Going to War Over Taiwan and the 'Gas Tank of Will'

Most Americans have consistently said for years that they do not support going to war to defend Taiwan.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiles Elbridge Colby and discusses his hawkishness on China in a recent New Yorker article. This section was probably the most telling part of the entire piece:

Colby’s response is to try to sever the transformational vision of the forever wars from his own hawkishness—to argue that those were neoconservative adventures, intent on democratizing foreign countries, and that his own realist camp does not envision regime change and does not aspire to remake China. “What really makes me angry, frankly, is the aggressive kind of neoconservatives and liberal hawks. They are the ones that used up that gas tank of will [bold mine-DL],” Colby told me.

It is remarkable that Colby identifies using up the “gas tank of will” in the United States as his chief objection to neoconservatives and liberal hawks. He is not put off by their militarism or the destruction they have wrought, but he is angry at them for making it harder to sell his kind of militarism to the public. Indeed, “he is troubled by whether most Americans will see Taiwan as of sufficient interest to them.”

In fact, most Americans have consistently said for years that they do not support going to war to defend Taiwan. This is one of the more noticeable gaps between foreign policy elites and the public. As the Chicago Council of Global Affairs noted earlier this year in its survey report, “Majorities of opinion leaders across partisan lines support using US troops to defend Taiwan from Chinese invasion, while a majority of the American public opposes doing so, regardless of partisan affiliation.” Public support for going to war for Taiwan has increased since 2014, but it is still only at 41%.

This suggests that the fundamental obstacle for militarists is not simply that the forever war has sapped the public’s willingness to fight, but that most Americans don’t want to fight over Taiwan, period. It is possible that this could change over time with a large enough propaganda campaign, but if it is still a minority view after the last few years of anti-China hysteria it is probably not going to gain much more additional support. Unfortunately, there appears to be a fairly broad consensus in favor of going to war over Taiwan among opinion leaders, and that could create a scenario where the U.S. jumps into a war that lacks durable public support.

As disastrous and costly as the forever war has been, courting conflict with China promises to be much worse and much more dangerous. If supporters of the forever war have exhausted the public’s patience with military adventurism, they have unwittingly done the country a favor by depriving the next generation of militarists of the popular appetite for confrontation against a much more powerful adversary.