Six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and three weeks after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, U.S. policy on both topics remains ambiguous. The questions offer U.S. policy makers an opportunity to voice, and substantiate, America’s overarching purpose in the world. That purpose derives, at bottom, from America’s very founding, our self-conception by a creed of inherent individual rights equally endowed in all, and that government exists to secure those rights. We cannot pursue other ultimate ends, and we should take the opportunity to embody this creed.
The question around Taiwan is whether or not we would fight China militarily if they attacked Taiwan. Around Ukraine it is how far we would back Ukraine, whether to a final and definitive victory or to a settlement that would likely leave some gains in Putin’s hands. Answers to those questions point toward our position in the “great power competition” that drives much Washington policy making currently.
Questions around great power competition have been well voiced by author Ali Wyne. They include whether we view China and Russia as a bloc, or would accept a rivalry with them as a bloc, what our objectives are toward each, and, ultimately, what is our affirmative purpose? What is the point around which we organize our answers to all the prior questions, about the great powers and about Taiwan and Ukraine?
Answers start with the question of freedom. China and Russia are dictatorships, one run by a party and the other by a strongman. Taiwan is as free a country as any in the world. Ukraine has been growing in freedom though had not yet developed to the point that Taiwan has. Taiwan is threatened by the same power that quashed civil liberties in Hong Kong; Ukraine has been invaded by a regime of thugs.
For Taiwan, the U.S. ought to stand in the same active defense that we do for Britain, Australia, Germany, Japan, France, south Korea, Canada or, now, Finland. If we value rights for all any acquiescence to the destruction of governments that fundamentally serve those rights would directly betray our founding creed. Full stop. The problem of Taiwan’s non-sovereign status is an obstacle to be managed, a second level priority, and our track history on that question is acceptable. But we can and should clear up just why we support Taiwan’s autonomy.
For Ukraine, the first question has to do with the fundamental injustice of unprovoked aggression. Since World War II, the only other cases of clear cross-border aggression were launched by Saddam Hussein, and constitute the only justification for our own invasion of Iraq in 2003, in the elimination of that menace. War disrupts any progress in any nation, above all in the invaded ones. Ukraine may not have reached the levels of freedom and rights that others have, but it was moving in that direction. Invasion was particularly damaging to our interest in freedom’s progress, but invasion in itself impedes development everywhere. On that grounds alone we should oppose Putin, and for a democratizing nation we should extend our support further, to ensure Ukraine its leeway to grow in liberty.
The distinction between the two cases highlights that we are not out only to protect certain allies who happen to share out governing philosophy. India, which sits on the fence over the Ukraine war, should understand that we value that nation for its democratic traditions, even as its current administration raises questions in current practice. Turkey should know that we bristle at Erdogan’s antics for many reasons, but that the first distaste comes from his dismantling of liberal practice.
The distinction also points out different objectives toward Russia and China. Russia has launched a fundamentally illegitimate action, which highlights the unprincipled nature of Putin’s regime. He does enjoy a base of domestic support, so we would not call him fully illegitimate, and his resources demand a certain Realpolitik in managing him, but we need not accept him as a respected actor in the world. His naked and brutal aggression cements him in that status.
In China, Xi Jinping is concentrating power in his hands and unwinding what we thought was liberalizing development. That said, however arbitrary their governance can be and however repressive, the CCP takes care to assert principles of public purpose to its measures. It does not change the dictatorial nature of the regime, or the repressive nature of its ideology. But China differs from Russia in this institutional governance. Our difference with them is twofold. We cannot be true friends with any dictatorial regime; and we cannot countenance a takeover of Taiwan’s free society. We do have working connections with China; even more than with Russia, we need to follow a certain Realpolitik in managing those. But, if only in concept, we can treat those ties, and the history of reforms that Xi is undoing, as something to work with. There is room to devise a mental scale of in/compatibility with China. If “five out of ten” were to signify neutrality, perhaps we score their current compatibility at one or two, and perhaps we would say it was two or three, several years ago when Chinese citizens would say they were the freest they had ever been.
The distinction between these stances toward China and Russia, as with Taiwan and Ukraine, points out that we support “more free” against “less free” and encourage development toward freedom. It does not reduce anyone to a few if some of their practices trigger our distaste, but shows how they might enjoy better relations, with all the benefits that confers to both sides. It distinguishes China and Russia from each other, and gives them each their own set of interests in their relations with us. Our policy is not tied to an exclusive club of nations but to a principle. Clarity in our ends will go a long way in heartening ordinary people, in attracting other actors, and above all in living up to our own self-definition.