When Roman legions marched on your homeland, it was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand your people’s sovereignty had come to an end. You now owed fealty and taxes to a foreign man who smelled of garum, offering prayers in a strange tongue to strange gods. On the other, your standard of living was sure to improve rapidly. Conquest by Rome meant the end of inter-tribal conflict, the arrival of aqueducts and public baths, exposure to novel goods and faraway markets. For nearly all of human history, the price of access to technological advancement was the surrender of sovereignty. No longer.
Today an ordinary citizen in any humble nation can access the greatest treasures of far-flung empires by means of an internet connection and the right lines of code. No more must his people suffer the indignities of conquest and occupation to enjoy the fruits of their adversaries’ years of painstaking and expensive research and development. The wires that connect the globe have finally flattened the battlefield.
No more brilliantly has this truth been demonstrated than by the People’s Republic of China. What they could not develop domestically they have stolen electronically. They have accomplished half a millennium’s worth of advancement in mere decades. In the span of a generation China has made itself a technological peer of the United States and never suffered an American boot on Chinese soil. They know it, we know it, and they know we know it.
2022’s National Military Strategy, the annual report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlining our nation’s military priorities and planned means of addressing them, is littered with references to China: “The PRC is the pacing challenge for the Department.” “Ensure the Joint Force possesses the combat-credible capabilities necessary to prevail in conflict against the PRC in the Indo-Pacific.” “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia possess the will and the means to pose an existential threat to our way of life.” The list goes on.
Beginning in the Obama administration, the US began its “pivot to the Indo-Pacific,” a reaction to the sobering realities of China’s unprecedentedly rapid technological and military advancements. This meant a greater concentration of personnel, materiel, focus, and activity in the Pacific Command Area of Responsibility (PACOM AOR). More forward-deployed ships, more and longer deployments in the hotly contested South China Sea, increased exercises with friendly nations in an attempt to shore up regional resistance to Chinese expansion.
For all the exercises and contingency plans across PACOM, the chief concern for both sides remains Taiwan. China views every day it persists in its breakaway status as an insufferable slap in the face, a festering wound with only one path to healing. The US views maintaining the status quo as paramount in preserving the encirclement of its chief adversary by American client states. While only one vision can win out, neither side can afford to lose. There are no higher geopolitical stakes on earth.
The question that keeps US commanders up at night is “How do we win this?” Indeed, our modern military is explicitly organized and tooled for a showdown with PRC forces centered around their inevitable move on Taiwan. The smart money says this will happen sooner rather than later, the Chinese taking advantage of President Biden’s apparent softer stance compared to Trump’s (to say nothing of the Biden family’s complicated personal ties to the CCP), our purportedly unconditional commitment to providing endless funds and weaponry to Ukraine, and US domestic woes ranging from crippling inflation to swarming illegal immigration to skyrocketing crime and urban collapse.
That question of winning, however, will go unanswered. There simply is no looming war with China. Those military commanders have spent whole careers preparing for a fight they’ll never get. China will take Taiwan and we won’t stand in the way. Why? Because a war with China would mean a material end of the United States as we know it. But things won’t simply continue as before once we forego the fight. China’s recapture of Taiwan is the gutshot that will bleed the American Empire to death.
Twenty-two years ago the US suddenly lurched into war in the Middle East, told our only options were to “fight them there or fight them here.” Two decades of conflict costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars later, we finally called it quits with nothing to show for our trouble and a confused, humiliating retreat on the way out.
This is the freshest memory of war in the American mind, one of a perpetually sprawling mission to build liberal Western democracy in a Bronze Age nation with no appetite for it that never enjoyed any hope of succeeding. This background is centrally important to the American people’s appetite for war. We are still tired, still wary, far from eager to send our children into another foreign meat-grinder.
To that point, Americans also instinctively recognize that China’s People’s Liberation Army is no Taliban, though they may not understand the extent to which it can, as the Joint Chiefs explain, “pose an existential threat to our way of life.” This is no exaggeration. Where the Taliban scuttled our efforts with roadside bombs, the PRC is thoroughly capable of bringing America to its knees overnight.
The degree to which China can utterly destroy our nation in an instant is genuinely difficult to convey to everyday Americans oblivious to the fragility of their comforts. Through their advanced cyberwarfare capabilities China can crash our power grids, sever our communications networks, compromise our food and water supplies, and compromise the dams sitting above whole cities to name just a few of our vulnerabilities to Chinese attack. That we can do likewise to them is surely cold comfort to the American people. We simply are not prepared for anything approaching genuine war with the People’s Republic of China.
Naming these devastating potentialities naturally prompts consideration of how the American populace would react to them, and herein lies perhaps the central advantage China enjoys in this theoretical fight: authoritarian government. Yes, responsive representative democracy is nice when you can afford it, but unquestioned centralized power is where to bet your bottom dollar when the chips are down. The ruling Communist Party neither relies on democratic support for its authority nor brooks any dissent thereto. Chinese citizens do not flood their Congressmen’s office with calls expressing their dissatisfaction with party decisions. What the Party wishes it does, an incomparable advantage in great-power war against a fractious and malcontent adversary reliant on popular support for legitimacy.
It took the endlessly televised horrors of 9/11 to rally America to war the last time, stirring bipartisan demands for revenge and prevention of recurrence. And yes, the Chinese invasion will be Taiwan’s equivalent of 9/11 (and far worse), but Manhattan and D.C. will suffer no casualties. The US government will find itself making a purely academic pitch for war in the absence of any experiential motivators among the populace. It will make grand pronouncements that we must fight not to defend our homeland but our way of life, yet no wonkish explanation of our reliance on Taiwanese chip manufactures or the centrality of the freedom of the high seas to the delicate workings of international trade will convince the American people to send their sons and daughters to a watery grave before they ever catch sight of the Taiwanese coast.
If the administration is reckless enough to attempt physical confrontation, Americans will lose all appetite for war once cable news and Twitter show the footage of that first unfortunate aircraft carrier with some 5,000 Americans aboard sinking to the bottom of the Pacific, split in two by a Chinese missile explicitly designed for the task. And for what? Because one group of Chinese people are fighting another group of Chinese people over a little Chinese island? These are the terms in which Americans will understand the conflict, and no level of propaganda will overcome the disgust they feel when endlessly rewatching that footage of our youthful volunteers slipping beneath the waves, and the Chinese will most certainly capture footage.
Even if the US intervenes militarily without attempting our endlessly rehearsed amphibious rescue of Taiwan (see above for outcome) via long-range missile strikes or cyber attacks, expect China to respond in kind. American outposts in Japan and Korea are well within range of the former while US assets everywhere are reachable by the latter. While kinetic strikes on targets in the region would horrify our Asian host nations, attacking the aforementioned domestic infrastructure targets would most powerfully convince the American people that this war is not worth fighting. Indeed, the physical effects of cyberwarfare would be understood practically as witchcraft, our material surroundings manipulated by spells cast from afar by unseen enemies committed to our destruction.
We are a third of a billion people exclusively conditioned to expect perpetual abundance of food on demand, clean drinking water from every faucet, high speed internet connection, safe and reliable transit, and innumerable other modern conveniences. Our population overwhelmingly have no means of maintaining their own existence, lack any social cohesion, and are thoroughly unprepared to be plunged overnight into the Malthusian hellscape that would become the United States. China is seemingly far better aware of these facts than are we, and it only takes a few clicks of a button to relay the message. In short, the cyber war would be a quick one.
So China takes Taiwan. We either choose not to fight or fight for a day, but the result is all the same. What comes next? What comes next is the death of the American Empire, an illusion predicated upon the defunct notion that the US can dictate terms around the world and that siding with us is a winning strategy regardless of local conditions. We have spent the Post-War years writing enormous checks across the globe, but when Taiwan tries to cash one only to find there are insufficient funds, there will be a run on the bank.
Japan and Korea have checks, too. Not only do they have checks, they have tens of thousands of American servicemembers across scores of US military installations on their soil. For now they tolerate our presence in exchange for promises to defend them against a Chinese threat they could never face alone, but the smoldering example of what Taiwan’s reliance on US promises got them will be difficult to ignore. Of note, Japan and Korea do not enjoy our presence in the best of times. We bring increased crime and disorder as we introduce strange genetics into their ethnically homogeneous populations. Just as in the Philippines where today there is a permanent class of untouchables descending from native mothers and long-gone American fathers once stationed at Naval bases there, our presence leaves a permanent stain on their ancient, insular cultures and at best represents a necessary evil. Remove a credible case for its necessity and with it goes their willingness to host our sprawling network of outposts in the region.
The same may prove true in Europe. While Russia’s cyber capabilities lag a bit behind China’s, they are more than sufficiently robust to cause the sort of damage necessary to convince Americans that encroachments in Estonia, for example, are not worth civilizational collapse at home. Indeed NATO’s much vaunted Article 5 common defense promises, purportedly written in blood, simply will not carry sufficient weight this side of the Atlantic to garner public support for countless American deaths in Nordic snows. Europe will be left to fight its own battles for its own continent, and the tens of thousands of American troops stationed across Europe may finally come home.
As of October, 2023, war has erupted anew in the Levant. Israel has responded to brazen Hamas attacks with overwhelming force and a full siege of Gaza while engaging sporadically with Lebanese Hezbollah, suggesting the possibility of a yet broader conflict. Social media are awash in the gruesome imagery of the fighting: women abducted, raped, and murdered; whole apartment buildings made rubble; civilians willfully targeted. The scenes from Israel and Gaza are far more viscerally real to the American people than anything happening in Ukraine. The Secretary of Defense has sent additional armaments to the Eastern Mediterranean in a demonstration of US commitment to Israel, aware of the potential implications for perpetual US/Iran brinkmanship. We have again promised materiel including munitions from what we must imagine an inexhaustible supply and now find ourselves in a shooting war with the Houthis in Yemen, notable Iranian proxies. Near daily US warships are targeted as the haze still lingering over the Gulf of Tonkin creeps into the Red Sea.
Overemphasizing the degree to which US commitment to Israel is distinct from promises to states like Taiwan or Finland is a near impossibility. Dispensational Evangelicalism (a historically novel theological position that focuses on the role of modern Israel in Christian eschatology) has driven US policy toward Israel since World War II. Unlike war with China — or any other war, for that matter — there really is a substantial segment of Americans that would willingly send their sons to die for Israel, even if that death comes on Persian shores.
At minimum, war involving Israel represents a second major sponge for US focus, funding, and weaponry atop the identical demands of our ongoing proxy war in Ukraine. To the other extreme it represents a return to direct US involvement in combat operations in the Middle East, and this time enjoying a meaningful level of popular support that will not wane, the precise opposite of American sentiment toward any defense of Taiwan. In either case, war in Israel provides added incentive for China to make its move while the US is elsewhere encumbered and all the more reason for America to sit the conflict out.
China will take Taiwan — the only real question being when — and with Taiwan will fall the fantasy of invincible American power and influence wherever we sought to exert them. Our formerly unipolar world will reconfigure, rendering the United States one of several regional powers, upending our political and economic arrangements and forcing a painful but long overdue reexamination and reorganization of our way of life. A generation of military men will be left frustrated without the singular fight for which they prepared, but saved from senseless deaths in a war they could never win.
Let us abandon in this future world our habit of exporting our bravest men to foreign lands in exchange for imported luxuries on the cheap. If we must fight, may it truly be for our homeland and our way of life, and may those be synonymous. We have the world’s two great oceans to either side, peaceful neighbors north and south, and abundant natural resources all around us, the greatest blessings of geography in human history. Lasting peace and prosperity are ours if only we’ll choose them. The American Empire is soon to die, but do not mourn it, for with its death comes a chance for the rebirth of the American Nation.