• Deterrence Failed in Ukraine: Is Strategic Ambiguity Over Taiwan Better than a Treaty?

    April 30, 2022

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    Posted in: Biden, Military

    The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act?

    The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

    The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the U.S.’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

    The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience.”

    The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

    The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

    The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

    The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

    Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.


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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      It’s way way too early to figure out what is happening in Ukraine. The Hunter Biden, Zelensky and Putin may all own stock in Raytheon.

      05/3/22 10:00 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Give Putin more time…and more rope to hang himself. Imagine the Deep State was using Donnie Trump to fool Putin to start something that would cause his ruin, just as April Glaspie fooled Saddam. Perhaps Putin has his own Donnie Rumsfeld, who is giving him bad advice. “Ukraine will welcome us with open arms.”

      Actually, they met them with small arms and drones and Javelin anti-tank missiles.

      In 2013 Rummie was the subject of The Unknown Known – a documentary by Academy Award winning director Errol Morris.
      The filmmaker set out to delve inside Rumsfeld’s mind like he had with former Secretary of Defence Robert S McNamara in The Fog of War, but later conceded that after 33 hours of interviews with the enigmatic Rumsfeld, he seemed to know even less about the origins of the Iraq war than when he started the project.

      He compared meeting Rumsfeld to Alice in Wonderland’s perplexing encounter with the Cheshire Cat in the Lewis Carroll classic.

      “I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything,” he wrote in the New York Times. “It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all.”

      Donnie and Putin. Who knew stupidity was contagious?

      05/3/22 10:10 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer: I too suspect that behind the arrogant bluster of a Rumsfeld or Trump type is an alien void. Poking around in either of their minds is like stumbling on an old abandoned western ghost town movie set in the desert (all weathered facade surfaces with shaky and rotting rear support lumber.

      05/4/22 8:18 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      While Putin is doing his best to turn Russia into “North Korea with gas”, the Deep State, who Peter and the Trumpists believe are really running things, doesn’t want to deter Putin in his downward spiral. The DS Plan has accomplished its goals: boost NATO spending, make Russia the eternal boogeyman to replace the Axis of Evil, and create new markets for US natural fracking gas. With the Putin-Trump love affair hanging over the 2024 election, no wonder the RNC cancelled its participation. Trump never had to worry the DS was out to get him. The useful idiot was essential to The Plan.

      05/4/22 10:09 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- it will be the task of skilled future historians to untangle the mess we are living in currently. The power obsessed personalities of our times deserve a future Shakespeare to flesh them out convincingly. Most of us have aspirations but they don’t involve the possibility of so much death and suffering for them to reach fruition.

      05/7/22 3:33 PM | Comment Link

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