NEW YORK – Two dangerous flashpoints, in Europe and Asia, could bring the United States, Russia, and China into open conflict.
The crises over Ukraine and Taiwan can be resolved, but all parties must respect the others’ legitimate security interests. Acknowledging those interests objectively will provide the basis for a lasting de-escalation of tensions.
Consider Ukraine. Although it undoubtedly has the right to sovereignty and safety from a Russian invasion, it does not have the right to undermine Russia’s security in the process.
The current Ukraine crisis is the result of overreach by both Russia and the U.S.. Russia’s overreach lies in its 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in Donetsk and Luhansk; and in its ongoing efforts to keep Ukraine dependent on it for energy, industrial inputs, and markets. Ukraine has a legitimate interest in integrating more closely with the European Union economy, and it has signed an association agreement with the EU for that purpose. The Kremlin, however, fears that EU membership could be a stepping stone for Ukraine to join NATO.
The U.S., too, has been overreaching. In 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration called for Ukraine to be invited to join NATO, an addition that would establish the Alliance’s presence on Russia’s long border with that country. This provocative proposal divided U.S. allies, but NATO nonetheless confirmed that Ukraine could eventually be welcomed as a member, noting that Russia has no veto over who joins. When Russia violently annexed Crimea in 2014, one of its objectives was to ensure that NATO could never gain access to Russia’s Black Sea naval base and fleet.
Judging by the public transcripts of discussions between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin this month, NATO enlargement to Ukraine remains on the table. Although France and Germany might well maintain their longstanding threat to veto any such bid for membership, Ukrainian and NATO officials have both reiterated that the choice to join lies with Ukraine. Moreover, a high-ranking Estonian parliamentarian has warned that walking back Ukraine’s right to join NATO would be tantamount to Britain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938.
Yet American leaders who argue that Ukraine has the right to choose its own military alliance should reflect on their country’s own long history of categorical opposition to outside meddling in the Western hemisphere. This position was first expressed in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, and it was on full display in the violent U.S. reaction to Fidel Castro’s turn toward the Soviet Union after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Back then, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that “Cuba has been handed over to the Soviet Union as an instrument with which to undermine our position in Latin America and the world.” He ordered the CIA to devise plans for an invasion. The result was the Bay of Pigs fiasco (under President John F. Kennedy), which lit the fuse for the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Countries cannot simply choose their military alliances, because such choices often have security implications for their neighbors. Following World War II, Austria and Finland both secured their independence and future prosperity by not joining NATO, as that would have provoked Soviet ire. Ukraine today should show the same prudence.
The issues in Taiwan are similar. Taiwan has the right to peace and democracy in accord with the concept of the “One China” policy, which has been the bedrock of China’s relations with the U.S. since the days of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong. The U.S. is right to warn China against any unilateral military action toward Taiwan, as that would threaten global security and the world economy. Yet, just as Ukraine does not have the right to join NATO, Taiwan does not have the right to secede from China.
In recent years, however, some Taiwanese politicians have flirted with declaring independence, and some U.S. politicians have taken liberties with the “One China” principle. Then President-elect Donald Trump started the U.S.’ backsliding in December 2016, when he said, “I fully understand the ‘One China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
Then, President Joe Biden provocatively included Taiwan in his Summit for Democracy this month, following U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent advocacy for Taiwan’s “robust participation” in the United Nations system. Such U.S. actions have greatly aggravated tensions with China.
Again, those U.S. security analysts who argue that Taiwan is within its rights to declare independence should reflect on America’s own history. The U.S. fought a civil war over the legitimacy of secession, and the secessionists lost. The U.S. government would not tolerate Chinese support for a secessionist movement in, say, California (nor would European countries such as Spain, which has faced the real thing in Basque Country and Catalonia).
The risks of military escalation over Taiwan are compounded by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s recent announcement that the alliance’s future rationale will include countering China. An alliance created to defend Western Europe from invasion by a now-defunct European power should not be repurposed as a U.S.-led military alliance against an Asian power.
The Ukraine and Taiwan crises can be resolved peacefully and straightforwardly. NATO should take Ukraine’s membership off the table, and Russia should forswear any invasion. Ukraine should be free to orient its trade policies however it sees fit, provided that it abides by World Trade Organization principles.
Similarly, the U.S. should make clear once again that it steadfastly opposes Taiwan’s secession and does not aim to “contain” China, especially by reorienting NATO. For its part, China should renounce unilateral military action against Taiwan and reaffirm the two-system principle, which many Taiwanese believe to be under imminent threat following the crackdown in Hong Kong.
No global structure of peace can be stable and secure unless all parties recognize others’ legitimate security interests. The best way for the major powers to begin to achieve that is to choose the path of mutual understanding and de-escalation over Ukraine and Taiwan.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, is director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. © Project Syndicate, 2021
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