Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Folly of Using Force to ‘Send a Message’

What hawks think signals "resolve" to Russia or China is often read by their leaders as recklessness, incompetence, or proof that Washington can't be trusted.

One of the claims made in support of Trump’s decision to order an attack on the Syrian government is that it will “send a message” to China, but James Palmer doesn’t think Beijing has been impressed:

Several U.S. commentators have been impressed by the “strength” demonstrated by the strikes in Syria — and the implicit messaging that, hey, we might just get a little crazy with North Korea next. But I doubt that’s how Beijing reads things. China is perfectly well aware of the military might and global reach of the United States; it’s not like they can’t count aircraft carriers. What it’s continually and pleasantly surprised by is how stupidly the United States uses that strength [bold mine-DL]. For Xi, the strikes might have been a sign of disrespect — but they were also a reminder of the fundamental dumbness, from a Chinese strategic perspective, of U.S. foreign-policy decisions.

Hawks often defend this or that intervention in terms of the “message” or “signal” it will send to adversaries and competitors elsewhere, and they make the mistake of thinking that the sort of “action” that they want in one place will impress or intimidate other governments into taking fewer aggressive or provocative actions in their own parts of the world. They also suppose that the same “action” will pressure other states to become more cooperative with Washington. Hawks never produce evidence that other governments see things the same way they do, but simply assert that it is so as if it were a fact. What hawks think signals “resolve” to Russia or China or some other government is often read by their leaders as recklessness, incompetence, or proof that Washington can’t be trusted. In China’s case, Palmer contends that they see our government’s frequent habit of resorting to force as folly on our part and as an opportunity for them:

Beijing views Washington’s scatter-shot, flip-flop approach to foreign policy — especially in the post-Cold War era — as destabilizing, foolish … and useful.

If our positions were reversed and the U.S. hadn’t gone to war once in almost forty years while China had been attacking other governments and intervening in foreign civil wars frequently during that time, what message would launching another attack against some other government send us? It wouldn’t prove China’s “resolve” or send us a message that we ought to be more accommodating to their demands. It would confirm for us that their leaders are trigger-happy, irresponsible, and undisciplined.

A pointless attack on a state that doesn’t threaten the U.S. won’t impress China’s leaders, and it is more likely to make them assume that our leaders can be easily distracted and are prone to doing stupid things.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here