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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 28, 2023

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Vivek Ramaswamy has written an article on his foreign policy doctrine, focusing on China.

He is squarely taking aim at the "neocons and liberal internationalists", in other words the two main constituents of what Obama referred to as "the Blob" dominating foreign policy in D.C. He is predictably being called an isolationist and WaPo columnists are freaking out.

WaPo columnists themselves are not relevant but they are often mouthpieces for more powerful interests. Trump was hated for many things but one underappreciated aspect of why the Blob hated him was his instinct not to start new wars. In fact, he is one of the few presidents in recent memory who did not start a new war and he tried to get out of Syria - twice - but was undermined by his own bureaucracy.

Vivek is a much smarter guy than Trump, so I wonder if the Blob would be able to run circles around him the way they did around Trump. I doubt it and I suspect they doubt it too, which is why I think a campaign to destroy Vivek is likely to ramp up before too long. Trump couldn't be controlled outright but at least he could be misled.

I will offer a reason why the self-interested realism of America First “doctrine” is naive. Specifically, that saying out loud you are a jerk who cares only about your own self-interest lessens your power level compared to being a sanctimonious moralist-hypocrite. Of course, there are also tradeoffs to the latter, but here I will specify the benefits.

A very important aspect of international politics (contrasting somewhat with the video game versions) is that international politics is not zero sum. In a zero sum game, it is never advantageous to have fewer options. But this is not true for a positive-sum negotiation. For example, the Chinese population empirically care a lot about Taiwan, arguably to an irrational extent. This takes Taiwanese independence proper off the table for at least a few generations, because the domestic conditions in China are likely to force the administration to go to war if it happened, and all sides wish to avoid war. Similarly to ripping the steering wheel off your car in a game of chicken, the pigheaded moralism of the Chinese populace give the Chinese administration a negotiating advantage in the game. China has a credible threat of going to war, so the war does not happen.

If we take as a given keeping Taiwan de facto independent has some benefit, such as the semiconductors thing, one approach for the US administration is to generate as many reasons as possible Taiwan deserves to not be a part of China (liberal democracy good!) and use those reasons to manufacture consent domestically. This increases the credibility the US would defend Taiwan, which inherently gives us an advantage. China is less likely to march in and take it the more they are worried about US resolve and moralistic irrationality. Plus, domestic propaganda is basically costless— we do not actually have to support Taiwan that much materially! Adding more factors into the mix and making it unclear how committed we are is a costless way to prevent war in Taiwan until it happens. This is the main conceit of strategic ambiguity. Strategic clarity is a downside, and spelling out our interests in Taiwan precisely forces us to spend more in material terms there, not less, to assert the same credibility of resolve and deter a war.

Reducing ambiguity and rationalist doctrine throws away a lot of real advantage. Imagine if you walked into a business negotiation spelling out honestly in good faith exactly what you want and how far you are willing to go to get it! Your counterparty will take 100% of the surplus in the transaction. One benefit of a doctrine, spoken out loud, is that it creates an ambiguous honor commitment. My doctrine is to protect the Western hemisphere, and my people have heard me say it. If I do not live to that, my people will be angry with me, so don’t start trouble here or I will fight past the point of rationality. How far? It’s uncertain! That’s the point.

In this sense, America First is an anti-doctrine. It anti-manufactures consent domestically. It invites domestic critics to complain that such and such proposed action abroad (say, defending Taiwan), isn’t really in our interests. In a way, such a doctrine is totally content-free, because it says nothing China does not always know. They are also capable of modelling what we want in a pragmatic sense.

Counterintuitively, taking the realist stance and assuring China that their model is correct is good for fostering cooperation. We cede the possibility of escalation and the associated negotiation surplus in exchange for a stable peace. But Vivek sees China as a geopolitical rival. Vivek wants to beat China; Vivek wants a bigger slice of the pie. The America First doctrine as a foreign policy doctrine does not advance this. The America First doctrine prevents the US from nuking the pie and making it smaller for everyone out of misguided moralism, but it does not help the US seize any more pie from China. Therefore, Vivek’s hawkish position with respect to China is basically incoherent with his Taiwan policy. If he wants to beat China, he should definitely not be saying these things to China. Do you want to impress the Chinese administration with how pragmatic you are? They are seasoned pragmatists. The advantage is in frightening them with how crazy you can muster the will to be.

Truthfully, people generally know this instinctively based on vibes. We know US-aligned Taiwan = good, and so we will forget about the pragmatic reasons why, generate domestic enthusiasm by any means possible, and revel in frightening the enemy with that enthusiasm. Vivek countersignalling realism here is attractive to some audiences, but the vibers recognize this accurately as a defection for personal gain. If America First prevails, the greatest hope, in terms of keeping Taiwan, is that China will assess that the domestic messaging is meaningless, the deep state controls military affairs, and that Vivek is a principle-free demagogue and doesn’t believe what he is saying. The moment China becomes confident we are committed pragmatists and will not hurt our own interests to defend Taiwan, we will lose it.

America First is a sufficiently ambiguous doctrine that could cover a lot of things. It did not mean, and never meant, isolationism. Rather, it indicates a turn away from 'world policing', and the acknowledgement that there are bounds to American interests.

Secondly, there are downsides as well as upsides to fostering domestic enthusiasm for war. The bottom line here is that Americans will not simply line up for more military adventures on hearing the word 'terrorism', a fine trick while it worked but no longer. Americans must be persuaded that Taiwan is actually relevant to their interests, and a track record of pursuing those interests makes that persuasion easier. Just as a track record of anti-communism made it easier for Nixon to sell rapprochement with China, a track record of hard-nosed pragmatism will make it easier to sell intervention when the time comes.

The other thing is that for all this talk, Trump actually was President for four years, and neither Ukraine or Taiwan were invaded under his watch. Is that because he was construed to be a committed idealist?

Trump's not a great example here. In the Korea crisis in 2017, Trump signalled successfully that he was crazy enough to start WWIII, which is why he's the first POTUS since the Korean War to actually drive a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang, and why Seoul and Pyongyang started singing kumbaya to at least some extent (they both wanted Trump to go away).

All that aside, while without the USA the PRC could take Taiwan, it still takes* quite a while - probably over a year - to prepare. D-Day wasn't exactly a spur-of-the-moment thing, you know.

*I say "takes" rather than "would take" because I suspect the PRC has in fact started these preparations. What's changed since 2016? Well, they've continued to expand the Chinese military and the USA's culture war has gotten worse, but also the Hong Kong crackdown in 2020. I think the CPC is telling the truth that it would like to get Taiwan peacefully - you'd have to be a complete maniac to prefer fighting over getting what you want without fighting, and that goes back to Sun Tzu. But Taiwan is never going to agree to a reunification deal now that there's an object lesson in Hong Kong that the PRC likes to alter deals of this exact sort, so I think the PRC is dusting off the "brute force" option. They could still abort, but I think the wheels are actually quietly in motion.

Rather, it indicates a turn away from 'world policing', and the acknowledgement that there are bounds to American interests.

To me, it sounds a lot like those showflake souls that propose replacing the police with "community non-violent conflict resolution teams". Which, predictably, results in criminals doing their thing openly and without fear, and "resolution teams" standing around or sitting in a nearby caffe, looking like the doofuses they are. The problem is evil exists, and contrary to what some self-centered Americans may think, it is not always caused - in fact, in most cases isn't - by "American meddling". And if you close your eyes to it, it will grow, until closing your eyes to it is no longer an option. And when that happens, you'd still have to deal with it somehow. Just as inhabitants of "defund the police" cities still have to deal with criminals going nowhere - just there's no more police because the politicians they voted for had those grand ideas about how police meddling causes all the trouble. It's very nice to sit and think "if we just don't meddle, everything will be fine and peachy" but it wouldn't work this way, and the oceans won't help much in today's small world.

It's very nice to sit and think "if we just don't meddle, everything will be fine and peachy" but it wouldn't work this way

There are undoubtedly people who want less intervention because they think that the US is a progenitor of all evils. These are often either people who want peace on the cheap, or people who want the US out of the way of other interests e.g. cleansing Israel of Jews.

However, the more sensible view is that there are cases where a lack of US intervention will still result in a shitshow, but nonetheless likely to be a less bad shitshow on the whole, e.g. the Vietnam War or the Iraq War.

However, the more sensible view is that there are cases where a lack of US intervention will still result in a shitshow, but nonetheless likely to be a less bad shitshow on the whole, e.g. the Vietnam War or the Iraq War.

It's not at all clear that the shitshow sans the US would be actually less. I mean, sure, not opposing the USSR (and China) communist takeover over the globe would be cheaper near-term. But do you think USSR taking over the whole Asia, South America and Africa would be less of the shit show than now? Of course, all these commit regimes would come crashing down as they did in Eastern Europe, but with the West looking the other way and pretending the commies don't exist or don't matter - could it have happened 50 years later? Could it cause much more blood (remember Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968?) and death? I think pre-supposing the answer to that is the same fallacy as saying "US meddling is the root of all evil", only in different words.

With Iraq, again looking into it in context, no US meddling means Iraq taking over Kuwait, and then expanding its operations further, and likely getting into a hot war with Israel using whatever WMDs they had. I'm not sure that'd be less of a shitshow, especially given that Israel does have nukes, and doesn't have any strategic depth, which means if seriously threatened... use your imagination. Not saying Iraq would be strong enough to get as far as to threaten Israel's existence as such - but if they get lucky and get this far, who'd stop things going there? Remember, US is not meddling anymore, which means they would neither prevent any shit from happening by force nor by promise of their protection (or its withdrawal). The world of "not meddling" would be much more dangerous and shaky, I am afraid. When there's no police, there would be shootouts. I suspect that'd be much bigger shitshow.

Yes, I agree that it's a matter of degree and context. For example, South Korea in 1950 had more strategic value than Vietnam, because it would have meant the loss of a buffer between the USSR/China and Japan. Similarly, there was meddling in Iraq (sanctions, defending Kuwait etc.) that had a lot more expected value than the 2003 invasion.

However, regardless of whether these interventions were right, I simply wanted to clarify that non-interventionism is not necessarily a "panacea" view.

The other thing is that for all this talk, Trump actually was President for four years, and neither Ukraine or Taiwan were invaded under his watch. Is that because he was construed to be a committed idealist?

America isn't the sole mover in world politics. I'd caution against attributing everything that happens to whomever is in office.

That's exactly what the person I'm responding to is saying. He said that if America ever credibly adopts America First as a doctrine, Taiwan will fall that every moment!

America changing its entire doctrine regarding Taiwan would be a much bigger change for the Taiwanese than Obama into Trump into Biden has been.

Well, I suspect it may be literally true. America First says we won't intervene if it doesn't serve our interests. Taiwan is worth more to China than it is worth to the US due to Chinese domestic politics. In a nation-centric realism world, they should have it by wagering enough hot war to make it worth it to them but not to us. Maybe we blow up TSMC on our way out. But maintaining "strategic ambiguity" allows us to do better than this! The main point is that America First is a step backwards for Taiwan deterrence.

To address your point about persuading Americans, I don't think pragmatic and nonpragmatic arguments are mutually exclusive. You can put them all out there. There are enough people to parrot the arguments to those who are receptive. The benefit of realist norms is that its more difficult to convince your people to do dumb things for non-realist reasons, which is perhaps understandably attractive in the face of failed US interventionism. But people have an instinctive aversion to such flat realism! People prefer to operate on a fluffier moralist level where it's difficult to assess just how much they are drinking their own Kool-Aid, and I suspect this is because it gives them an advantage in the time prior to open conflict.

Two weeks to flatten the curve. "Transitory" inflation. The Russians are already on the outskirts of kiev, Ukraine isnt going to last another week nevermind a month.

I expect "Taiwan will fall the moment US credibly adopts a America first policy" to age similarly well and its proponents to learn similarly little.

'The Afghan state will crumble instantly' proved entirely correct, for a counter-example.

The Afghan state will crumble instantly

Was notably not the mainstream PMC consensus circa June 2021, i recall our very own kulak and cimafara citing a pride flag over kabul as evidence that not even radical islam could resist liquid modernity.

Both of these people are quite far removed from any mainstream consensus.

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Everyone in the USA still believes that the USA is the first etc etc. The only thing that matters is the domestic response to foreign posturing. "I'm against America First" is a viable posture in America because nobody in America really believes that America could be anything but first.