Source: Richard B. Speed
In the aftermath of the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, America faces the looming possibility of fighting two major wars at opposite ends of the Eurasian continent simultaneously: one against Russia over Ukraine and another against China over Taiwan. Given our current disarray, the United States is in no position to fight a two-front war. Accordingly, it is our best policy to avoid conflict in both regions.
The United States has no vital interests to defend In Ukraine. Should the Russians seize it, they will merely occupy a region that has been Russian since the days of Catherine the Great. In doing so, they will most likely become bogged down in a guerrilla resistance movement not unlike what they faced in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Russia will have its hands full, and NATO will remain intact and fully on guard.
On the other hand, should China invade Taiwan and the United States fails to come to the island’s defense, nations throughout the Far East will most likely conclude that they can no longer rely on the United States for their defense against a rising China. Japan and South Korea will have to choose between accommodating Chinese demands and building nuclear arsenals of their own to defend themselves. Other nations on China’s periphery will likely have to back away from their association with the United States and make their peace with the new order in Asia. In short, the U.S. has much to lose.
Over seventy years ago, the United States faced a similar possibility of a two-front war against Russia and China. At the time, General Omar Bradley argued that invading China would involve the United States in “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
It was good advice then, and it is good advice today. The prime difference between then and now is that the Eurasian balance of power between Russia and China has shifted in favor of the latter, and that makes all the difference. Whenever faced with the necessity of making a choice between two hostile powers, it is wise to side with the weaker against the more dangerous.
In 1951, the primary adversary the nation faced was the Soviet Union, and the critical theater of potential military operations was Europe, not Asia. Accordingly, the administration believed it foolish to get bogged down in a “land war in Asia,” when all the nation’s military resources would be necessary to deal with a possible land war in Europe. Only Joseph Stalin, it was thought, would benefit from a Sino-American war.
Today, the situation is reversed. Despite its large nuclear arsenal, Russia is a weak and declining power striving to recover a small measure of its former glory, while China is a rising power challenging American hegemony in the Far East and the Pacific region. The primary threat to the American position in the world comes from China in Asia, not from Russia in Europe. Becoming involved in a major land war with Russia over Ukraine, when the United States might be called upon to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, would be the wrong war, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.
Now the United States faces a dilemma of its own making. If, as currently looks possible, Russia invades Ukraine, triggered by its possible admission to NATO, an administration that can ill afford any more foreign policy disasters will have to decide how to respond. Amid collapsing poll numbers, domestic pressure from both the left and the right to look tough in confrontation with a despot whom the president has characterized as a “killer” may prove irresistible, leading the administration to commit American troops to a war they cannot win without risking dangerous and unpredictable escalation. The only beneficiary of such a conflict would be the China of Xi Jinping.
Americans have little reason to feel confident of a cheap and easy victory. Not only are the American armed forces currently led by woke generals more concerned about “white rage” in the ranks than winning wars, but, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the United States is at present extremely vulnerable to Russian cyber-warfare techniques and even to a possible EMP attack. Russia is not Iraq, and victory will not be easy.
There is no reason for the United States to court war with Russia over the fate of Ukraine. To paraphrase Bismarck, Ukraine is not worth the bones of a single American infantryman.
If, in the event of a Russian invasion, the administration believes that it must respond, and that economic “sanctions,” which rarely work, are not enough, it should confine itself to actions short of war. These might include military aid to a Ukrainian resistance such as the CIA dispatched to the Afghan Mujahadin in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1979. Then the Russians may become bogged down in yet another Afghan-style war while Americans remain free to focus on their primary rival: China.
Meanwhile, the United States faces the looming possibility of a naval and air war with China in the waters around Taiwan. It would be best to avoid war entirely, but should war break out in the Far East, at least it would not be a land war involving hundreds of thousands of American troops. Rather, it would be a primarily air and naval conflict playing into American strength rather than weakness. Still, given the vulnerability of American aircraft carriers to Chinese missiles, it could be a costly conflict.
War between the United States and Russia over Ukraine would be a catastrophic diversion from the nation’s ability to focus upon the primary threat it faces in the Far East. Given the gravity of the threat posed by China, not only to the international position of the United States, but to its neighbors as well, it should be clear that peacefully containing its ambitions should be the highest diplomatic priority of any American administration. To this end, George F. Kennan’s Cold War strategy of “containment,” which served the United States and the cause of freedom well, while avoiding a disastrous war, for almost fifty years, points the way forward for America’s Asian policy during the next half-century.
Great powers such as the United States may have unlimited objectives in world affairs, but even they have limited means. Accordingly, they must choose where to best employ their resources. This is a particularly salient issue given the nation’s current domestic divisions and the disarray of the American military establishment. A gathering Chinese threat should be of much greater concern to American leaders than the irredentist objectives of a nation with an economy the size of Brazil’s.
American diplomacy during the foreseeable future should focus on organizing an Asian version of NATO, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and (if possible) Russia. To this list could be added Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. All these countries are threatened by an expansionist China. But the United States needs to take the lead just as it did in the organization of NATO almost three quarters of a century ago. Then it was Russia that needed to be contained. Now it is China.