From Georgia to Taiwan

Richard C. Bush and Kenneth G. Lieberthal

On the face of it, Taiwan and the Republic of Georgia have little in common. Taiwan is an island off China’s coast that used American protection and assistance during the Cold War to become an economic success story. Georgia was absorbed into the continental Russian empire in the 19th century, suffered under the Soviet system for decades, gained its independence in 1991, but has struggled ever since to build national strength.

Yet in recent years, the basic dynamics of the two countries have been remarkably similar. Both have had politically skillful, democratically elected heads of state who were determined to consolidate the independent identity and sovereignty of the territory they ruled. Each confronted a major power — Russia for Georgia and China for Taiwan — that felt it had legitimate historical rights to curtail the full exercise of sovereignty by the feisty smaller government. And each appealed to the United States for support. The leaders of Taiwan and Georgia had reason to believe they had a strong ally in President George W. Bush, who had declared a robust agenda of promoting democracy and freedom. They were acting, they said, to realize the democratic aspirations of their people.

But this similar dynamic has produced different outcomes. Georgia has become the scene of the most serious post-Cold War great-power conflict, while recent political change in Taiwan has greatly enhanced cross-Strait stability and provides reason for optimism about the future. What lessons can be learned from such different outcomes?

Although each narrative has its own unique and important details, these different outcomes reflect different policies by the Bush administration and illustrate the danger of sending mixed messages that can be interpreted as blank checks.

With respect to Georgia, Mr. Bush publicly lavished praise on President Mikheil Saakashvili and provided substantial support, for example giving advanced military training to the two thousand troops President Saakashvili sent to Iraq to support the U.S. effort there. During the past year President Bush also promoted Georgia’s accession to NATO, asking other NATO members at a gathering in Bucharest this April to welcome Georgia into a Membership Action Plan that would prepare it for full NATO membership. In taking these and other measures, President Bush brushed aside explicit Russian warnings that the U.S. was crossing several red lines that would invite a strong Russian response.

President Bush adopted a similar attitude in his early days in office toward Taiwan, telling a CNN reporter in April 2001 that he was prepared to “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan against China. But over time Mr. Bush moved to a more tempered approach that increasingly took into serious account Beijing’s concerns as well as Taiwan’s pleadings. He recognized that the most serious threat to Taiwan was conflict through miscalculation, as an independence-leaning political initiative by Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian might provoke a Chinese military attack, whether justified or not. The Bush administration therefore developed a nuanced American policy that publicly put the United States squarely in opposition to any unilateral change to the status quo by either Beijing or Taipei.

In Georgia, the net result is that, in response to various incidents, President Saakashvili ordered his military into South Ossetia on August 7, and the Russians responded with overwhelming force the next day, humiliating the Georgian military, seizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and placing some Russian military forces inside Georgia proper. This has created a major crisis in U.S.-Russian relations whose ultimate extent remains unclear. U.S.-Russian relations may continue to deteriorate, with serious implications for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and for cooperation in handling other major international issues.

In Taiwan, by contrast, 2008 has witnessed the election of a moderate leader, Ma Ying-jeou, whose electoral prospects were bolstered in part by America’s clear indications of its displeasure with the willingness of former president Mr. Chen to provoke China. Under President Ma we are seeing hopeful initiatives to stabilize cross-Strait relations in ways that hold out the prospect for improving Taiwan’s economy, reducing the military threat from China, preserving Taiwan’s democratic system of governance, and increasing America’s capacity to work with China on the North Korea nuclear issue and other serious international concerns.

American officials reportedly did warn their Georgian counterparts, from President Saakashvili on down, about the dangers of recklessness in the face of Russian power. But these messages were paired with strong commitments of support. And any such warnings were conveyed in private while the commitments came in public. The U.S.-Taiwan relationship also had a problem with mixed messages for a period, but the Bush administration eventually managed to get its officials to speak from a common set of talking points.

The danger, of course, is that the recipients of mixed messages about the limits of America support will listen only to the messages they wish to hear. Those who perceive blank checks from Uncle Sam will believe they are free to cash them. Or, if they are caught in the crossfire between their own domestic politics and pressures from the hostile neighbor, they are liable to take risks with the American pledges that they might not otherwise take.

The Georgian and Taiwanese situations are each distinctive, and the future is not yet fully certain. But the central lesson of these two cases is clear: American commitment should be carefully shaped around sober analysis of American capabilities and interest and the competing goals and interests of other major players, and articulated on that basis. Otherwise, we create trouble for our friends, our major power relationships, our credibility, and our capacity to manage other critical international issues in the future.