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The passing of Colin Powell, a significant American leader whose funeral was held on Friday, is reason to pause and reflect about many things, not least of which is what his foreign policy wisdom can teach us about current problems.

Perhaps the most important, and coherent, aspect of Powell’s policy advice is what became known as the “Powell doctrine.” This doctrine posits that the United States should be slow to anger — using or advocating force only when necessary. But once the United States goes to war, it must do so with extreme vigor, relying on overwhelming force to ensure victory.

The Powell doctrine poses two potential challenges regarding U.S. policy and rhetoric regarding Taiwan.

First, as has happened too often in the past, the talking shop known as the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been too quick to bare its teeth, advocating military solutions to the political situation on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. Powell would probably advocate quieter diplomacy; private conversations allow Beijing’s leaders to assess the situation dispassionately, without the need to “lose face” by appearing cowed by public rhetoric.

Second, it is not clear that U.S. officials are likely to muster the level of public support Powell advocated when posturing for a possible military contest, especially one involving two of the most powerful nations on Earth going head-to-head.

When discussing conventional military might, easily overwhelming the contemporary Chinese military in its own backyard is far from a foregone conclusion. Add nuclear weapons to the equation, and the situation appears grim.

Committing to a massive military build-up in order to achieve the effective defense of Taiwan will take time and resources far in excess of those being publicly contemplated today. More to the point, it will be a commitment lasting a generation or more.

Perhaps America can have its way vis-a-vis China on the cheap, “deterring” China without being forced to make the kind of commitment Powell advocated.

There are important reasons why Powell formulated his doctrine in the way he did. Winning wars is one thing; you have to go big or go home in a major military contest.

Too often of late, the United States has tried to win small wars, wars that it considered small but which adversaries did not. They out-fought or out-lasted American capabilities or resolve.

America does not deserve to set ourselves up for yet another defeat. Nor should we drag a friendly nation — Taiwan — through a horrible and possibly unnecessary military contest because pundits like to talk big and sound aggressive.

The thought of deterrence as a cheaper way to prevail is a pervasive but dangerous fiction that haunts the halls of America’s defense establishment.

Deterrence works to the degree that an adversary perceives that war is too risky or costly to fight. If at the outset America makes clear that it sees deterrence as preferable because someone thinks it will be cheaper or easier, this is precisely the conundrum that Powell’s doctrine seeks to avoid.

War becomes much more likely when a would-be aggressor believes its target lacks the will to prevail.

It is often attractive to express casual preferences in foreign policy. In the best of all worlds, it would be nice if China would lay off Taiwan.

But what is America actually willing to do about it, and will this be enough? Powell’s advice, then and now, is to walk this path with caution, but also with firmness. Be clear about the steps one is taking and, if sufficiently determined, stack the deck to ensure victory and prevent defeat. And if instead the U.S. is conflicted, under-resourced or just not certain about whether it is committed to war, it’s preferable to take another path.

War is a tough game, one with little sympathy for good intentions, or a weak hand.

Erik Gartzke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego.


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