America’s relationship with Taiwan and China has been “ambiguous” since 1972, when Richard Nixon made his historic overture to Beijing. For many, it was a brilliant stroke. As Henry Kissinger noted in his celebrated writing, no ally had ever been so loyal, so determined, so helpful to the United States as Taiwan. Then Kissinger noted with a sang-froid that the US would betray its faithful partner. For this, many hailed him as a statesman; this was his realpolitik.
Through the decades since, foreign policy experts and State Department officials have emphasized the importance of “strategic ambiguity” in our relations with Taiwan and mainland China. Will the US defend Taiwan if Beijing authorities use force to reunify the island with its historic motherland? Well, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 says we will. But Washington’s “China hands” keep throwing sand in China watchers’ eyes. Their firm answer is always maybe.
President Joe Biden recently asserted that the US was prepared to defend Taiwan if Communist China used force to invade and occupy the island country. No strategic ambiguity there. But no sooner had the commander in chief restated the commitment of the Taiwan Relations Act, which he voted for as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979, than rumblings in Washington raised again the possibility of strategic ambiguity.
It may be helpful to remember the origins of the Great War. Britain developed an Entente Cordiale with France during the reign of the Francophile King Edward VII. That understanding even led to consultations between military and naval staffs. Among other things, these talks led to Britain bringing much of the Mediterranean fleet back to “home waters” to guard against the possibility of a German invasion in case of war.
But His Majesty’s Government never publicly aligned with France. Britain never signed a treaty of mutual defense. An Entente is but another word for ambiguity.
Britain never threatened war with Germany if the Deutsches Heer* marched into Belgium. Author G.K. Chesterton was an influential figure in the Liberal Party in those days. He knew the internal politics of the Liberal government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. Chesterton explained that Britain could not openly warn Germany against violating Belgium’s neutrality and territorial integrity because of the Manchester millionaires who provided the party its funding. Many of those political campaign donors were religious pacifists, wrote Chesterton.
Historian Barbara Tuchman notably pointed to the uncertainty that haunted the Quai d’Orsay, France’s foreign ministry, as Germany marched and Britain initially did not. France had a mortal fear of having to face Germany by herself. Tuchman’s classic work, The Guns of August, had long-term effects. Her bestseller deeply influenced President John F. Kennedy. He saw the strategic ambiguity that led to World War I as a major reason for establishing the famed Hot Line between Moscow and Washington, one of his major foreign policy successes.
Our esteemed diplomatic historian during my time at the University of Virginia was Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. Sir John’s memoirs close the circle on the Great War case of strategic ambiguity. He recorded his remarkable two-week stay with the exiled German kaiser in the Dutch palace Huis Doorn. Wheeler-Bennett’s stay occurred in August 1939 as the world held its breath. The world waited for Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Sir John’s work quotes the ex-kaiser as assuring him that if he had known the British would come into the war against Germany, he would never have permitted his generals to march into Belgium!
The terrifying what-if presents itself. What if Britain had warned Germany to honor its treaty commitment to Britain and Belgium? And what if Germany had, instead, attacked France in 1914 through the Ardennes—as Hitler would do so spectacularly in 1940? Would Britain leave France to her agony alone? Might the Germans have won World War I?
What we can gain from the origins of the Great War is that strategic ambiguity played a role in bringing on that cataclysm.
With the benefit of Sir John Wheeler-Bennett’s** “witness to history,” President Biden’s clarity is a welcome change of tone. Hopefully, it will contribute to peace in the Taiwan Strait.
*Deutsches Heer was the official name of the German army between 1871 and 1919.
**Wheeler-Bennet’s biographers have noted that rumors about him spread through Berlin in the 1930s when he lived there. The word was that this English aristocrat was the ex-kaiser’s out-of-wedlock son. In the febrile politics of the Weimar Republic, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett did nothing to discourage that false notion: it opened every noble door in Berlin to him!