Sign In

Strategic ambiguity? – Econlib

Back in 1990, a US diplomat informed Saddam Hussein that his border dispute with Kuwait was of no concern to the US. We all know what happened next. Would Saddam have invaded Kuwait if he had known how the US would respond? I doubt it.  In international affairs, misunderstandings can be very costly. Better to make  your policy crystal clear to your adversaries, in order to avoid misunderstandings.

This FT article caught my eye:

It is easy to forget that early in Joe Biden’s presidency he made a bridge-building overture to Vladimir Putin. During the 2020 campaign, Biden barely mentioned Russia as a geopolitical rival to the US. China hogged 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.

A few weeks later, Biden withdrew America’s remaining forces from Afghanistan in a debacle that threatened to define his presidency.

In retrospect, it is clear that the two seemingly unrelated events — Biden’s positive mood music towards Russia and his Afghanistan pullout — reinforced Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The west, in Putin’s view, was unlikely to react any more decisively to his planned annexation of Ukraine than it had to Crimea in 2014.

Such misunderstandings have characterised geopolitics through the ages.

I’m not sure this is entirely correct (I suspect Putin expected a quick win.)  But it is certainly true that Biden ought to have informed Putin that we’d supply weapons to Ukraine if Russia invaded.

Now you see discussion of “strategic ambiguity” in our policy regarding Taiwan.  Here’s Raymond Kuo at Foreign Policy:

Strategic ambiguity typically is understood as deliberately creating uncertainty in Beijing and Taipei about whether the United States would intervene in a war. This supposedly creates dual deterrence: The threat of U.S. intervention prevents China from invading, and the fear of U.S. abandonment prevents Taiwan from sparking a war by declaring independence, which China considers a casus belli. This approach, supporters contend, has kept peace for decades and prevented entrapment, whereby the United States unwillingly gets pulled into war.…

Let’s hope it doesn’t end with a war between the US and China.  

A better solution would be to tell Taiwan that we won’t support them if they declare independence, and make clear to China how we will support Taiwan if they are attacked.  My own view is that it would be a very bad idea for the US to go to war with China.

A recent article by Tim Willasey-Wilsey makes some good arguments against strategic ambiguity on Taiwan:

There are four problems with strategic ambiguity. The first is that it often masks a genuine uncertainty in the policy-owning country (the US) whether it would go to the defence of the potential victim and whether that defence would include direct military intervention, the provision of arms and intelligence, or neither.

The second is that its very existence can serve as an impediment to genuine policy planning. An incoming secretary of state would be told ‘our policy towards Taiwan is one of strategic ambiguity’ and the briefing would then move on to the next topic. In other words, it looks like a policy but, unless underpinned by full assessment and planning, it is a vacuum.

The third is that potential aggressors are getting wise to the fact that strategic ambiguity often means ‘absence of policy’. In such circumstances the deterrent effect disappears.

And the fourth is that, at the moment of truth, the president will have to take a rushed decision which may embrace a host of other factors such as the state of the global economy and electoral prospects 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 amount of “planning” (good luck with that!) would change that fact.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor