After reading Pat Buchanan’s March 5 piece in The American Conservative “Mike Pompeo Threatens China With War,” I asked my friend Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, for his thoughts on a defense agreement with the Philippines. Here’s what he had to say.
RCY: Is a Philippine ship worth a war with China? Is this not insanity?
CP: Yes, it’s insane. I can’t imagine that any right-thinking person would want the United States to risk a war with a nuclear armed adversary over what amounts to a dispute over fishing rights half a world away.
Defending Manila’s claim to the Spratly Islands is clearly not a vital U.S. interest. And yet U.S. foreign policy makers for at least a generation have behaved as though such territorial disputes are a matter of urgent concern — indeed, a concern worth going to war over.
Perhaps they are just bluffing? Perhaps they believe that the threat of violence will deter China from asserting its claims to disputed islands and shoals throughout the waters that it depends upon to survive? Or perhaps they actually believe that these islands are as important to us as they are to the Chinese or the Filipinos? I can’t explain it.
By the way, Cato a few years ago published a good primer on China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and what the United States and other countries in the region should be doing about it. I highly recommend it. (Benjamin Herscovitch, “A Balanced Threat Assessment of China’s South China Sea Policy,” Cato Policy Analysis No. 820. August 28, 2017.)
RCY: What should we do?
CP: Short answer: Fire Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. That’d be a start.
More seriously, President Trump needs to show the millions of American who believed him when he said he wanted to fight fewer wars that he actually means it. For many years, Donald Trump has questioned the value of defending other countries from threats, and he occasionally seems disinclined to follow the foreign policy playbook that he inherited from his predecessors – a playbook that is far too quick to reach for the military. Barack Obama complained of this, too. And yet President Trump has populated his administration with people, like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who are committed to staying in the wars we’re in, in places like Syria and Afghanistan, and who would have the United States go toe-to-toe with China over matters that do not engage U.S. vital interests.
There are elements of President Trump’s “America First” agenda that I don’t support, including especially his views on trade. And I think that one of America’s great strengths is our ability to engage with others peacefully. If he really wanted to Make America Great Again, we should be interacting with others more, not less. Related, if the president wanted to better compete with China, he should have stayed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he should be finding ways to expand trade in the Asia-Pacific, not trying to stifle mutually beneficial trade with higher tariffs.
But the real problem may be that his administration includes very few people who are actually committed to a constructive foreign policy that advances American security at a reasonable cost. If he is truly committed to that vision, he would get us out of these wars, and stop looking for ways to get into new ones. And he’d pick at least a few people who share that approach to foreign policy.