The question posed by the organizers is: Will Taiwan be a tipping point in global security? Well, why don’t we start at the beginning and ask what a tipping point is.
Canvassing different dictionary definitions, there are some common denominators. A tipping point always involves a change of state. It always involves cause-and-effect. And it always involves time, time being the time consumed during the phase shift from one condition to another. Some definitions add that change is dramatic at the tipping point or irreversible after it. I don’t necessarily go along with those claims. Even a sweeping transformation may be hard to perceive when it happens, while changes of state are reversible in many cases.
Because I got my start as a marine engineer working with boilers, engines, and generators, I incline to Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of a tipping point as a “boiling point.” I like it because it vividly conveys the image of a change from one state to another, and because it brings in the human factor where other definitions do not.
The boiling point, of course, is the temperature at which a substance begins changing from one physical state to another, such as from liquid water to steam within a boiler. Boiler tenders light fires, bring the water up to the boiling point, and initiate a phase change from water into vapor, which has very different properties. Once the boiling process is complete you can “superheat” steam, raising the temperature until it is dry vapor useful for spinning the turbines in machinery. But the change is not irreversible, because you can condense steam after extracting energy from it. You send it through a heat exchanger, it reverts to water, you feed it into the boiler again, and the steam cycle starts all over.
So you can approach the boiling point from below and above, and engineers do so as a matter of routine. Human beings can regulate changes of state.
The boiling-point metaphor is also enlightening because the rate at which you inject thermal energy — heat — into the system affects how the boiling process comes about, and it affects the system itself. You can bring up the temperature slowly and evenly to avoid damaging the plant. Machinery hates fast transients, which is why you warm it up before putting it into operation. Or you can turn up the heat suddenly and swiftly. That puts a lot of stress on the machinery, even as it hastens the onset and pace of the phase shift.
The boiling point makes a surprisingly illuminating analogy from the physical sciences to the realm of diplomacy and strategy. A stimulus can be applied slowly and gradually to some system — for our purposes today, the system being the rules-based international order put in place after World War II, as well as the hemispheric defense system here in the Americas. A slow stimulus of limited magnitude makes a weak catalyst for a bold, decisive political or military response from custodians of the system. It tends to summon forth a tepid response. In politics as in the sciences, then, tipping points are neither inevitable nor irrevocable. People — defenders as well as opponents of the system — have a say in them.
If a weak to moderate stimulus tends to provoke a weak to moderate reaction, a sudden, wrenching stimulus tends to apply an irresistible catalyst for action. You see this pattern in my go-to historical analogy for thinking about U.S. naval and military preparedness for a Pacific war today. Namely, the fall of France to German arms in 1940. That trauma launched the United States into an all-out military buildup.
Before 1940, Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration had been gradually rebuilding the U.S. Navy from its interwar low as storm clouds gathered in Europe and Asia. The rise of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese militarism in the 1930s was the counterpart to gradually infusing heat into our imaginary power plant. So long as the threat appeared remote and abstract, it brought about an incremental response from Washington DC in terms of lawmaking and shipbuilding.
That changed when France, regarded as Europe’s foremost military power and bulwark against totalitarianism, collapsed within weeks of a German Army onslaught. Its fall was the equivalent of suddenly redlining the burners in our imaginary boiler, with all the stresses on hardware that an abrupt, fiery transient entails. Events in Europe shattered old ways of thinking in Washington. The German triumph scared the daylights out of U.S. lawmakers and policymakers, prompting them to pass the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940, a measure that in effect authorized the construction of a second, shinier, more advanced U.S. Navy to go along with the existing fleet. Once the two-ocean navy took to the sea starting in 1943, the United States had enough ships to station what amounted to a standalone navy on each coast for the first time in its history.
So cataclysm in Europe drove the American government, military, and society past a tipping point between a time when war seemed far away and hypothetical and a time when it seemed to be bearing down on them in the Western Hemisphere, threatening to collapse the hemispheric safety zone Americans and their neighbors had long enjoyed. A shock in Europe, and the political and military actions it prompted, stood the republic in good stead in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II.
So why hasn’t Russia’s war on Ukraine driven us past a tipping point in similar fashion, goading us to mount another massive effort to prepare for war? You’d think it would. The global order over which we preside is under assault. Once again a major European nation has come under attack from a predatory neighbor at the same time a domineering Pacific power beats war drums every day. But you don’t get the same sense of urgency that was displayed by decisionmakers in the summer of 1940. Let me posit three candidate explanations as to why Ukraine has not jolted the system into action today the way France did back then. This may help us gaze through a glass darkly, glimpsing the fallout should China attack Taiwan.
-First: Unlike France, Ukraine has not fallen. That Ukraine could stand or even prevail cushions the psychological shock from Russia’s invasion, just as the shock effect back then would have been feebler had France partially ridden out the German invasion in 1940 the way it had in 1914. It took the United States until 1917 to intervene in World War I, and in fact the victor in the 1916 presidential election ran on a platform of staying out of Europe’s war. Today seems to be more 1914 than 1940.
-Second: Putin would love to fracture NATO, but unlike Hitler he does not seem hell-bent on conquering all of Europe and thus manifesting a direct threat to the Americas. Limited Russian aims muffle the stimulus for an all-out response from the United States, its allies, and its partners.
-Third: The Pacific aggressor, Communist China, has not yet made open war on its neighbors the way imperial Japan did starting in 1931, when it invaded Manchuria. China’s aggression is low-grade aggression. Forbearance is a deliberate choice, not out of goodwill but because of strategy. Beijing prefers to compete in the “gray zone” precisely to avoid applying a catalyst for wholesale alliance-building and military preparations on the part of guardians of the regional and global order. It seems to hope to sweep East Asia past a tipping point from the global rules-based order into an age of Chinese regional dominion — but to usher in this change of state with as little turbulence as possible. In that sense Chinese Communist overseers are like a marine engineer heating up the plant to the boiling point slowly and steadily. As I said before, it is possible to pass a tipping point with little drama. And in fact that would delight foes of the system.
So do we stand at a tipping point in global security? I would say we are certainly approaching such a point in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific, where aggressors are defying defenders of the regional Eurasian order to make good on their security commitments, and hope to discredit them and the system if they can’t. If aggressors succeed on the regional level, they could well hollow out the global order as a whole, casting us into a dark world.
It behooves us to stand against their effort—putting forth an effort equaling that of our forebears.
About the Author
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.