Misjudging the Balance of Interests in Taiwan

This is the bogus credibility argument on methamphetamines.

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Matthew Kroenig cannot make a case that Taiwan matters more to the U.S. than it does to China, so he tries to make a war over Taiwan into being about something much broader than it would be:

I wouldn’t be so quick to cede the balance of interests to Beijing. The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally. I don’t want to trade that in for a world in which Americans stand by as revisionist autocracies like China gobble up neighbors by military force – or, worse, lose a hegemonic war leading to the end of this order and the rise of a Chinese-led system.

It is not Kroenig’s intention to do this, but this rhetorical move on his part illustrates how potentially dangerous a lot of the talk about a “rules-based order” can be. If you treat the defense of Taiwan as a test case of the US willingness to uphold the entire “rules-based system” of the last 75 years (no laughing, please), you are trying to rig the scales. Kroenig wants us to believe that the UShas to defend Taiwan or risk the collapse of the entire edifice of post-WWII institutions and alliances. This is the bogus credibility argument on methamphetamines.

The US doesn’t have vital interests in Taiwan, and it shouldn’t go to war to defend it. For that reason, the USshouldn’t make an explicit security commitment that would oblige the US to go to war. Kroenig tries to get around this by making Taiwan stand in for the entire global system when it does not. When hawks are forced to make an argument like this, it is always a good sign that the US doesn’t have enough interests in a place to justify going to war over it. One problem with Kroenig’s argument is that the Chinese government can probably see through the smokescreen to realize that US interests in Taiwan are not great enough to risk a war. He thinks that an explicit guarantee would be “helping them not to miscalculate,” but making an explicit commitment is bound to provoke a challenge rather than discourage one.

Half a century ago, hawks insisted that fighting in South Vietnam was critically important to containment worldwide, and they were horribly wrong. For the last twenty years, hawks have insisted that fighting in Afghanistan was essential to keeping the United States safe from international terrorism, and they were horribly wrong. Now China hawks want us to believe that the fate of the entire “rules-based system” hinges on whether the US gets into a war over Taiwan that it will probably lose. What are the odds that their judgment is any better this time? It is the same story every time: invest a peripheral theater with much more importance than it really has and bog the US down in an unwinnable war that it didn’t have to fight.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.