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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Iran, Ukraine, Taiwan: The Common Denominator

A strange headline? Not if you’re the President of the United States and have to think “globally.” In our globalized world, everything is somehow connected to everything else – and this is true for strategic diplomacy no less than for economics and other areas of life.

President Biden faces three serious threats emanating from its three greatest “enemies” – two erstwhile superpowers and the third a regional hegemonic wannabe. First and foremost is China that’s increasing its saber-rattling regarding Taiwan for which China has never relinquished its claim of being part and parcel of the mainland. The United States has been democratic Taiwan’s stalwart ally and strongly supports its independence, albeit not with any formal mutual defense treaty. Clearly, America will not send troops to Taiwan in case of a Communist Chinese attack, but it will try every other way to lend support, militarily (arms) and diplomatically. The question for President Biden, then, is simple: how to convince the Chinese not to attack Taiwan?

Iran does not constitute a superpower threat to the U.S., but it is even more belligerent in its region, threatening Sunni Arab states and Israel alike – all close allies of the United States. Here the problem is not a military attack but rather the development of a nuclear weapon capability that would destabilize the entire Middle East and ultimately threaten the very existence of Israel. Making the situation even more complicated for Biden is the possibility that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear development plants – as it did against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. So how to convince Iran to agree to a broader treaty than that signed in 2015? And barring that, Biden has to ask himself, should the U.S. attack Iran’s nuclear program?

The Ukraine is a more recent ally of the West, which is part of the problem from the Russian standpoint. President Putin views the Ukraine as an integral and historical part of Russia, and certainly part of Russia’s hegemonic realm. The Ukraine turning to the West is unacceptable to the Russians and have now starting massing a huge army on the Ukraine’s border – this, after having invaded and “annexed” Crimea several years ago. Here too, as with Taiwan, Biden has made it clear that he will not send troops to fight the Russians (even though the Ukraine has pleaded for several years to join NATO) – but he has already warned Putin of placing even more severe economic sanctions on Russia, not to mention sending significant military aid to the Ukrainian army.

Which of these three crises counts the most for the U.S.? Israel might not like to hear it, but clearly it is Taiwan. First, China is easily the biggest (and really the only) threat to American dominance. Enabling China to conquer Taiwan would send a very bad message to the rest of the Asian Pacific countries regarding trust in American willingness to defend democracies and allies (Secretary of State Blinken just visited the Far East to bolster its alliances, warning China to stop its aggressive actions in the region). This is especially necessary today in order to counteract America’s acute “image” problem resulting from its Afghanistan withdrawal embarrassment. Second, Taiwan is home to the largest semiconductor chip manufacturer in the world: TSMC, that holds significantly more than half (!) of the global, semiconductor market. With chips already short around the world, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would cause economic havoc in everything from computers to cars.

It is precisely here that the diplomatic “triangle” in the title of this blog becomes all too clear. For if Biden enables Russia to successfully invade and conquer the Ukraine (or further parts of it) in the very backyard of the West, he will have completely undercut his ability to stop Iran and China from doing what they intend to do close to their own home. The Ukraine case would then effectively offer the green light to Iran and China – crises that have far greater meaning to the United States.

So we can expect the U.S. Administration to play hardball in the more immediate crises – Ukraine and Iran – in order to send a clear message to China. Unless Biden is willing to completely give up U.S. global influence – and last week’s international “Summit for Democracy” that he initiated shows that the president is very interested in shoring up the world’s democracies, not abandoning them – he has no choice but to be very firm with the Russians (albeit somewhat hamstrung by the understandable lack of willingness to send U.S. troops) and with Iran (politically more palatable, as any military action would be from a distance: bombers, cruise missiles etc., and not many soldiers on the ground, if at all).

In sum, standing up to Putin will make it that much easier to stand up to the Iranians – and that in turn would be far more convincing to the Chinese that the U.S. is not going to easily let China get its way regarding Taiwan. Such international considerations are more than a chess game; international relations at times are  a matter of playing dominoes as well.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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