Three months prior to the Suez Crisis, in late-July 1956 British Prime Minister Anthony Eden sent a letter to U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower. It was clear at this point that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, wanted to seize control of the Suez Canal. This canal is a vital global shipping route that was still under British control. Eden stated, “We cannot afford for Nasser to take control of the canal.” “If we stand firm over this now we will have the support from all the maritime power. We are certain that if we don’t, our influence throughout the Middle East and yours will be irretrievably diminished.”
Today’s South China Sea situation is quite different from what it was in 1956. At the time, the British could have believed that Nasser was moving to nationalize Suez Canal. It is not clear, however, that the Chinese intend to seize Taiwan with military force, despite all the noise coming from Washington. One can imagine letters similar to Eden’s being written in Washington, and then read in capitals around the globe.
The British knew that losing the Suez Canal war would lead to a decline in British power in the rest of the world in 1956. The United States feels the same about Taiwan today. Washington has felt this way since the failure of U.S. European foreign policy strategy. This failure was evident in the aftermath of the Russian invasion Ukraine.
The West portrays the invasion of Ukraine as an act of Russian aggression, but this is not the way the situation is seen around the world. Patrick Pouyanne (CEO of TotalEnergies in France) has expressed surprise at the way the conflict in Europe was viewed elsewhere. Indian and Middle East business and political leaders have asked Pouyanne what caused the Europeans to be in such a mess. He said that he realized that the West’s vision of this conflict was not shared by the vast majority of the world. “They look at me as if they’re co-responsible and didn’t do the right thing.” They were also shocked by our unilaterally imposed sanctions. After that, they went to the UN to verify that it was okay.
Washington seems to feel trapped by the failure of its European policy and is turning its attention towards the Pacific. There, it hopes to bolster its prestige and show that it is still a force to reckon with. The initial strategy for America’s Pacific strategy closely mirrored Eden’s original plan for Egypt. Its key goal was to get allies to join. The West could unify against China and provide a similar response to any Chinese invasion of Taiwan, as it did when Russia invaded Ukraine. This was a broader strategy we could call “Cold War 2.0”. It seemed that America believed that the West could create a new trade bloc and military bloc to face the expanded BRICS+ alliance, which we have seen grow in recent months.
It seems that the Cold War 2.0 strategy collapsed just as fast as it emerged. The Russo–Ukraine war’s fallout is the reason for the rapid collapse. The reason European leaders remain committed to the policy of sanctions against Russia is because they continue to support them. They know in private that sanctions against Russia have been a disaster. This is why Europe now faces an unprecedented energy crisis, and possibly deindustrialization. The Europeans are not likely to make the same mistake again. The Americans were made aware of this when Olaf Scholz , the German Chancellor, affirmed Chinese and German trade relations, and flew to Beijing in early November to meet Chairman Xi Jinping. Several days later, the French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated this position at the G20 meeting. assured that France has an independent foreign policy and is against confrontation.
Reacting to America’s Cold War 2.0 appeals was remarkably similar to British pleas for American involvement in Egypt 1956: Thanks, but no thanks. The Americans didn’t want to be on the side with the British in 1956 because they knew the world was changing. Britain couldn’t afford to keep its global empire intact. The Americans knew that this would lead to the rise of nationalist regimes within former British colonies. Although leaders like Nasser can be troublesome at times, the Americans knew that they were the only way forward.
Eden was blinded by his pride and he didn’t see the changes happening around him. He couldn’t understand why the Americans responded the way they did. This blind spot led to Eden allowing the invasion of Egypt by British and French troops. Britain’s decline in global power was accelerated by the humiliating fallout from the invasion. Britain might have retained some of its global power and prestige if the Suez Crisis hadn’t occurred.
America is now facing its Suez moment. The rest of the world, even her close allies aren’t keen to fight China. D.C.’s decision-makers now stand exactly where Anthony Eden was in the autumn months 1956. They have to ask themselves, “Can we do it alone?”
Elbridge Colby is a prominent voice in Taiwan who does not advocate going it alone. Colby acknowledged in a recent essay that Europe will not stand by America on the China question. Colby, however, defaults to focusing solely on military power like Eden.
Colby’s analysis reveals the most striking thing about Colby’s analysis: his certainty that China would invade Taiwan. While he cites China’s military buildup, there are many other reasons China might be doing so. They may simply want to have a larger military than their economic power. Or they might be building it up because they fear that America will move in Taiwan. It is impossible to be certain. Colby may be correct. It is strange that his essay doesn’t consider the possibility of China invading.
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Colby recognizes that Europe is not interested in tensions between China and Europe, so he advises that America shift its focus to the Pacific and deprive Europe of all importance. Colby is adamant that China will invade Taiwan and advises that America also take this gamble. This is too many eggs in one basket, even if you only look at it from a military perspective. The larger context is crucial, just as it was with Britain in 1956. Like the British obsession over the Suez Canal in 1956, the American obsession with Taiwan is just a distraction from larger geopolitical shifts.
These geopolitical shifts demand a more coordinated and subtle approach to military buildups in South China Sea. There are no easy solutions. America must take a step back to assess its role in the new global order. It needs to ask itself what priorities it has and how realistically they can be achieved. America must realize that China, Russia and the rest BRICS+ countries are not likely to leave anytime soon. Their power and influence will only increase over the next ten years. The United States doesn’t have an on-off switch that can stop this rise in power and influence. Therefore, it must set priorities and use diplomatic skill to achieve them.
America prefers simple solutions to complex problems. This is because American leaders are unable to see a world where great power dynamics change. Instead, they focus on simpler problems and use them to win fights in order to assert their dominance. This was the way Anthony Eden fell in 1956. Eden was unable or unwilling to accept Britain’s role in a world of competing nationalisms led by the USA and became obsessed with the Suez issue. Suez was a humiliating monument for Britain. Taiwan could be the same for America.