A New Model for Ukraine: Strategic Deterrence
The answer is one ironically failed in Ukraine, and one has stoically kept the peace in East Asia. The question is, going forward with Ukraine, should America’s deterrence model be the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5, or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act?
The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, as created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was to be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.”
The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO signers. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (see also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland (he came close to getting that.) But with the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had little desire to join what would have been a land war in Asia to rival WWII. Instead, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty, in 1954.
That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (“China,” but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA.) The TRA listed two American obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain U.S. capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.
The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it could. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience.” Peace, a stasis, realpolitik, a stalemate, call it what you wish, resulted.
The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi, despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. No invasion despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Chinese military grew from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy, the nation from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. The U.S. withdrew its troops from Taiwan and the Mainland has not invaded. The U.S. bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded. There’s a pattern there.
The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty compels its signatories to act once someone moves against them (the treaty was written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.)
As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin, but consistent with the fully defensive nature of the NATO treaty. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better definition of deterrence?
The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize new, explosive redlines. Much talk will be devoted as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea.
Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine is seemingly headed toward a resolution, spoken or not, that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what is spun as in the western media about who won and lost. And an ending in which everyone declares victory, Russia holding the Donbas and greater Ukraine free from the invaders, is never a bad thing.
The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb a functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity.
But post-Ukraine, some hawks want clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations, including the recent semi-formal Quad, which includes India.)
The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless?
There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic un-ambiguity as a show of force.
Joe Biden will come under pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but must still carry the risk that the deterrent is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.”
Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act instead purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them. TRA is a model for a future agreement with Ukraine.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.