crisis and the example set by President Kennedy as a guide. In order to prevent the potential threat of a Soviet backed Cuba possessing nuclear weapons, the administration employed two key tactics. First, similar to President Kennedy’s symbolic show of force by enforcing an embargo around Cuba, it could be argued that the United States has taken similar measures over the last two administrations by providing direct military aid to Ukraine. 

The second tactic, however, is what truly allowed the Kennedy administration to avoid the threat of a nuclear Cuba- namely, the removal of missiles from Turkey. Even though this agreement was carried out in secret, and despite the fact that the missiles based in Turkey were known to be outdated (in fact, the Kennedy administration was rumored to already be considering removing them), Khrushchev was able to save face in front of key domestic power-holders and protect his nation’s security interest.

I believe that a similar measure should be taken today. The United States should work with Russian negotiators to identify existing American or NATO military installations which, in exchange for a promise not to invade Ukraine, could be shut down or de-militarized. Given the strategic flexibility offered by America’s commitment to a nuclear triad, and in light of the gradual end of America’s wars in the Middle East, I am confident that there are a number of NATO military installations that could be shut down without meaningfully diminishing America’s (or NATO’s) ability to act in the region.

Frankly, these efforts may coincide with the closing of some of the NATO bases that were primarily tasked with serving as launch points for NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would mirror the approach used by the Kennedy administration even more closely- removing military equipment that is past its peak usefulness in order to achieve an important diplomatic objective.

Perhaps in order to accommodate Putin’s ego and need to save face domestically, the Biden administration will be asked to make these concessions publicly as opposed to privately. In my opinion, so be it. The American people should be tolerant of that. Given the massive reach of the American military, the United States has an opportunity to present Putin with a functionally “free option” in exchange for sustained peace in Eastern Europe. If the Biden administration can take advantage of this potential off-ramp, or another like it, it would be a huge win both for the administration, for Ukraine, and for the freedom loving world at large.

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association

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