Despite the ambiguous, if not outright adverse, outcomes of the wars the United States has fought since World War II, the shock of the US military being summarily defeated at the operational level is something with which the American public has seldom had to contend. Even in the case of Vietnam, the belief — justified or not — that the US military was never defeated on the battlefield has endured (and is perhaps now being applied to other wars.) The 1991 Gulf War established the extant impression of the US military as next-to-invincible, a reputation that the long, draining conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have not truly sullied. Those wars led to more piercing questions about how US military force should be applied rather than doubts over its qualitative value.
One needs to go back to the winter of 1950–51 for the last time American troops were decidedly routed en masse by an enemy: the grinding, agonizing retreats of US Army and Marine Corps units from northern Korea following China’s entry into the war. The constituent battles of that withdrawal, such as Chosin, are rightly remembered for the bravery of the American fighting man under some of the most abysmal conditions imaginable. But it was still the last time in modern memory — and at that seven decades ago — when the American public had to watch a US expeditionary force lose territory and retreat in ignominy.
But what if America actually lost — unambiguously — on the battlefield today? How would the US public and decision-makers respond to a clear, public defeat and possibly the death of hundreds if not thousands of service members? How would it impact the calculus to continue the war? Could the urge to escalate — perhaps dangerously so — be curbed?
Three Scenarios for Major War
The most likely candidates for a high-intensity conflict involving US forces are well known. The first of these is a war on the Korean Peninsula. The second is a clash between Russia and NATO over the Baltic states. The third is an attempt by China to forcibly unify with Taiwan, triggering a response by the United States and other Pacific allies such as Japan and possibly Australia.
For the purposes of this discussion, a second Korean War will not be addressed for the simple reason that the potential loss of life in the opening days, if not hours, of that conflict could be immense. One estimate by the Congressional Research Service suggested 300,000 South Koreans could die in the first few days of new Korean war — even without the use of nuclear weapons. Coupled with the concentration of firepower on both sides, controlling escalation of a war on the peninsula might prove next to impossible. From the get go, it would be an existential contest for each side: if North Korea were to lose, its regime (and possibly the state itself) would cease to exist. For South Korea, the United States, and Japan, the scale of civilian and military casualties would likely make any settlement short of total victory unacceptable. In essence, the inception of open conflict in Korea would itself constitute uncontrolled escalation.
The focus of this article is instead on the Baltic and Taiwanese scenarios, potential conflicts that its participants could conduct far short of total war if they choose. Doing so, at least from the US side, would require careful thinking and planning about which types of forces it’s willing to commit to either war — and how far it is willing to escalate even in the face of defeat. I proceed from the notion that as much as it doesn’t want to lose a war with China or Russia, the United States actually could do so — and still defeat both powers in the longer game of great-power competition if the scope of those wars is kept limited.
Uni-Multipolarity and America’s Unique Status
The basic premise offered here is that Russia and even China are not actual peer competitors to the United States, nor are they destined to become so. “Peer” connotes equality and, for a number of reasons, both China and especially Russia will remain far behind the United States when all instruments of national power are taken into account. While strict unipolarity has faded, that doesn’t mean we’ve entered a true multipolar system. “Great power competition” is sufficient shorthand for the current state of the international system, but Sam Huntington’s “uni-multipolarity” concept is the more accurate clinical term. The United States isn’t “the first among equals.” Rather, it remains distinctly superior in power and wealth to its competitors. It is the only superpower — buffeted by major powers, albeit ones that have increased their abilities compared to the period of genuine unipolarity that obtained immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
To be clear, this isn’t jingoistic chest-thumping. The argument that the United States has the preponderance of power in the international system (and will continue to do so) is a cold assessment of its economic, military, and political strength. I am much influenced here by Michael Beckley’s Unrivaled, in which he highlights the underlying costs that plague US competitors in the international system. The internal security costs and societal “bribes” required to maintain domestic order are a significant drag on states such as China, which belie their raw economic numbers.
Beckley focuses on “net power,” a measure that incorporates costs such as, for example, suppressing the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, maintaining control over Tibet, implementing an intrusive and expensive internal security system, and other such measures an authoritarian regime needs to maintain and wield power. Coupled with the sheer weight of providing an adequate social safety net for over a billion people, China’s raw economic muscle doesn’t inherently translate into an equivalent level of military and political power abroad. This isn’t to say China isn’t a very significant country and a major power; but it’s simply not on the US level.
In Russia’s case, the disparity between its power and that of the United States is even more self-evident. One doesn’t even need to subtract Russia’s internal costs. For 2018, Russia’s economy ranked just eleventh in GDP (behind the likes of Canada) and sixth in price-adjusted GDP, trailing Germany, India, Japan, the United States, and China. In short, it has the wealth base of a middle power, at best. With its limited resources, Russia has chosen to take on a number of cash-sapping quasi-client states in Abkhazia, Crimea, Donbass, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, to say nothing of an open-ended military adventure in Syria. The drain on Russian resources forced Vladimir Putin to raise the retirement age five years to curb the amount of state funds being devoted to pensions, perhaps the single most unpopular move of his time in power. Militarily, funds have been available for modest modernization, rather than truly transformative capabilities.
Saying that US power is preeminent doesn’t guarantee that the United States will use that power wisely or justly. As Beckley rightly notes, there are still self-defeating strategies and policies that the United States can pursue that would undermine its strength from within. Some of those — such as dangerously inflating the national debt — are outside the purview of this article. But what is within its scope is the essential choice of which wars the United States chooses to fight and, just as importantly, how far it is willing to pursue them. It is the one realm in which US power could be diminished rapidly and unexpectedly, perhaps even in victory.
This is worth emphasizing: the United States’ superpower status is distinct. It’s also something that is the United States to lose. One of the reasons for avoiding an uncontrolled escalation of a Baltic or Taiwan contingency is that elevating those crises into major regional — or even global — wars is one of the few actions involving external actors that could compromise US standing in the international system. A highly destructive conventional war — or worse a nuclear conflict — could inflict sufficient damage on the core elements of US power that it drops from its privileged position. Such a diminution in US status would, in fact, produce true multi-polarity with the international system populated only by major powers, including a reduced America.
Not a Second Cold War
Related to this is the basic idea that whatever we call the current competition among international actors, it is decidedly not another Cold War, a conflict characterized by zero-sum-game competition and the perception on both sides of an existential struggle. If examined dispassionately, the stakes for the United States are far less in the current international competition. As neither China nor Russia has the same level of global power as the Soviet Union did, losing to them in a specific fight carries less consequence than during the bipolar era when the win-loss calculus was so intense it all but prohibited direct conflict between the two superpowers.
In facing off against China or Russia, the United States can afford to lose as long as the scope of the conflict remains contained. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the United States shouldn’t attempt to defeat a Chinese or Russian invasion of its neighbors, but it is to argue that US power would not be crippled by such a loss, despite the public humiliation of its first true battlefield defeat in seventy years. Seeing such contests today as all-or-nothing struggles is poor strategic thinking that fails to move beyond the specific historical circumstances of the Cold War, itself a conflict that is now almost three decades in the past.
Likewise, I am unconvinced that US failure to successfully defend either Taiwan or the Baltics would undermine the strength of its alliances elsewhere in Asia or Europe. If anything, by openly attacking their neighbors, China and Russia are more likely to make other regional states balance against them by allying more tightly with the United States. To the extent NATO’s constituent members have raised individual defense spending in recent years, it may have had more to do with the annexation of Crimea than American brow-beating. Is Vladimir Putin truly content that his revanchist projects have led to NATO’s rotating Enhanced Forward Presence (or EFP) deployments in the Baltics or to realistic discussions about permanently basing US forces in Poland? A passive, non-aggressive Russia would probably do more to undermine alliance cohesion than what we’re experiencing now. The current rapprochement in US-Philippines relations can similarly be attributed to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
We also need to be realistic about the true military capacity of US competitors. Victory in Taiwan or the Baltics does not automatically equate to domination in either the Pacific or Europe. To begin with, it is difficult to argue Russia has the strength to threaten territory beyond adjacent states. Though it has learned much from its awkward victory over Georgia in the 2008 August War, it simply doesn’t have the means and the manpower to, say, drive across Germany and the Low Countries, as was feared at the height of the Cold War. The fact that it would now have to first invade either Belarus or Ukraine and then Poland makes this even more unlikely.
Similarly, China’s occupation of Taiwan would not inherently presage an attack on, say, Japan or Australia. This isn’t to suggest there wouldn’t be strategic consequences, but the ability to dominate the South China Sea doesn’t equate to carte blanche to project power throughout the Pacific or an abject negation of US power. Yes, China has aircraft carriers coming: platforms that will have the same vulnerabilities as those correctly assigned to their American counterparts. Anti-access can go both ways.
Are We Fighting Twilight Powers?
This discussion leads to another set of considerations: not only are China and Russia not true superpowers, it’s also possible that one or both are “twilight powers” whose relative strength will decline in the years ahead, not increase. George Friedman, the founder of the private intelligence firm, STRATFOR, has speculated that by 2040 neither Russia nor China might be a decisive factor on the international stage. While a complete decline of each might be too much to expect, the underlying limits of each power is the broader point. Neither has the means to overtake the United States unless America chooses to do things that significantly damage its own wealth and power in the long run. Absent a major error — such as engaging in a highly destructive war or a ruinous fiscal policy — the United States’ prospects remain much stronger. Simply put, in the “great power competition,” America can outlast its current challengers just as it once did the Soviet Union.
In fact, it’s worth considering whether victory in a Taiwan or Baltic scenario would truly improve either China or Russia’s standing in the international system. Operational success could be short-lived as the costs of absorbing those territories begin to accrue. There is every reason to believe that Chinese and Russian forces would each be treated with open hostility. In 2018, a survey by Taipei’s Chengchi University found that almost a third of the Taiwanese population would accept significant losses (over 50,000 dead) in a battle to keep their island free. Large numbers of Baltic citizens have also expressed a willingness to resist an outside aggressor, including by taking up arms. Even the Russophone communities in Estonia and Latvia are hardly partisans-in-waiting. Despite some problems with integration, they still see their economic prospects as far better under their current situation.
China or Russia could find themselves tying up a significant number of troops to maintain internal security post-invasion. Coupled with the overall expense of conquest and occupation, there might be very limited benefits to China and Russia from military action in Taiwan or the Baltics. Rather than elevating their status in the great-power competition, either occupation is just as likely — perhaps more so — to facilitate decline.
Should We Fight at All?
If involvement in a war over Taiwan or the Baltic states risks US standing in the international system and possibly could devolve into nuclear war, shouldn’t America simply disavow any defensive commitment in either theater? America’s obligation to Taiwan has always been officially ambiguous since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, or TRA, replaced the mutual defense treaty Washington previously had with Taipei. (Although as one informed observer has pointed out, the language of the TRA is not any less ambiguous than other supposedly “hard” US security commitments in the Pacific, such as to the defense of Japan and South Korea.) US defense of the Baltics is, on the other hand, straightforward under NATO’s Article 5.
But neither of these commitments must necessarily be binding moving forward. As President Trump recently reminded the world, NATO is something from which America could withdraw, under Article 13. The argument that expansion of the alliance has gone too far is increasingly popular and one prominent political scientist, MIT’s Barry Posen, recently called for reassessing the US commitment to NATO in the pages of The New York Times. The obligation to Taiwan, as noted, is more ephemeral and America could probably make a formal statement making clear it won’t defend the island. In short, the US could abandon both commitments if it wanted to, albeit with major knock-on effects for regional alliances and stability.
The problem is that the United States openly renouncing either defensive obligation is unlikely to make the likelihood of Chinese or Russian action go away. Just the opposite: it could be perceived as a green light to reckless adventurism. Preventing China or Russia from attacking its neighbors with military force is still an important end in itself regardless of US involvement. Once wars begin, they have a tendency to run their own course. The scope and scale of the conflict can expand quickly outside the original intentions of the aggressor, perhaps setting up other dilemmas for the United States about whether and how to respond. Not to retread tired examples, but it is still worth considering that the United States didn’t necessarily plan on entering the First or Second World War when those conflicts began. Simply “stepping aside” is not necessarily the answer either.
Fighting a Limited War against a Major Power
Limited war is far from a foreign concept to Western militaries. In terms of the scenarios discussed by this paper, conflicts like the Falkland Islands War or the 1991 Gulf War would seem to be the ideal paradigm to mimic. In particular, I was drawn to the comparison between the Falklands campaign and what a US response to Taiwan might successfully look like while I was in the early stages of developing this article. The problem is that most twentieth-century examples of limited war lack what the United States faces in the twenty-first: an opponent who can escalate the war beyond the immediate theater and threaten the US homeland.
This leaves the United States with difficult options. On the one hand, it has to demonstrate deterrence and fidelity to its regional allies. On the other, it also has to avoid “going all in” from the outset of a conflict in order to allow it to decouple from a war it might not be able to win and which it doesn’t want to spiral into an existential fight. Over at War on the Rocks, Michael Fitzsimmons rigorously questioned the ability of US decision-makers to reliably control escalation or to guarantee “escalation dominance” — a strategy which essentially argues for the United States always being able to “one up” its opponent in terms of the overwhelming capabilities it can bring to bear. While this might work against a limited power such as North Korea (although there are no guarantees), it very likely won’t work against a state, such as China or Russia, capable of definitive and extensive nuclear strikes on the US homeland, particularly in situations — such as a Taiwan or Baltic contingency — where their interests might far outweigh ours.
Fitzsimmons’ analysis is sound and points to another problem: if the United States can’t be sure that it can truly control the escalation of a military conflict in which nuclear use could be considered, then it really shouldn’t get into one, unless its way of life is already somehow under direct threat. Neither Taiwan nor the Baltic scenarios come close to reaching that threshold.
Making matters worse is that technological developments have greatly expanded the scope of variables with which decision-makers have to contend and, equally important, the speed at which events unfold. This will require thinking through in advance the limits on US actions and hardcore red-lines about conventional military options and — most importantly — casualties.
Put in grimmer terms, the United States needs to understand what it is or isn’t willing to do before an aircraft carrier is sunk (and five thousand of its citizens are dead). I’m not necessarily arguing for a set menu of pre-agreed options (i.e., a script that would dictate that if China does x, then the United States must do y.) Every crisis will be different and there needs to be room for improvisation to adapt to changing events. But the compression of decision-making time should not be underestimated. “Thirteen Days” might now be “Sixty Hours,” at most. Handling a modern war fought between armies — not against insurgents — might require increased reliance on pre-rehearsing and wargaming options to prepare decision-makers.
It will also necessitate careful consideration of what types of units the United States is comfortable committing to either conflict. As the aircraft carrier example illustrates, maybe the United States doesn’t commit surface forces to the defense of Taiwan, relying instead only on submarines and air assets to try to interdict a Chinese invasion flotilla. In the Baltics, could the United States refrain from counter-attacking with armor? If so, does it essentially negate any meaningful response? I invite military professionals to make specific suggestions, but the overall question that needs to be addressed is can the United States reasonably support Taiwan or the Baltic states without exposing manpower-intensive forces to the risk of high casualties? Or, if it does so, is America willing a) to accept those losses and b) to walk away, short of a nuclear exchange, if conventional efforts aren’t enough to win?
A related set of questions relates to how carefully the United States can coordinate operational requirements with steps to prevent unwanted escalation. In the abstract, targeting Chinese missile sites, command-and-control facilities, and airbases on the mainland would seem like an obvious step when viewed narrowly through the lens of winning a conflict in the South China Sea. But striking them could risk large Chinese civilian casualties and also, as Caitlin Talmadge has discussed, possibly raise Chinese concerns about the security of their nuclear forces. In the Baltic scenario, I would similarly ask to what extent is NATO willing to take the battle onto Russian and possibly Belarussian territory? What are the consequences of NATO forces targeting command-and-control and surveillance facilities in Russia proper, particularly if they, too, have dual applicability to Moscow’s strategic forces? From a military planning perspective, efficacy in battle can’t be the only consideration, much as we might like it to be.
An adjustment might also be needed in how Americans — and not just the military — conceptualize the popular concept and purpose of war. Cathal Nolan has argued convincingly that the concept of “decisive battle” has been overstated as a factor in the history of military affairs. In truth, attrition is far more likely to resolve conflicts than a brilliant and overwhelming performance on the battlefield. Lawrence Freedman likewise dismisses the definitive battle myth, arguing that what needs to be examined is the resilience of a military power. If state’s have endurance in a conflict, other elements of national power can be brought to bear to decide the war. This is useful guidance in contextualizing a potential Baltic or Taiwanese contingency as part of the wider contest between the United States and the major powers in the decades ahead.
Complicating Factors and Tacit Cooperation
It’s obviously important to note that the ability to fight within certain constraints will not always be entirely for the United States to decide. It requires two willing partners to keep a war limited. Much would hinge on how China and Russia choose to fight in their respective conflicts. For example, if China presaged a Taiwan invasion with massive conventional missile strikes on US military facilities in Japan and Guam, the United States might be forced into a far more robust response. Contrast this instead with a scenario in which China does not initiate aggression against American forces or other regional actors other than Taiwan. Then the onus would fall on American decision-makers to deliberately choose to send forces into harm’s way to impede an invasion, a much different set of circumstances than an unprovoked, surprise missile attack on US or allied territory.
In northeast Europe, the Baltic states’ membership in NATO might make the consequences of Russian aggression more clear cut, but much will still depend on how Russia wages its attack. Are there pre-emptive missile strikes on US forward-based equipment in Poland or even on US bases in Germany? How aggressively do Russian naval forces blockade the Baltic coast from re-supply? Are there intrusive cyberattacks on the US homeland? Such steps — which take the conflict beyond the immediate confines of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — could make limiting the scope of response more difficult, just as Chinese attacks beyond Taiwan could compel a broader conflict in the Pacific. In the Baltics, there is also the added complication of the aforementioned EFP deployments, which include several hundred British, Canadian, and German troops. How would significant casualties to those forces affect escalation?
Finally, in both scenarios, another factor would almost certainly be how much violence is needed to achieve Chinese and Russian objectives. What damage is done to the civilian populace in the course of achieving occupation? What methods are employed to subjugate those elements of the civilian populace who are unwilling to concede to their new masters? If there is substantial bloodshed — or even outright atrocities — that, too, could make it more difficult for the United States and other outside actors to accept the new status quo and simply focus on the long game.
At a minimum, this suggests the need for a two-track plan for both wars, one in which hostilities immediately extend beyond the scope of the enemy’s main objective and one in which China or Russia confine their activities to the territory and airspace of Taiwan or the Baltic states. There could be utility in publicly discussing — and openly signaling — to Beijing and Moscow that scenarios involving broader regional strikes would invoke a more robust and unconstrained US response. This might be one way to influence China and Russia into adhering — willingly or not — to their side of the “bargain” with regard to keeping a Baltic or Taiwan war limited.
This may be too much to ask, but it’s important to remember that despite the inherent advantages both China and Russia might have in fighting in the South China Sea or northeastern Europe, military operations of a scale necessary to occupy Taiwan or the Baltic states still entail immense risk for the leaderships in Beijing and Moscow. Reducing the scope of US reaction would be in both countries’ interest. Also, there is no reason to believe that either country would wittingly seek an actual nuclear war any more than the United States would. There will thus be pressure on both China and Russia to limit escalation and to keep conflicts confined, as well. “Bargaining and cooperation” among two sides fighting a war is difficult to achieve, but not impossible. The process needs to begin somewhere.
Bitter Pills and the Long Game
There is by necessity a detached coldness to the sort of analysis contained in this paper. For the citizens of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Taiwan, it is not a simple intellectual exercise. The conflicts explored here could have real impacts on their existing way of life, to say nothing of bringing death and destruction to their doorstep. I don’t mean to discount this or suggest that a Chinese or Russian invasion should simply be shrugged off. But there is the question of the bigger picture. Is it better to avoid a much larger — and possibly global conflict — if Chinese and Russian forces can’t be defeated in a limited manner, keeping the United States functioning as a viable competitor to support Baltic and Taiwanese liberation in the long run? Not to put too fine a point on it, but if a conflagration in either the South China Sea or Northeast Europe were to spiral into a nuclear exchange, the results will be catastrophic for all — including those in Taiwan and the Baltics.
I also realize this isn’t a particularly satisfying set of circumstances for those who would actually have to fight a Baltic or Taiwan campaign from the US side. It’s the equivalent of shaking the collective hand of the US military and saying, “Congratulations: your nation is not going to do everything it can to win the war you’re in, but we are willing to accept far higher casualties than we’ve suffered in living memory. Good luck!” It’s the worst of both worlds — asking service members to take on greater risk while unambiguously telling them to fight with at least one arm tied behind their back.
Finally, I’m cognizant of the fact that deterrence is a bit like a particle in quantum physics: you can affect it simply by trying to examine it. The preceding discussion could be interpreted as increasing the likelihood of a Chinese or Russian attack by suggesting that the US not do everything in its power to defend Taiwan or the Baltic states. Perhaps that’s why it’s best to begin this discussion unofficially. There are some questions that are better asked not by active duty military planners or sitting policy officials, but rather by a former analyst typing on a couch in sweatpants.
But the limits of a US response to either a Taiwan or a Baltic contingency do need to be explicated further than they have been. The simple reason is that the United States can afford to lose a regional war with China or Russia — if the conflict remains limited — and still outlast both powers in the long run. Yet in the face of a decisive battlefield defeat and fatalities that could eclipse — in a matter of hours — those suffered during decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, the impulse to escalate will be immense.
This will require not just private debate among policymakers and military planners, but implementing that most dreaded of recommendations: honest engagement with the public. Is anyone willing to have a real discussion with the American people about the implications of the passing of our unipolar moment and a return to great-power competition? Does anyone want to prepare them for a return to more traditional levels of casualties if we find ourselves fighting one of our main competitors? And is anyone willing to suggest that we limit our exposure in such fights — even if significant US casualties are taken and our opponent can clearly claim victory?
Doing so would require genuine political courage given the ease with which such a stance could be cast as defeatist, if not declinist, as opposed to what it actually is: stone-cold realism. Making the argument that other instruments of US power could compensate for a battlefield defeat, even a humiliating one, over the course of time will be difficult at best. The aura of invincibility surrounding the US military and the surprising fragility of our national ego both make it a tall order. But such a conversation likely needs to begin if the American public is to be prepared for the probable consequences of future conflicts.
Mike Sweeney is a disillusioned former think tanker. He lives and writes in New Jersey. He sometimes spends too much time thinking about force deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.