Why America Is Everywhere In The World

American interests are represented everywhere in the world, and the American public doesn’t seem convinced that the cost of this sometimes burdensome luxury is worth the price. After going trillions of dollars into debt and losing thousands of servicemembers to win the war on terror only to find itself abandoning Afghanistan and struggling to fight off a pandemic imported from its largest trading partner, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to appreciate why former President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy resonated with so much of the American public.

No matter what the global headlines are, we can be sure that the story that follows will discuss how America either caused, or will be impacted by, the subject of the headline. Some of this makes inherent sense, after all we live in a globalized world and America still has the world’s largest economy by a substantial margin. More than that though, America has actively sought to expand its influence and physical presence around the world and voluntarily become the de facto guarantor of much of the security, diplomatic, and financial infrastructure that enables the modern world. The story of how America rose to this position by capitalizing on its economic and military might after WWII and eventually besting the USSR in the cold war is well known.

However, the why behind the decision to accept the risk of becoming involved in an infinite number of distant matters large and small is often glossed over. From the founding of our nation American neutrality and a pervasive avoidance of becoming overly involved in what President Washington referred to as “foreign entanglements” was the widely accepted and unquestioned bedrock of our foreign policy. Now we have become what Secretary of State Albright repeatedly described as the world’s “indispensable nation”, constantly engaged by necessity around the world. So what happened? The turning point came during World War I under the tutelage of President Woodrow Wilson.

From Neutrality to Engagement

Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as president presided over one of the most consequential reformulations of what constituted American national security in U.S. history. The far-reaching nature of the war amongst European powers imposed significant costs on every global power, including the U.S., challenging traditional notions of neutrality in the international system. It also led to a reformulation of the role of the federal government in ensuring national security before, during, and after a conflict and a corresponding expansion of the resources granted by congress to the executive branch to fill those roles. Additionally, it changed perceptions about the effect the domestic politics of foreign nations could have on the international system and America. Although Woodrow Wilson’s ambitious plan to have America join the League of Nations failed, the ideas that led him to advocate for such a move did successfully permeate the national security establishment in the interwar years and cemented the shift from global neutrality to persistent engagement as the new basis for American national security.

More Money, More Problems

Following the rapid expansion of domestic production and international trade during the industrial revolution and gilded age, the war that broke out in Europe in 1914 touched the American homeland in new and unavoidable ways. Traditional foreign policy thinking at this time held that maintaining the status of a neutral power, with well-established rights under international law, allowed the U.S. to honorably avoid getting drawn into armed conflict while benefiting financially from trading with all sides. However, the scale of the war in Europe, relying on the mass mobilization of entire populations and drawing resources from the entirety of the industrial bases of its participants challenged the notion that nations could interact “neutrally” with warring powers.

This caused Germany to consider targeting American merchant ships carrying all manner of goods as legitimate and necessary to the conduct of their war effort. The notion that a polite separation from a nation’s current martial endeavors and its daily commerce could be maintained was shattered. To trade with a warring nation had become the same as siding with it in its conflict with another as a practical matter, despite what diplomatic overtures may accompany such trade. This ensured America would bear significant costs not only in spite of, but because of its declared neutrality. After the war, this led to “the central foreign relations problem that consumed Americans across the political spectrum during the interwar years, namely how the old fail-safe strategy of neutrality should be redefined in an age of total warfare”. [1]

The response to this changing global landscape led to structural changes in the power of the executive branch and shape of the American national security apparatus. This structural change was symptomatic to the broader acceptance that the international system, and the utility of the laws that underpinned it and supported the otherwise questionable utility of pursuing neutrality as an effective strategy, had gone through a fundamental and irreversible change. This shift in post-World War I American policy has often been derided by historians as isolationist, but it is better understood as an attempt to find a way to apply the old principle of neutrality to a changing world.[2]

Woodrow Wilson was able to use the realization of this change and how it would affect national security to argue for the expansion of active navy and reserve army forces to ensure America could protect its interests and have a legitimate voice in global affairs and was able to convince congress to authorize the funds to support both proposals. This authorization was provided by the same congress that later failed to ratify the treaty which would have brought the United States into the League of Nations. This indicates that while America still had deep reservations about becoming overly involved in, or responsible for, the affairs of other nations it recognized that it did need to retool itself and adapt to a changing environment.

So, What’s the New Plan?

The debate surrounding the efficacy of neutrality as a way to protect America’s national security led to a shift in understanding about America’s role in the world. Woodrow Wilson viewed America as the one country that could credibility mediate the conflict and create a “peace without victory”. He viewed this as necessary to prevent the war ending without leaving the victors with a false sense of confidence in their own power and legitimacy which would spur them to new martial endeavors, while also avoiding leaving those who lost with deep seated grievances that would spur them to seek their own revenge. He was concerned with the security dilemma created in an anarchic system where each country had to view each other country as a potential threat to its sovereignty, and as such maximize its domestic preparedness for war as a deterrent against aggression and an assurance of survival, creating two issues which threatened America.[3]

The first was that the persistent need of great powers to create enough military power to ensure security from aggressive neighbors would itself create a reciprocating effect in neighbors. This would increase the likelihood of a war being started, and the nature of the scale of modern warfare given the industrial and population capacity of large states meant it would invariably impose costs on America. Wilson’s conclusion was that some type of global governing body was necessary to manage relationships and deter armed aggression between states. Without it, the nature of great power politics and the wars that resulted would not change and would lead to greater cycles of destruction. This became a key concept behind his argument for the necessity of the League of Nations.[4]

The second was that a rise of militarism inside the United States would destroy America’s national identity by creating a reliance on conformity, subservience to the group and concentrating meaningful power in the hand of military professionals predisposed to use it to justify its necessity. The changing nature of warfare among powers, would make it increasingly difficult and less efficacious for America to avoid involvement and would necessitate such a military to ensure its own survival. However, the very presence of such a large, standing military would threaten the civic norms that underpinned American democracy and potentially lead to its downfall from within.[5] To avoid this the idea developed that America had to be proactive in the world and attempt to shape global politics to reduce the likelihood of great power war.[6]

Time to Call the Boys in For a Sit Down

Wilson saw the League of Nations as the mechanism for America to do this. Although the Senate ultimately failed to ratify joining the league, this should not be seen as a sign that America rejected the idea that the nature of war and geopolitics had fundamentally shifted, and America needed to adjust its national security strategy and international posture in response. Evidence of this can be seen in the anti-bolshevist sentiment that grew after the war and became ensconced in the State Department. After the war it was determined that America needed a professional cadre of diplomats trained in diplomacy and statecraft to man diplomatic missions abroad, leading to a reorganization of the State Department and the creation of a permanent Foreign Service School. This was a result of a campaign by State Department officials, outside academics, and approval of funds for the project by congress, indicating broad acceptance of the notion America needed to be more fully engaged abroad.[7]

One of the key features of this larger, more professional Foreign Service was a strong anti-bolshevic sentiment. There was broad agreement that the rise of Bolshevik communism, especially the international committee dedicated to its expansion following the revolution in Russia was a threat to America at home and to its commerce abroad. There were fears that the spread of bolshevism would cause America to lose access to lucrative trading partners and that it might irreversibly degrade American identity at home, leading to the collapse of our civic institutions. America became concerned with any sign that bolshevism was taking hold in countries going through political turmoil domestically, particularly in Latin and South America.[8] This represented a change from previous approaches to dealing with countries in America’s perceived sphere of influence, where the specific nature of their domestic political system, and not only their ability to productively engage in commerce and resist European control, became key to how America engaged with them.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

America’s experience in World War I led to a fundamental shift in how it perceived its national security interests and how to pursue them. Woodrow Wilson envisioned America as uniquely situated to guide world affairs among great powers and create the institutional framework needed to attempt and rein in the anarchic nature of the international system. Although America ultimately rejected the full measure of his ambition at the time, it did accept the idea that America had to fully engage in world affairs and had a vested interest in the internal affairs of other countries. The idea of neutrality as the preferred national security doctrine had been thoroughly discounted, and the debate over the structure and substance of America’s newfound approach to engagement began in earnest. America must now revisit this debate as it seeks to chart a course through the 21st century and preserve the national character it finds under threat from abroad and within.

[1] Blower. Brooke L. “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919-1941.” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 345

[2] Blower. Brooke L. “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919-1941.” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 352

[3] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 8-9

[4] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 30

[5] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 3

[6] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 31

[7] Little, Douglas. “Antibolshevism and American Foreign Policy, 1919-1939: The Diplomacy of Self-Delusion.” American Quarterly 35:4 (Autumn 1983): 379-80.

[8][8] Little, Douglas. “Antibolshevism and American Foreign Policy, 1919-1939: The Diplomacy of Self-Delusion.” American Quarterly 35:4 (Autumn 1983): 380

The Border Crisis Is Just The Beginning

The weaponization of human tragedy  

Russia is trying to expand its sphere of influence and recreate the geographic buffers it has viewed as critical to its national security since the days of the Tzars. Their efforts can be seen in how Belarus, one of their few remaining vassal states, has gotten creative in how it seeks to influence the actions of its neighbors by precipitating a migrant crisis on its border with Poland. While the impacts of this crisis continue to send shockwaves through eastern and central Europe Russia is simultaneously laying the groundwork for further military intervention in Ukraine. Although Russia’s attempts to re-establish control over the countries that have traditionally fallen under its sphere of influence has been a persistent feature of world affairs since the end of the Soviet Union, an inability to prevent a more aggressive territorial grab would represent a fundamental change in the post WWII world order and threaten the territorial integrity of other vulnerable states. Russia is using its ally Belarus as a tool in its hybrid war with the west, betting on western apathy and preoccupation with domestic matters to create an opportune moment to seize Kiev.

         The Tragedy 

Belarus’s efforts to weaponize the plight of migrants has led to thousands of refugees becoming trapped between the border of Poland and Belarus. Armed Belarus soldiers have been corralling refugees towards the border, firing shots into the air to move them along while security forces in Poland do everything they can to keep the refugees from getting through and claiming asylum in the European Union (EU). The EU has accused Belarus of deliberately orchestrating the crisis as a part of a hybrid war designed to punish the EU for sanctions imposed on Belarus in June in response to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsky on 23 May 2021, the detention of journalists Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, and other human rights abuses. Belarus denies the accusations.

The majority of the migrants come from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, seeking to move overland to Poland after flying to Minsk. Although many are males, they include numerous families and small children that lack food, shelter, basic hygiene supplies and access to medical care. Belarus has recently relaxed its visa protocols to 76 countries allowing easier entry, and its state air carrier Belavia has increased the number of flights to Istanbul, a popular lay point for migrants seeking to get to Europe. Its soldiers have been videotaped leading migrants to the border with Poland to remote points away from main crossings, and the migrants themselves report that Belarus soldiers have cut holes in the border fence to let them into Poland. This type of low intensity, “hybrid” approach to imposing costs on states without crossing the threshold of war as a way to influence behavior is reminiscent of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, leading experts to speculate Russia is backing the effort and for world leaders to call on Vladimir Putin to use his influence to restrain Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko. However, Putin himself is currently setting the stage to potentially destabilize the region and expand his control.

 The Long Game

Over 100,000 Russian troops have recently massed at the border with Ukraine and in the Russian occupied territories, along with the associated heavy weapons and logistical support necessary to launch an invasion. Both U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence estimates indicate that Russia could be preparing to launch an invasion as soon as January, with Ukraine believing the size of Russia’s force could make them capable of seizing their capital, Kiev. Ukraine is using this to ask for increased military, intelligence, and diplomatic support. Russia massed a similar number of troops at the border for their Zapad 21 military exercise earlier this year, demonstrating they had the logistical support and coordination to undertake such an invasion.

An invasion of Ukraine would likely be a short term domestic political boon for Putin, demonstrating Russian state strength and distracting from economic and covid 19 exacerbated health concerns at home while completing the campaign they launched seven years ago. The pandemic driven political turmoil embroiling several European states may also effectively hinder the EU’s or NATOs ability to credibly respond to an invasion. Additionally, the U.S. appears wary of getting directly involved in a new war after ending its campaign in Afghanistan and has been cautious to avoid getting directly involved in the ongoing conflict with Russian forces in western Ukraine, even as they expanded military aid to the government in Kiev. It’s likely Putin himself hasn’t decided if he will invade or not, and is waiting to gage the western response to his actions and events such as the border crisis before determining if now is the time to attack.

Responding to an invasion would be difficult for the U.S.. Ukraine is not a NATO member, an invasion of which would require a U.S. response in order to maintain the alliance’s credibility. However, a Russian takeover would pose a threat to the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia which are NATO members by consolidating Russia’s control in the region. A successful invasion may embolden Russia to engage in hybrid warfare to destabilize the governments of those countries to prompt a pretense of intervention, either directly by Russia or through Belarus as a proxy while handing a disinterested west the political cover needed to claim that article 5 of the NATO charter had not been triggered.

 The Response

To avoid this, every effort should be made to deter an invasion, beginning with further expanding U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Additionally European countries can expand their military presence in Ukraine and conduct joint military exercises to signal their ability and willingness to project power despite current unrest at home. This would be a difficult and potentially costly use of limited resources at a time of economic and political fragility, but the costs of failing at deterrence would be catastrophic for the whole continent. Finally, European countries must continue to diversify their energy infrastructure to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and gas and increase their freedom to confront Russia without fear of the potential repercussions.

The weaponization of the migrant crisis to try and exert influence over a neighboring state is troubling, but not unprecedented in the world of geopolitics. Its use as a potential shaping operation for military action by another state though represents an evolution in the Russian approach to hybrid warfare, a technique that they have already used to great effect and that the west continues to struggle with identifying and responding to. Political instability and crises have always been used as opportunities for expansion by nations seeking to grow their power and prestige, but the consequences of failing to act assertively and early enough will have repercussions far beyond the borders of the territory Russia is eyeing to conquer. 

McMaster Misses the Mark

The problem with conflating citizens and warriors

by Benjamin Lawless

In a recent National Review column, H. R. McMaster laments the decline of the United States (U.S.) Military’s warrior ethos. He uses the U.S. Army’s warrior ethos as an example. Soldiers are mission focused, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade. Someone as militarily experienced as McMaster likely knows something about how the U.S. military develops a warrior ethos in its troops, yet he hijacks Veteran’s Day to lay the blame for the ethos’ decline at the feet of the American public and civilian leaders stating the public needs to do its part to restore this ethos. This is where he goes astray. Cultivating a warrior ethos is not the American public’s job. It’s not Congress’ job. It is the military’s job. The whole purpose of the military’s services is to man, train, and equip a warrior force and ideally inculcate it with a warrior ethos. However, McMaster chooses to cross the Rubicon of the Civil-Military divide and instruct the public on how to better serve the military so that the military might strengthen its own ethos.

After raising the alarm, he rambles through several causes of this decline. He states that flawed military strategies and policies sap the individual servicemember’s will to fight. But is that really true? Twenty years of failure and missteps in Afghanistan noted at the tactical, operational, and strategic level were brought to the attention of Congress, the Public, and the Department of Defense and State, yet warriors kept warfighting. Recently, General Milley testified to Congress that he personally thought the war was unwinnable about five years ago (thanks for letting America know… NOW). Yet a generation of troops went forward to faithfully execute their given mission without Milley’s foreknowledge or the public’s misunderstanding of what was being accomplished in Afghanistan. They went forward under the command and senior leadership of McMaster and others. This is a testimony to the Warrior Ethos of a professional military force. Additionally, the Army is still meeting recruiting goals and seeing historic increases of women and minority recruits. 50% of America’s youth understand and know about military service as an optional career. This doesn’t sound like a public or army disillusioned with serving or refusing to serve.

How Our Nation Understands Our “Warriors”

H.R. claims that Americans do not understand the warrior ethos because less than 1% of the country is serving at any given time. This is a misleading argument. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2018, 7% of Americans have served in the armed forces spanning from WWII to present day. It’s roughly 8% of the public if you count the active and reserve force currently serving. Although the active force at any given time is less than 1% of the population, that number does not include the millions of supporting personnel in public and private industry who are very familiar with the military’s mission and warrior ethos. This nucleus of veterans, active duty servicemembers, and civilians associated with the military does a pretty good job shaping and influencing the American public’s understanding of war and warriors.

Although individual understanding of the military and its ethos may be cursory writ large, Americans overwhelmingly support their military. According to Gallup 69% of Americans have confidence in the military. Americans may not be looking in the mirror every morning and reciting the Warrior Ethos but they likely understand wars are fought to defend America, warriors do war stuff, and they don’t mind paying taxes to support national defense. Rudimentary descriptions of military missions are common among the American public. After all, most Americans aren’t attending military schools in high school, west point for college, or earning PhDs in American History en masse. They aren’t reading Clausewitz in their spare time or losing sleep over the degradation of a warrior ethos and nor should they.

McMaster also seems to lack confidence in the U.S. Military’s ability to educate senior leadership or the public on what it does. Yet the Department of Defense and military services have robust public relations departments that do educate the public and senior government officials alike on the military’s mission, accomplishments, and warrior ethos. He also neglects to tell the reader that there is an extensive representation of the military in congressional liaison offices, academia, local recruiting stations, veteran organizations, bases in local communities, and a highly visible presence around the globe.

The Warrior Ethos in Popular Culture

Contrary to McMaster’s opinion, popular culture does not water down the warrior ethos. To be sure there are stories of broken veterans and warriors (a testimony to seen and unseen wounds from our recent conflicts) but there are also stories of people giving the last measure, breaking down barriers to serve, protecting innocent people, and generally reflecting the courage, strength, and spirit of a classical warrior. Elements of the warrior ethos are seen in our junior, amateur, and professional sports and competitions like American Ninja Warrior. American TV shows are largely based on simple formulas like response to crisis, overcoming challenges, or competing to be the “top” something. Never mind the millions of Americans who gain some basic idea of a warrior ethos following their favorite superhero franchise. Also, Americans seemingly can’t stop calling themselves “heroes.” Although the term is degraded when it describes every person in the country, it is probably our country’s most consistent Freudian slip. Americans want to be heroic, and self-appointed heroes have an innate warrior ethos. I would submit that this culture actually supports military recruiting and strengthens acceptance of and adherence to the U.S. military’s warrior ethos.

After targeting pop culture, he shifts to education by roughly making the point that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is bad and Americans don’t have a firm enough grasp on military history, national history or diplomacy to understand war and warriors. He warns of a CRT based, racially divided military undermining the mission and will of servicemembers to fight and follow orders. However, he seems to forget that he is in civilian territory now. The military will get whoever is recruited into the military. It may be that a divisive citizenry with new social roots established in CRT becomes the norm of American culture. However, the onus is on the military to establish a warrior ethos with the raw product of American citizenry that joins its ranks via a recruiter’s monthly quota. The fact that he doesn’t like the raw material provided is irrelevant, it simply means the military will have to find a way to instill a warrior ethos in its volunteers and fight wars. 

Continuing this thread he advocates for the general public, academic institutions, and public leaders to better understand wars and warriors through the study of military history, American history, and diplomacy. While depth of this knowledge would better inform the American public’s understanding of war and warrior culture, it does not automatically lead to the establishment of a warrior ethos in the military. Public leaders who are educated at the level McMaster deems acceptable for informed military and diplomatic decisions are not required to align their decisions with his opinions. If leaders choose not to fight a war and Congress or the President ends a military conflict against military advice, then it’s the military’s job to withdraw despite any perceived violation of its warrior ethos. Likewise, it is within America’s right to reject the military’s ethos and not place the mission first, to accept defeat, to quit, and to leave fallen comrades behind. Ignoble? Perhaps. But within its right. It’s the servicemember’s job to understand that their warrior ethos is intact despite an anti-ethos political decision.

A Man At Odds With The Times

Finally, H.R. attacks modernity. He warns that America’s public leaders, citizens, and military are enamored with technology so they can circumvent the horrors of close combat. Here he masks his own knowledge of war. Technology can lull people into a sense of security and might cause some to posit the end of close combat, but it also increases the time, space, and lethality of forces who must engage in close combat. Again, it’s not the American public’s job to master the nuances of fifth, sixth, or seventh generation warfare or the intricacies of warfare. They expect their elected leaders and the military to know those things. After all, aren’t our military leaders commissioned with special trust and confidence to determine these things? Shouldn’t Americans reasonably expect our military leaders to modernize the warrior ethos as warriors fight wars in different ways? Modernity is a benefit to warfare and it is inevitable. America fought a counter-insurgency in Vietnam for about eleven years and we lost approximately 58,000 Americans. We lost 10% of that in twenty years of war across two theaters of conflict during the Global War on Terror. We will remember all of those Americans on Veterans Day, but if it wasn’t for modern technology, we might be remembering a heck of a lot more who didn’t make it back to their families.

McMaster exhibits all the earmarks of a conservative realist who rightly wishes to preserve a warrior ethos he dedicated so many years of his life to. He also seems to embody the old man yelling at kids to get off the lawn. He makes a common-sense observation that a unified public, highly educated in national and military history and diplomacy, have a better understanding of what they represent when they join the military. He commands the respect of the reader because of his military career and education. But he’s a scold demanding the tail wag the dog. Perhaps he’s been in public service so long that he is completely disconnected from the average American.

Americans are a culturally indulgent, individualistic, egalitarian, and proud people who see little separation between themselves and civil or military leaders. In contrast, the military is an extremely authoritarian and hierarchical system in which most Americans will serve for practical or patriotic reasons knowingly accepting limitations of their freedom to serve the nation. It’s an organization that requires one person to acknowledge another person by title with respect, despite their merits, on threat of punishment.

This is counterintuitive to Americans. It’s not counterintuitive to McMaster. The 99 % of Americans not serving right now shouldn’t be expected by less than 1% to embrace and maintain a warrior ethos so that the 1% can magically feel or become more warrior like. Preserving the warrior ethos is squarely the military’s job. If it can’t do that despite being the most supported institution and the best funded institution in America, then maybe it’s time to replace military leadership with leaders that can.  Americans may be culturally warlike (in a rebellious sort of way) but they are not the maintainers of the military service’s warrior ethos. It is not their job to restore it.

Warriors and Citizens

When Veterans toast their fallen comrades this month, they should do so knowing they went forward at the bidding of America’s civilian leaders with an ethos crafted by the military to execute their presidential and congressionally mandated mission. By doing so they exhibited the warrior ethos. They inherently know that holidays like Veterans Day and Fourth of July inherently infer pride in our warriors and warriors’ ethos as well as the nation’s commitment to freedom and liberty. As do each service’s birthday celebrations. Veterans know that they experienced the warrior ethos and our active-duty members know they are the true keepers and maintainers of it. They should never blame the society they defend for diminishing that ethos or charge it with restoring the ethos. Nor should the American public be conned into becoming the “restorer of the warrior ethos.” Americans may like to think of themselves as Spartans, but at heart we are Athenians. Veteran’s day is upon us. It’s time to raise a glass to our fallen and thank those that carry forward the warrior ethos. May God bless those who gave all, some, and those who will do so in the future. Thank you for your service.

Benjamin Lawless, a retired United States Marine Officer, is a graduate student at American University studying U.S. Foreign Policy

Afghanistan Was Not Vietnam 2.0 and It Requires Its Own Lessons

A Veteran’s Perspective

Watching Afghanistan fall to the Taliban was hard. On September 11th, 2001 I was sitting in Algebra class when school halted, the building went quiet, and one of our teachers rolled in a TV so we could watch the news. Seven months ago, I finished my tour of duty in Afghanistan, where as a captain in special forces I alternated between packing up equipment to ship home as part of the draw down, and responding to nightly crises across the provinces my company was responsible for. These past few weeks my colleagues and I watched in real time as one province after another fell, seeing reports in the news and getting frantic messages from Afghan allies who were being targeted by the Taliban for execution for helping us. We weren’t particularly shocked by what we were seeing, we all sensed what was likely to happen after our troops finally left while hoping for something different. As a group we took pride in knowing we had at least done the job we had been given competently and professionally, and everyone we brought overseas with us returned home. That small comfort lasted until a few weeks ago, when one of our soldiers lost a fight with demons we didn’t know he was wrestling with and took his own life.

Our withdrawal from Afghanistan and its aftermath has already drawn comparisons to the Vietnam War, and how the end of that conflict affected our public, our global standing and image, and our veterans. However, there are some key differences for the people who served in Afghanistan. We were all volunteers, who for the most part saw service in Afghanistan as the culmination of years of personal and professional work. Some of us spent most of our young adult lives there, and despite being intimately familiar with the country’s challenges, enthusiastically toiled and sacrificed along with our families on our own small piece of the war. As infuriating as our struggles sometimes were, there was hope that there were cooler heads above us who saw the big picture and were competently, if slowly stitching the whole plan together.

Unlike Vietnam, our greatest challenge moving forward will not be feeling like our service didn’t matter or that our nation doesn’t care about us. We know what we did mattered and that our nation does care, even if it doesn’t quite understand what it’s been asking us to do for 20 years. Our challenge will be wondering if we were fools for ever hoping for a different outcome, and realizing that although people at home may respect our service, few were aware of what was going on and are only now waking up to the realities of the war. Who were the cooler, wiser heads supposed to be across the four administrations that oversaw it? What kind of involvement and awareness should we reasonably expect from the nation we serve? Is there something we can actually learn from this, or will it be just another tragic chapter among many that is used for the talking points it can generate in political debates rather than an understanding of what it means for a democratic society to try and wage a prolonged conflict half a world away from its own shores? In spite of all the naysayers and overnight Afghanistan experts who have cropped up, it’s important to acknowledge we got more right than wrong with our campaign there, if only so we can properly diagnose why our efforts ultimately failed.

My time in service is shortly coming to its end. My son, who is six months old will never have a memory of me wearing combat boots, jumping out of airplanes, or being gone halfway around the world getting into fights with strangers. Perhaps one of my old uniforms destined for a box in the attic will make a good Halloween costume for him one day, or he’ll ask me about the custom engraved pistol dad keeps framed on the wall from one of his old work trips. I’ll have to figure out what to tell him.

America has to decide how it will react to the end of our longest war. We responded to Vietnam by moving to an all volunteer force and developing a more professional military that our citizenry goes out of its way to show respect for 50 years later. We should respond to Afghanistan by wrestling with hard questions about how America has come to view wars and its connection, or distance, from the people and families who serve in them. This extends to our national dialogue, popular culture, and institutional structures in the executive and legislative branches.

The war ran so long, at such cost, for so little in part because as a nation we never held each other accountable for having an honest conversation about what we were doing there and why. As a citizenry we left the war to the professionals while outsourcing responsibility for oversight to politicians who spent most of their time on the domestic agenda which drives re-election efforts. Between the citizenry, the politicians, and the professionals, Afghanistan was left simmering on the back burner, and we lost the plot on what we were there to do and why. Perhaps the abdication came from a good place, a desire to avoid politicizing war. Such a desire is naïve, as everything in war is inherently political, and the separation exists only in the minds of those who have never sought or been forced to look war in the face. This naivety is something we’ve always struggled with, and points to a great need in our country to learn how to have honest conversations about difficult topics. Hopefully we will take this lesson to heart before we get here again.

The Cost of an Emirate

The Taliban’s Pending Economic Crisis

As the Taliban move out of the shadows into their new more luxurious accommodations in the presidential palace and other government buildings in Kabul, they are scrambling to find the money needed to prevent a crippling economic collapse and keep key civil servants at their desks. Large swaths of Afghanistan’s work force is employed directly or indirectly by the government, including technocrats whose expertise is needed to keep Afghanistan’s infrastructure running. Already scared of how the Taliban will treat them, keeping these civil servants working after they don’t get paid will be a tall order, and compelling them purely by force would be a massive drain on the Taliban’s limited resources and manpower. Significant and long-lasting economic turmoil or collapse will also drive more and more people to support rebellion against the Taliban, a fact they seem very cognizant of as they continue to try and consolidate their grip on the country.

The majority of Afghanistan’s economy is propped up by donations, with 75% of government spending coming from foreign aid. The Taliban have asked to continue to receive aid as world governments and the International Monetary Fund freeze the Afghan central bank’s assets and suspend payments. Without that money (Kabul received $4.2 billion in development assistance in 2019 alone) their government is already bankrupt. Afghanistan is a cash economy and 90% of its adult population does not have a bank account. Its currency, the afghani, is supported by regular bulk shipments of U.S. dollars from the Afghan central bank’s foreign currency reserves. The majority of the banks $10 billion in reserves is held oversees, with the Taliban able to access less then one percent of it since they’ve taken Kabul. The lack of currency has already led to a spike in commodity prices, triggering protests in major cities. Western Union and MoneyGram, popular services that Afghans use to receive remittances from family members working abroad, have also suspended their services, exacerbating the money crunch across the country. These remittances totaled $788.9 million last year, representing 4% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.  

It could be assumed that the Taliban don’t care about widespread unrest or economic collapse as long as they can implement their brutally hardline version of sharia law. However, the Taliban were able to take over the country as quickly as they did because they successfully convinced people that the collapse of the government was inevitable and they were the only group capable and competent enough to effectively run the country and prevent mass chaos in the wake of U.S. troops leaving. They managed to preserve their strength by avoiding getting into prolonged fights with Afghanistan’s numerous militias or alienating influential strongmen. Afghans may have bargained it was better to accept theocratic tyranny over anarchy, but if they get stuck with chaos and beheadings they may rethink the deal they took. The Taliban have to walk a fine line as well, as their best shot at getting the tap of foreign aid turned back on is to show restraint in how they enact their agenda. Brutal crack downs on dissent, broadcast over social media for the world to see would likely ensure they remain cut off.

But who knows, the Taliban have a few bargaining chips of their own. The chaotic evacuation that is ongoing at Kabul’s airport, along with the desire by western countries to extend it gives them leverage. President Biden has said he may consider keeping troops at the airport beyond the end of the month, and CIA Director William J Burns recently met with the Taliban leadership in Kabul. Perhaps a deal, cash for time, was struck to allow the evacuation to continue safely. It’s not likely, the U.S. has plenty of other negotiating tools, but worst deals have been struck for the sake of expediency in the realm of geopolitics. Either way, the Taliban have inherited a very different Afghan economy than what they dealt with twenty years ago, and will need to get a grip quickly if they want to avoid another bloody civil war that may engulf them.

And Now the War Begins

Anti-Taliban resistance is rallying to the Panjshir Valley. Just because the Taliban are in Kabul doesn’t mean the fighting is over.

Kabul has fallen to the Taliban in spectacular fashion, with the group’s fighters streaming across the country seemingly unopposed and walking into the capital city to declare victory. The speed of their advance shocked all but the most cynical analysts. President Biden has stubbornly stuck to his decision to end America’s participation in the Afghan conflict, come hell or high water, as one former national security professional after another has come out in opposition by publicly stating we need to stick it out as long as it takes. Whether they are more interested in helping the Afghans or protecting their own legacy is an open question.

With President Ghani fleeing the country moments before Kabul fell, hordes of civilians fleeing to the airport to try and get on the last flight out of town, and China, Russia, and Pakistan moving in to claim their share of the spoils it seems like Afghanistan’s more than four decades of perpetual war are finally over. In the media we hear that the Taliban have won, all of America’s and her allies’ efforts were in vain, and all that is left to do is point fingers at each other while we watch the Taliban reassert their brutal form of theocratic tyranny on the powerless population.

But having possession of Kabul, and ruling Afghanistan are not the same thing. History has shown this to be true for invaders and would be kings alike in good turn, whether they where Alexander the Great, the British Empire, or the Iron Amir.

The Afghan National Army dissolved in the face of the Taliban’s fervorish advance, but the soldiers remain. The militias didn’t fight, but they remain. Warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum fled to sidestep being caught in the chaos, but they can return as they have done before to lead powerful rebellions. If there is one thing that is more common in Afghanistan’s history than failed occupation by outsiders, its rebellion against control from whoever claims to rule in Kabul. The seeds of one such rebellion are forming now in the Panjshir Valley.

For months now, Ahmad Massoud, son of the famed Northern Alliance Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud who fought the Taliban to a standstill in the 1990’s has been raising his own militia, the Second Resistance, which boasted several thousand fighters before the Taliban advance towards Kabul. He has gone to the Panjshir valley, an anti-Taliban stronghold less than 100 miles north of Kabul that has never been captured to begin a resistance movement. He has been joined by Amrullah Saleh, the former vice president who declared himself caretaker president after Ghani fled the country and has publicly vowed to never bow to the Taliban. Other former government officials, including Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi have begun to join them.

Ahmad Massoud (centre) with Amrulla Saleh (right) in Panjshir Valley from Twitter

The Taliban may have been able to run roughshod over the country and seize Kabul, but new battle lines are already forming in Afghanistan’s constantly changing landscape of alliances and power structures. We’re a long way from seeing the day that the Taliban are overthrown, but it’s also too soon to declare the war over for its most important participants, the Afghan’s themselves. It has been disheartening to watch the dissolution of the military and state that America and her allies have invested so much blood and treasure in over the past twenty years, seemingly without a whisper of a fight. But the Afghans have always fought their own wars, their own ways, and by their own rules. Just because they didn’t fight back our way, doesn’t mean the country is completely lost, or all of our previous efforts were in vain. We’ve decided to let them determine their own destiny, for better or for worse, and it will be decided on their own terms and in their own time.

Showtime at the Olympics

How a Sporting Event Reflects the State of the World

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics is well underway, and this year is certainly unique. Watching the coverage of it shows how this celebration of athleticism, the human drive to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness, and global sportsmanship seems to be about anything but. There’s covid running rampant, making travel incredibly risky. Doping scandals that have become so routine they’ve lost their meaning. Whole countries banned while their athletes still compete and rack up medals. Fans forbidden from attending in person. Tokyo’s own competitors spend much of their post event interviews apologizing if they don’t win gold in their events while nationalists on social media complain about being represented by impure Japanese with multiethnic heritage. 

We’ve got our own media freaking out over one of our greatest Olympians finally having a bad day on the job after already bringing home enough gold in her career to make a Lannister jealous. Wild controversy over allowing a transgender female who doesn’t want to speak to the press show up and fail to get past the first round in weightlifting so she can go home and retire with her own Olympic jogging suite. Would transgender rights or athletic fairness been improved or hurt if she had somehow medaled? Twitter may never decide. And Qatar finally gets a gold medal after paying exorbitant amounts of money to import athletes from around the world, have many change their names to hide their heritage and give them a shot at citizenship in exchange for representing the oil rich state. 

With the image of the Olympics as the pinnacle of athletic competition in doubt and the media spending so much time running down every rabbit hole of controversy it can find, why do we keep doing this?

Despite what detractors say and whatever shortcomings it has as an athletic event, the Olympics play an important role in international relations. It has become  a symbol of the  rules based international order. It promotes international cooperation and forces communication between states that would not otherwise have the ability or inclination to interact. It reinforces ideas of equality of peoples and meritocracy, even as richer states field more athletes in more events to run up medal counts.

It also provides a chance to promulgate ideas about the proper role of the state in society by normalizing the idea that certain functions, even in the international arena, should be kept at arm’s length from the rest of geopolitics, and that states can compete without resorting purely to realpolitik. Controversial decisions by the International Olympic Committee, a multilateral institution nominally separate from any state government, to do things like ban Russia, demonstrate that there is some limit that world organizations can put on state behavior. And although allowing some of their athletes to compete based on a belief they haven’t doped may seem like a cop out (and I’m not saying it isn’t), it can also be messaged as a rebuke of Putin’s authoritative state practices while still respecting the Russian people. How far that message resonates in the Kremlin is up for debate (I’m betting on nowhere), but the message is there. 

Nations get a lot of attention globally and can get a lot of prestige domestically by hosting the Olympics, despite the bloated costs and creation of massive infrastructure that’s almost useless as soon as the games are done. These same nations can’t host if they’re in armed conflict with their neighbors. Would a desire to host the Olympics or other international sporting event keep a nation from going to war to protect their vital interests? Doubtful. But does help dissuade them from pursuing armed adventurism as a way to gain small advantages over more petty squabbles. This probably isn’t a huge factor behind why we are currently experiencing the lowest levels of interstate conflict in human history, but it doesn’t hurt. 

The Olympics, for all its quirks, provide a rough temperature check on the state of the world, creating a chemistry experiment where athletes, fans, coaches, and administrators mix together and cooperate in order to put on a grand competition that the rest of us get to watch and comment on. It brings focus to controversial issues even as it seeks to have nothing to do with them, such as how should modern ideas about transgender rights be reconciled with traditional notions of fair play in athletics? How much are we nature, how much are we nurture, and how universal is the distinction across cultures?

Or why a female sprinter from Belarus decides to seek political asylum in Poland rather than return to her home country to face potential rape and imprisonment after being denied a chance to compete. Or what does it mean to be a member of a state?  Japan continues to explore its own identity in an increasingly multi-ethnic world, and rich states lure athletes from abroad to compete under their flag with big salaries and other perks. Why did Japan decide it had to host the games during covid, and why did everyone else agree to send their most prized athletes and risk them getting a potentially career ending illness rather than skipping it?

The Olympics, in whatever form it takes and however it evolves, provides a mirror to hold up against the world and catch a glimpse of the state of humanity. Our hopes, our fears, where we rally together, and where we still push apart. It may not be able to move the needle of progress, or even help us define what progress is, but it does inadvertently lay down markers for where we are, which is more than can be said about most political theatre.

Do We Stay or Do We Go?

America’s Role in Kabul After the Withdrawal

The American Flag outside of the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Scott Kelly

America has shut down and handed over Bagram Airfield, its largest base in Afghanistan and the nerve center for its campaign there for the past 20 years. As it effectively ends its active participation in Afghanistan’s ongoing wars, it plans on leaving behind 650 troops in order to maintain the security of its embassy and several hundred more to secure Kabul International airport until a deal with Turkey to provide security can be reached. Although not there to participate in fighting or provide any support to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA) or Afghan National Army, the presence of those troops and the diplomatic mission they protect could still play a decisive role in deciding the eventual outcome of the war between GIROA and the Taliban.

For America these troops represent the minimal force they feel is necessary to ensure the safety of its embassy and diplomatic mission in Kabul. The Taliban have said that such forces would be viewed as an occupying military force in violation of the peace deal, and subject to potential attack as a result. How likely the Taliban are to act on such a threat, given what the American retaliatory response would likely be and that they did not retaliate against troops who stayed past the original May deadline for withdrawal is debatable. However, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the Al-Qaeda attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012 show how precarious the security of our diplomatic missions can be. There have been over 50 attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates since 1945, and that is a dangerous game of brinksmanship to play in a country like Afghanistan facing the possibility of civil war. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989 America closed its embassy in Kabul over the same concerns.

The presence of such a large American force to secure the embassy in Kabul, and the airport that would be needed to evacuate it is an open acknowledgement that GIROA is unable to secure the locations with its own forces, which under different circumstances could be considered an embarrassing slap in the face to an ally, if the security picture across the country and inside the Kabul itself was not so clearly deteriorating.

The size of the force left behind to guard the embassy, combined with the size of the embassy staff itself is also challenging to evacuate on short notice. This sends a tacit message that America is still committed to the future of GIROA, and has faith that it will survive the coming showdown with the Taliban. It is this show of faith that may ultimately save the government. The American embassy is one of the few that remain open in Kabul, and America is the only country that can realistically commit the resources needed to secure its foreign mission in Afghanistan. Australia packed up theirs and closed shop in May, promising to continue diplomatic relationships with frequent flights and virtual meetings. Belgium has removed its staff, and the French and British along with most who remain are looking to see what America decides to do next. The Taliban have offered repeated assurances that embassies and diplomatic missions will be protected and welcomed in the future Afghanistan they want to build, but it’s an open question if the representatives who make such assurances have enough control over the Taliban fighters on the ground to make good on their promises.

With the security situation deteriorating around the country and the additional threat of the delta COVID variant which is now running rampant in Kabul it can be difficult to see a reason to continue to accept the risk of maintaining an embassy in Kabul. But in politics location matters, and where one chooses to plant their flag carries a lot of weight. The often quoted and rarely read military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz famously described war as the continuation of politics by other means. The outcome of this next chapter in the Afghan war will be decided by the political will to resist the Taliban rather than by the military prowess of the Afghan National Army. This political will may come down to nothing more than a belief by Afghanistan’s traditional cadre of strongmen that the GIROA retains the backing of the international community, and that defending it will lead to a more prosperous future for themselves. A functioning embassy that is open in Kabul may very well be critical to promulgating the belief that America and her allies will continue to work with and support the GIORA.

As the Taliban have advanced in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, many of these strongmen such as Abdul Rashid Dostrum and Abbas Ibrahimzada have re-emerged as warlords at the head of their own large, well equipped militias. These militias have shown a remarkable willingness to resist Taliban rule and fight them in the past, and include many of the same commanders that helped the U.S. take Kabul 20 years ago. As the Afghan National Army collapses in many places and faith in security forces falters, the militias may prove to be the force that prevents the Taliban’s return to power. But that will only happen if they choose to fight to preserve some semblance of the current government. Otherwise the country will devolve into a series of smaller fiefdoms, each run by its own strong man, who may or may not decided to unite in time to resist the Taliban or cut their own deal with them.

After 20 years of expending blood and treasure and disrupting millions of lives in a campaign that aimed to uproot extremists and build a functioning, democratic nation, the idea that the most we can hope for is for warlords, with their own long list of alleged human rights abuses, to prop up the government in Kabul by resisting the Taliban in order to keep the tap of foreign aid dollars flowing can be a bitter pill to swallow. But a coalition of strongmen would still provide for a better future for Afghanistan’s people, especially its most oppressed ethnic minorities, than Taliban rule ever could. It would also better fulfill the primary reason America went there, which was to ensure Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups cannot use it as a safe haven, and provide tangible proof that even in the most dire situations, siding with America is ultimately a good bet. America’s longest war is over, but Afghanistan’s continues, and an American flag flying over an embassy in Kabul may ultimately matter more to the outcome than anything else we could provide.

China, Taiwan, and the Conflict That Could Reshape the World

By James Mackin and Scott Kelly

An emboldened China, still flush from successfully suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, perpetrating genocide in Xinjiang, seizing territory in the South China Sea and colonizing parts of neighboring Bhutan is now looking expectantly at “reunification” with Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party has viewed Taiwan as rightfully theirs since they rose to power in 1949. There is an old idea that every nation of people has the right to govern the land that they occupy as a sovereign nation-station, and Taiwan has been long viewed as part of a broader Chinese nation. The long-standing dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty was originally framed by diplomats as a question of whether the government in Beijing or the government in Taipei was the legitimate representation of the Chinese nation. This comfortable ambiguity was maintained until the west decided to fracture the unity of “global communism” during the Cold War by using recognition of the Chinese Communist Party as a hedge against the power of the Soviet Union.

However, a closer look at Taiwan history reveals the presence of an independent nation, existing in defined borders that under the nation-state model has a right to independence as a sovereign nation and under the United Nations (U.N.) charter protection against aggression from other states. Since the founding of the U.N. the world’s most intractable conflicts have been centered around the existence of stateless nations, whether it be the Kurds, Palestinians, Kashmiri, or Uyghurs. Taiwan has avoided such direct conflict by being able to nominally govern themselves within their own boarders which geography, not cartographers and diplomats, have provided. This makes the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty and the potential consequences of its “reunification” with mainland China one with implications for the concept of state sovereignty and the future legitimacy of international law. More importantly, reunification would be the first unignorable sign that the world system America and her allies have prospered from for so long is starting to irreversible change in ways that will have dire consequences for everyone.

The Taiwanese Nation

The history of Taiwan’s struggle for national sovereignty pre-dates the conclusion of World War II and the administration of the island by the Chinese nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan has always seen itself as a nation that was a subject of a greater power throughout history from the Manchu Qing Empire (1683-1895), the Japanese Empire (1895-1945), to Republican China (since 1945). Taiwan’s path towards democracy began with its occupation by Japan following the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Despite suffering repression from the Japanese, the overall economy of the island improved, and the Taiwanese middle class began to grow and develop. In fact, the majority of Taiwanese companies during the early 1940s were small or medium sized enterprises owned and staffed by Taiwanese. Additionally, Taiwanese nationalists were allowed to successfully compete in local elections, and by the end of World War II, three out of four council members in Taiwan’s parliament were Taiwanese.

Following World War II and the beginning of the Chiang Kai-shek administration, the economic and political liberties granted by the Japanese were severely restricted. “The new regime abolished many of the governmental institutions established by the Japanese, enforced Chinese law, forbade languages other than Mandarin, and took over key positions in former state-run enterprises.”[i] Following the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese Civil War, the United States began providing economic assistance to Taiwan in order to protect it from a communist takeover. It was not until 1971 when Taiwan lost its United Nations seat to The Peoples Republic of China (PRC), that the KMT realized that it must fully embrace democracy and liberalize in order for Taiwan to maintain its status as an independent nation. This led to political reforms, the abandonment of representing China’s affairs, and the lifting of martial law.[ii]

Ultimately, these significant changes allowed Taiwan to mature into the successful democracy is today. Taiwan presidents leading up to Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) have championed democracy in order to maintain and gain international legitimacy as a sovereign state, whereas Ma has championed the idea of a shared Chinese identity and the importance of economic cooperation with the mainland. The current President (2016-Present) and Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (2020-Present), Tsai Ing-wen, has taken a stronger stance than her predecessor for Taiwan sovereignty despite China’s desire for unification with a “One country, Two systems” configuration.

The Chinese Communist Party’s view

The Chinese Communist Party desires unification with Taiwan, and it will take necessary steps to ensure that Taiwan is not recognized as having de jure independence.  This desire originates from the Chinese Civil War following World War II and continues today as a key topic of debate surrounding cross-Strait relations between the two governments.  During the 1992 Consensus, or lack thereof, China and Taiwan decided “that there is only one China and that Taipei and Beijing agree to disagree on which government is its legitimate representative…”

China views unification as inevitable and encourages it through trade interdependence. The establishment of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June of 2010 is fostering this trade interdependence by reducing the tariffs and commercial barriers between Taiwan and the mainland. China hopes that the trade agreement will lead to what Ma’s first vice-president, Vincent Siew Wan-chang, called a “one-China market”. In fact Taiwan faces a dilemma in which “it will either be drawn deeper into China’s orbit or be marginalized in international affairs as well as regional economic integration.”[iii]

China appears patient in addressing the issue of unification, but tensions could escalate quickly if Taiwan begins to assert itself as being de jure independent. This claim is supported by a statement issued in 2004 by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC that declared the “prevention of Taiwan’s de jure independence was the top priority of Beijing’s Taiwan policy.” As long as the status quo is maintained and the two nations are allowed to grow more interdependent through the ECFA, China will likely allow the situation to take its course.  This is indicated by the President of the PRC, Xi Jinping’s speech at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March 2015, “during which he emphasized that maintaining the 1992 Consensus as a foundation for cross-Strait relations was indispensable for peace and stability…while unification was a long term goal that could be achieved only after substantial development took place across the Taiwan Strait.” It can be safely assumed that Xi’s opinion in the matter will be the party line due to his extensive experience in handling cross-Strait affairs as the provincial secretary of Fujuan, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, “where the local governments have established substantial connections with Taiwan.” 

Instead of forcing unification, Xi is taking a long-term approach that progresses gradually from the status quo in cross-Strait relations.  In 2014, Xi told a Taiwanese delegation that peaceful reunification is only possible through a “One Country, Two Systems” configuration, and that “No secessionist act will be tolerated”.[iv]

Through “One Country, Two Systems,” China seeks to unify Taiwan under Chinese authority while allowing it to maintain its own economic and administrative system similar to Hong Kong and Macau. The current leadership of Taiwan is resisting this policy partly due to how Hong Kong is being forced to submit to Chinese authoritarianism.  The terms of “One Country, Two Systems” seem generous, but Taiwan leadership see the price as too high. Its purpose is transitional in nature, and when the transition is complete (as seen with Hong Kong), there are no controls in place preventing abuse.[v] Xi is also attempting to remove the United States from the discussion in order to make unification a domestic issue without international interference.  He hopes to prevent the US from directly interfering in cross-Strait relations or using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in future agreements.[vi]

In order to maintain its sovereignty and prevent a confrontation with China, “Taiwan chooses to be de facto free by remaining de jure unfree.”[vii]It has accomplished this precarious balance through the leveraging of bi-lateral alliances and free trade agreements (FTA).  In the past, Taiwan was able to leverage its trade agreements and alliances with the United States, Singapore, and other regional partners in order to off-set closures in cross-Strait trade with China and to maintain its independence against China’s will. Today, the re-opening of cross-Strait trade with China is proving to be a double-edged sword for Taiwan. Taiwan is now benefiting from this relationship via the ECFA, but this agreement is slowly eroding the importance of Taiwan’s traditional agreements and alliances.[viii] Overall, China is militarily unable to force Taiwan to capitulate towards unification without overextending itself.  Instead, China is attempting to slowly pull Taiwan’s economy into an interdependence with the mainland.  If successful, this will eventually result in a de facto unification between China and Taiwan.

Power is more than ships and tanks

The conflict between China and Taiwan demonstrates how diplomacy and economics are critical instruments of national power and can be deftly employed to offset military disadvantages. Taiwan is not strong enough on its own to resist Chinese occupation, but it has effectively leveraged its bi-lateral alliances and FTAs in order to remain de jure free and independent.  Taiwan has not needed to be able to fully defend itself militarily from a Chinese invasion to ensure its independence till now. Instead, it has to maintain enough military power to impose significant costs on China for such an invasion, while leaving the possibility open that a more opportune time for China to force reunification would present itself in the future. Although effective, it leaves them in a perpetually precarious situation, and makes stronger pushes towards independence too risky for any Taiwanese government to aggressively push for.

Taiwan’s traditional bi-lateral alliance with the United States has ensured its independence and provided some stability to the tense arrangement it has had with China since World War II; but nonetheless, it is being gradually pulled into the orbit of China through the opening of cross-Strait relations. Weak states, when confronted with the problem of protecting their sovereignty in the face of a more powerful, aggressive neighbor will typically either align themselves with the powerful neighbor (often referred to as “bandwagoning”) or seek to balance against them through alliances with similarly threatened states. However, Taiwan appears to be pursuing a combination of both simultaneously where they are “economically and politically engaging China, binding or tying down China in institutions, buying insurance in the form of a US presence.”[ix] As China’s influence grows along with its economic and military might it can be expected that Taiwan will begin to cooperate with China in an attempt to maintain a degree of independence in the short to midterm, despite its strong alliance with the US and potential long term failure.

Economic maneuvering and diplomacy are also key to China’s approach to ensuring eventual reunification. Due to the potentially high cost in manpower, treasure, and international reputation, military force is not China’s preferred method because it wants to take Taiwan intact. China’s strategy is in line with the teaching of Sun Tzu that states, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”[x] By gaining control of Taiwan gradually over time through an interdependence created by cross-Strait trade, China will be able to incorporate Taiwan into its sphere of influence without destroying its infrastructure or fighting a costly war.  This will also allow China to focus its energies elsewhere towards securing the first island chain and developing its Belt and Road initiative.  As long as the status quo is maintained, China is content with waiting for Taiwan to capitulate.

Ultimately, China seeks to realize a peaceful rise in which it gradually gains power and influence without the damaging effects of war. China has undergone a profound identity change at the international level, in which it is quickly becoming a full member of international society along with active participation in representative international institutions.[xi] This has directly contributed to the development of its long-term view of gradually securing international dominance, departing from the weaknesses and fallacies of communism, and returning to the days of its imperial glory.

And there goes the neighborhood; the legitimization of the “right of conquest”

If the international community fails to defend the territorial integrity of Taiwan it will have allowed the concept of claiming land “by right of conquest” to become normalized among great powers again in a way that cannot be as easily ignored as previous violations of the post World War II ban on seizing territory by force. Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine have come with the veneer of protecting members of the Russian nation during a time when the Ukrainian state was having difficulty providing good governance. Their actions and the after effects could be eventually accepted as the inevitable consequence of poorly drawn maps leading to a geographic misalignment between states and nations, as soon as it becomes diplomatically necessary or sufficiently expedient to do so. The current global regime could absorb this blow. This has both allowed Russia to get away with seizing territory not recognized as theirs, while limiting their ability to apply the same approach elsewhere.

Taiwan does not provide the same easy out. Despite Chinese insistence to the contrary, Taiwan is home to its own unique nation of people, who by every norm of international relations have a right to sovereignty in their own territory within clearly defined borders. China has brutally cracked down on its citizens in Hong Kong and is perpetrating a genocide against the Uighurs, another nation of people within their state. The United Nations was founded to help prevent genocide and protect the sovereignty of nations against aggression. Gradually forced reunification would be an embarrassing example of U.N. impotence, while a more aggressive military takeover, if allowed to succeed, would cause a level of diplomatic gymnastics to occur to save face among the nations of the world that boggles the imagination. It would be quite entertaining in form, if incredibly tragic in substance.

Is the writing on the wall?

This century will likely be defined by the outcome of the conflict between China and the current international regime headed by the U.S. Although we see persistent maneuvering by both sides through economic sanctions and the stationing of military forces throughout the Indo-pacific region, each side has so far avoided committing themselves to a course of action that would lead to a showdown neither could back away from. Eventually though, America will need to decide if it must defend the current international regime at all costs, or accept and prepare for a level of restructuring that will greatly diminish its power and standing. It is impossible to know for certain which course of action will prove to be most beneficial, feasible or prudent, but how the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty is resolved will be the first undeniable signal of which direction it is headed.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or its subsidiary units.

Major James Mackin is a communications officer in the United States Marine Corps with 12 years of service. He is currently deployed to the INDOPACOM area of operations with the III Marine Expeditionary Force. In his limited spare time, James studies international relations as a graduate student with American University.

Captain Scott Kelly is a special forces officer in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, NC. He has previously served as an infantry officer at Fort Drum, NY and has nine years of military service. He is currently a graduate student at American University studying U.S. foreign policy.

[i] Christian Schafferer, “Taiwan’s Defensive Democratization,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 47 (2020)

[ii] i

[iii] Lowell Dittmer. Taiwan and China Fitful Embrace (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017)

[iv] iii

[v] Byron S. J. Weng, “‘One Country, Two Systems’ From a Taiwan Perspective,” Elsevier Science Limited (2019)


[vii] Michael I. Magcamit and Alexander C. Tan, “Crouching Tiger, Lurking Dragon: Understanding Taiwan’s Sovereignty and Trade Linkages in the Twenty-First Century,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 15, (2015)

[viii] vii

[ix] Alastair Iain Johnston, “What (If Anything) Does East Asia Tell Us About International Relations Theory?” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012)

[x] Sun Tzu. The Art of War (Translated by L. Giles. New York: Open Road, 2014)

[xi] Qin Yaqing, “Development of International Relations Theory in China,” International Studies 46, no. 1&2 (2009)