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The Danger of Giving Friendly Countries False Encouragement

The reaction from some of Trump’s advisers to criticism of the Taiwan call isn’t reassuring [1]:

“It was a message in the sense that Donald Trump is not necessarily going to be told what he can or can’t do because a foreign leader says so. That’s exactly the kind of thing that millions of Americans detest about Washington,” said Mr. Yates, who currently is visiting Taiwan for meetings with senior officials.

If it’s going to cause some pain, then so be it [bold mine-DL],” he said.

It is typical for hawks to be unconcerned about the consequences of their preferred actions, but this response is nonetheless remarkable. The problem here is that the pain that may be caused won’t be felt by Beijing, but by Taiwan [2]. Advocates for “tougher” policies toward other states are often quite willing to put the well-being of the countries they want to “support” at greater risk in order to score points and poke a rival in the eye. When it comes time to pay the price for our posturing at the expense of the smaller country, the same hawks that helped bring on the crisis are never called to account for what they did. In practice, this usually means that the U.S. either hangs the other country out to dry or finds itself having to back up an increased commitment that most Americans never agreed to make. The one is embarrassing, and the other is dangerous.


The Bush administration gave Georgia many reasons to believe that it would come to their defense in a conflict for several years, and those signals were strong enough that they encouraged the then-president Saakashvili to escalate a conflict in 2008 that Georgia couldn’t win on the wrong assumption that the U.S. would take their side. Bush had succeeded in provoking Russia and giving false encouragement to Georgia, both of which worked to the detriment of the latter. In the end, the “pro-Georgian” hawks helped set up Georgia for disaster.

It often seems to be the case that another country’s most vocal and enthusiastic boosters here at home have the worst ideas for what U.S. policy towards that country ought to be. One reason for this may be that some of the boosters see the other country as nothing more than a piece to be moved in opposition to some other state, and so don’t care what effect their policy will have on them. Another may be that they actually believe that more hard-line and confrontational policies will make the opposing state more cooperative, and so genuinely can’t see the danger they’re courting. Another may be that they identify U.S. interests so closely with the preferences of the local government that they can’t see the pitfalls. Whatever the reason, they end up encouraging the other government to take risks that they would not have taken on their own, or they indulge the other government in self-destructive behavior that a wiser friend would urge them to stop.

Hawks often overreach and give rhetorical encouragement to other governments that they can’t or won’t follow through on later, and that just sets up the other government for a fall and prompts inevitable accusations that the U.S. “abandoned” them. The wiser course is to avoid getting overly attached to a friendly country or would-be client. That way, we can distinguish between our interests and theirs, and we will be able to know when to refrain from encouraging them when doing so would do them more harm than good.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "The Danger of Giving Friendly Countries False Encouragement"

#1 Comment By collin On December 6, 2016 @ 10:39 am

I think a bigger example on this is the Syrian rebels as Obama small amount of weapons support to rebels might have given them increased hope of US military intervention that Obama clearly did not desire and wanted to avoid. It might have kept the Civil War lasting 4 years instead of forcing the rebels to better negotiate with Assad in 2012 – 2013 before Assad starting taking the upper hand and the Russians made the foolish intervention as well. Additionally many of those weapons evidently ended with ISIS which made a mad dash into Iraq in 2014. It truly was bad policy for Obama in the long run.

Also can I add with the Taiwan call and possible real estate deal, it gives nations an easy target to win Trump’s ear. (My guess he makes the call anyway but Trump is signalling to the nations in the world that a small real estate will make the administration more friendly.)

#2 Comment By John Mann On December 6, 2016 @ 11:39 am

“It is typical for hawks to be unconcerned about the consequences of their preferred actions, but this response is nonetheless remarkable. The problem here is that the pain that may be caused won’t be felt by Beijing, but by Taiwan.”

I think that gets to the heart of the problem with America’s foreign policy in recent years – and possibly with the foreign policy of most nations over the course of history.

Those who advocate hawkish action rarely seem to have given much thought to the likely consequences of that action. Whether they are genuinely unconcerned about the consequences, or hopelessly unrealistic, or whether it is some combination of the two, I do not know – but consequences are not something that they seem to think much about.

#3 Comment By Paul On December 6, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

Daniel Larison makes a valid point, but the multiple examples of this US behavior should by now make it apparent to any rational foreign state that they should not follow the foolish example of Georgia in 2008.

In other words it takes two to Tango.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 6, 2016 @ 4:07 pm

““If it’s going to cause some pain, then so be it [bold mine-DL],” he said.”

Concerning Taiwan, this statement is disconcerting. The allied power acknowledged that Taiwan was a province of China when they returned it back to the Chinese at the end of WWII.

While I interchange the Hong Kong (incorrectly) and Taiwan there’s a lot of weight in China’s favor over the claims about Taiwanese independence. Seems unwise to push those buttons carelessly as the above comment suggests is the case.

No point encouraging a dance we cannot finish or comprehend the steps to even if we could. It is in our best interests to behave with prudence. Mr. Trump has every right to explore relations, but caution is not an unwise posture.