Why Colby’s strategy of denial is aggression packaged as ‘management’
Elbridge Colby’s “The Strategy of Denial” is a carefully argued, methodical book, but a key part of its thesis would commit the United States to overextension in East Asia that would be dangerous for U.S. and allied interests.
Colby lays out a reasonable case that U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East are not as important and not as threatened as those in East Asia. He also acknowledges that the U.S. has too many commitments in these other regions, and he proposes reducing or ending at least some of these commitments in order to direct U.S. resources and attention to East Asia. All of this makes sense to advocates of foreign policy restraint. In some respects, Colby is making arguments about Europe and the Middle East that restrainers have been making for years.
Most of those folks, however, will have a much harder time accepting the next part of Colby’s argument, which is that the U.S. should act as the main balancing power in an “anti-hegemonic coalition,” whose East Asian defense perimeter should include Taiwan.
Colby’s case for his strategy begins on realist grounds. Because Asia is the most important part of the world to U.S. interests now and in the future, he says that the U.S. should want to prevent any one power from dominating it, and to that end it needs to assemble an “anti-hegemonic coalition” to achieve a favorable balance of power against the aspiring regional hegemon, China. For the purposes of his argument, Colby takes it for granted that China desires regional hegemony and will achieve it unless it is actively opposed. Building the “anti-hegemonic coalition” falls to the United States because it is the only one that can be an effective “cornerstone balancer.” All of this sounds plausible enough, but it is in the details of the proposed strategy to oppose Chinese hegemony that several significant problems crop up.
Much of the book is focused on spelling out how the denial strategy would be implemented and how Taiwan might be defended (or recaptured) in the event of war. If one believes that China is seeking regional hegemony in East Asia, and that this poses an unacceptable threat to U.S. interests, and that the key to opposing Chinese hegemony is risking war over Taiwan, “The Strategy of Denial” presents an interesting case for what the U.S. needs to do to prepare. If one or more of these assumptions doesn’t hold up, the larger argument doesn’t work. The strategy also suffers from a key political weakness, because very few states in Southeast Asia will want to be part of the coalition he envisions. If this is where “the rubber meets the road,” as he puts it, the strategy will not work.
Credibility forms an important part of Colby’s argument, and he employs the concept in a somewhat unusual way. On the one hand, he dismisses conventional arguments about credibility that stress the need to maintain all U.S. commitments everywhere for the sake of preserving credibility in East Asia. On the other, he insists that U.S. “differentiated credibility” in East Asia depends heavily on defending Taiwan, which he labels a “quasi-ally.” Restrainers will appreciate his more nuanced understanding of credibility, but when it comes to Taiwan his claims don’t make much sense.
Since Taiwan is not an ally and the U.S. has no formal obligations to defend it, U.S. “differentiated credibility” in the region does not hinge on defending Taiwan. U.S. allies can and do recognize the differences between treaty allies and other states, and they don’t expect or require that the U.S. must go to war for the latter. Drawing a defense perimeter that includes Taiwan in it is overreaching and invites challenge. Despite Colby’s insistence that the strategy is purely defensive, it will not be interpreted that way in Beijing.
As Colby recognizes, credibility is not an end in itself, but serves to secure other goods: “When the protection of its credibility conflicts with these core national goods, the latter should prevail, as it would be foolhardy for a state to honor pledges in ways that result in costs far out of proportion to the gains. This is true even in the context of an anti-hegemonic coalition for the most important part of the world.” If that is the case, he should not insist on committing the U.S. to the defense of Taiwan, where the costs of honoring the pledges that he wants are likely to far exceed any possible gains. Colby recognizes the pitfalls of overcommitting, but then proposes that the U.S. do exactly that.
Colby acknowledges some of the risks of his strategy: “This approach, of course, risks exacerbating a security dilemma with China.” His follow-up to this acknowledgment is less persuasive: “But so long as U.S. efforts are clearly directed at denying Beijing hegemony rather than dismembering China, occupying it, or forcibly changing its government, the security dilemma should be manageable.” As far as the Chinese government is concerned, including Taiwan in the U.S. defense perimeter might already be considered “dismembering China,” so it is likely that Colby’s strategy of denial would be perceived as something more aggressive than he intends it to be.
The Chinese government might not believe that U.S. goals are merely limited to denying Chinese hegemony. The Chinese leadership might also conclude that denying Chinese hegemony was the first part of a plan to weaken and humiliate them. Nationalists tend to respond very poorly when they believe that their country is being encircled and threatened. Blocking China’s rise to greater regional power would be viewed as a major threat to Chinese security. If a great power in the late 19th century had sought to mobilize our neighbors in an “anti-hegemonic coalition” to box the United States in and limit its influence in the Americas, we know how our government would have perceived such an attempt.
Colby argues that war between the U.S. and China can be kept limited, and this assumption is essential to devising a strategy that makes war with China more likely. One problem with this assumption is that war is inherently uncontrollable. As he admits in the book, great power conflicts escalate and war goals expand as fighting drags on. Limits set at the beginning can erode and collapse by war’s end. War cannot be as carefully managed as he suggests it could.
While it is true that the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a conflict that might have escalated to a nuclear exchange, the near-misses during the Cold War hardly inspire confidence that the U.S. and China could actually go to war without significant risk of nuclear escalation. The U.S. never tried setting its defense perimeter so that it included territory that the USSR claimed as its own. Doing this with China introduces a new variable into the equation, and we shouldn’t assume that a fight over Taiwan wouldn’t turn into something much more dangerous. Even a limited, non-nuclear war with China would still be very costly and would likely incur greater losses than the U.S. has suffered in any conflict since Vietnam, and that is a risky gamble that U.S. strategy in East Asia should be actively seeking to avoid.