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Iraq, Ukraine, Taiwan
In modern conditions, aggression rarely pays, as the real winners are the bystanders
The past several weeks marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the twenty-year anniversary of America’s invasion of Iraq. I wrote about the latter anniversary here, and this piece can reasonably be read as being in part about the former. The two wars are, in many ways, wildly different in intent and in execution. But from a neutral perspective, they have certain features in common.
Both, for one thing, were wars of choice, undertaken by a dominant power, intended to decapitate and subdue a weaker adversary that was nonetheless viewed as an unacceptable threat. Both were also expected to be easy victories by the countries that launched the wars. Yet both wound up doing far more damage to the invading state than they imagined they possibly could. Indeed, I don’t think it’s out of line to call America’s war on Iraq and Russia’s war on Ukraine the two most spectacular foreign policy own goals of my lifetime.
I’ve been thinking about that lately and the lessons it may have for the power who has reaped the most benefit from America’s and Russia’s mistakes, but that many commentators think is hell-bent on following in our footsteps. I’m talking, of course, about China, and the possibility that it might wage a war of conquest against Taiwan.
Before I get into my thoughts about China and Taiwan, and its possible mistakes of the future, let’s review the mistakes of the past.
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America’s war in Iraq was launched with the explicit plan to win quickly and not stick around. The first part worked out fine. The Iraqi state very quickly lost the war on the battlefield, and the United States had nominal control of Iraqi territory within weeks of the start of the war. But this was only the beginning of American involvement in a war that took years to exit—indeed, that we still haven’t entirely exited. The United States ultimately spent $2 trillion on the war, and while the total number of American lives lost was relatively small, when non-fatal casualties, including the severe mental health toll on many veterans, are added in, the butcher’s bill looks far steeper.
These are only the direct costs, however. The Iraq War also redirected American attention and material resources away from Afghanistan, a conflict that the United States ultimately lost. It drove a reorientation of the American military toward counterinsurgency, which meant less attention to other contingencies (like Russian cross-border aggression). It did enormous damage to perceptions of the United State abroad, and to our relationship with our European allies. It spread instability to neighboring countries and midwifed the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That instability in turn sparked a refugee crisis that has destabilized European politics to this day.
Who won the Iraq War, then? The most obvious winner was Iran, which saw a key rival eliminated and now exerts a dominant influence over Iraq. Russia benefitted from higher oil prices, which helped the Putin regime consolidate power and rebuild Russia’s military. And, most importantly, China benefitted enormously from a decade of American distraction and focus on a peripheral theater. By choosing war against Iraq, in other words, America weakened itself and strengthened other, more important rivals.
The same dynamic is even more obvious with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If Russia’s minimal objective was to punish Ukraine, it has certainly achieved that goal. The country has suffered enormous physical and human losses, a massive outflow of population, and has been economically devastated. But Russia has already suffered enormous, lopsided battlefield losses far exceeding Ukraine’s. It has become the object of sanctions that, while they haven’t crippled its economy, will severely hamper its longterm growth, which will be further hampered by Russia’s own exodus of its most productive citizens. Most crucially, it has still not hit upon any strategy for actually winning the war.
But these, again, are only the direct consequences. The indirect consequences for Russia are far more significant. The entire world has observed the poor performance of the Russian military, and will adjust their expectations accordingly, resulting in a weakened deterrent capacity. The degradation of Russia’s military will also leave it practically far less capable of responding to other future contingencies, which could have dire consequences for Russian interests in the Caucasus or Central Asia, or even for its own territorial integrity. Russia has lost its crucial commercial relationship with Europe, along with the political leverage it derived from their dependence on Russian oil and gas; that weapon could only be fired once, and is now worthless.
Most important, while Russia justified its attack on Ukraine by citing the threat from NATO, Russia has dramatically reinvigorated that alliance, with Finland joining the alliance and Poland undertaking a historic military buildup. If Germany were to follow suit (as it should, but which seems decreasingly likely), Russia could credit itself with reviving its most dangerous foe of the previous century. And if Russia loses its war with Ukraine, it can be assured that NATO will be far more involved in that country than it could ever have been before the invasion.
So who is winning the Russia-Ukraine war? The United States has plainly benefitted, as a larger, stronger NATO (and a more Atlanticist Europe) is a more powerful force-multiplier for American policy, albeit at a significant cost in terms of money and arms for the Ukrainian cause. Iran has benefitted from the opportunity to sell arms, as has Turkey; Turkey has also benefitted from the leverage it has over NATO decision making, and India has benefitted from Russia’s need for financial and diplomatic support.
But the biggest winner by far is China, Russia’s purported ally but now the overwhelmingly dominant partner in that relationship. Russia is poised to become increasingly dependent on China for chips and other high-tech components while also depending on China as the most important market for its oil and gas, to the point where it is even fostering Chinese fantasies of recovering lost territories in the Russian far east. As with Iraq, the attacking power has weakened itself and benefitted more dangerous rivals.
China has been the most important beneficiary of both the America’s war in Iraq and Russia’s war in Ukraine. If China attacks Taiwan, though, it risks losing much of what it has achieved over the past forty-five years, while benefitting only other potential rivals.
That dynamic is already in evidence. China’s rhetorical belligerence coupled with its military buildup and its construction of military facilities in the South China Sea, its repression of Hong Kong—all of this has alarmed its neighbors, driving many of them into closer relationships with the United States. Japan has initiated a substantial rearmament drive aimed squarely at denying China victory in a war against Taiwan, and Australia is acquiring a nuclear submarine fleet under a pact with the U.S. and Britain. America is back in the Philippines and contemplating a strategic upgrade in relations with Vietnam. These are concrete losses to Chinese interests that are a direct consequence of China’s threatening diplomatic and military posture.
War with Taiwan would make China’s position vastly worse, even if it successfully took the island. China, of course, vastly overmatches Taiwan militarily, notwithstanding the difficulty of mounting an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait. But China would have to assume that an attack would draw the United States into the conflict, which would mean substantial losses for both countries. Unlike America’s war on Iraq, China could not be assured that it would face only a much weaker adversary. Indeed, precisely because it’s a reasonable assumption that America would get involved, some assume that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would actually begin with a Chinese attack on crucial American assets like the bases on Guam, which would inevitably provoke a much larger and more sustained military response by the United States than an attack on Taiwan would.
Even without such a provocative beginning, though, the immediate and medium-term economic costs of a war would be horrendous. The still huge trading relationship with the United States would inevitably be severed by a Chinese attack on Taiwan, but China’s relationships with its Asian neighbors would also likely collapse; they would hardly trust a country that had just invaded a major trading partner. Meanwhile, between physical damage and a population exodus, even a quickly successful war against Taiwan would destroy most of the economic value the island currently has.
Taiwan does, of course, have significant military value. But against that you would have to set the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan, and essentially permanent American enmity. Unless you assume not only that Taiwan would be easily defeated and subdued, but that America would easily accept the takeover of the island and that its other neighbors would follow suit, it’s very hard to see how an attack on Taiwan would tip the balance of power in Asia China’s way. It’s far easier to see how it would do the opposite.
Who would benefit, meanwhile? Not America, of course, nor Japan, and certainly not Taiwan. But Russia would gain new leverage over China as a key supplier of strategic materials once other sources are cut off. Europe would benefit from reduced competition from Chinese companies, and either from American concessions to get them to join a united front against China or, of a common front failed to hold, the opportunity to play both sides. The biggest winner would probably be India, which would benefit from stronger military ties with the United States and a surge of trade and investment away from China. In the war itself, China might lose or America might lose, but in a multi-polar world, the biggest winners would likely be the bystanders.
Why, then, has China embarked on a course that ends in war? Well, it’s not clear that it is. China is clearly aiming to achieve the ability to conquer Taiwan at the earliest possible date, and they are unbending in their opposition to Taiwanese independence or any formal alliance between Taiwan and the United States. But those are entirely compatible with a continuation of China’s historic strategy of biding its time and building its strength, and ultimately cowing Taiwan into “voluntary” submission. It’s worth considering whether that’s just the course China is planning to pursue: to shift the military balance further and further in its own direction until deterrence by denial is not credible, while shifting the economic balance further and further in its own direction until deterrence by punishment is also no longer credible. At that point, China should be able to decouple Taiwan from the United States without fighting.
America’s counter-moves against such a strategy, meanwhile, could be far more expensive than China’s, both in hard-dollar terms and in terms of the soft costs of placating sometimes restive allies. To begin with, the United States has global military commitments, which China at present does not. China can therefore focus the bulk of its efforts on a single contingency, while the United States—with a smaller population and a comparable-sized economy—must spread its own efforts more diffusely. That’s precisely why some China hawks have advocated abandoning Ukraine, for example, to focus on building a more credible defense of Taiwan—but such a reversal would do enormous damage to America’s position in Europe, a cost that has to be counted in the balance in assessing that strategy.
Meanwhile, even if we focused our military attentions overwhelmingly on Taiwan, that would facilitate a free-rider problem in the region, encouraging countries like Indonesia and the Philippines to have their cake and eat it too. China continues to grow its trading relationships with Southeast Asia even as the United States grows its military posture. The more time passes without war, and the stronger China grows, the more trade will weigh in that balance as Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila calculate where their interests truly lie. That’s true for Europe as well. America has recently embarked on unprecedented efforts to hobble China’s economic and technological progress, most notably by banning sales of equipment to manufacture the most advanced semiconductors. That ban requires European cooperation to be effective; how long will such cooperation last if China does not attack Taiwan?
That’s fundamental difference between China’s situation vis-a-vis Taiwan and Russia’s vis-a-vis Ukraine. As I argued near the outset of Russia’s war, Putin might rationally have launched that war despite its obvious risks not only because he was deluded into thinking it would be a cakewalk, but because he correctly saw that time was not on his side. The appeal of Europe was only going to grow over time, the appeal of Russia to shrink, and its relative power was set to shrink as well, particularly in a decarbonizing world. As well, after 2014 Ukraine was finally building a proper army. It wasn’t completely crazy for Putin to think that he should strike while he still had a clear upper hand, particularly when he thought he would take Kyiv as easily as America took Baghdad, and was willing to repress Ukrainian independence as brutally as necessary in the aftermath of conquest.
The situation vis-a-vis Taiwan is very different. Everyone expects China’s military capabilities to continue to improve. If the question is whether China can conquer Taiwan, most observers expect the answer to get more affirmative over time, not less; ditto for China’s ability to battle the American navy. The same is true of China’s economic position. True, China’s growth rate is no longer even close to the extraordinary levels it achieved in the first thirty years after Deng’s reforms, and it has serious long-term problems, particularly its ominous demographic picture. But it has a continental-scale internal market that it can continue to develop, including at the edge of innovation where America is trying to stymie it. Its neighbors—particularly Taiwan—face similar demographic headwinds (worse, in Taiwan’s case). Most important, China is already the overwhelmingly dominant economic force in Asia. That’s its most important asset, which it can leverage to achieve its objectives, and which war would jeopardize.
There’s a case, then, that Beijing still has the luxury of time, notwithstanding America’s countermoves, which should rationally incline China toward its traditional strategy rather than toward precipitate action. Its leader, Xi Jinping, however, does not have that luxury. If he wants to be the man who reunified China with Taiwan, he may decide to force the issue—or to use diplomatic and economic pressure so ham-handedly that Taiwan forces the issue itself by, say, declaring independence. Given the increasingly personal nature of China’s dictatorship, it’s not clear Xi could be stopped if that is the course he is set on.
Analogous personal considerations may also have been in play when President George W. Bush launched his war against Iraq, or when President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Their reputations have not exactly been enhanced in the way that they imagined. There’s a lesson there. Let’s hope Xi learns it before he follows in their ill-fated footsteps.
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