A couple of days earlier I’d had a message from a military officer who often writes me in friendly disagreement. Given my views on the Iraq war, he asked me what I proposed to do if certain unpleasant developments should occur overseas. What if, for example, mainland China should attack Taiwan? Or if North Korea should use nuclear weapons against Japan?

Tough questions, but let’s back up a bit. I think we should give due praise to the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations for keeping the United States out of the Crimean quagmire. Not that they were under much pressure to intervene, what with events in this country at the time; but credit where credit is due, I always say. Just about any recent president would have jumped in with both feet. ~Joseph Sobran

Mr. Sobran’s consideration of the larger problem of our ridiculous entanglements around the globe is well worth reading. To answer Mr. Sobran’s interlocutor, I suppose I would have to understand why Americans think of these foreign policy problems as our problems. Or, to put it another way, why do they feel obligated to persist in alliances that outlived their usefulness many decades ago?

Our commitment to Japan made sense when it was a devastated nation (devastated, of course, by us), potentially exposed to the tender mercies of a then-unified Sino-Soviet bloc at a time when we made it our business not to allow too many nations to be swallowed up by that bloc. Today Japan is perfectly capable of defending itself and developing, if it so chooses for reasons of deterrence, a nuclear arsenal. If we were to allow them to build such an arsenal (and it is principally our restraining influence that prevents the government from seriously considering it), North Korea would be incapable of ‘blackmailing’ Japan with threat of a nuclear strike.

There are the usual objections that this would cause an “arms race” in East Asia (which is supposedly the reason why we are so preoccupied with North Korea’s nukes), but there has been no similar “arms race” between the two latest nuclear powers in the Subcontinent. This fear of an “arms race,” like so many other scenarios of regions destabilising around the world without the sure hand of the Americans to guide them, is premised on a rather obnoxious, condescending attitude that these nations are incapable of pursuing policies guided by rational self-interest without external meddling.

Our commitment to Taiwan was a domestic political bone thrown to anticommunists angry about the opening of relations with Beijing and all of the disadvantages this entailed for Taiwan. By definition, the rapprochement with Beijing made any alliance with Taiwan immediately obsolete, and the end of the Cold War has made it into an even more useless liability. Taiwan is not as wealthy overall, but equally capable of defending itself and creating a nuclear deterrent. What is more, there can be no advantage for the United States in going to war with China over Taiwan. China has everything to gain, and also possesses unusually great nationalist motivation to retake Taiwan by one means or another. If China were to attack Taiwan, ours ought to be a policy of strict neutrality. It is difficult to know whether, or how quickly, a Sino-American war might expand to include south and southeast Asia. Obviously, any war with China would involve the full mobilisation of the United States, the return of conscription and likely hundreds of thousands of American casualties–who is so foolish as to think that Taiwan matters enough to us that we would bear this cost?

As has been noted by other observers, the U.S. preoccupation with Taiwan and the Chinese naval buildup is eerily similar to the British preoccupation with the buildup of a German fleet prior to WWI. The British desperately feared a challenge to their naval supremacy, on which their power rested, and thus became adversarial with the one power that seemed to them to pose that challenge. As senselss as the Anglo-German rivalry was, and as short-sighted as it was for Britain to oppose the weakest Continental power by allying with the two strongest, one could at least see a legitimate British concern. On the security of Taiwan no vital American interest depends, yet public rhetoric and security policy are both leading us to take a very similar position as the British took in the early twentieth century, ultimately to the ruin of their country and the fatal weakening of their global position.