Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last week ended up providing an unexpected jolt to me. It was different, however, than the jolt it seemed to give to the broader commentariat. Though I remain displeased that the trip provided an excuse for Chinese escalation, I’m finding myself increasingly resigned to a profoundly dangerous future. And if anything, the reactions to the trip underline for me just how unready we are for what is clearly coming.
Last week, Tom Friedman wrote a good column representative of the conventional wisdom. He argued that Pelosi’s trip was reckless, not least because it threatened to upset the delicate balance the Biden Administration had managed to arrange with China after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The article made the implicit argument that by provoking the Chinese over Taiwan, we were not only hastening war with a dangerous peer competitor but we were also inviting Beijing to consider backing Moscow at a moment where its military assault may be stalling.
It’s a sound argument as far as it goes, and from various indications in the article, it is reflective of a faction's thinking in the White House. It also echoes various concerns I’m hearing.
The Biden team appears to be torn between a feeling of (somewhat deserved) accomplishment in having managed the Ukraine crisis competently, and a bevy of worries about how it could all go badly wrong. They see the West reasonably united in the face of Russian aggression, even as they fret about the coming winter and the likelihood of political turmoil in Europe ruining everything. (Read this article by the brilliant Nathalie Tocci on how that could all go pear-shaped.) They see the Ukrainians successfully grinding down the most recent Russian assault with Western weapons, to the broad satisfaction of American voters, but are losing sleep over what to do should Russian President Vladimir Putin choose to escalate unpredictably, worst of all with nuclear weapons.
In Asia, the goal seems to be to execute a long-term reorientation towards a standoff with China that they believe will play out largely in the economic sphere, where they, not unreasonably, expect America’s long-term advantages will prove decisive. (The recently-passed CHIPS act is an attempt to secure economic resilience should that standoff become acute.) They are fretting about America’s ability to credibly deter an attack on Taiwan with military power, but the strategy remains resolutely a peacetime strategy, the default for a status quo power. In that context, Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is seen as a move that unnecessarily upsets a delicate balance.
As I noted a few months before Biden’s victory in 2020, his team is focused on fixing the damage that they believe Trump did to the so-called liberal world order. Understanding how most American policymakers conceptualize this world order is important. To put it simply, they believe that the American experience is globally relevant, and that without malevolent peer competitors, the world would evolve to reflect it. The unnatural ideology of global communism was preventing the world from progressing naturally and automatically towards a system guided by liberal principles, anchored in an open, capitalist economy.
In his new book The Arc of a Covenant, Walter Russell Mead argues that the “Great Miscalculation” was assuming this automaticity. Echoing George F. Kennan at the end of the Cold War, Mead points out that any attempt to meaningfully change a fallen and imperfect world would require exertions on the part of the United States that could well exceed its capacities. American optimism about human nature above all led it to stumble badly (and repeatedly) since 9/11, in large part by taking on ambitious projects it never bothered to budget for (both economically, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of resolve). The post-Cold War era was seen as a project of gentle shepherding rather than active, exhausting management—management that requires not just reserves of hard power, but the willingness to use it.
The idea that America is a passive midwife to the inevitable birth of a better world continues to haunt American responses to the unraveling of the post-Cold War order. In Asia, the liberal world order bias nudges us towards a kind of dangerous mirroring. In an otherwise sober column, Gideon Rachman gives voice to the kind of disbelief that is still dominant in Western capitals.
A Chinese resort to force would be a tragedy not just for Taiwan, but for mainland China itself. It would lead to mass casualties on all sides, permanent alienation between Taiwanese and mainlanders, and a rupture in the global economy that would endanger decades of Chinese growth.
In that frame, the provocative trip by Pelosi is bad because it empowers irrationalism among the Chinese, pushing them to act in such a way that is obviously bad for everyone.
But as the FT reported a few days earlier, it appears as if the Chinese seized on Pelosi’s announcement to prepare military exercises they felt like they needed to do anyway in order to execute a successful takeover of the island nation. Ever since the trip was first announced in April, Taipei was receiving explicit threats from Beijing.
“This gave them an opportunity to do things they consider necessary in their military training that might otherwise have been politically impossible,” says a senior Taiwanese government official. “Shooting a ballistic missile over Taipei could have triggered a global outcry or even sanctions if seen as ‘unprovoked’,” he says, comparing the move to North Korea’s launch of a missile that flew over Japanese territory in 2017. “Now they are getting away with it.”
Obviously we shouldn’t give the Chinese an easy way to do things they feel that they have to do in any case. But the deeper point is that the Chinese seem hell-bent on achieving these goals, costs be damned. They may be more calculating and careful than Putin’s Russia, but they are determined and probably undeterrable through threats of economic privation.
Despite the heightened tensions after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, we still couldn’t properly conceive of a reality where Putin would invade again, and indeed aim for a complete take-over of his neighbor—until he did. As a result, we have responded in a completely reactive, prophylactic way. We still can’t really admit that we are in a hot proxy war with Russia. The fact that the costs to us are measured in financial abstractions instead of the fresh body bags of our countrymen lets us comfortably describe it as an effort to shore up the existing order. (The fact that the figures are astronomical makes them even more of an abstraction.) Our military industrial complex remains resolutely on peacetime footing, even as the hard-fighting Ukrainians burn through our military “consumables”. President Biden has never even hinted that the stakes might require that the country steel itself for a very different world.
Arguably, if Russia were the only challenge, such talk might not be necessary. The Ukraine War is far from won, but one can imagine how we might muddle through without disrupting Americans’ everyday lives. But the reality that China won’t easily be contained in Asia—and that’s what Pelosi’s trip underscored for me—means that this kind of pose is irresponsible. Time to start planning for a world that takes an invasion of Taiwan as a given.
Since the end of the Cold War, we have had it easy. We have been coasting on glib assumptions. It’s time to get serious.