Should We Have Faith in the Goodness of Dictators?

Posted: Apr 24, 2001 12:00 AM
China still holds an American airplane, but a divided Bush administration seems hesitant to send Beijing a message by selling Taiwan four destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system, the U.S. Navy's most sophisticated radar. Maybe that's smart -- but maybe, for some within the administration, the refusal to sell is based on faith in the natural goodness of leaders with homicidal tendencies. Let's acknowledge harsh facts. Beijing's dictators were willing to shoot students a decade ago. Reports indicate that they have ordered the shooting of protesting villagers in recent weeks. If one way to judge the willingness of a nation's leaders to attack other countries is to gauge how they act toward their own people, we may be in for Cold War II. That's certainly not something I want. I don't want my grandchildren to repeat the elementary school drills in which I ludicrously dived under a desk for "protection" against Soviet nuclear bombs. But we need 20-20 vision now if we are to forestall that scenario in the year 2020. What gets in the way of acknowledging harsh facts? We rightly associate the words "faith-based initiative" with President Bush's much-needed domestic policy proposals, but the State Department has been and apparently still is the home of an international faith-based initiative. Some folks there believe that war is an unnatural act, one preventable by astute diplomacy. The faithful there possess great faith in human goodness. They believe that leaders across the world naturally want to avoid war, but are forced into it through mistrust or institutional problems. All they are saying is that we should give peace a chance by restraining our arms production, eliminating or reducing the effectiveness of our military alliances and so forth. The Bush administration also includes skeptics who view international relations in line with a harder-edged view of human nature. They see war as very natural, given man's greed for power. They understand that dictators, often viewing war as a permissible way to gain more power, are ready to attack whenever they think they can get away with it. The skeptics recognize that history is full of mistaken calculations of that sort. Dictators have a tendency to overrate their own power, but they may still plunge ahead unless restrained by the obvious power of their adversaries. So skeptics try to raise the cost of war to potential aggressors. They look for opportunities to help those courageous enough to stand up to dictators. They arouse the public to the importance of military preparedness and alliances. Let's look at the faithful vs. skeptics debate in connection with the specific situation now in the news. Taiwan is 100 miles off China's coast. It's a Maryland-sized country (14,000 square miles) with a Texas-sized population of 22 million. China's leaders want to seize it partly for its wealth, partly out of nationalistic pride and partly to cover up embarrassment: Even with China's recent great leap forward, the average Taiwanese is at least four times richer than the average Chinese. China's dictators clearly do not plan to salivate from a distance. Satellite surveillance shows that China each year is adding about 50 short-range ballistic missiles to its bristling attack force of 300 to 400 already. Beijing industrialists already dream of adding Taiwan's wealth and technological prowess to their own. The State Department faithful say that China's dictators are good, humane, reasonable people with a few rough edges. Some also say that we and our Taiwanese allies have no choice: We must all kiss up to the big power. Some say that a country with the resources of a billion people can readily overwhelm one that is 50 times smaller. But Israel has shown that, with bravery and advanced technology, small countries can stand up to big bullies. Taiwan can do the same -- if we help. We should, for Taiwan's sake and for our own. We should trade with China when we can do so without harming our own national security, for we still hope to develop friendly relations. But we should not let faith in humanity's natural goodness, nor the love of commerce, be the root of a very great evil. If we lose our allies, our sense of isolation will lead to a panic in a few years, and then a frenzied rush into a nuclear-edged Cold War II that I hope can still be headed off.