The Past Is a Foreign Country

Why, according to Bret Stephens, must we remain involved in the Ukraine war? Because if we don’t…

China would draw the lesson that, if there are limits to what America and our allies are prepared to do for Ukraine (which fights for itself and shares a land border with NATO), there will be much sharper limits to what we are prepared to do for Taiwan.

Apparently, we get no belligerency credits for having fought and defeated Imperial Japan, for dropping atom bombs on it, or for having militarily occupied it. We get no credit for having defended South Korea against a North Korean invasion, for having fought the Chinese themselves in North Korea, or for having stationed troops in the DMZ since 1953. And we get none for spending a decade-plus defending South Vietnam against the North at the cost to us of some 58,000 deaths.

So what will show the Chinese that we mean business about Taiwan? Why, arming the Ukrainians. Because nothing shows resolve like arming someone else to fight in a place distant from you and distant from your most formidable adversary, then announcing that you’re doing it because you have no intention of ever fighting there yourself. I’m not sure how that inference is supposed to work, and I doubt that Bret Stephens does, either. Worse still, I doubt the Chinese do.

If we’re obliged to hit historical re-set in this way, fighting wars and then erasing evidence of our past resolve to fight, aren’t we just destined to fight wars and hit re-set forever–quixotically fighting to demonstrate our resolve, and then just as quixotically forgetting that we did, so that we have to repeat the performance? What would this prove, beyond an infinite capacity for amnesia, self-deception, and bloodshed? Not that we’d get to infinity. Not that we’d get far.

Ultimately, the only way to prove that you have no limits is to act as if none exist. But what needs proof is why we should want to prove that.

3 thoughts on “The Past Is a Foreign Country

  1. The question for China is what our limits (and equally importantly our capabilities) are, as far as defending Taiwan goes. All that is needed to deter is enough doubt that we would not go to the mat (and defeat China or cause it too much pain). Sure, the more aggressive we are in defending Ukraine, the more grounds for such doubt. But maybe there is, both due to our present behavior and due to our history, sufficient doubt already? That’s pretty much your point and it seems right. But what struck me was Stephens’ saying ‘no limits’. Really, China, if we don’t pull out every stop with regard to Ukraine, will become pretty sure that we won’t open up a mean old can of whoop-ass over Taiwan? There is a consequentialist argument to make here concerning how deterrence works, but how about some empirical nuance? A better knock-down argument here would be one that concludes that we are morally required, at least given that we have started the process, to help the Ukrainians actually right the wrong against them (if we can do so at acceptable cost). That might or might not be right, but it has the virtue of avoiding implausibly asserting that, if we don’t do the thing then the sky will fall.


    • What’s so stupid about Stephens’s argument is that on the one hand, he wants to show the Chinese there are no limits to what we’re prepared to do for Ukraine; on the other hand, he can’t endorse the idea of sending any of our own troops. So the claim becomes: there are no limits on our involvement…well, except sending our own troops.

      Problem one: it makes no sense to have no limits and then have one. Though I guess I’m grateful that some part of his mind endorses the second half of that contradiction. Kind of amusing to encounter a supposed conservative who just comes out and says, “I don’t believe in limits.” You don’t see Foucault or Lacan saying shit like that.

      Problem two: the limit shows us that there can’t be very much at stake for us in Ukraine from a national security perspective. Because it makes zero sense to say, “Our national security is on the line. But we’re not sending any troops.” The whole point of having troops is to send them when your national security is on the line. I get why we’d refuse to send them if it’s not on the line. What makes no sense is refusing to send them because it’s not on the line, then pretending it is.

      I mean, either it is or it isn’t. If it is, we ought to send our own troops to get the job done. But if it isn’t, there’s no job to get done. I don’t accept the idea that there’s some third alternative.

      Problem three: you can’t really convince the Chinese you’re going to send troops somewhere by not sending troops somewhere else. Wanna see proof that we’re going to send troops to Taiwan? Just look at the troops we haven’t sent to Ukraine! Yeah, no.

      You can actually take “the Chinese” out of that sentence and preserve the essential meaning. Not doing something doesn’t convince anyone that you’re going to do it. Sorry to be simpleminded, but I wish someone would point this kinda obvious fact out to people like Bret Stephens and demand a response. Maybe they have something impressive to say, but I have yet to see it.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s