Stumbling Toward War On Two Fronts
So much for strategic ambiguity. Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday, President Joe Biden committed the United States to militarily defend Taiwan in response to a potential Chinese invasion. A reporter asked Biden, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” To which the president replied, flatly, “Yes.” The reporter followed up: “You are?” The president was adamant: “That’s the commitment we made.”
Pardon me if I sound unduly alarmed, but can we please not go down this road? For the love of God, can America avoid opening up a direct confrontation with the nuclear-armed People’s Republic while we are already engaged in an openly acknowledged proxy war with Russia, another nuclear power?
Biden’s words in Tokyo were so direct and unambiguous they left his aides in the room visibly surprised, according to the New York Times. And understandably so: The commander-in-chief erased what little remained of America’s longstanding policy of leaving it up to Beijing to decide whether it thinks Washington will come to Taiwan’s defense, the idea being that ambiguity and unpredictability can serve as deterrents. If the Chinese know that an attack will be met by a U.S. military response, the only question from their point of view becomes when best to mount it, given the political climate and balance of forces.
Biden’s “commitment,” moreover, would upend decades of American policy: Taiwan isn’t a treaty ally like, say, Japan or Poland, and hasn’t been seen as such by successive administrations. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, which has structured America’s ties to Taiwan since 1979, the U.S. government is obliged to help arm the Taiwanese, but not to directly defend the island.
The White House quickly went into damage-control mode, with a spokesperson telling Fox News, implausibly, that “our policy has not changed.” Rather, the president merely “reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
This marks the second time in as many years that the Biden administration has had to clarify Biden’s remarks on Taiwan. Last year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Biden a nearly identical question: “Are you saying the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China were to attack?” Biden replied in the affirmative, adding ominously that the rest of the world “knows” that America fields the most powerful military force on earth. That time, too, the administration quickly clarified that Washington wasn’t departing from the parameters of the one-China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act.
“Doddering old fool making gaffes” is the easiest way to account for these alarming statements. The more likely and discomfiting explanation is that Biden is giving voice, if a little too enthusiastically, to a new consensus gathering inside the Washington uniparty. Other signs include recent delegations of current and former officials to Taipei, not least the ultra-hawkish former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Plus there are rumors of a planned visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as the growing drumbeat of pro-war propaganda.
Biden’s words are also of a piece with a broader mood of general Western belligerence on both sides of the Atlantic. Read the major international editorial pages, and voices calling for even a modicum of restraint or prudent reserve are an extreme minority, if allowed to be heard at all.
The liberal internationalists are leading the charge once more for “defending democracy” with bombs and drones, of course. But it isn’t just them. As I’ve noted at Compact, with the honorable exception of Hungary, the “new nationalists” across the West are increasingly playing second fiddle to the liberal hawks, and often outflanking them in tub-thumping for the expansion of the very transnational institutions (NATO, the E.U.) they were elected to limit. With Poland’s President Andrzej Duda calling for rapid E.U. absorption of Ukraine, who needs Anne Applebaum? With Chris DeMuth a leader in the “national-conservative” movement, tub-thumping for war with Russia and China, who needs the Atlantic Council?
The whole scene is perfectly surreal. America is struggling to deliver baby formula to its newborns. Inflation is skyrocketing. Gas costs $7 a gallon. Similar supply and energy crises grip Europe. And yet the trans-Atlantic political class is seriously comfortable with the prospect of a two-front war with Russia and China. The feebler the West becomes in hard material terms—the more its political economy shifts toward financial extraction and useless apps—the deeper its internal cultural rot, and the more aggressive and unhinged it becomes on the world stage.
Get ready for a turbulent century.