This week, the People’s Republic of China imposed Chinese national security law on Hong Kong, violating the 1997 Sino-British declaration handing the territory to Beijing and slamming the door on what was left of a free Hong Kong. The United States, U.K., and others reacted angrily; the Trump administration had already imposed sanctions for Chinese actions in Hong Kong. London offered a pathway to citizenship to 3 million Hong Kongers. But China appears to have rightly calculated that other than a few angry statements and some irritating economic punishments, the world would do nothing in the face of its aggression.
It is almost a truism that a policy of resistance to rogue states, revisionists, bad guys—call them what you will—that is not backed by the potential use of force is bound to fail. But the practicalities of using force are a limiting factor in most cases. As Barack Obama said in defense of his weak Syria policy, “Unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems.” That binary Obama formulation—war or nothing—has surprising purchase, particularly in the face of complex problems.
Still, the question Obama asked is the correct one: Are we going to risk war over a security law in Hong Kong, some province of Ukraine, a region of Georgia, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis…? Almost certainly not. The question has deep provenance: Chamberlain was right that few can muster interest in a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing.” And by the time the world realizes that it does indeed need to care about these far away quarrels, it becomes almost impossible absent major conflict to rise to the challenge.
Without the implicit threat of force to back up diplomacy—that stick that Theodore Roosevelt eulogized—the effectiveness of measures intended to coerce a determined rogue is very much in question. Indeed, neither sanctions nor stern words have dislodged Russia from Ukraine, nor mitigated Iranian and Russian chemical attacks on the Syrian people. A Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling hasn’t displaced China from the South China Sea, and no number of sanctions have stopped Iran from sponsoring and arming terrorist groups.