What the Ukraine War, Taiwan, and Gaza Have in Common

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

What the Ukraine War, Taiwan, and Gaza Have in Common

In confronting all three foreign policy dilemmas, Washington needs to incorporate an understanding and acknowledgment of the things the United States has done that contributed to them.


In confronting all three foreign policy dilemmas, Washington needs to incorporate an understanding and acknowledgment of the things the United States has done that contributed to them.

Washington is grappling with seemingly intractable foreign policy dilemmas involving the Russian war in Ukraine, percolating tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. In each case, the United States has failed or refused to wholly confront its own share of responsibility for creating the problem. This has profound implications for establishing a stable peace in these three hotspots.


In the case of Ukraine, much ink has been spilled in the debate over the extent to which NATO expansion in the decades after the Cold War fueled Putin’s decision to launch the war. Washington’s response to the invasion has largely treated that debate as irrelevant. Instead, it has essentially adopted the premise that Putin never got over the collapse of the Soviet Union and always intended to reincorporate Ukraine into Russia forcefully. This perspective has largely ignored evidence and historical logic that the invasion was not inevitable and was contingent on external variables, including U.S. actions.

In his seminal 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russian and Ukrainians,” Putin wrote that after the Soviet collapse, Moscow “recognized the new geopolitical realities and not only recognized but, indeed, did a lot for Ukraine to establish itself as an independent country.” This was because “many people in Russia and Ukraine sincerely believed and assumed that our close cultural, spiritual, and economic ties would certainly last. . . . However, events—at first gradually and then more rapidly—started to move in a different direction.” These “events” included Ukrainian political developments that led to closer ties between Kiev and the West. “Step by step,” Putin wrote, “Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia.” But the West deflected Moscow’s concerns about this trajectory.

In his recent interview with American journalist Tucker Carlson, Putin reiterated this narrative. He said Russia had “agreed, voluntarily and proactively, to the collapse of the Soviet Union” because it “believed that this would be understood . . . as an invitation for cooperation and associateship” with the West. This could have taken the form of “a new security system” that would include the United States, European countries, and Russia—rather than the enlargement of NATO, which (according to Putin) Washington promised would extend “not one inch” to the east. Instead, there were “five waves of expansion,” and “in 2008 suddenly the doors or gates to NATO were open” to Ukraine. However, Moscow “never agreed to NATO’s expansion, and we never agreed that Ukraine would be in NATO.” Putin went on to blame the subsequent war on what he characterized as the U.S.-backed, anti-Russian “Maidan Revolution” in Ukraine in 2014, the West’s embrace of Kiev at Russia’s expense, and Washington’s persistent disregard of Moscow’s security concerns.

It is easy to dismiss Putin’s narrative as self-serving, disingenuous propaganda. He is indeed a monstrous figure, as the recent death of imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny demonstrates. But that does not address—instead, it evades—the historical question of whether U.S. policies toward NATO expansion in general and Ukraine’s candidacy in particular contributed to Putin’s ultimate decision to invade Ukraine. 

As a diplomatic historian, I think the evidence clearly shows they did. That is not to claim that it was “all about” NATO expansion; it obviously was not. However, it is equally obvious that “a different set of U.S. policies over the past several decades would have made [the invasion] less likely,” as scholar Stephen Walt wrote two years ago. The point here is not to revive the debate about NATO expansion but only to highlight that denying its relevance in favor of the assertion that Putin always planned to fulfill a revanchist goal of annexing Ukraine ignores historical evidence and logic to the contrary—presumably at least in part to absolve the United States of any accountability for the historical circumstances that led to the war.

In the case of Taiwan, the prevailing narrative in Washington is that cross-Strait tensions have escalated because Chinese leader Xi Jinping also has revanchist goals. He is determined and impatient to achieve Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland during his tenure and is preparing to attack the island if he deems that necessary. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese leaders have decided that the “status quo is no longer acceptable [and] that they wanted to speed up the process by which they would pursue reunification.” This includes “exerting more pressure on Taiwan” and “holding out the possibility if that didn’t work of using force to achieve their goals.”

However, this ignores or denies the extent to which Beijing’s hardline approach is a response to actions and statements by both Taiwan and the United States. Under President Tsai Ing-wen since 2016, Taipei has been incrementally retreating from a “one China” framework, with such steps as renouncing a supposed prior agreement with Beijing to “agree to disagree” on the definition of “one China” and adopting the position that Taiwan is “already a sovereign independent country.” Chinese leaders view this redefinition of “the status quo” as a unilateral change. Perhaps more importantly, Beijing interprets Washington’s tacit acquiescence to this change as indicating that the United States itself is retreating from its own “one China policy” and moving toward a de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policy in violation of the U.S.-China normalization agreements. 

Although Washington insists that its “one China policy” remains intact, the credibility of such assurances is eroding as Washington continues to push the envelope on “unofficial” U.S.-Taiwan relations—such as with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022—and with earlier statements by a Pentagon official about the strategic importance of Taiwan that ostensibly provided the rationale for supporting its permanent separation from China. But as with its disavowal of any culpability for the origins of the war in Ukraine, Washington holds Beijing exclusively responsible for the escalation of tensions and the risk of conflict on the Taiwan Strait. 

In the case of Gaza, the United States is facing the spread of conflict in the Middle East in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israel and Jerusalem’s strong and sustained military response. The violence has already spread to attacks by Yemeni Houthi militants against Western commercial ships in the Red Sea and direct attacks on U.S. military forces by Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Syria. Although Washington focuses on the responsibility of Hamas for the outbreak and spread of violence, Arab groups across the region view the U.S. role through the prism of Washington’s longstanding support for Jerusalem, which has facilitated or at least not constrained Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and resistance to a “two-state solution”—the latter of which Washington has long advocated. 

Although President Biden recently called Israel’s prosecution of the war “over the top,” this criticism has been marginal and slow in coming. In the meantime, Washington risks reinforcing historical Palestinian and other Arab resentment of implicit U.S. support for Israeli actions and the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. Rather than confront that accountability, Washington is inclined—as with Putin and Xi as discussed above—to attribute the crisis in Gaza almost exclusively to Hamas.

None of this is meant in any way to excuse Putin, Xi, or Hamas for their ample share of responsibility for the prevailing circumstances in Ukraine, Taiwan, and Gaza, respectively. They all merit condemnation for appalling actions and policies. However, their guilt does not erase the U.S. involvement in developing those circumstances. Washington’s promotion of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, the incremental erosion of its “one China policy,” and its inability or unwillingness to check Israel’s encroachment on Palestinian territories are inescapable factors that have contributed to these three crises. In varying degrees, the United States has been inattentive to or dismissive of the perspectives of Russia, China, and the Palestinians. A lack of strategic empathy has thus constrained Washington’s ability to recognize or at least acknowledge the extent to which Putin’s decision to wage war in Ukraine, Xi’s coercive behavior toward Taiwan, and Hamas’s decision to strike violently at Israel were motivated—at least in part—by what they perceived as U.S. disregard for their security concerns, or neglect of prior U.S. commitments to address those concerns.

Washington’s gradual consideration of Ukraine’s membership in NATO—which basically expanded as an alliance designed to exclude and target Russia—reflected indifference to historical Russian threat perceptions, and especially the significance to Russia of having a vital portion of its former empire aligned against it under seemingly hostile foreign protection. It overlooked or denied the possibility that Moscow was prepared to let Ukraine be independent as long as it remained neutral.

Similarly, Washington’s strengthening embrace of Taiwan in ways arguably inconsistent with commitments to Beijing in the Three Communiques—essentially based on U.S. withdrawal from involvement in the Chinese Civil War—reflects an apparent retreat from those commitments and neglect of the relevance of that prior history. It also ignores or denies the possibility that Beijing’s subsequent behavior has been—at least in some measure—a response to these actions by the United States and separatist steps by Taiwan that they have implicitly encouraged.