Ambiguity Has Its Uses


Sep 24, 2020

U.S. Navy vessels in the Philippine Sea, November, 2018, photo by MC2 Kaila V. Peters/U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy vessels in the Philippine Sea, November, 2018

Photo by MC2 Kaila V. Peters/U.S. Navy

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Affairs on September 24, 2020.

Richard Haass and David Sacks have done a great service by promoting debate on an increasingly vexing issue—the United States' commitment to Taiwan. They are right to worry that, as China's thirst to resolve the Taiwan issue intensifies, the United States' halfhearted commitment to the island will become increasingly perilous: too weak to deter Chinese aggression but strong enough to drag the United States into a war.

But Haass and Sacks's solution—an unequivocal U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan—has more emotional than strategic appeal. To begin with, Taiwan does not yet face an imminent threat. Little evidence—beyond belligerent statements and provocative exercises—suggests that China is on the verge of invading Taiwan. As Taylor Fravel recently argued, “China does not appear (yet) to have altered its view about the importance of maintaining a relatively benign security environment.” The United States should not pay the huge costs of a security guarantee if the menace remains mostly hypothetical. Were China ever to move toward invasion, the United States could issue more pointed threats.

Even if an invasion were imminent, however, a security pledge might not be effective. In the late 1930s, many Japanese officials admitted that they would lose a long war against the United States. Despite that grim assessment, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, because it concluded that it had no other option.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.