The Bugs Bunny Doctrine
On "Steamboat Willie", China's unsafe flying maneuvers, and why it's important to spend what it takes to win decisively
Unless changes are made this year to the nation's intellectual-property laws, Disney is set to lose the copyright protection on "Steamboat Willie", the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoon, next year. It doesn't mean you'll be able to slap mouse ears on your corporate logo in 2024, but the enormous sway Disney has held over copyright law is in no small part due to the enormous significance placed on Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon.
■ Yet, for as sentimental as people get about Mickey Mouse, the most American of all cartoon characters will forever be Bugs Bunny. A canonical rule in Bugs Bunny cartoons is that he never starts a fight. Someone else is always the antagonist: Elmer Fudd on a hunting adventure, Daffy Duck seeking to cheat his way to security, or Marvin the Martian out to destroy Earth. Bugs Bunny's job is to outwit his adversaries -- sometimes humiliating them in order to put them in check -- but never to start a fight.
■ America hasn't always held to that same canonical rule, but we generally aspire to it. And there is no time like the present to revisit the Bugs Bunny doctrine.
■ The United States has become by far the largest material supporter of Ukraine (in absolute terms), not because we desired to engage in any kind of fight, but because Russia initiated an unprovoked war of aggression against what a majority of Americans recognize was a victim state. Drawn into supporting a fight not immediately related to our self-interest, Americans overwhelmingly still see that there is a right side and a wrong side to the war, and that supporting the right side remains our duty.
■ Likewise, we have no interest in starting a fight in the South China Sea or anywhere else in the Pacific. But if China is going to engage in wildly unsafe behaviors like attempting to intimidate American pilots by flying too close in international airspace, then by no means should the United States back down from asserting its right to maintain a global footprint.
■ It may seem quaint or even silly to enlist a cartoon character as a metaphor for a nation's security posture, but it's entirely apt. America has little or nothing to gain from initiating fights with Russia, China, or any other country. Our long-term prosperity and welfare have benefitted from a well-ordered world peace and vibrant international trade.
■ This is no time to be picking fights among great powers (or even among lesser ones). But if other powers are going to start fights, we have to bring our cleverest ideas for direct and indirect deterrence to the fore: Backing down only invites further provocation. It is costly to remain strong: $1.6 trillion was the bill in fiscal year 2022.
■ We should gladly prefer to spend that money on almost anything else. But that's not the choice we are presented, nor is it in our self-interest to look the other way as others undermine a more peaceful order. We should remain congenitally opposed to engaging in a fight unless provoked, but no one anywhere should doubt American commitment to supporting partners and putting antagonists in their place. That doesn't always call for punching them directly in the nose -- but it does require that the outcome of any spat never be in doubt.