Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Two recent decisions in Washington, one in the House of Representatives on military assistance to Taiwan and the other a Clinton administration plan to substantially increase military aid to Colombia, pose dangers for U.S. foreign policy.

These actions open the prospect that America could be drawn into military conflicts in South America and in East Asia, one a civil war in Colombia and the other a war with China.

Colombia, a Latin American country lying on the Caribbean just south of Panama, has been torn by various stages of a civil war that has gone on for forty years. What makes Colombia a dangerous situation for the United States is its huge capacity for making illegal drugs, most of which are smuggled into the United States. The Bogota government seems powerless to stop the drug lords who pay huge bribes to get protection from insurgent groups as well as corrupt government officials.

Colombia can justifiably be labeled a "narco-state."

The civil war is being waged by guerrillas who get support from poor peasants who make a living from growing cocoa plants from which the drugs are manufactured. The insurgents also have some appeal among the urban poor. It is estimated that nearly half of the country, the southern part, is currently controlled by the insurgents.

A few weeks ago President Clinton proposed $1.6 billion in U.S. assistance to Colombia to help its military forces wrest control of the cocoa producing territories from the guerrillas and drug lords. Part of this large aid program would go for helicopters and other equipment for use in the anti-drug campaign. Another part would go for training and upgrading local military forces engaged in the anti-insurgency effort. Some funds would be used to help strengthen President Andres Pastrana's government and to reform a judicial system which is heavily influenced by drug money. Finally and not least, American military "advisers" would be provided to train and equip the Colombian military to do the counterinsurgency job.

This last proposal is causing members of Congress and outside experts to raise the example of Vietnam. They worry that aiding a counterinsurgency campaign eventually will involve the United States in another country's civil war and result in combat forces being used to bolster Colombia's armed forces. Skeptics recall that President John Kennedy decided in l961-62 to send U.S. military "trainers" in counterinsurgency to Vietnam and that three years later American troops were deployed to fight the North Vietnamese.

Regarding Taiwan, the House of Representatives on February 1 voted 341 to 40 to strengthen U.S. military ties with Taiwan in order to help it counter a recent Chinese military buildup in Southeast China. The measure was supported by both Republicans and Democrats, but the White House and State Department strongly opposed the measure.

The vote highlights the ambiguity in U.S. relations with China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province. In 1972 the Nixon administration bowed to international pressure and recognized the Chinese regime in Beijing as the government of China and moved the U.S. diplomatic mission from Taipei to Beijing. This action made it possible for Beijing to take over from Taiwan China's seat on the U.N. Security Council. This arrangement was formalized by an agreement in 1979.

However, the United States stipulated that reunification of China and Taiwan had to be accomplished peacefully through negotiations, and it pledged to assist Taiwan in case of a military attack by China. For nearly two decades this arrangement worked well for Taiwan, for China, and for the United States.

Four years ago tensions flared during Taiwan's first presidential election campaign when some politicians talked about declaring Taiwan's independence. China reacted by firing missiles near Taiwan's harbors and President Clinton ordered U.S. warships into the area.

Tensions eased, but Beijing has since declared publicly that it will attack Taiwan if it refuses to negotiate reunification and instead declares its independence. Next month Taiwan will hold another election and one of the contending parties, the Democratic Progressive Party, favors independence. If it gains strength in the March polling, another crisis could result between China and Taiwan. Washington would then face a quandary regarding its relationship with Taiwan.

These two cases, Colombia and Taiwan, are serious foreign policy and security issues for the United States. In one case, Colombia, the United States needs to decide how important it is to become involved in fighting an insurgency and a drug war in a South American country that borders on the Caribbean and affects our relations with the Central American states and Mexico.

In the second case, China, members of Congress and the president need to ask themselves whether the pledge to defend Taiwan in case of an attack by China should apply if the Taiwan government goes ahead, despite U.S. protests, and declares its independence.

In both cases the key issue is whether Colombia and/or Taiwan rises to the level of a vital national interest, one that is so important that the president would be justified in using American military forces to defend that interest.

A good case can be made, I think, that the potential takeover of Colombia by drug lords and Marxist insurgents would be so destabilizing to the Caribbean region that a large effort must be made to help restore the Pastrana government's authority over the southern half of that country and close down the drug trade that is causing great harm in the United States.

A different question is whether U.S. troops ought to be directly engaged in that fight, whether America should go beyond helping the Colombian government fight its civil war by taking over a major share of the fighting, as occurred in Vietnam in 1965. I believe Congress and the president should state publicly that U.S. combat troops, including Green Berets will not be used in Colombia except in a training capacity. Otherwise, the United States is committed to establishing a permanent military presence in Colombia, as we are now in the process of doing in Kosovo.

Regarding Taiwan, it is a mistake for Congress to insist on upgrading the U.S. military pledge to that country by providing sophisticated military equipment. We should reiterate U.S. policy going back to the 1970s, that we will oppose military pressure by China to force Taiwan to unify with the mainland. At the same time, the president and Congress should make clear that if Taiwan unilaterally declares its independence, the U.S. pledge of assistance will end.

Ambiguity in foreign policy is sometimes a virtue, but the China/Taiwan case is not one of these cases. Clarity about what the United States will not do is just as important to peace in the Taiwan Strait area as reassuring Taiwan that it will counter a Chinese attack on the island. It should be stated clearly that this country will not support independence for Taiwan. Otherwise, this country runs the risk of a large war with China, which is not in the U.S. interest.

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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