In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy was made in the frank recognition that there was only one, true global economic and military superpower: the United States of America.
In the early 1990s, Russia was still a collapsing shell of the old USSR and China was still a weak third-world country, and thus, Washington could do almost anything it wanted, never having to fear consequences (because there were none strong enough to impose them). Now three decades later, the world has changed dramatically, and the U.S. is no longer the sole superpower.
Yet Washington’s foreign policy elite continues to try and make policy in 2022 like it’s still 1992. If we don’t learn some humility quickly and adjust our policies to match current and projected global realities, we may unwittingly – and avoidably – stumble into a situation from which we may be unable to extract ourselves without suffering genuine harm. Emerging trends in Moscow and Beijing highlight the growing danger for Washington.
Last Friday Russia’s Vladimir Putin met with China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing prior to attending the opening ceremonies of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games and published an extensive post-summit joint communique. This document contained a number of statements of strong support for key positions of the other in the economic, diplomatic, energy, and security fields – all of which have potentially negative ramifications for the United States.
The Russian and Chinese sides, the communique stated, “reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity,” specifically adding that the “Russian side…confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.”
In a nod to Moscow over its standoff with Ukraine and NATO, China affirmed that it stands opposed to “further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches.” Combined with a significant increase in military cooperation between China and Russia in recent years, this burgeoning diplomatic and political unity represents a diplomatic minefield the United States must navigate carefully.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters after the Putin/Xi meeting that the two leaders specifically discussed “the tensions deliberately incited by the West around the Russian Federation and China.” Those situations directly relate to China’s desire to take control of Taiwan and Russia’s intent to keep NATO away from Ukraine and its borders – and America’s efforts to prevent both.
There is much to commend in America’s resistance to China’s and Russia’s coercive efforts and military threats against Taipei and Kyiv. The governments of both Taiwan and Ukraine overwhelmingly desire a closer relationship with the West and have repeatedly requested security guarantees to defend them from their powerful neighbors. Washington is entirely reasonable to prefer that both countries remain free. The way we have gone about it, unfortunately, has ultimately undermined both our interests and their security.
In the 1990s, the U.S. could virtually do whatever it wanted and neither Russia nor China could do anything about it. In 1996, for example, China was making increasingly strident threats against Taiwan, conducting numerous missile tests in the waters near Taiwan. To forestall a Chinese attack, then-President Clinton sent two aircraft carrier strike groups sailing through the Taiwan Straits. China was too weak militarily to take on both the United States and Taiwan and completely backed down.
In 1997, the U.S. and NATO announced the expansion of NATO to the former Warsaw Pact nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Russia warned that if there were any further expansion to the Baltic states, they would consider it a direct threat to their security. Washington and Brussels ignored the Russian views and in 2002 the Baltic states were extended NATO membership. Following China’s humiliation in the Taiwan Straits and Russia’s humiliation at its inability to stop NATO enlargement, both nations set out on an extensive military and economic modernization efforts.
For the better part of the next 20 years, Beijing and Moscow begin reforming, modernizing, and strengthening their conventional armed forces. In 1996, China’s GDP was roughly 1/10th that of the United States. Today they are the world’s second largest economy and are expected to eclipse the U.S. by 2030. Russia has become the world’s number three producer of petroleum and provides a significant portion of Europe’s daily natural gas supplies.
The global military and economic gaps between the United States and both Russia and China that existed in the 1990s have almost vanished. In regional power comparisons, however, the U.S. has already been surpassed by both – and that portends serious trouble for the United States if its foreign policy doesn’t change to reflect these new realities.
Too many among Washington’s foreign policy elite still think that America can continue to base its foreign policy on its preferences, believing that we still have the same global power monopolies we had after the Cold War when we were the world’s sole superpower. From 10,000 miles away, some still behave as though Washington can simply tell Russia what it’s going to do about what it considers a security threat with Ukraine on its border, and can tell China what it can and can’t do about Taiwan in the waters just off its shore.
What these establishment thinkers apparently don’t realize is that Russia has overwhelming military superiority over Ukraine and there is nothing we can do to stop a concerted attack by Moscow into Ukraine, short of escalating into a nuclear war. We don’t realize that China not only has sufficient combat power to conquer Taiwan, it is also probable they have the ability to successfully defeat U.S. military forces that might come to Taipei’s assistance.
A bad-case scenario for America’s national interests right now is that our policymakers and diplomats don’t recognize in time that our ability to dominate in every corner of the globe is a thing of the past and both China and Russia simultaneously or sequentially move against Ukraine and Taiwan, exposing our inability to stop either. The worst-case scenario, however, would be if we refuse to acknowledge reality at all and attempt to fight one or both Russia and China – and suffer an outright military defeat.
There is, fortunately, a policy available to Washington that could mitigate the damage we’ve done to ourselves over the past few decades, potentially forestalling a Russian attack into Ukraine, a Chinese attack into Taiwan, and preserve America’s global power: acknowledge merely that both China and Russia have risen to be significant regional powers in their parts of the world and can’t be ignored or wished away.
The United States has extended far too many mutual defense obligations to nations all over the world, increasing the risk the U.S. could be drawn into any number of conflicts. It’s beyond the scope of this work to discuss whether or how we should pare back those obligations, but that the very least the White House should begin, immediately, recognizing that we can’t risk war on behalf of nations with whom we have no security guarantees. The top of that list would be Ukraine and Taiwan.
Far from condemning them to conquest by their two powerful neighbors, this pragmatic, reality-based policy would make it clear to the leaders of both Ukraine and Taiwan that we won’t be fighting Russia or China on their behalf, increasing their motivation to make accommodations instead of risking war themselves.
Both China and Russia have unequivocally said that they prefer peaceful accommodations with their neighbors Taiwan and Ukraine, and even a cursory examination of the security and geopolitical realities around both sides indicates neither Beijing nor Moscow have the motivation to use military force against Taiwan or Ukraine. What both nuclear powers very much fear, however, is a Western military alliance or presence on their borders. To prevent that, both Xi and Putin have indicated they’d consider using force.
The United States can and should continue to champion human rights, international law, and peaceful coexistence among states. The West in general should continue doing robust business with both Taiwan and Ukraine, and engaging in cultural and economic cooperation with both. The benefit to Taipei and Kyiv is that the likelihood of military invasion would be significantly reduced and they would retain considerable independence and freedom.
On @FoxNews this morning: it is bad policy to risk war with nuclear #Russia over #UkraineCrisis. Best move for US, #Nato & Kyiv is to place a moratorium on membership for Ukraine, which may prevent war. Hold fast to status quo & war likely. @defpriorities https://t.co/nxZfBqjyYE
— Daniel L. Davis (@DanielLDavis1) February 5, 2022
That is contrasted by the result likely if the U.S. ignores reality and continues to pursue, even tacitly, a military alliance with Ukraine and independence for Taiwan – which carries a high risk of military invasion, destruction of much of their countries, and the loss of freedom. No one wins in that case. It is time Washington stops trying to make policy based on the world of the 1990s they may wish still existed and start recognizing today’s realities. Sticking to the former could lead to our fall as a great nation; embracing the latter continues our power and security indefinitely.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.