With the election just weeks away, both President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden claim to be the best person to protect Americans in a dangerous world. Yet neither one has explained when they would take the U.S. into war.
Trump was recently asked whether he would let China "get away with" invading Taiwan. That’s an important question, which deserves an answer. What would the administration do? Most important, would the president authorize military action to defend the island state and attack the People’s Republic of China?
He responded: "China knows what I’m gonna do. China knows." However, he wouldn’t say any more: "I think it’s an inappropriate place to talk about it. … This is just an inappropriate place to talk about it."
Why is it inappropriate? The president said that PRC officials know. Why shouldn’t the American people know as well? Indeed, with an election just weeks away, he has an obligation to tell us what he would do. Voters should be able to evaluate his foreign policy judgment in deciding who to support.
No doubt offhand presidential comments can be unsettling. Trump knows that very well, indeed, almost every day, but it never stopped him before. Nor is he the only culprit. In 2001 President George W. Bush created a stir when he declared that he would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan. However, that controversy reflected the fact that he appeared to be breaking from past policy without have notified anyone in his administration. Moreover, he had not informed Beijing of his policy. Then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin certainly did not know what Bush was "gonna do."
Indeed, Bush and his officials later walked back his comments. The episode well-illustrated the danger of seeming to make policy on the fly. But that apparently isn’t the case with Taiwan. The president says the Chinese already know.
So what would Trump, as commander-in-chief, do if Beijing attacked Taiwan? Does he believe that protecting Taiwan, a friendly state, but not a treaty ally, warrants war with a nuclear-armed power? If so, he should let the American people know. Do they want their president to risk their homeland in defense of a land that is a worthy democracy, but is not important, let alone vital, to their own defense?
If he would not sacrifice America’s future – the correct though tough decision – would he take other steps, such as economic sanctions? Break diplomatic relations? Promote a common allied economic boycott? Or something else? If he wants to keep his options open, what possible responses would he consider? These questions should also be asked of Joe Biden.
More broadly, what circumstances do the two candidates believe warrant war? Especially with a nuclear-armed power? When should the US promise to defend other nations? Does that mean protecting their independence or every territory they claim? Should Washington focus on protecting America and Americans, or acting like a global policeman? What of prosperous, populous nations that don’t do much to care for themselves but prefer to rely on US support? What of dubious "friends," such as the tyrannical Saudi monarchy, long on America’s defense dole?
Taiwan is a good test case. A treaty ally during the Cold War, it lost out when Washington decided to recognize the PRC, which represented the Chinese mainland containing the vast majority of Chinese. Richard Nixon’s decision to engage the communist government, which required shifting recognition to Beijing, was a brilliant strategic move against the Soviet Union, America’s main Cold War adversary.
At that point Washington dropped its defense treaty with Taiwan, while retaining unofficial relations with the island state, and continued to sell Taipei weapons for its defense. What is officially known as the Republic of China evolved into a vibrant democracy. Obviously, the Taiwanese people, not Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks, should decide on Taipei’s future.
Alas, the issue is a nationalistic flashpoint and most Chinese, even many who want a more liberal future, believe that Taiwan is part of the PRC. (The island was detached in 1895 after Japan defeated Imperial China in war.) They care much more about the issue than do Americans, few of whom know, let alone care, much about Taiwan. Thus, Beijing is willing to risk and spend far more to prevail.
Geography explains why Taiwan is not a security concern for America. The former is 7600 miles away, but just 110 miles from the Chinese mainland, about the same distance as Cuba from America. This disparity also makes it much harder for the US to intervene. At such range it is far cheaper for the PRC to deter than America to project power. If the candidates nevertheless are prepared to go to war, the next question is how? Would they bomb the mainland? Would they use nuclear weapons? Ultimately, whoever is president should make the decision on war with the PRC based on what is best for the American people.
However, Taiwan is only one of many cases. Washington has defense treaties with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. The Philippines is a semi-failed state with historical ties to Washington but is not important let alone vital to America’s security. It also barely bothers to field a military yet insists that Americans should defend every rock and islet which it claims. The Trump administration appears to accept that this frankly crazy position. Issuing a blank security check only encourages irresponsible behavior by an ill-prepared, irresponsible government. How many Americans should die in a scuffle over Scarborough Shoal initiated by the Filipinos?
Japan is more responsible, but if it feels vitally threatened by the PRC why does it continue to spend just one percent of its GDP on the military? History has long weighed heavily on Tokyo and the region, but World War II is 75 years in the past. That experience cannot justify expecting America to continue to protect nations well able to defend themselves.
Like most everyone else, the Japanese assume that the US will save them in a crisis. Taking the US for granted puts Americans at greater risk. And the chief problem is not guaranteeing Japan’s independence, which China has never threatened. Rather, Tokyo and Beijing are sparring over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, to which the PRC has a serious claim. Yet Trump administration officials have promised to defend Japan’s position irrespective of merits or relevance to the US
The proximate threat to the Republic of Korea is North Korea. Today the ROK has more than 50 times the North’s economic strength and twice its population. Why should the South still be an American defense dependent? And why should Americans die to protect a nation that mattered a lot more to US defense during the Cold War than today? The Korean War and Cold War both are long over. Renewed conflict obviously would be horrid, but the Korean Peninsula no longer has the security significance for America that it once did. The South is capable of defending itself.
Washington policymakers assume that they should put America at risk, now potentially even from North Korean nuclear attack, to save the ROK without explaining why. The president seems to doubt this position, at least on occasion. In contrast, Biden views the South as an inevitable, forever defense client. He should explain his position.
Europe long was viewed as vital to America, but decades after World War II’s end why must America’s commitment remain the same amid a rapidly changing world? With roughly 11 times the GDP and three times the population of Russia, why can’t the Europeans defend themselves? European governments ostentatiously take US support for granted: most spend less than half of the share of GDP as does the US, while many devote a third or less. Even the nations on Russia’s border which squeal the most about fearing Moscow spend just two percent of their GDP on the military. Is their independence worth so little? If so, why should Americans die on their behalf?
Moreover, why does Washington keep adding states whose chief role is to be defended by America? For instance, the alliance’s latest members are Montenegro and North Macedonia, which on no measure are vital to America’s or Europe’s security. Next up for inclusion may be the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, of The Mouse that Roared fame. There’s even an active lobby seeking to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, even though doing so would set up a confrontation between America and nuclear-armed Russia over countries without even a vague relation to US security. Until the end of the Cold War they had spent hundreds of years as part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, without ill consequence to the US
Even worse is the Middle East. The region no longer matters much to Washington, given rising American energy production and falling global demand. Israel is a regional, nuclear-armed superpower that can defend itself. The region long has suffered through dictatorship and chaos, neither of which warrant American military involvement. Why should Americans die on behalf of the Saudi royal family? The Saudis hire foreigners to do the country’s dirty work; they treat American servicemen and women as their personal bodyguards, paid for through weapons purchases. Alas, Trump has obliged, sacrificing US interests to royal desires.
Trump and Biden should be asked directly: why are Americans expected to die to protect the licentious, irresponsible Saudi royals who slice and dice their critics? Egypt’s dictatorial regime, which has jailed tens of thousands and continues to persecute Christians and other religious minorities? The Emirati royal family, whose only virtue is being less oppressive than the Saudis? Should Washington risk war to sort out the Syrian and Libyan civil wars which, though tragic, do not impact American security? Why do legislators rush en masse to declare support for Israel when its primary threat lies within, the continued occupation over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians who live under a system of militarized Apartheid?
War is terrible. Sometimes necessary, but rarely so. Most US conflicts are hard if not impossible to justify. Brutal aggressions against Mexico, Spain, and the Philippines. Senseless involvement in World War I. A last gasp attempt to rescue French colonialism in Vietnam. A gaggle of nation-building disasters in the 1990s and 2000s. Even the better cases, such as World War II, in which Imperial Japan attacked America, have important what if’s: what if the US has not imposed an oil embargo on Tokyo, pushing that country toward its attack on Pearl Harbor?
With war so frequent and frequently unjustified, Americans should start holding their presidents accountable. True, the original Constitution required Congress to decide on war, but Washington now operates on very different principles, by which the president does whatever he or she wants on foreign policy, leaving legislators to applaud or carp, depending on how the conflict turns out. Hence the necessity of asking candidates when they are prepared to take Americans into war.
It’s good to know, I suppose, that the Chinese know whether Washington would let them "get away with" conquering Taiwan. But when will Americans learn the answer? After all, they would be tasked with the paying and dying if a terrible war with China ensued. What say you, President Trump?
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.