The current Taiwan crisis draws our attention to the fact that, in recent years, the U.S. has changed its military posture worldwide from one of defense and deterrence, which had been dominant since the end of World War II, to one of enlargement and offense. This has put China in a difficult position because of its intensely held national consensus that Taiwan is a core element of China's territorial integrity, national honor and international stature.
The new U.S. strategy is a dynamic one that is increasingly oriented toward fundamental change around the world and backed by military force. For example, President Clinton proclaimed in the wake of the Serbian offensive in late June, "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it is within our power to stop it, we will stop it." The Chinese have read this proclamation as a direct threat.
Current U.S. strategy includes:
* pressure on Japan to help the U.S. military balance China's might with more offensive arms and larger areas of deployment, including, in the eyes of many, the defense of Taiwan;
* an extensive program of military exercises over the past 18 months in the Southwest Pacific, Central Asia, Africa and the Baltic Sea;
* an announced determination to keep armed forces in Korea indefinitely after unification.
* a stated "open door" policy for future NATO enlargement toward the east;
* a dual containment strategy against Iran and Iraq that requires a large U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and Middle East region;
* bigger defense budgets to improve U.S. forces designed to strike abroad.
In all these cases, offensive U.S. forces are in the front lines of contested areas around the world, from a few miles off the Chinese coast--including, in certain concepts of naval strategy, dominance over the Chinese littoral--to the Poland-Belarus border and well into Western and Central Asia.
This strategy forces China and Russia to make difficult choices between their vital national interests and their need for good relations with us. Specifically, it has enhanced the value of nuclear weapons in the eyes of China and Russia, though this was surely not our intent, because such weapons are the most reliable deterrent against overwhelming U.S. conventional and technological superiority. The main use of nuclear weapons--the use perceived to be proved by the Cold War--is to dissuade an opponent from attacking central national interests. While nuclear weapons also have many disadvantages, the more the U.S. puts at risk what others perceive to be their security, the more attractive nuclear deterrence will look to them.
Because the enlargement strategy causes states like China and Russia to value nuclear weapons more highly, so must the U.S., whose enlargement strategy also puts several arms control measures at risk. China, while maintaining its stated no-first-use policy, is carrying out a program of nuclear weapons modernization. And agreed nuclear weapons reductions between the U.S. and Russia are endangered by the present state of tension, symbolized by Russian reactions to the NATO bombings of Serbia and Kosovo. It would be no surprise if Russia, China and possibly others felt the need to modernize their nuclear arsenals. This, in turn, could eventually endanger the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Given the U.S. expansionist policy, pledges of no-first-use of nuclear weapons cannot be taken by either Russia or the NATO alliance.
How did we come to this? Partly on purpose, partly not. The strategy has erupted from our singular military power and our singular wealth, topped off by a sense of superiority that may be justified by some of recent history but which leads to a vast underestimation of other nations' hopes, fears and capabilities. It has been righteous fun, but it heightens the chances of nuclear-related risks and of military overextension.
Going home is not the alternative. But there is a tested middle ground: Accepting--as the U.S. must accept some day--definite, geographical limits to U.S. military reach and working by agreement with the powers concerned when police actions are needed elsewhere.
If this were done, nuclear risks and incentives would be minimized. Political and economic forces, rather than military, would do the main work of U.S. enlargement policy.
During the Cold War and most of our history, that strategy, when adhered to, permitted U.S. and democratic influences to reach peaks never before attained in, for example, Western Europe, Poland, Japan, South Korea and Latin America.
In the coming world of 9 billion or 10 billion people, most of them poor, most of them ambitious for a better life, many of them with modern arms and some with nuclear weapons, unilateral U.S. military commitments will have to be rationed. The overall strategy must be fitted to America's relative advantage. For a nation with a powerful, conventionally invulnerable maritime and air power, in an era of nuclear and other extremely destructive weaponry, working out an international consensus on unilateral military reach is the right strategy.