America's Suez Moment
The American obsession with Taiwan, much like the British obsession with the Suez Canal, is merely a distraction from much broader global geopolitical shifts.
In late-July 1956, three months before the Suez Crisis, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden wrote a letter to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. At this stage it had become clear that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to seize the Suez Canal, a key global shipping route and at that time still under the control of the British. “We cannot afford to allow Nasser to seize control of the canal,” Eden wrote, “If we take a firm stand over this now, we shall have the support of all the maritime powers. If we do not, our influence and yours throughout the Middle East will, we are convinced, be irretrievably undermined.”
The situation in the South China Sea today is very different to the situation in Egypt in the summer of 1956. The British at the time could be confident that Nasser was indeed moving to nationalize the Suez Canal. Today, despite much noise emanating from Washington, it is by no means clear that the Chinese have any intention of seizing the island of Taiwan with military force. Yet one can imagine that letters very similar to the one written by Eden are being written in Washington and read in capitals all over the world.
In 1956 the British sensed, correctly, that if they fought for the Suez Canal and lost this would precipitate a sharp decline in British influence in the world. Today America senses something very similar with respect to Taiwan. This feeling has built up in Washington because of what can only be described as the dismal failure of U.S. foreign policy strategy in Europe. This failure has become manifest in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
While the Western media portrays the invasion as a raw act of Russian aggression for which the West has no responsibility, this is not how the situation is viewed in the rest of the world. For example, Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of the French company TotalEnergies, has related his surprise at how the conflict in Europe is viewed elsewhere. In India and the Middle East political and business leaders have asked him what the Europeans did to find themselves in such a mess. “I realised that the vision we – in the West – have of this conflict wasn’t shared by the immense majority of the rest of the world,” he said, “They look at us as if we’re co-responsible for it and didn’t do things right. They were also surprised by our attitude when we unilaterally imposed sanctions and only afterwards went to the UN to check if this was okay.”
Feeling boxed in by the response to the breakdown of its European policy, Washington appears to be turning its attention to the Pacific, where it hopes to shore up its prestige and prove that it remains a force to be reckoned with. America’s initial plan for its Pacific strategy closely tracked Eden’s initial plan for Egypt: the key was to get allies on board. If America could unite the rest of the West against China, then it could ensure a similar response to any Chinese incursion into Taiwan as we saw when Russia invaded Ukraine. This spoke to a broader strategy that we might call “Cold War 2.0,” in which America seemed to think that the West could form a new trade and military bloc that would face off against the strengthened and expanded BRICS+ alliance that we have seen emerge in recent months.
The Cold War 2.0 strategy appears to have collapsed as quickly as it emerged. The rapidity of the collapse relates to the fallout from the Russo-Ukraine war. European leaders continue to maintain support for the sanctions against Russia, but only because they are locked in on the policy. In private they know that the sanctions have been a disaster and are the reason why Europe faces an unprecedented energy crisis and even, potentially, deindustrialization. It is not surprising, then, that Europeans do not intend to repeat the mistake. This was made clear to the Americans when, in late-October, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz affirmed Chinese-German trade relations and flew to Beijing to meet Chairman Xi Jinping in early-November. At the G20 meeting a few days later, French President Emmanuel Macron affirmed this position and assured the Chinese that “France follows an independent foreign policy and stands against bloc confrontation."
The response to America’s Cold War 2.0 overtures has been remarkably like those to the British pleas for American engagement in Egypt in 1956: thanks, but no thanks. In 1956, the Americans did not want to intervene on the side of the British because they saw that the world was changing. Britain could no longer afford to maintain its global empire intact and the Americans realized that, moving forward, this would result in the proliferation of nationalist regimes in former British colonies. The Americans understood that leaders like Nasser may occasionally be troublesome, but ultimately, they were the only game in town moving forward.
A blind spot led Eden down a wrong path: he was too proud to admit that the world was changing around him. For this reason, he could not understand why the Americans reacted the way they did. This blind spot eventually led to Eden greenlighting the invasion of Egypt by British, French, and Israeli troops. The humiliating collapse of the invasion that followed greatly accelerated Britain’s decline as a global power. If the Suez Crisis had never occurred, Britain may well have ended up maintaining some of the global power and prestige it lost there up until today.
America now stands before its own Suez moment. The rest of the world, including her close allies, are not keen to pick a fight with China. The decision-makers in D.C. now stand exactly where Anthony Eden stood in those autumn months of 1956. They must ask themselves: “Do we go it alone?”
One prominent voice on the Taiwan issue that does counsel going it alone is Elbridge Colby. In a recent essay, Colby acknowledges that Europe is not going to stand behind America on the China issue. But like Eden, Colby defaults to focusing on military power.
What stands out most in Colby’s analysis is his certainty that China will launch an invasion of Taiwan. He cites the fact that China is building up its military strength, but there are many reasons that China could be doing this. Perhaps they simply want a military that fits their new size as an economic power; perhaps they are even building up their military because they fear America will move in Taiwan. There is no way to know for sure. Perhaps Colby is correct, but perhaps he is not. What is odd about his essay is that he does not seem to consider the possibility that China could not invade.
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Recognizing that Europe are not interested in tensions with China, Colby counsels that America deprioritize Europe completely and shift all its attention to the Pacific. Colby has gone all in on the idea that China will invade Taiwan, and he advises that America goes all in on this bet too. Even from a purely military point-of-view, that is a lot of eggs in one basket. Yet, as with Britain in 1956, the broader context is key. The American obsession with Taiwan, much like the British obsession with the Suez Canal, is merely a distraction from much broader global geopolitical shifts.
These geopolitical shifts require a more concerted and subtle approach than military build-ups in the South China Sea. In fact, there are no simple solutions. To deal adeptly with the emerging new world order, America needs to take a step back and re-evaluate its place in the world. It must ask what its priorities are, and which of these can realistically be achieved. Most of all, America must recognize that China, Russia, and the rest of the BRICS+ are not going anywhere anytime soon. Over the next decade their power and influence will continue to grow. The United States does not possess an on-off switch with which it can shut this growth of power and influence down, so its only rational choice is to set priorities and try to achieve them through subtle and skillful diplomatic work.
The alternative is that America looks for simple solutions to complex problems: that American leaders remain unable to imagine a world in which great power dynamics change and instead become fixated with simpler problems that they can leverage to pick fights to try to reassert their flagging dominance. This was the path that Anthony Eden went down in 1956. Unable or unwilling to accept Britain’s place in an American-led world of competing nationalisms, Eden became fixated on the Suez question. Suez became a humiliating tombstone for Britain. Taiwan could end up being the same for America.