A report emerged over the weekend that the United States may have inadvertently green-lit the 1982 Falklands War by sending overly positive signals to the Argentine junta. These signals (based on US appreciation for Argentine anti-communist efforts) may have led the Argentines to believe that the U.S. would support its invasion, or at least not lend significant assistance to the United Kingdom in the ensuing war.
This incident immediately brought to mind the 1990 conversation between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie. In an ambiguous and confusing conversation, Glaspie suggested that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” a statement which some have argued Hussein interpreted as a green light for invasion.
In both cases, the leadership wanted an invasion, and in both cases it wanted to believe that the United States would stand aside. By simply making neutral comments about the state of affairs, U.S. policymakers may have inadvertently helped convince the leaders of Argentina and Iraq to pursue war.
The implications for current East Asian affairs are obvious. Holding preponderant military, economic, and diplomatic muscle, the United States needs to take great care in messaging both its allies and its potential adversaries. States (like Japan, Vietnam, or the Philippines) that grow too secure in the U.S. commitment to their security could become risk-acceptant. At the same time, the United States genuinely does want to convey commitment; we need the ASEAN states, not to mention Japan and South Korea, to believe in the firmness of America’s attachment to their security.
This is perhaps why the United States engages in elaborate displays of rhetoric and commitment over issues like the North Korean ballistic missile program, which does not threaten East Asian security in any meaningful sense. Japan and South Korea (and by extension perhaps Australia and the states of Southeast Asia) interpret this behavior as supportive, but don’t take it as any direct commitment over other issues of real interest. For their part, the Chinese get an appropriate message of non-confrontational concern, and the North Koreans get bathed in the attention they so deeply crave.
Messaging with adversaries can be just as fraught with problems. Robert Dreyfuss’ discussion in The Diplomat on how the United States and Iran managed to avoid a fracas over an air combat scrum in the Gulf reveals how complex the problem of evaluating intent can be. When both sides have an incentive to deceive the other, coming to an accommodation about a narrative of events, much less learning the truth, can be altogether difficult. This is especially the case when both sides seek to maintain a “reputation for toughness,” which supposedly pays diplomatic and military dividends down the road.
Such difficulties are nothing new to the region, having been part of the delicate dance between the United States and the People’s Republic of China over the status of Taiwan for the past thirty years. People complain about diplomats, but they earn their keep. American diplomats have become adept over the past sixty years at conveying the appropriate level of commitment to allies and adversaries alike, a few inevitable mistakes notwithstanding. China, facing an altogether less complex series of diplomatic tasks, was nevertheless widely perceived as having engaged in diplomatic overreach in the latter part of the last decade. Diplomacy is hard, and requires a great deal of experience.