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Wagging the Dog

Wagging the Dog

Mini Teaser: In an unequal friendship, does the weaker have the whip hand? America is the stronger partner in any relationship. But the Taiwanese, the Israelis and the Georgians don't seem to know this.

by Author(s): Nikolas K. GvosdevTravis Tanner

ABSENT A CLEAR and present danger to its national security, no ally of the United States should seek to dictate American foreign policy, especially a policy deleterious to America's pursuit of its own vital interest. Allies may try, but the United States need not humor them. Indeed, prudence dictates that states that enjoy the benefits provided by America's international leadership and directly depend upon the United States for security would understand the critical importance of not obstructing U.S. interests. Lastly, the United States should not have to accept a fair accompli that is injurious to the other relationships America cultivates to accomplish its pressing tasks.

Americans are understandably sympathetic to the national aspirations of their democratic allies. But enthusiasm for promoting the cause of other states--no matter how close or beloved--ought not to lead America's decision-makers and opinion-shapers to endorse policies that might not only harm the national interests of the United States, but severely damage the international order America has spent its blood and treasure over half a century to construct.

After all, the United States does not have the luxury to take rash or reckless risks in its foreign policy, because its actions affect the entire world. George H.W. Bush understood this clearly. When dealing with domestic and international critics alike who condemned him for not exploiting the unraveling of the USSR to radically redefine the status quo in Europe and Asia, he replied that the United States had "special responsibilities" not to take "hasty" decisions that could contribute to international instability.1


Even as the world's sole remaining superpower, the United States does not have unlimited resources to cope single-handedly with all of the challenges that threaten not only its own interests but the peace and prosperity of its allies. Combating international terrorism, stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, stabilizing failed states and ensuring continued access to stable supplies of energy--all these require the active cooperation of other states. America's efforts are weakened if its relations with Russia assume the character of a "Cold War lite"; if it is on a collision course with China; or if it is unable to engage effectively the Arab and Muslim world. These are the realities of the present world, plain and simple.

Regretfully, some of Washington's associates do not seem to understand these realities, and they assume that America's capacity to protect and defend them is infinite. So what happens when the chief executives of states that remain dry under the umbrella of U.S. power and fervently proclaim that they are America's most reliable allies in their respective parts of the world, choose to pursue policies--optional policies, really--that complicate America's efforts to be effective on the world stage? The question is not rhetorical. Over the course of this year, for example, the presidents of Taiwan (Chen Shui-bian) and Georgia (Mikheil Saakashvili), each in pursuit of his political agenda, have taken steps that have needlessly complicated U.S. relations with China and Russia, in defiance of clear requests from Washington. It bears repeating that in each case--Chen's pursuit of formal independence for Taiwan and Saakashvili's brinkmanship in the Caucasus--these steps are not only harmful to critical American interests, but arguably do not even serve the national interests of Taiwan or Georgia.

NO ONE questions the commitments made by the United States to either Taipei or Tbilisi. The "Taiwan Relations Act" (TRA) of 1979 requires the United States to "provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character" and "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force ... that would jeopardize the security ... of the people on Taiwan." The TRA was designed to dissuade the People's Republic of China (PRC) from using force to promote reunification and to encourage a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues. The United States has on many occasions demonstrated its resolve to Beijing through weapons sales, public statements and deployments of the Sixth Fleet.

Similarly, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has repeatedly communicated to Moscow that attempts to reincorporate the newly independent states into a union by force would be viewed as a hostile act. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to help solidify Georgian independence, including military assistance designed to equip "the Georgian armed forces to help with their own internal security problems", in the words of the vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace.

Washington has made it absolutely clear that it will protect Taiwan and Georgia against any unprovoked and unwarranted aggression on the part of their neighbors. But alliance with the United States is not a blank check, and being democratic is not a license for mischief.

President Chen Shui-bian's recent actions, however, have raised tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Though Beijing has never abandoned its "one China" position and so refuses to renounce the use of force to prevent Taiwan from becoming a separate, sovereign state, China has accepted the current situation. This permits Taiwan to function as a democracy and to remain a key player in the global economy, as long as the goal of eventual reunification is not taken off the table--a state of affairs that many in Taiwan also favor maintaining.

Earlier this year, however, over U.S. objections, Chen called for an island-wide referendum (held on March 20) ostensibly to protest the deployment by the PRC of missiles aimed at Taiwan. Many concluded it was a "dry run" for a referendum on outright independence.2 In another provocative move, Chen appointed Taiwan's first openly "pro-independence" foreign minister, Mark Chen.3 Finally, in his May 20 inaugural address, Chen took his most controversial step yet--he pledged that he would, before leaving office in 2008, "hand to the people of Taiwan and to our country a new version of our Constitution." The Beijing leadership views Chen's proposed constitutional overhaul as tantamount to a declaration of independence. Many in the PRC claim that it could even precipitate war. The former chairman of Chen's own DPP party, Hsu Hsin-liang, stated in early August that "under the leadership of President Chen Shui-bian, cross-strait relations will remain in deadlock and, eventually, a war will be inevitable" (emphasis added).

SINCE TAKING office in January, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has taken a page straight out of Chen's playbook, employing brinkmanship tactics to promote his goal of "national reunification." (Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia's first post-Soviet president, in his attempt to create a unitary and ethnically "pure" state, touched off separatist movements more than a decade ago as ethnic minorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia sought to preserve their Soviet-era autonomy. These conflicts drew in Russia, which was concerned about the prospects for instability along its southern border. And while the behavior of some Russian peacekeeping forces and politicians may leave much to be desired, the fact remains that Moscow has repeatedly rejected the petitions of the secessionist regions for admission to the Russian Federation, leaving intact the possibility for reunifying Georgia.)

The Bush Administration thought it made its position clear: It wanted Georgia's territorial integrity to be restored in a peaceful manner that engaged Russia as a partner in promoting stability in the Caucasus.4 Yet this past August, Saakashvili embarked on a series of saber-rattling exercises against separatists and Russia: Georgian forces fired on a cargo vessel entering the breakaway region of Abkhazia; senior officials, including the president, threatened the safety of civilian tourists visiting Abkhazia's Black Sea coast; and skirmishes resumed between Georgian and South Ossetian forces. These nationalist provocations may excite passions among his core supporters, but they needlessly complicate not only U.S.-Russia relations, but Georgia's own long-term national interests. After all, despite massive amounts of U.S. assistance, Russia remains Georgia's economic lifeline--a fact unlikely to change even as the country pursues reforms and seeks admission to Euro-Atlantic institutions.5 Realities rooted in geography and economics are stubborn impediments for those who believe the United States should whisk Georgia out of its neighborhood on a magic carpet. Recognizing such concerns, President Bush has repeatedly emphasized that, from the American perspective, "It's important that relations between Georgia and Russia be positive."

But the steps taken by both leaders put key American foreign-policy priorities--fighting terrorism, combating proliferation and securing the global energy supply--at risk. While the United States supports democratization in both Taiwan and Georgia, Washington cannot issue a blank check to Tbilisi or Taipei, nor should it sacrifice its more essential relationships with China and Russia. Chen and Saakashvili may think each can afford a one-dimensional relationship with Beijing and Moscow, respectively; the United States cannot.

Chen's actions have put crucial U.S. national interests in Asia at risk--the most critical being China's support for efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff. They threaten to harm a burgeoning economic relationship with China, derail Sino-American cooperation in the area of WMD proliferation and curtail Beijing's support for the War on Terror in the region. Chen's policies have placed a great deal of strain not only on U.S. relations with China but with other key Pacific allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, who fear being drawn into a cross-Strait clash. As Australia's former Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Dibb, observed,

We don't want Beijing to think that we could ever condone an unprovoked attack on a democratic Taiwan. But the present Taiwaneseleadership's toying with the idea of a declaration of independence is highly dangerous.

And a clash between Beijing and Taipei would not only destabilize all of East Asia, but put the United States and China on a collision course that would threaten the current U.S.-led international system.

While Russia and the United States have worked to defuse tensions stirred up by Saakashvili in the Caucasus,6 these irritants complicate the U.S.-Russia relationship. Indeed, as the crisis flared up, the United States was asking Russia to increase exports of energy to world markets (a commitment President Putin reaffirmed on August 23). Given recent developments in Afghanistan, the United States needs Russia to exercise its influence within the Northern Alliance to ensure stable elections this October. Finally, a whole host of security matters across the entire arc of Eurasia require joint U.S.-Russian efforts to succeed.

Yet Chen and Saakashvili would not have proceeded in their plans if they had not received vocal support from some segments within the Congress, encouraging them to "stand up" to Beijing and Moscow. Mixed messages from U.S. officials about support for democratic allies led both leaders to conclude that they could transform American security guarantees against aggression into blank checks to pursue their own agendas.

THE UNITED States has to be able to strike a balance between honoring its security guarantees and being able to pursue its core national interests. And this is so even with regard to Israel.

America's commitment to the security of Israel is one of our most sacrosanct foreign policy obligations. During the Yom Kippur War, President Nixon put American nuclear forces on alert to deter the Soviets from intervening on behalf of their Arab clients. The United States refused to reconsider its support for Israel even when faced with an oil embargo that wreaked havoc with the American economy.

But that does not mean America can or must support whatever decisions an Israeli leader takes, especially if such policies grievously injure vital U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. If important Israeli national security interests are at risk, that is one thing. This is why realists support Israel's anti-terrorism efforts, including the construction of a barrier to prevent suicide bombers from reaching civilian targets.

But support for Israel is only one component of America's foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. The 9/11 Commission report aptly concluded that efforts to stem terrorism

should be accompanied by a preventive strategy that ... must focus clearly on the Arab and Muslim world.... Neither Israel nor the new Iraq will be safer if worldwide Islamist terrorism grows stronger.

Indeed, America's three most pressing national interests--terrorism, energy and non-proliferation--require active engagement with the countries of the Middle East on American terms.

Yet America's standing in the Islamic world is now at an all-time low. Of course, matters other than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have contributed to this. Yet, rightly or wrongly, both the elites as well as the masses throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds see U.S. conduct largely through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.7 Unless there is a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process, then movement on all issues in the Middle East including effective efforts to combat terrorism and proliferation--is unlikely. (It turns out that the road to Jerusalem does not run through Baghdad after all.)

The United States is currently supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's risky plan to facilitate a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in return for increasing the number of settlers within existing blocs on the West Bank. He is not without reasons for doing so. If Sharon succeeds, it sets a precedent that even the Likud party no longer views all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as sacrosanct and inviolable. But the difficulty is that the United States is viewed throughout the rest of the region as accepting every decision taken by the Sharon government. Moreover, Sharon's plan to increase the number of settlers on the West Bank--as necessary as it might be to win support from within the Likud party for a withdrawal from Gaza--does not contribute to the security of Israel. It does not encourage the Palestinians or Israel's neighbors to come to the negotiating table. (In fact many Israelis themselves argue that this plan will have precisely the opposite effect.)

If Sharon's gamble fails, moreover, the United States has no contingency plan for resuscitating a peace process. Though some grumble that peace processes are but vacuous exercises in talk, it is useful to recall that during the Oslo period some Arab countries began to talk openly about initiating relations with Israel and to propose a whole host of joint economic and development projects with the Jewish State. And Washington's unwillingness to use its leverage to slow down the further development of the settlement infrastructure on the West Bank may imprudently obstruct its own vision of a peace process and ultimately a genuine settlement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution--a position not only endorsed by the Arab world and our long-standing European allies but by the Bush Administration itself.

No realist would ever put Israel's security at risk as a price for improved relations with the Islamic world. That said, America's shrunken credibility in the region would be strengthened greatly if America's policy were clearly grounded in a grand-strategic vision rooted in a realist assessment of American interests.

HIGH-MINDED realists, indeed, advocate making a distinction between honoring commitments to the security of partners like Taiwan, Georgia and Israel and allowing our allies to use such commitments to define America's relationship with China, Russia and the Islamic world. They are especially aware that damage to relations with Moscow and Beijing affect the stability and longevity of the unipolar era, whereas ruffling the egos of politicians in Taipei and Tbilisi do not. They also recognize that despite any short-term advantages won by the sword in the Middle East, the long-term success of American policy in that strategic part of the world--including the strategy of encouraging moderate, democratic forces to rise to the fore in Islamic societies--depends on engaging the states of the region rather than isolating or overthrowing them.

The United States has never sought to turn its partners into obedient satellites. America is not in the empire game. Historically, Washington has offered alliance on easy terms, placing few demands on its associates. But such a non-imperialist relationship cuts both ways. While America will protect its friends from unprovoked aggression, it has no moral obligation to endanger its own interests and the international system by squandering its power on peripheral issues simply out of loyalty to runaway allies who pursue highly questionable objectives. And surely the request that America not be drawn into avoidable disputes is a reasonable one.

Ronald Reagan understood well the need to balance America's aspirations with its interests. In the darkest year of his stewardship over the Cold War, he wrote in his diary:

Some of the NSC staff are too hard line and don't think any approach should be made to the Soviets. I think I'm hard line and will never appease. But I do want to try to let them see there is a better world if they'll show by deed that they want to get along with the free world.8

Ronald Reagan, in contradistinction to some of his advisors, "accepted the world as it was and tried to make it how it could be"; Today, those who encourage our runaway allies to act in tension with our interests "see the world as it could be and act as if it already is."9 Ronald Reagan never succumbed to that temptation. Nor should we.

1 New York Times, August 27, 1991.

2 The measure was defeated because only 45 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Not casting a ballot was a way for a voter not only to oppose the measure but to ensure the referendum would have no standing, since more than 50 percent of voters must take part for a referendum to be binding.

3 Chen lived in the United States as a political exile for thirty years, during which time he headed the Formosan Association of Public Affairs (FAPA), the U.S.-based pro-Taiwan-independence lobbying group. One expects to see him push for more American involvement and support for Taipei's quest for greater independence.

4 Washington took Saakashvili's statements at face value that "a loose federal state is unavoidable, in order to make peace with Abkhazia and South Ossetia" and thought that upon taking office, the new president would choose to reunite the fractured republic through negotiations. It also welcomed his comments in February when he declared, "I believe Russia should become our reliable partner and we should improve our relations." The first quote is taken from Robert Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary (Random House, 2000), p. 248.

5 Georgia is entirely dependent upon Russian firms for gas and electricity supplies to provide power and heat. Up to 1.2 million of the Caucasian republic's 5.5 million citizens work in Russia, and the funds they send home comprise more than 50 percent of the country's income.

6 Already one possible conflict earlier this spring--the standoff between Saakashvili and Adjarian regional strongman Aslan Abashidze, who enjoyed close relations with Russian political and business leaders--was averted only because cooler heads prevailed in both Washington and Moscow, allowing for an eventually peaceful settlement (when Russia facilitated Abashidze's departure into exile).

7 See the results of recent polls as reported by Dafna Lizner, "Poll Shows Growing Arab Rancor at U.S.", Washington Post, July 23, 2004; See also Brian Whitaker, "Polls Apart", Guardian, July 26, 2004.

8 Cited by Jack F. Matlock, Jr. in the foreword to Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (New York: Random House, 2004).

9 Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, "Ronald Reagan: Liberator of Nations", www.inthenationalinterest.com, June 9, 2004.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is executive editor of The National Interest and senior fellow in strategic studies at the Nixon Center. Travis Tanner is assistant director of the Nixon Center.

Essay Types: The Realist