It was to be expected that Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – the first by such a high-ranking U.S. official in more than 25 years – would elicit an angry reaction. “Reckless, dangerous and irresponsible … arbitrary and frivolous,” were just some of the epithets hurled at the House Speaker – not by China, but by The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.
A Globe and Mail editorial took a similarly disapproving line, calling the visit “a reckless, ill-timed act of personal brinkmanship.” Like Mr. Friedman, The Globe seemed to have no problem in principle with a U.S. political leader visiting a fellow democracy, trading partner and military ally: Ms. Pelosi, it wrote, was “perfectly within her rights” to make the trip. Rather, the objection seemed to be that it would annoy the Chinese government.
It was, to use a much-favoured diplomatic adjective, “provocative.” You may recall a similar episode, in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when any number of “realist” scholars could be found to explain Russia’s attempt to annex its neighbour as an inevitable consequence of the “provocation” of Ukraine seeking to join NATO.
But for something to be deemed “provocative” it is not sufficient to establish merely that it provoked someone. People can be provoked by all sorts of things, and so can governments. If the term is to have any meaning, there must be some sense of objective or at least independent provocativeness – what a reasonable person would find provocative.
China may find it provocative that a political leader would visit Taiwan, just as Russia finds it provocative that Ukraine should be a member of NATO. But the provocation in each case resides entirely in their own aggressive designs on their neighbours. Nothing obliges the rest of us to concede the justness of these claims.
Indeed, given that both involve a dictatorship threatening a democracy, we are obliged to resist them. If that upsets the delicate sensibilities of the dictators, so be it. That doesn’t mean we should go about randomly poking dictators in the eye, just to get a rise out of them. But neither can our foreign policy be guided entirely by fear of how they might react.
Every great power, as it is often written, has in its arsenal both hard power – the military might at its command – and soft power: the influence it is able to project in the world, the power of its ideas or its example. The soft power of a China or a Russia, put simply, is fear, or perhaps inevitability: the notion, which they are eager to propagate, that resistance is futile, that in the end they are too powerful or too determined or too ruthless to be denied.
The paralysis of will this can engender is aptly called self-deterrence. Like self-censorship, it is orders of magnitude worse than its transitive variant. Deterrence is straightforward enough: If you do x, we will do y; therefore don’t do x. But self-deterrence involves an endless series of guesses at what “x” might be – ending in a prudent resolve to do none of them.
Because they recognize no other rule but force in their own affairs, dictatorships are equally unwilling to be bound by the strictures of a rules-based international order. Their relationships with the democracies will therefore be a constant test of wills, in which they are forever seeking the upper hand, the better to encourage the desired attitude of self-deterrence.
It is a game, what is more, that is being watched around the world, in countries whose survival may depend upon casting their lot with the stronger side. It is not a game we can opt out of. Our adversaries exist, whether we will it or not, and whether we recognize it or not.
It is essential, then, not to give either our adversaries or onlookers reason to think that their strategy of intimidation is working, but rather to disrupt it at every turn. Ms. Pelosi’s visit should properly be seen in this light. Symbolic it may be, but the symbolism is entirely of the right kind: Taiwan is a democracy, and we will not abandon a fellow democracy.
Whatever China may do now, in “retaliation,” it was fully prepared – and preparing – to do before. Ms. Pelosi’s visit does not alter anything in that regard. The risks and rewards to China from military action against Taiwan are exactly the same after the visit as before. Or rather no: The chances of U.S. action in defence of Taiwan must be rated as somewhat higher now than they would have been had Ms. Pelosi, and the U.S., folded in the face of Chinese threats.
It would be one thing if the visit had faced opposition from Taiwan. The Taiwanese are the ones most at risk of Chinese military action; if they would prefer not to poke the dragon, that is their affair. But by every appearance both the government and the people of Taiwan seemed to welcome it. How like Ukraine they are in this respect: The people with the most to fear in these conflicts seem actually to fear the least.
But of course, it is not only the fate of either Taiwan or Ukraine that is at stake. As dictatorships, Russia and China, we have learned, are not inert, content only to dominate their own people. They are expansionist regimes. So it is not only the freedom of Ukrainians or the Taiwanese we defend, but that of whoever might be next – and, ultimately, our own.
It would be shameful, in either case, to attempt to buy peace with concessions, but more than that it would not succeed – for it is in the nature of dictatorships to see concessions as weakness, and weakness as opportunity. Conversely, if Ms. Pelosi’s “provocative” visit is taken as a signal of Western resolve, it makes the prospect of actual conflict less likely – whatever fulminations it causes in Beijing, or palpitations in Western observers.
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