When explaining why the Biden administration must not compromise with Russia over Ukraine, American politicians and pundits often invoke an island almost five thousand miles to the southeast: Taiwan. If the US abandons Ukraine, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine warned in December, “China would conclude, ‘Boy, the West sure isn’t going to come to the aid of Taiwan.’” In January, Washington Post columnist Max Boot opined, “If we don’t ensure that Russia pays a high price for its aggression against Ukraine, that will send a message to China that it can attack Taiwan with impunity.” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul has insisted that in the conflict over Ukraine, “US credibility from Kyiv to Taipei” is at stake.
For hawks in Washington, invoking Taiwan solves a problem. It’s widely accepted that Beijing—with its vast population and dynamic economy—poses a graver challenge to American dominance than does Moscow. In keeping with this logic, the Biden administration spent much of its first year signaling that it would make a priority of Asia, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said “must be the focus of our effort.” Linking Ukraine to Taiwan answers concerns that President Biden’s recent preoccupation with Eastern Europe might distract from his attention to the Pacific. If standing firm against Russian aggression convinces Beijing that the US will also resist Chinese aggression, then there’s no regional tradeoff. By fortifying its reputation as a country that protects its friends, the US bolsters its position not only in Europe but in Asia as well.
It’s an appealing argument, but unconvincing. There’s little reason to believe a hard line over Ukraine will protect Taiwan. The truth is probably closer to the reverse.
Ever since the US became a superpower, its leaders have justified military commitments in less strategically important places by insisting they would buttress America’s credibility in more strategically important ones. In 1950, the CIA warned that a decision by the Truman administration not to intervene in the Korean War would have the effect of “gravely handicapping US efforts to maintain alliances and build political influence with the Western European powers.” Fifteen years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson used the same logic to justify his deepening intervention in Vietnam. “Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked,” Johnson declared. “To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of American commitment.”
For decades, international relations scholars dismissed these credibility arguments as bunk. In a study of Soviet behavior between 1965 and 1990, the political scientist Ted Hopf concluded that Moscow “saw no logical connection between US behavior in areas of negligible interest and its future conduct in places with critical stakes.” In his own study of twentieth-century crises, Dartmouth’s Daryl Press determined that, “a country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by its power and interests.” Summing up the research in 2013, the University of Washington’s Jonathan Mercer asked, “Do leaders assume that other leaders who have been irresolute in the past will be irresolute in the future and that, therefore, their threats are not credible?” His answer: “No; broad and deep evidence dispels that notion.”
Since then, other scholars—including Columbia’s Keren Yarhi-Milo and Harvard’s Joshua Kertzer—have challenged this conventional wisdom. They’ve argued that when gauging how governments might respond in the future, other regimes do consider how they have responded in the past. But even these scholars are far more cautious than the politicians and pundits who now claim that US behavior in Ukraine will dictate Chinese behavior over Taiwan. For one thing, Yarhi-Milo explained to me, the relationship between past and future behavior is complex. If a government thinks it appears weak because of the way it behaved in the past, it might act tougher the next time in order to overcome that reputation. And since adversaries know that, they can’t assume a government that backs down once will do so again.
Even more importantly, past behavior is most predictive of future behavior when circumstances are similar. Although Ukraine and Taiwan may appear alike on the surface—they’re both small nations menaced by great power neighbors—America’s relationship to the two countries differs dramatically. For starters, the US has a far stronger legal commitment to defend Taiwan than it does to defend Ukraine. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act obligates the US “to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” as “of grave concern to the United States.” It also promises “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” Kyiv enjoys no similar pledge, as national security adviser Jake Sullivan underscored last December when he noted that “the Taiwan Relations Act is a unique instrument—we don’t have it with other countries; we don’t have it with Ukraine.” The Taiwan Relations Act does not require the US to go to war if China invades, but it gestures toward that possibility. By contrast, President Biden has been explicit that the US will not send troops to fight in Ukraine.
Legal obligation is just one reason America’s behavior toward Ukraine is a poor predictor of its behavior toward Taiwan. History is another. The US has proven willing to defend Taipei militarily in the past. As the Hoover Institution’s Kharis Templeman has pointed out, “Taiwan exists today as a de facto independent state only because the Truman administration intervened in June 1950 to prevent a Chinese invasion across the Taiwan Strait.” More than four decades later, when China launched missiles near Taiwan in 1996, the Clinton administration threatened military retaliation and dispatched two aircraft carriers to the island’s defense. As Templeman notes, “the United States has been the island’s primary security partner and source of military aid, training, and arms sales” for more than seventy years. By contrast, the US only began selling arms to Ukraine in 2015.
Not only is the US more militarily committed to Taiwan than it is to Ukraine, it’s also more economically intertwined. The US in 2020 conducted twenty-seven times as much trade with Taiwan as it did with Ukraine. Even more importantly, a Taiwanese company that year boasted more than half of the world’s market share in the production of semiconductors, essential components for electronics that the US desperately needs. If all that isn’t enough, Taiwan sits in one of the most strategically important regions of the world. A Chinese takeover of the island would shake America’s alliance with Japan and its entire position in the western Pacific. For American interests, that would be far more calamitous than additional Russian intervention in Ukraine.
Of course, the US should do everything it can to prevent a further Russian invasion of Ukraine, which would constitute a colossal tragedy. But when evaluating Biden’s policy, American politicians and journalists worry too much that a diplomatic deal with Russia will make the US look weak to China, and too little about the failure to reach a deal, which will enmesh the US in a conflict that diverts US resources from Asia. In a 2021 study in the journal Security Studies, Tongfi Kim and Luis Simón of the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at Brussels School of Governance show that when small countries face a hostile regional environment, as Taiwan does, and depend on great powers whose relative power is in decline, as America’s is, they care less about their patron’s overall reputation for fortitude and more about its willingness to prioritize them. As the University of Sydney’s Ashley Townshend recently noted, “Washington’s allies and partners” in Asia “aren’t assessing its credibility as an Indo-Pacific power based on how tall it stands in Ukraine. Quite the opposite…Washington’s regional friends are far more interested in how successfully the Biden administration can minimize its exposure in Ukraine and pick up momentum in the Indo-Pacific.”
In 1965, George Kennan countered Lyndon Johnson’s claim that US credibility was on the line in Vietnam by arguing that “there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.” The Bush administration’s 2008 pledge to admit Ukraine into NATO—a pledge America cannot fulfill because it will not obligate itself to fight Russian troops on Ukrainian soil—constitutes just such an unsound position. Abandoning it as part of an agreement that guarantees Ukraine’s neutrality, helps restore its territorial integrity, and prevents the country from becoming a battlefield, would benefit not only Ukraine, Europe, and the United States, but Taiwan, as well.