Research AssistantatRethink Priorities



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Preventing a US-China war as a policy priority

Let's limit our consideration to upholding international norms and laws of non-aggression, which I think is the crux of your argument for a more hardline stance on Taiwan.

The sentiment of wanting to uphold these norms and laws is admirable, and in an ideal world where they are strong we should be willing to expend significant resources and even risk nuclear conflict to keep those norms that way. But many would argue those norms are already in tatters, in large part due to the US's repeated and flagrant violations thereof, and that a hardline Western response to Russian/Chinese aggression will have minimal benefit for preserving whatever baseline of norms we still have.  (And that is even leaving out that Taiwan has the further complication of being, unlike Ukraine, an unrecognized state, which further dilutes the argument of international norms and laws.) This tilts the cost-benefit analysis significantly toward a less hardline stance.

I'm taking this from one-time 80,000 Hours Podcast guest Robert Wright's Nonzero Newsletter – in my view, one of the best Substacks out there (I also highly recommend the Wright Show podcast) – which recently had a post calling for peace talks in Ukraine that lays out this line of argument:

[T]he world’s two nuclear superpowers have spent the last quarter century taking turns violating the international law against transborder aggression, with the US leading the way. One consequence is that the norm of abiding by that law is in tatters.

So, really, how much good would “reinforcing” the norm do right now? Raise its power from 17 to 20 on a scale of 100? Is that worth the cost—a years-long slaughterhouse of a war that would carry substantial risk of triggering a larger conflagration, maybe even a nuclear one?

It would be one thing if, through assiduous compliance with the law, and a bit of evangelizing about the importance of compliance, the US had used the Post-Cold-War era to get that norm’s power way closer to 100. In that case defending the norm in Ukraine would have real value and failing to defend it would come at a steep price. But how much cost in blood and treasure—and existential risk—should be incurred to shore up an asset with so little current value?

At the same time, we should seriously consider the leftist critique of neoliberal foreign policy, which Hfur7c was perhaps, inartfully, trying to espouse: that proactive diplomatic efforts (or even just basic, responsive efforts, which many argue the US did not engage seriously in Ukraine) have great potential to forestall conflict, and that strong military stances in themselves can provoke conflict, an outcome that is then used to justify dispensing with robust diplomatic efforts. See this Twitter thread from the Marxist historian Jake Werner:

A war over Taiwan would devastate all involved and the future of the whole world. The question of whether the US should enter such a war is a trap set by militarists—do not engage it! The only question worth asking is: what must we do so that such a war never begins?

The answer is not (it should be obvious!) further deepening the Chinese leadership’s sense of insecurity. It equally is not sacrificing Taiwan’s social democracy to the mainland’s nationalist authoritarianism.

Instead, the US should bolster the status quo in the short term while acting to transform the zero-sum structural forces driving the US and China into conflict. The unhinged war scares over Taiwan are an outcome, not the cause, of those deeper forces.

Research AssistantatRethink Priorities