Friendly control of Taiwan is a core national security interest for the United States, and not just because of its economic heft. The strategic implications of the former Formosa go back over a century.
China has been massively upping the stakes on Taiwan, including in military exercises in which it encircled the island and simulated strikes. China has sought dominion over Taiwan for centuries and sees it as an indivisible part of its homeland – although the first extended outside interaction with the island formerly known as Formosa came via European traders in the 1500s. The Chinese Communist Party views taking control of Taiwan – a prosperous, liberal, democratic state made up largely of ethnic Chinese – as a paramount security interest. The CCP fears the implications of such a state so close to its borders offering a desirable alternative to its repressive governance, but it also seeks to control Taiwan for other reasons. Economically, it punches far above its weight, hosting major technology manufacturing industries, notably of semiconductors, and achieving a high standard of living for its citizens. But Taiwan’s real value is strategic – and not only for the Chinese. Taiwan is a core strategic interest for the United States as well.
The China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia has shuffled the deck in the Middle East, cutting the US out of the pot.
Over the weekend, in a surprising development to most Middle East watchers, China brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore some bilateral ties between the Islamic powers after seven years without them. The agreement was a very basic one, with the two countries agreeing in principle to exchange ambassadors within two months, reactivating a security cooperation agreement, and restoring some economic and cultural exchanges. This is the first formal rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom since 2016, when the Saudis executed a prominent Shia cleric, sparking violent protests at its embassy in Tehran and precipitating the break in relations. Since that split, the underlying conflict between the two states on either side of the Persian Gulf has rapidly escalated, with Iran taking the aggressive lead. Its proxies in Yemen, the Houthis, have attacked Riyadh directly, while Iran itself has launched cruise missiles at Saudi energy infrastructure, crippling a major refinery for weeks back in 2019.
Given this recent history, the fact that any kind of deal was struck shows that key changes are occurring in Middle Eastern politics. The agreement, basic as it was, did not force Iran to cease its aid of international terrorists or non-state proxies, even those which target the Kingdom; this was a conciliatory move on behalf of the Saudis towards the Iranians. This step towards normalization of relations without addressing some of the proverbial elephants in the room – the malign regional activities of Iran, the Shia-Sunni dispute, relations with Israel – fits well within the Chinese diplomatic playbook, as does the language of the agreement. In the text, both Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to the principles of “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs,” a classic Chinese formulation that Beijing uses to ignore human rights abuses abroad and gloss over its own at home. There are a wide variety of implications and impacts from this diplomatic coup for China, both in the Middle East region and further afield.
The relationship between values and interests in foreign policy is complex and nuanced, but putting the former ahead of the latter is a recipe for disaster.
Foreign policy has always been a balance between two major factors: values and interests. Prior to the modern era, that balance was struck by an individual – generally the monarch – and his advisors, who were unaccountable to the public but for exceptional situations. That made the calculation far more simple, as did the fact that values rarely came to the forefront in an age of despotism and conquest. The exception to that rule was the influence of religion, which was used as justification for external policy for thousands of years, from the Roman crushing of the Jewish revolts to the Islamic conquest of infidel lands to the myriad Crusades which recurred throughout the Medieval period. Still, those values often coincided with interests; for example, the Crusades were also about trade routes, Byzantine geopolitical security, and personal prestige. At other times, strong values were overcome by national interests, as they were when France, led by the indefatigable Cardinal Richelieu, allied with Protestant powers in the Thirty Years War against their fellow Catholics, the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria.
The balance became far more complex and difficult in the age of mass democracy, liberal capitalism, and human rights, where national values grew in importance, especially in the United States and other Western powers. The era of universal values and rights ushered in by the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions brought foreign policy idealism into the realm of reality, where values and high ideals are privileged above supposedly base considerations of interests. Politicians and movements around the world embraced this idealism, from American President Woodrow Wilson to the international communist movement. In reality, however, idealism – the hyperfocus on values – has consistently been an abject failure for national interests. In the case of Wilson, his Fourteen Points promoting national self-determination were foundational to the post-WWI period and, despite their intention to promote peace in Europe, led into the even greater disaster of World War II. A foreign policy focused too much on interests, however, can lead to similarly bad outcomes and compromises; Nixon’s opening to China was canny strategically, but also bolstered Mao in the middle of the devastating Cultural Revolution. As with so much of life and politics, balance is critical and different situations call for different tactical approaches.
The term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.