In 1990, an American diplomat informed Saddam Hussein that his border dispute with Kuwait did not concern the United States. We all know what happened next. Would Saddam have invaded Kuwait if he had known how the United States would react? I doubt. In international business, misunderstandings can be very costly. It is better to make your policy clear to your opponents, in order to avoid misunderstandings.
This Article FT caught my attention:
It’s easy to forget that at the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, he made a bridge opening to Vladimir Putin. During the 2020 campaign, Biden barely mentioned Russia as a geopolitical rival to the United States. China has captured all the attention. At the Geneva summit with his Russian counterpart in June 2021, the US president went to great lengths to massage Putin’s ego, even calling Russia a great power.
Weeks later, Biden withdrew remaining US forces from Afghanistan in a debacle that threatened to define his presidency.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the two seemingly unrelated events — Biden’s positive mood music toward Russia and his withdrawal from Afghanistan — reinforced Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The West, according to Putin, was unlikely to react more decisively to his plan to annex Ukraine than it did to Crimea in 2014.
Such misunderstandings have characterized geopolitics throughout the ages.
I’m not sure that’s entirely correct (I suspect Putin was expecting a quick victory.) But it’s certainly true that Biden should have told Putin that we would be supplying arms to Ukraine if Russia invaded.
Now you see a discussion of “strategic ambiguity” in our Taiwan policy. Here is Raymond Kuo at Foreign Police:
Strategic ambiguity is generally understood as deliberately creating uncertainty to Beijing and Taipei to find out if the United States would intervene in a war. This supposedly creates double deterrence: The threat of American intervention prevents China from invading, and the fear of American abandonment prevents Taiwan from starting a war by declaring its independence, which China considers a casus belli. This approach, advocates argue, has kept the peace for decades and prevented the trap, by which the United States is unwittingly drawn into war.…
Let’s hope it doesn’t end in a war between the United States and China.
A better solution would be to tell Taiwan that we will not support them if they declare independence, and to make it clear to China how we will support Taiwan if they are attacked. In my opinion, it would be a very bad idea for the United States to go to war with China.
A recent article by Tim Willasey-Wilsey makes good arguments against strategic ambiguity over Taiwan:
Strategic ambiguity poses four problems. The first is that it often masks genuine uncertainty in the country holding the policy (the United States) about whether it will go to the defense of the potential victim and whether that defense will include direct military intervention, the provision of arms and intelligence, or neither.
The second is that its very existence can be an obstacle to real political planning. A new secretary of state would be told “our policy towards Taiwan is a policy of strategic ambiguity” and the briefing would then move on to the next topic. In other words, it looks like a policy but, unless it is backed up by full assessment and planning, it is a void.
The third is that potential aggressors become aware that strategic ambiguity often means “the absence of politics”. In such circumstances, the deterrent effect disappears.
And the fourth is that at the moment of truth, the president will have to make a hasty decision that may encompass a host of other factors such as the state of the global economy and the electoral outlook at home.
PS. To be clear, I supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan – and it was certainly not a “debacle”. Any withdrawal from a place like Afghanistan would be very messy, and no “planning” (good luck with that!) would change that fact.