Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

March 14, 2000

Forever Munich: The Kagan-Kristol Thesis

The demented ravings of Robert Kagan are by now a staple of the Washington scene. Week in, week out, partnered by his colleague William Kristol, he splutters away in the sleep-inducing pages of the Weekly Standard about the dire threats facing the United States: "Rogue states," Russia, China, and above all the wimpy Republicans on the Hill, reluctant to get on board America’s imperial gravy-train. Last Sunday in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece ominously titled "A Blueprint for How China Could Solve the Taiwan Problem by Force" Kagan warned that a Chinese attack on Taiwan was imminent: "A major conflict is looming," he writes. "Senior Chinese military officials now speak openly about a ‘fixed timetable’ for reunification." Which senior Chinese military officials? Not surprisingly, he does not name any.

The Chinese, Kagan informs us, will not bother to invade the island. They will simply use their short-range ballistic missiles to knock out "Taiwan’s air defenses and early warning systems, destroy its command, control and communications centers... thereby neutralizing the Taiwanese air force as well as its naval ports." Within minutes the Taiwanese would be left with no choice but to sue for peace. Why? Because the United States, hell-bent as ever on appeasing China, did not give them the wherewithal to defend themselves. "The psychology of appeasement convinces peace-loving peoples that any effort to deter a future conflict is too provocative and therefore too dangerous," Kagan rumbles portentously. "The appeasing nation comes to believe that defenselessness and lack of preparation for a conflict is not only safer but a sign of maturity. And then the war starts."

Kagan and Kristol repeat this tiresome mantra all the time. It is forever Munich, forever 1938. Just who are these "peace-loving peoples"? Americans? In recent times they have waged more armed conflicts than anyone else. Who, other than the habitues of the fever swamps of the "neo-conservative" think-tanks, has ever believed that "defenselessness" is a "sign of maturity"? Certainly not the endlessly-maligned Neville Chamberlain, who presided over a massive British arms buildup. What anyone who is not a retarded adolescent does argue is that one "sign of maturity" is not to resort to force the moment you discover that some country’s interests do not immediately coincide with yours.

Some years ago, Kagan and Kristol propounded the bizarre theory that the only way conservatives can come to power in America is by banging the drums of war. In their 1996 Foreign Affairs article "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," they argued: "The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy.... For conservatives to preach the importance of upholding the core elements of the Western tradition at home, but to profess indifference to the fate of American principles abroad, is an inconsistency that cannot help but gnaw at the heart of conservatism....A true ‘conservatism of the heart’ ought to emphasize both personal and national responsibility, relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic, which has been sorely lacking in American foreign policy – and American conservatism in recent years....Deprived of the support of an elevated patriotism, bereft of the ability to appeal to national honor, conservatives will ultimately fail in their effort to govern America. And Americans will fail in their responsibility to lead the world." No matter how often Kristol and Kagan parrot words like "Reaganite" or "conservative" or "national greatness," nothing in their demented program to force Washington’s diktats down the rest of the world’s throat can be remotely described as "Reaganite" or "conservative." As for "national greatness," it is hard to recall a time when Americans were held in as low esteem just about everywhere as they are today.

But back to Taiwan. After much reflection and agonizing, Kagan arrives at a conclusion. The time has come to stop appeasing China. "The only way to avert a future Chinese attack on Taiwan is to deter it right now." Sell the Taiwanese a few guided missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar system, start conducting joint military exercises and plan for war. Happily for Kagan, his proposal almost certainly will lead to war. The Chinese, strange creatures that they are, care about their national sovereignty. Editorial writers warn the Chinese that unless they abandon plans to reincorporate Taiwan they will jeopardize their membership of the World Trade Organization. But it is only our elites who enthuse inanely about the WTO. The Chinese could not care less about it. They run a trade surplus with the United States; they use a non-convertible currency; and they mistrust foreign investment.

About Taiwan, however, they care passionately. Even so, they have been remarkably tolerant. It is hard to believe that a US Government in similar circumstances would propose a "one country, two systems" solution. It is hard to believe that a US Government would interfere as little as China has in the day-to-day affairs of a rebellious island. But there are limits to China’s tolerance. It suspects, with some justification, that the United States arms Taiwan with a view to making the island one day strong enough to declare independence. US Government officials may insist that they support the peaceful reunification of China. But if you believe that you will probably also believe that the United States went the extra mile at Rambouillet last year to prevent war.

Last month, the Beijing Government published a White Paper, "The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue." The US media went crazy. The Chinese, we were told, were becoming belligerent. Allegedly, the mainland was ready to go to war not only if Taiwan declared independence, but also if negotiations for reunification dragged on endlessly. However, the document did not quite say that. What it actually said was that, "If a grave turn of events occurs leading to the separation of Taiwan from China in any name, or if Taiwan is invaded and occupied by foreign countries, or if the Taiwan authorities refuse... the peaceful settlement of cross-Straits reunification through negotiations, then the Chinese Government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force, to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." In other words, the policy has not changed at all. In addition, Beijing conceded that there were "differences between Taiwan on the one hand and Hong Kong and Macao on the other." After peaceful reunification, it was " prepared to apply a looser form of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy in Taiwan than in Hong Kong and Macao."

Sounds reasonable? Not to our pundits and editorial writers. According to the Washington Post, the time for US strategic ambiguity was past. Taiwan is becoming "more and more democratic and China remains a dictatorship. Most Taiwanese understandably don’t want to be swallowed by a repressive state, and unlike in the past – when Taiwan was governed by dictators of its own – their views on independence shape national policy....The administration has in the past bent pretty far to China’s wishes....The US response to China’s latest challenge should be the need not to say or do anything that China could present to the next Administration as US acquiescence in its new policy. Strategic ambiguity does, at times, have its uses; this is a moment for strategic clarity." The notion that the China-Taiwan issue is all about democracy was echoed by the Boston Globe: "The lesson is clear: China and Taiwan can only be unified when democracy comes to the mainland."

The Taiwan issue has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy. The United States would not accept the secession of Southern California should it – in a few years time – vote to join Mexico. No matter how overwhelmingly the secessionists may win their referendum, there is no right in international law to secede. At a minimum, the US Government would argue – just before it sent in the cruse missiles and B-2 bombers – that in any vote on secession all Americans, not just the inhabitants of Southern California, have to take part. If it is the wishes of the people that are to be of paramount concern, then what about the wishes of the people of mainland China? Their votes would easily overwhelm those of the Taiwanese.

Taiwan has never existed as an independent state. China’s sovereignty over Taiwan is recognized by almost everyone in the world, including the United States. Continued US attempts to meddle in China’s affairs and to pretend that somehow the future status of Taiwan has yet to be determined can only provoke the Chinese. And the United States knows from its own history how bloody wars of secession can be.

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