The world is now witnessing the second phase of a four-act civilizational tragedy.
Act I. For 18 months, Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine has proceeded, through countless war crimes, the deaths of tens of thousands of Ukrainians, the forced exodus of millions, and the destruction of much of Ukraine’s economy and historic culture. Vladimir Putin has made clear his intention is nothing less than to kill Ukraine as a country. He recently said Ukraine “would not live for a week” except for the weapons support it receives from the West.
Act II. The terrorist group Hamas, which has repeatedly rejected international proposals to declare its national sovereignty under a two-state solution, demonstrated its own commitment to destroy a vibrant democracy: the nation of Israel itself. Over the Jewish holiday weekend, it escalated its usual deadly but limited terrorist attacks to a level just short of a full-scale invasion and occupation, massacring hundreds of Israelis and taking hundreds more soldiers and civilians hostage.
Iran, which provides Russia with a steady supply of drones to kill Ukrainians, is also the primary source of financial and diplomatic support for Hamas. While the $6 billion of its soon-to-be released funds is earmarked for humanitarian purposes, it frees up that amount of its other resources for decidedly non-humanitarian ends, befitting its role as the leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Act III: Washington and its allies and security partners must be on the alert for the next phase of the anti-Western campaign, whether coordinated or opportunistic, coming from either China or North Korea, both of which also materially support Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine.
In January 2022, as U.S. intelligence was predicting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden agreed. “My guess is he will move in, he has to do something,” he said, alluding to Russia’s massing of troops on Ukraine’s border and nationalistic rhetoric falsely claiming ownership of Ukraine.
The parallels to Xi Jinping’s ambitions on Taiwan are disturbing. For the past three years, China has dramatically expanded its aggressive naval and air actions around Taiwan, rehearsing its plan to force the democratic Taiwanese people to submit to Chinese communist rule.
America’s military leaders keep shortening the time frame for expected Chinese military action — from a couple of decades to five or six years, now to fewer than two. The window may be closing even faster for forms of aggression below the level of a full-scale invasion, such as a blockade or seizure of one or more of Taiwan’s smaller islands.
Similarly, Biden’s initial comments on a possible U.S. response to a Russian attack on Ukraine betray a concerning instinct that does not bode well for Taiwan: “It depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do.” Despite the U.S. security guarantee President Bill Clinton gave to Ukraine in 1994, the Obama-Biden administration did nothing when Putin invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014.
This time, Biden not only told Putin he would not send ground troops to help Ukraine defend itself, he also refused to establish a no-fly zone because, he said, if Russia defied it: “That’s World War III.” Putin welcomed Washington’s self-deterrence.
If the Chinese Communists invade Taiwan’s Quemoy or other outlying island, would Biden consider that “a minor incursion” not worth risking world war? And, if China then island-hops close to Taiwan — the way its aircraft provocatively cross the de facto median line in the Taiwan Strait and enter Taiwan’s Aircraft Defense Identification Zone — will Biden consider sending U.S. ships and planes to help Taiwan or would that be deemed “provocative” and risk further Chinese escalation?
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The test of a genuine security commitment is not the initial “proportional” response to aggression but the second, overwhelming, one. If the aggressor understands that certainty before continuing, it is called deterrence, not war provocation.
Biden’s four impromptu responses to journalists’ questions indicated he would intervene to defend Taiwan. Each comment was explained by administration officials as saying nothing new. But previous administrations, going back to Clinton’s, said “we don’t know what we would do, it would depend on the circumstances” — an expression of strategic ambiguity, quite different from Biden’s stated clarity.
Xi Jinping is undoubtedly weighing those internal inconsistencies in the context of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan and Ukraine and his shifting foreign policy positions over the years. He said in 2019 he wished he had voted as a senator for the first Gulf war and against the second, instead of doing the reverse on both.
Xi will also note that, even in peacetime, no president since George W. Bush in 2007 has been willing to allow a U.S. Navy carrier battle group to transit the Taiwan Strait — international waters through which the Trump and Biden administrations have periodically deployed smaller combatants singly or in pairs.
Robert O’Brien, who served as national security adviser under Donald Trump, spoke to a group of Asia scholars last week and expressed approval of such an operation. “I see no reason why that should not be done.”
Act IV: Perhaps the wildest of the wild cards in the autocratic anti-Western quadrilateral — call it Quad-Evil to distinguish it from the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Quad — is North Korea under the regime of Kim Jong Un. The Kim family dictator has not been getting much attention from Washington under Biden. It is a sharp contrast to the intense personal focus of Trump, ranging from “maximum pressure” and blood-curdling threats of total destruction to “falling in love” and complete exoneration for Pyongyang’s torture and murder of American student Otto Warmbier.
Kim could remind Biden that he is still around and still matters by launching ballistic missiles dangerously close to a U.S. ally or detonating a nuclear weapon, taking some provocative action against the territory or assets of South Korea or Japan, or even doing or saying something inflammatory against Ukraine or Taiwan.
Biden needs to convince all four of these dictators that America has the means and the will to defeat their aggressive moves. As the record shows, weakness toward any invites adventurism by all.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.