Is Biden Being Machiavellian or Misguided on Taiwan?

Is Biden’s Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma—greetings from Florence! I’m here in Italy teaching my annual course on Machiavelli for Georgetown University. It’s a tough assignment, but someone has to do it.

Emma Ashford: Buongiorno, Matt! Are you aiming for your students to love you or fear you by the time the course is over?

MK: Ha. Machiavelli’s precepts do apply in the classroom. To keep up with these kids, I need both the cunning of the fox and the strength of the lion.

But, you know, my biggest insight from teaching this course over the past decade is that Machiavelli was misunderstood. He was not as Machiavellian as people think. For example, he was a big believer in republican forms of government and thought that dictatorship was a fundamentally flawed system.

I bet he would have cheered Joe Biden’s doctrine of democracy versus autocracy and supported the U.S. president’s strong statements on Taiwan this week.

EA: Didn’t Machiavelli believe that prudence was a core virtue? I’m not sure it’s prudent to start an ideological fight Washington might not be able to win.

But perhaps that’s a good place to pivot to this week’s hot topic: America’s terminally gaffe-prone president has put his foot in his mouth again, this time on the question of U.S. security commitments to Taiwan. In remarks on Monday, he suggested that the United States is bound to respond militarily if Taiwan were to be threatened by China. That’s a pretty big policy shift!

MK: I thought Biden’s comment was right on target. I was just disappointed to see his White House walk it back—for the third time! Many are debating the cause of the rift between Biden and his White House. Some say the contradictory statements are part of a deliberate strategy to maintain ambiguity. Others say that Biden misspoke and the White House corrected him with the true policy.

I would argue that at this point the reason doesn’t really matter. In the event of a war, it would be up to the president to decide whether to intervene, regardless of the formal policy. We now have a clear window into Biden’s instincts on the matter and what his decision would be.

I disagree that this would be a big shift. The United States can still maintain its “One China” policy—there is only one China, and recognition of the CCP’s claims that Taiwan is part of China.

It can maintain its position that Washington would oppose a revision to the status quo by either side; it wouldn’t want to see China resolve the issue by force or to see Taiwan declare independence. It can maintain its position to sell arms Taiwan needs to defend itself.

But there has always been a question about what the United States would do if China invaded. Washington should issue a clear deterrent threat that if China invaded, then it would mean a major war with the United States. And Biden’s comment this week was a step in that direction.

After his failure to deter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, it seems that Biden is determined not to make the same mistake with China and Taiwan.

EA: There are definitely two issues here. The first, as you note, is that Biden and his administration seem to be on different pages—or perhaps different planets—when it comes to Taiwan policy. The president has repeatedly stated his unambiguous support for Taiwan, leaving his staff to walk it back when it became clear that it wasn’t official administration policy.

The whole thing is highly irresponsible, as it effectively leaves ambiguous the question of whether the United States still adheres to a policy of strategy ambiguity. If you’re going to change the policy, just change it. Don’t pussyfoot around it.

MK: To be sure, I would have rather seen the White House fully back the president; that would have provided real strategic clarity. The back-and-forth with his own administration contributes to a sense of continued ambiguity, which could be dangerous. But we now know where the commander in chief stands on this issue, so I think we now have a pretty high degree of strategic clarity as long as he is in office.

EA: Well, one might think that Congress would have a say in whether the United States engaged in a war with China?

But I agree that it seems pretty clear that Biden himself would defend Taiwan. And that’s the second problem. America has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan since the Nixon administration executed its opening with China in the 1970s, and it has worked well.

China remains unclear on the extent of U.S. support for Taiwan in the event of conflict, which helps to deter it, while U.S. policymakers maintain freedom of action and aren’t locked into any single course of action, whether it’s sending arms or sending troops. It’s a flexible and workable solution to a difficult problem. Strategic clarity—as you put it—is more like a set of chains for future policymakers.

MK: Strategic ambiguity worked well when China was weak, but now that it is stronger, it does not. As you know, deterrence is about capability and will. When the U.S. capability to repel a Chinese attack on Taiwan was unquestioned, Washington could afford to have ambiguous statements of will. Now that the capability gap is narrowing, Washington needs to strengthen deterrence by dialing up its declarations of will.

I believe the greatest risk of war with China comes from Xi Jinping miscalculating. Much like what we are seeing now with Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, I fear that one day Xi will conclude that invading Taiwan might be easy. Washington needs to persuade him that, no, actually, invading Taiwan would be hard and definitely means war with the world’s greatest superpower. In other words, don’t even think about it.

EA: And what if dialing up U.S. support for Taiwan—building up forces on the island, for example—actually encourages China to consider military action, when otherwise it might have been content to maintain economic and political pressure on the island instead? Strategic clarity runs both ways: If China becomes convinced that the United States will not allow Taiwan to reunify with mainland China under peaceful conditions, that may end up prompting the fight U.S. policymakers wish to avoid.

MK: The United States does not need to change its position on peaceful unification. It should just clarify its long-standing opposition to a military resolution to the dispute. And why would China be more likely to consider military action if Beijing knows it means war with Washington? I don’t think Xi is suicidal. It would almost certainly make him less likely to choose force.

EA: “Suicidal” is an interesting word choice, particularly in the context of the credibility gap, i.e., the fact that we often say one thing and do something completely different in foreign policy. Abandoning strategic ambiguity makes that more noticeable and allows the United States to box itself in. If policymakers are no longer sure that the United States would prevail in a conflict over Taiwan, that’s extraordinarily dangerous.

I’m sure you saw the dramatic results of the recent Center for a New American Security war game on Taiwan? They brought together a bunch of high-level government officials and experts to simulate a potential U.S.-China war over Taiwan, with pretty devastating results. They concluded that the United States would be at a severe disadvantage, given Taiwan’s proximity to China. Worse, the war game ended up going nuclear extremely quickly.

MK: I didn’t see the results of that particular game, but I’ve been playing war games on Taiwan for nearly two decades. While China has certain advantages, the United States has its own advantages as well. For example, Washington gets to play defense, but Beijing has the burden of playing offense—which is much more difficult. And, of course, there is a risk that such a conflict would go nuclear, as I have written about at length. The United States and China are both nuclear-armed powers, and the stakes are high.

This is why it would be much better to deter such a conflict with a clear statement of U.S. intent (and the capabilities to back it up), rather than let Xi stumble into a stupid war as dictators are wont to do. If Biden hadn’t mistakenly taken the military option off the table in Ukraine from the beginning, we might have avoided the terrible tragedy we are witnessing there now.

EA: Let me guess. We might get our hair mussed, but it will only kill 10 to 20 million, tops?

Look, you might be right that from the point of view of Taiwan, it’s better to risk everything on deterrence now, rather than a war later. But from the point of view of the United States, I don’t understand why it’s better to risk a nuclear war over Taiwan. Call me a nationalist if you like, but from the point of view of the United States, I think that trade-off looks very different.

MK: Since the end of World War II, the United States has always had a policy of preventing hostile states from dominating important geopolitical regions. We have seen what happens when it fails to do that. Remember Pearl Harbor. The American people are much safer when the U.S. government deters revisionist great powers abroad and prevents them from attacking Americans at home.

If China takes Taiwan, the island becomes a big aircraft carrier that Beijing can use to project power to the rest of the region, including threatening U.S. allies and military positions in Japan, the Philippines, Guam, and elsewhere. Beijing has clear designs on dominating the Indo-Pacific and becoming a (if not the) leading global power.

If that happens, China will upset the U.S.-led international system and shape a Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-influenced global system more conducive to its autocratic values and interests. This will not be good for the freedom or prosperity of ordinary Americans.

But Taiwan is a cork bottling up the CCP in Asia. As long as the CCP has its head down focused on that issue, it can’t threaten Americans directly.

EA: Matt, I’m an offshore balancer. My entire branch of realism is dedicated to figuring out how to prevent hegemons from dominating important geopolitical regions. Trust me, I know how that argument goes.

But it’s not a good fit for the Taiwan question. Yes, Washington has an interest in preventing Chinese dominance of Asia, but taking Taiwan would let Beijing expand its footprint into Asia by just about 100 miles. It wouldn’t let China dominate Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, or most of Southeast Asia.

Arguing that taking Taiwan would let China establish hegemony in Asia—or globally—is like arguing that conquering the Donbas suddenly means that Russia is at risk of overrunning Germany or France and establishing hegemony in Europe.

MK: This is the problem with applying academic theories to policymaking. “Offshore balancing” is a good label for describing what the United States did in World War I and World War II, and what Great Britain did before—but it is a terrible prescription for what countries should do. Is it a desirable outcome to wait until threats gather to the point that it is almost too late and then come in at the last minute to fight a devastating world war? Should the United States have refrained from arming Putin’s enemies until Russian forces reached Western Europe?

I would recommend that responsible powers intervene well before it gets to that point.

Deterring China from taking Taiwan is the wise policy. Waiting until after China takes Taiwan and then some more, and then fighting World War III, would be a disaster.

EA: Fighting a war now—that might go nuclear—is better than potentially fighting a war that might go nuclear later?

MK: No. Deter a war now with a credible deterrence policy, so America doesn’t have to fight a war—nuclear or otherwise—now or later.

My biggest criticism of the Biden statement is that he runs the risk of speaking loudly and carrying a little stick. He needs to back up his tough talk with investments in the capabilities Washington needs to deter, and if necessary prevail in, a war with Beijing.

EA: Well, perhaps this is a good point to talk about the administration’s much-vaunted Asia-Pacific strategy. This week saw a speech from Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlining the administration’s Asia policy. The speech did two things: It confirmed that the Biden administration’s strategy is simply a continuation of the Trump strategy, and it introduced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the administration’s rather half-hearted attempt to construct an economic strategy to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

I’ll be honest here: I was not exactly overwhelmed with enthusiasm for this strategy. In fact, it would be hard to be more underwhelmed. The speech was almost pointless! We didn’t even get full details, which are apparently classified or not yet worked out.

MK: I don’t disagree much. I think the trip and the new economic framework were helpful symbolically, but I would have also liked to have seen bolder action and more details, given the stakes of this issue. I will be publishing a new report on a democratic trade and economic framework through the Atlantic Council in a few weeks that will lay out the more comprehensive vision I would like to see.

But, for now, I better to get back to the classroom. I will explain to my students that Machiavelli clearly had a consequentialist morality, even though he never actually wrote “the ends justify the means.” But I do think this means we are at the end of this column.

EA: Don’t worry, Matt, after reading this column, I’m sure your students will fear you appropriately.

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