In Notable Arguments, we cover an important article by Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, reflecting both on US backing for Georgia and Taiwan in light of the notion of moral hazard: "offering insurance to somebody often leads them to take greater risks than they otherwise would".
"If Georgia had not been led to believe that the United States might back it in a crisis, it probably would have played its hand more carefully -- and whatever compromises it might have had to make, it would have been better off as a result. This sort of thing happens all the time, and shows why great powers need to be careful lest their dependents embroil them in unnecessary conflicts."
Rose contrasts this with America's handling of Taiwan, where ambiguity about just how much support America will actually provide in the case of a Chinese invasion has continually prevented conflict. China is deterred from invading while Taiwan is deterred from the sort of measures, such as a declaration of independence, that China would consider a provocation. This approach has been continued during the Bush administration - successfully.
The article concludes:
"It is only natural for small democratic states living in bad neighborhoods to seek American support and protection, and in certain cases it is entirely appropriate for the United States to give it to them. But when it chooses to do so, the U.S. should make clear that along with the backing comes the responsibility to act prudently -- and should, without sentiment, use all the tools at its disposal to enforce the deal. The Bush 43 team has recognized this in Asia but forgot it in the Caucasus. How forcefully it would handle a third such case in the Middle East during its final months remains unclear."
This balanced perspective - accepting the value of American support for some small and embattled countries, but pointing out the potential hazards - makes a persuasive and potentially troubling case for those who support American global leadership. The obvious good America continues to do is acknowledged, but inherent dangers also highlighted.
America is cast as an essential part of preventing war between Israel and many of her neighbours, between China and Taiwan, between Russia and pro-Western states such as Georgia, and so on. But she is also as the country that can, with misjudgements, encourage one side to provoke a war. To characterise the balance in comical and amoral terms, America is the older brother, bigger than anyone else in the violent playground, offering protection to his weaker sibling: while he may be doing the right thing, there is at least the risk that his younger brother may feel incautious or invincible - free to provoke anyone else, knowing he can always rely on him to back him up or even do the fighting.
Taiwan's case in particular - at least hitherto - demonstrates the advantages of ambiguity as opposed to a strict and public declaration of those situations where America is willing to go to war. An unambiguous commitment or alliance will be taken most seriously, precisely because it removes the discretion of the power that makes it to decide whether or not to act. But removing this discretion risks empowering the smaller power, who may calculate that the risks of a total war are outweighed by the advantages of pursuing a particular objective that it takes very seriously, even if the United States would not make the same calculation.