In the 1980s elderly former British premier Harold Macmillan recalled to William Buckley on Firing Line a conversation with Winston Churchill during World War II. “Cromwell was a great man,” Churchill had told Macmillan, “But he failed to foresee the rise of France.” Macmillan explained that mid-way during WWII Churchill was already determined not to repeat Cromwell’s mistake of still focusing on declining Spain as Britain’s main rival. Churchill was already focusing on “the Bear,” i.e. the Soviet Union.
Of course, Germany and Japan still needed defeating, of which Churchill was well aware. And the Soviets were still needed as allies in that project. But how to pivot against the new threat was his concern.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan today spotlights this strategic dilemma of pivoting from one rivalry to a greater one. Some believe her visit is needlessly provocative to China when the U.S. is now engaged in a virtual proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Tom Friedman of The New York Times calls Pelosi’s gambit “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible.” He prefers that America continue to arm Taiwan while avoiding dramatic actions that might prompt China to act precipitously, especially while America and the West still need to help Ukraine defeat Russia.
There is logic here. And maybe Churchill would agree. Or as Lincoln responded to Secretary of State Seward when he urged war against France and England to prevent southern secession: “One war at a time.” We all hope there will not be anything approaching war with China.
But in Pelosi’s defense, after China specifically warned against her visit, acceding to China’s threats would have been not just a bad look but also an act of weakness in the face of intimidation. Twenty-six U.S. Senate Republicans publicly affirmed Pelosi’s decision. And reportedly the Biden Administration counseled her against her Taiwan visit but President Biden declined directly to intervene, lest he look weak. His doing so might have been historically recalled as a key pivot after which American power receded in the face of China.
It’s hard to believe that Churchill would advise directly appeasing China. Optics and symbolism matter for great powers. So does public opinion. Americans don’t like surrender to threats by tyrants. This spirit of moral indignation and defiance is part of America’s glory. And the allies needed to resist both Russia and China need an America that is not intimidated, that is confident, and that stands by its friends, especially when they are democratic, small, and threatened. We can’t be brash and foolish, but neither can we display weakness when the world is watching.
America must be brave but also mindful that it, like all countries, has limits. In WWII, America prioritized the war against Germany over the war against Japan, even though Japan was more the aggressor towards America. It was deemed that Germany could survive without Japan but Japan could not long survive without Germany, so defeating was prioritized. There are some now who are anxious for America to minimize or ignore Russia so as to focus on China.
But Russia, even if in economic and demographic decline, obviously is still dangerous. It not only invades Ukraine but threatens NATO nations who consequently are rearming. The Putin regime, like Iran’s and China’s, self-defines as an ideological alternative to American power and democracy. It will not recede or come to terms easily. Although Churchill was a Cold Warrior, he desperately wanted to negotiate a concord with Stalin during his second premiership, a prospect that the Eisenhower Administration disdained. Churchill thought Eisenhower captive to American messianic moralism and extreme anti-communism. But there was at that point little evidence that Stalin, already in physical and mental decline, was interested in any concord. He instead green-lighted North Korea’s invasion of the south, among other provocations. The communist conquest of China had initially seemed like a great victory for the Soviets, although, of course, China would soon become a rival ultimately aligning uneasily with America.
Russia and China are again de facto allies, with China now the senior partner, which Putin and Russia must resent, and about which they are likely at least partly in denial. As Tom Friedman wrote, Russia must be defeated in Ukraine. Such a defeat might provoke an extreme reaction, as Friedman noted, like a nuclear act inside Ukraine. If so, it will only accelerate Putin’s defeat and amplify his isolation. Putin’s regime eventually will fall. Its successor might be even more rabid. Or, as occasionally happens once or twice in a century, however briefly, Russia will reflect on its mistakes and try a different more constructive course.
America’s pivot to mostly resisting Chinese influence must happen but will never have the luxury of exclusive focus. Russia and Iran, among other actors, will continue to plot and provoke. NATO may rearm but, unless Germany goes nuclear, which is very unlikely and arguably undesirable, will never by itself, apart from America, suffice for resisting Russia.
Countering both dictatorial Russia and China now, like 70 years ago, is obviously a daunting challenge. Chinese wealth is an ominous new factor. America will have to be shrewd, patient and at times bold. Pelosi’s surrendering to Chinese threats would have been shameful and damaging, inviting even more intimidation. Conveying resolve without precipitating direct conflict is the central challenge for American statecraft in this generation. Seventy years ago, some Americans, like Douglass MacArthur, urged direct war with China, or “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek, which Truman rightly rejected.
Wise statecraft requires perseverance without needless provocation. The dictators eventually will in their arrogance overreach. We must avoid our own arrogance, and carefully align with Providence, confident that strength, courage, patience and wisdom can see us through to the other side. Russia and China as threatening aggressors will, in God’s own time, recede. Like Churchill as he mulled Cromwell, we must prepare for threats beyond even them, while still contending with today.