William Ruger is a bright and accomplished academic with an impressive record. He boasts equally impressive debating skills, which he displayed earlier this week at Colorado Christian University, in a debate co-sponsored by the university’s Centennial Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
The debate was regarding whether it is in America’s interest to defend Taiwan. His opponent in the exchange, masterfully moderated by Tom Scheffel, was Josh Rogin, an equally brilliant and talented journalist and author who writes a column on foreign policy in the Washington Post, appears regularly as a foreign policy analyst on CNN and elsewhere, and whose knowledge of the geopolitical intricacies of the Indo-Pacific region has few equals. Mr. Rogin argued in the affirmative — that it is in America’s interest to defend Taiwan. Mr. Ruger took the opposing view.
Now, Ruger is not your typical, leftist, the-answer-is-blowing-in-the-wind peacenik; his pacifism is of the more conventionally libertarian sort, liberally inviting John Quincy Adam’s counsel that America ought not to be in the business of hunting for dragons to slay. Moreover, his reasoning is impeccably sound on many levels.
Unfortunately, strict adherence to any ideology tends to generate mistakes, and an ideologically rigid resistance to the concept of the use of American force has prompted Mr. Ruger to make the same mistakes as your typical, leftist, the-answer-is-blowing-in-the-wind peacenik.
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Ruger rolled out all of the common arguments against US military engagement — that Taiwan is thousands of miles away, that American public opinion is unlikely to support a sustained major conflict, that American “saber rattling” is more likely to ignite a devastating third world war , that whatever happens on the other side of the world (however tragic that may be) is not worth the shedding of American blood. And finally that, in any case, China sees Taiwan as their own so who are we to say any different. He made, in other words, a fantastic case against the US defending West Berlin during the Cold War.
To be fair, Ruger did not advocate completely ignoring Taiwan; he did say the US should help arm them, work the diplomatic channels to maintain the status quo, and the sort of statecraft that is designed to prevent a crisis. That’s all well and good. But what happens when all that fails?
The central question, which I felt was not satisfactorily answered in the CCU debate, is this: What is our national interest in Taiwan? Is Taiwan indeed vital to our strategic position? For that matter what does constitute a vital interest in the nuclear age?
Taiwan’s economic importance to the US was brought up, including that the vast majority of advanced semiconductors are produced on the island. Less mentioned was the fact that upward of 60% of the world’s trade passes through the Taiwan Strait. Neither case is one in which it’s in America’s, or the West’s, interest to have under Red Chinese control.
That alone should be enough to mark Taiwan’s defense as a clear national interest. But in fact our interest is even more existential than that. When I was there last year, a question was asked by one of my colleagues to a former Taiwanese foreign minister. It was to the effect of whether he believed the PRC would use nuclear weapons against Taiwan. The chilling answer was China wants the island, not the people.
Taiwan occupies an especially critical piece of the globe. Douglas McArthur called Taiwan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for good reason. a de facto independent Taiwan is the one thing keeping China from having a blue-water navy — the ability to project power — in the Pacific. The island closes a radar gap between Okinawa and the Philippines, meaning the Chinese can’t get an aircraft carrier into the open Pacific undetected. Occupying Taiwan grants the PRC a vastly extended reach and effective control of the west Pacific. China’s irredentist ambitions toward Taiwan are only in part about subjecting the Taiwanese people to the misery of the Maoist yoke, and more to do with gaining an enormous strategic advantage. Which brings up the question of where does the US draws the line militarily — Okinawa? Guam? Honolulu?
I have no quarrel with a rejection of a Wilsonian foreign policy that seeks to spread democracy around the globe. I share that rejection, on practical and philosophical grounds. But aren’t some things worth fighting for? If not for our own honor as a nation — that esteem we derive from honoring commitments, even purposely vague ones, made to friends who share the same values we fought ourselves for — then for assurance of our own safety, which geography has allowed us to take for granted.
But geography is agnostic, and the realities of the map in 2023 cannot be wished away. John Quincy Adams’s wise elucidation of American foreign policy as being one in which we are friends of freedom everywhere, but guardians only of our own was entirely correct. No, we don’t need to go abroad to seek monsters to destroy; but keeping them from the gates in the age of jet aircraft, supercarriers, satellites and nuclear weapons is more complicated than it was in 1821. The map makes that as clear as the lessons of the 20th century that teach us the horrors of blind pacifism and appeasement.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.