To date, the formula for the United States’ strategic interaction with most allies has been fairly direct: It revolved around the idea that allies need to defend themselves from attack until US forces can sweep in to their rescue, bringing a professional military with long-range weapons, modern aircraft, deep lockers of munitions, and other advanced capabilities to bear. Where these capabilities were crucial, the U.S. established forward bases, rather than handing the relevant capabilities to allies. This defensive formula was marvelously successful during the Cold War in preventing US allies from perceiving one another as significant threats, while serving as a guarantee of American support should the USSR or its proxies threaten an ally.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, this defensive strategy was allowed to atrophy; the absence of a peer adversary enabled the United States and its allies to imagine that a rules-based international order would dominate without robust western enforcement.
Though reliance on this strategy has persisted, it is fundamentally inapplicable to today’s problems: Small states on the border of large, nuclear-armed autocracies face an ongoing, existential threat from conventional attack. Only the local balance of forces and the assessed probability and cost of victory stop their autocratic neighbors from exploiting local weakness and attacking them. The autocratic, nuclear armed neighbors have the option to limit the response of the United States by threatening to use their nuclear arsenals.
The reality of intimidation and invasion is utterly foreign to the voting public in the United States, who have grown used to the idea that conventional wars are only fought overseas. The oceanic moats, coupled with the peaceful southern and northern borders of the United States, have limited the threats from foreign powers – the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11 being the two notable exceptions of the 20th century.
For US allies located along the borders of China, Russia, and Iran, however, the threat of invasion – and the likelihood of genocide directed against nations and ethnicities opposed to these autocratic regimes – remains a real threat. For them, successful deterrence is an existential strategic consideration. For the United States, a successful attack on one of these states would be a disaster in terms of prestige and in some cases would cause severe economic disruption. But such an attack falls short of constituting an immediate, existential threat to the United States.
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated an enduring truth: While the United States’ polity is willing to support allies to fight ‘good wars,’ the US lacks the patience required to remain unambiguously committed to long, expensive wars, an appetite for taking on significant risk, and a willingness to commit the requisite resources for decisive victories in distant conflicts with even near-peer adversaries.
Deterring the United States
Russian threats of nuclear escalation have shaped US policy in Ukraine to a massive extent: Rather than providing the Ukrainians with the means to achieve a swift and decisive victory, the US and NATO allies have held back, contributing only enough support to keep Ukrainians from being defeated or to achieve small, tactical victories. Even advanced air defense systems, which could clear the sky of Russian aircraft and support the Ukrainians’ ability to achieve air superiority over their own territory, have been largely withheld. In order to avoid provoking the Russians, the systems provided by the United States and NATO have been deliberately crippled to prevent their use outside the historical borders of Ukraine.
Furthermore, by publicly debating and discussing every new capability long before providing it, Western allies have eliminated the element of surprise from the Ukraine arsenal. Consequently, the Russians are free from diverting resources toward self-defense, operating from a geographic sanctuary. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military and state has no such sanctuary from Russian attack – though much of their logistics, and almost all their supplies, are provided from NATO states. Russia is war with all of Ukraine; Ukraine is able to wage war only on the forces that Russia chooses to expose.
With rare exception, the Ukrainians can attack only the Russian forces that are actually on Ukrainian territory (including Crimea and Donbas). Russian bombs and drones regularly target Ukrainian infrastructure, including electrical stations, dams, hospitals, schools, and shipping terminals; the Ukrainians have almost no ability to match these attacks. And when the NATO allies provide advanced, long-range weapons, they come with provisions that these weapons not be used in Russia, because very few policy makers in NATO want to risk escalation with the potential of nuclear consequences.
This fear of nuclear escalation has spread to private citizens and corporations. Elon Musk crippled the capabilities of Starlink, for example, to prevent the Ukrainians from engaging in effective attacks on Russian assets, including in Crimea. This sort of restraint can only teach autocrats to expect that they will be treated with the same level of appeasement if they can make nuclear threats. So how is the United States to deter a Russian invasion of the Baltic republics, an Iranian attack on its oil-rich neighbors along the Persian Gulf or Israel, and a Chinese attack or blockade of Taiwan?
The answer is simple: The United States can’t be the state making the tactical decisions about how to respond and when to escalate in the face of an imminent or ongoing invasion. When US allies are faced with existential, non-nuclear threats, they need to have the capability not only to fend off the threat, but also to engage in direct reprisals on the attacking power, in order to both degrade the attacker’s capabilities and to extract a high economic and political price. If these capabilities are provided only when they are urgently needed, their deployment will depend on ever-fluctuating political will in the United States.
Distributed Deterrence and Taiwan
The essence of distributed deterrence lies in providing the allies of the United States with the capability not only to defend their own territory, but also to engage in muscular reprisals and conventional escalation without the United States being a direct part of the tactical decision loop.
The lessons for Taiwan are obvious: If Western behavior in Ukraine is any guide, we can expect that any advanced capabilities that the United States provides after an invasion, or in the midst of one, are going to be limited in utility. They are going to be constrained by the difficulty of shipping materiel through an active naval war zone, and anything that could generate surprise or escalation will be slow in coming, limited in quantity, and most likely disabled so that it cannot be used outside Taiwan.
Taiwan needs to have all the weapons, ammunition, food, medicines, and other supplies on hand to sustain a long confrontation with China, and Taiwan needs the ability to escalate on their own behalf, since they are the ones under existential threat. While Taiwan does not have a nuclear capability at the moment, failure to provide a robust conventional deterrent may lead its leadership to develop such weaponry. For Taiwan, nuclear escalation is particularly unattractive: The international condemnation of Taiwan and the hardening of Chinese that would come from Taiwan launching a first nuclear attack, even in the context of a conventional invasion, would almost certainly result in a Chinese victory, albeit at potentially devastating cost to the CCP. The time to develop an effective strategic nuclear deterrent does not match against the short timelines for a likely invasion, unless the Taiwanese have managed to secretly run such a program over the past several years.
In the lead-up to an invasion, it is easy to imagine the CCP expanding their ongoing grey-zone warfare against Taiwanese assets. In addition to today’s ongoing, flagrant violations of Taiwanese airspace and maritime territory, China could begin intercepting shipping, engaging in cyber-warfare, or attacking key targets with missiles or air strikes. Such maneuvers would degrade Taiwanese warfighting and economic capabilities while attempting to cow the population. The Taiwanese require the capability to respond to attacks on their key economic and military assets with attacks on similar assets in China. The goal would be to increase the perceived costs of such attacks, by giving Taiwan the ability to use conventional forces to cause considerable damage and embarrassment to the CCP. Conventional and sudden escalation is currently outside the scope of Taiwan’s capabilities, but this needs to change.
Taiwan does have some substantial, differentiated advantages which the United States can reinforce. First, China is far from being an autarchic regime; China’s economy is dependent on the maritime import of raw materials. Without foreign food, the Chinese population starves. Without foreign energy supplies, the lights don’t stay on. Taiwan is perfectly situated to interdict shipping to and from China; Tomahawk missiles based in Taiwan would have the range to attack facilities and ships in every Chinese port.
Secondly, Taiwan has built up a culture and infrastructure that specializes in extremely efficient manufacturing for complex electronic systems. The popular perception of Taiwan is as a manufacturing and technological powerhouse centered on building advanced computer chips at TSMC; in fact, this is only a fraction of the outsize role that Taiwan plays in the global semiconductor and electronics supply chain. Taiwan is good – perhaps the best – at rapidly ramping up from prototype to mid-or-large scale production for complex electronic products. There are places that offer cheaper labor (i.e., inland China, Vietnam, and Penang), but Taiwan has one of the most dense concentrations of skills and equipment, and thus is one of the most attractive places to bring electronics into production quickly, at scale.