NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Carnegie Council and to the inaugural edition of The Doorstep podcast "Book Talks," where my cohost Tatiana Serafin and I dive in a little bit deeper with interesting books that are making their way across the transom.
We are very pleased and honored for this inaugural book talk to welcome Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman, the authors of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. We will be posting their biographies in full in the chat, but between the two of them, when you take a Supreme Allied Commander and four-star admiral and former dean of the Fletcher School, you take a White House Fellow, Marine veteran and award-winning author and put the two of them together it produces quite an interesting read, both in the realm of fiction and storytelling but also perhaps with the ramifications of getting us to think about where the world is headed and discontinuities which may be lying ahead in our near future that could change the way in which we live and could really have an impact on the world as it evolves into the mid-21st century.
Tonight we are going to talk with the two authors. We are going to try not to reveal too many spoilers, because if you have not read the book yet, we want you to buy it, read it, and not rely on us to tell you some of the plot twists and surprise endings in the book. But we do want to get at the heart of the story that they are telling, both in terms of the geopolitics but also I think dealing with the human factors at play because often when we talk about policy and about international affairs we make it seem as if these are just impersonal forces colliding on the international stage, and we neglect the fact that ultimately it is about people, relationships, and perceptions. Combining all of those factors together produces both a great read and also a book which I think for policymakers and for those interested in policy should be reading and be thinking very seriously about the lessons and the warnings that our coauthors are providing.
If our audience thinks of questions or comments, please put them into the chat function. The Carnegie Council staff will be monitoring the chat. We will start the conversation with Tatiana and myself, and then we are going to broaden it out to bring all of our participants into this conversation. At any point, if you have a thought, use the chat function. It is being monitored in real time for us to see what questions and comments are coming forth.
First, of course, with the book and being myself up here in Newport and since my day job is with the U.S. Naval War College, I certain appreciated the many positive references to what we do here at the college and of course all the references to Newport itself. If you have not been to Newport, this book walks you through some of our more famous sites and places, having the characters coming through.
One of the things that really struck me as I started reading this book is how it approximates something that many of our students do when they do their course work in the National Security Affairs Department. In their final exercise they are asked to think about what might the future look like. We ask them to project out into the future what is happening.
Usually when our students produce their assessment of the future, they fall into one of two categories. Either they say, "This is the future that is going to happen and that we need to prepare for," or they say, "This is the future that we see could happen, but if we take certain steps now, we can avoid having the future that we have sketched out."
To start our conversation, as you were writing 2034 is it your sense that this is the way that the world is evolving and that we have to be prepared to mitigate the consequences of the world of 2034 as you see it, or is this a warning that if we do certain things in the 2020s we can avoid the scenario of 2034 that you paint out?
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Nick and Tatiana, thank you for having us on.
Let me start by just framing the book and then asking Elliot to talk a little about the characters. No spoilers here. You still have to buy the book, but I think it will answer the very good question you pose as we go along.
The book 2034: A Novel of the First World War—of the Next World War, excuse me. That's a Freudian slip because it's a bit like the First World War in that it is a story of nations sleepwalking into a war. It is set in the year 2034, and it begins in the South China Sea. This is a story that begins in confrontation between the United States and China.
Speaking of the Naval War College, it is three Navy destroyers clipping across these disputed waters in 2034. Commodore Sarah Hunt is in command. She investigates what appears to be a Chinese merchant ship in distress, and a series of events ensues that helps us move this scenario into war.
Almost simultaneously, a fighter jet is forced down over Iran with a Marine pilot. Elliot will introduce him to you in a moment. This is followed up in Washington by a cyberattack. This is in the first 20 pages, and it is a frame of conflict between the United States and China.
To answer the very excellent question you are posing, Nick, this is a novel that is not predictive—at least, I hope it's not predictive—but in fact is cautionary. This is cautionary fiction. This is a novel about what a war with China could look like, how we could stumble into it, sleepwalk into it—pick your term—how awful it would be, how difficult it would be to control the ladder of escalation as we get further into the conflict, and how it might come out. And there are some surprises I think along the way.
I will close and then throw it over to Elliot by saying it is not just the United States and China. The frame of the story includes characters from Russia, from Iran, and very much from India, which plays a fascinating role in my view in the book. It is a tale of cautionary fiction. As I said to someone the other day, it is number six on The New York Times bestseller list—
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Congratulations.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: But I am hoping it stays on the fiction list.
Elliot, do you want to tell us a little bit about the characters?
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thanks so much, Admiral. Nick and Tatiana, thanks a lot for hosting us.
As Jim mentioned, the book opens up in the South China Sea, and you are on the bridge of the flagship of Commodore Sarah Hunt, who is a leading a freedom-of-navigation patrol. She is a veteran Navy officer at the end of her career. She has had a very dynamic career not only in the service Navy but also a stint in U.S. Naval Special Warfare—this is the year 2034, and that is very much already becoming a reality—when she spies a fishing trawler that is in distress and goes to investigate.
Simultaneous to this, we cut to Major Chris "Wedge" Mitchell—his callsign is "Wedge" because a wedge is the world's oldest and simplest tool, and that is very much his character. He is a fourth-generation Marine fighter pilot. His great-grandfather flew with Pappy Boyington in the South Pacific, his grandfather flew dropping snake and napalm in Vietnam, and his father flew in Iraq and Afghanistan for guys like me.
As he is flying his F-35E Lightning and we meet him he is lamenting the fact that he doesn't feel quite like a real pilot. He feels more like a technician up there in the cockpit, and just as this happens the controls are taken away from him, and he loses the ability to fly his plane as it diverts into Iranian airspace.
As those two crises are emerging, the phone rings in the Situation Room in the White House with the national security staff, and we meet one of those staffers, Sandy Chowdhury, a first-generation American whose family comes from India. He is a graduate of the Fletcher School, of which Jim and I both very proud alumni.
On the other end of the line is the Chinese military attaché to the United States, Admiral Lin Bao, and he is someone who has an interesting background as well. He is of dual parentage, both American and Chinese. Although he was raised in China, his mother was American, and this has really given him an advantage throughout his career, that he is someone who, although Chinese, deeply understands the American psyche. However, he feels that he has never been truly trusted by his own government.
He is there to deliver a message to the White House via Sandy Chowdhury, which is that these two events—the confrontation going on in the South China Sea and the downing of this American aircraft into Iran—are not unrelated. At the end of Chapter One without disclosing too much we see a cyberattack occur, and let's just say that the lights go out, and the Chinese effectively blink the entire East Coast.
I will add just one more character because the novel is driven by five primary characters, and that is Brigadier Qasem Farshad of the Iranian paramilitary Quds Force. When Wedge is downed into Iranian airspace, waiting for him on the tarmac is Brigadier Farshad. As I mentioned, his named is "Qasem" Farshad because he is the namesake of his godfather, Qasem Soleimani. Farshad's father was killed subverting an assassination attempt against Soleimani when the two men were much younger. So, at that point, the first 30 to 40 pages of novel, the table has been set, and you are with those primary characters throughout the book, and we enter the world of 2034.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I will just add one final thought. This is not a Tom Clancy techno thriller where the technology is the center of the story. It is just not that. It is about characters. It's about human beings encountering a war, which at the end of the day is what all wars are about, the impact it has on human beings. We are very happy and proud with the novel and looking forward to questions and comments.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I wanted to jump in and say you gave a great overview of the first chapter, which left me thinking of a song, because I always think in musical terms, and the song I was left thinking of is, if you guys remember, Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone."
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Of course.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I think that was in Top Gun.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Now I have to tell you, after reading the book—no spoilers—every time I see a piece of news, I'm thinking: Oh, my God. Is that what's going to happen in the book? The big tanker that's blocking the Suez Canal—was that predicted by this book? Or Biden's press conference today and talking about China and the decision of the world between autocracy and democracy. It was as if he was speaking your book. I think that sentence was even in the book.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: You have no idea how hard it was to get that inserted into the president's comments. We got it done.
TATIANA SERAFIN: It's not just a cautionary tale. It is also philosophy. It's philosophical. You have a lot of philosophy about what it means to be a democracy, what it means to be a military power. There is so much history in it, Thucydides, and so many reflective quotes on history and on philosophy. That's why I think it takes it out of Tom Clancy and into a world where people are making decisions based on this idea of what do we want our world to be, where do we want our children to be. Many of these characters have children, and they are thinking about their children. They do feel drawn very much from real life.
I am giving you all these real-world examples because the book really came to life for me. I wanted to ask you: Which characters are you? Which characters resonate with you?
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I may surprise you, but the character that I feel drawn to and closest to is not the American surface warfare officer, Sarah Hunt, although there is a fair amount of Sarah Hunt in me, but it's really Lin Bao. It is the Chinese admiral who, as I did, as the book opens is pining away for the ocean, for the sea. He wants to get back to sea and wants to be in command of a ship. It is what he has always wanted. It is what he has always done. As someone who had six tours of duty in the Pentagon, I know what it feels like to be riding that desk in the five-sided puzzle palace and wishing I was back at sea.
Secondly, Lin Bao's greatest dream in his life is to finish up his military career and become a teacher, be an educator, and be a professor, and of course that is what I did as I concluded my long misspent youth in the Navy and went to be the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. It's a great second act I think for military people to turn around all you have learned, good and bad, and bring it to a classroom and bring it to another generation. So, for me, there is a fair amount of me in Lin Bao.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I would say that there is a fair amount of both of us in every single character in this book. I identify with a character like Qasem Farshad because he is a veteran of our "forever wars," although he fought on the opposite side. There are many things that he says that I very much identify with.
Obviously I served as a Marine Corps officer, so there is a lot of Wedge, and I have known lots of Wedges and maybe been a bit of a Wedge myself at times. Then there is a character like Sandy Chowdhury. We were talking before. He likes to eat at City Lights Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC. That is my favorite Chinese restaurant in DC, but he also talks about the history of the USS Maine, and as you will see over the admiral's left shoulder there is a painting of the USS Maine. So there is lots of us in all of these characters.
What you said, Tatiana, really resonates with me, some of these philosophical elements and that many of these characters have children. Some don't. I myself, when I served in our wars, right until the very, very end—I had an infant daughter in my very last deployment—was a single guy. I would say that I don't feel like I ever understood war until I had children myself because I don't think you can actually understand truly profound loss—you can, but I think it takes it to a new level when you have children and understanding how war can so much be fueled, yes, by politics by also by people who suffer tremendous loss.
When you are writing a novel, particularly one that is character-driven, you are really trying to get inside these people's heads and understand how they are experiencing these events. I think it's impossible to talk about war without talking about family too and how it affects families.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: The characters are well developed. They are real people. Sometimes when we have these types of books you have the stock characters that are two-dimensional. These are real people. Tatiana and I, as graduates of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, can forgive the Tufts Fletcher predominance there, that our alma mater isn't as represented as it should be among the characters.
One of the things that struck me in reading through it, which I think is so critical, and it ties into one of the perspectives that we teach here at Newport and that is taught elsewhere, the cognitive perspective for decision-making, which is that people are not computers. They are human beings. They process the world.
One of the things that comes through the book which I thought was important and is critical for readers to understand is that different people are going to have different tolerance for risk. They are going to have a different tolerance for rolling the dice or for taking steps, and I think one of the issues that Americans often have is our tendency to mirror-image: If we're not going to do something, no one else is going to do it, and therefore it won't happen.
And you see that in the characters. Not just Lin Bao but the other Chinese figures and the conflicts within there, among the Iranians, their risk calculus, what the Russians are doing and trying to seek that kind of opportunism of how can they play this but also within each of the countries, and then of course within the United States. I think it was very useful, yes, things even as petty as someone on the National Security Council being frozen out of a meeting, a call not being put through, someone being kept out of the loop not for any grand strategic reason but because of personal rivalries. I thought all of that was important to give a flavor to the novel.
With that, something that I did want to ask, and I think Tatiana might want to ask this too, in terms of character development. Obviously for your world of 2034 you decided to make some definitive assumptions. The novel can't flow if you don't have certain assumptions. One of them is that you have decided that the two-party system in the United States has become so broken that the president is an independent, that the two-party system in the 2020s has exhausted itself. Of course you wrote this before what has happened over the last number of months, but is there a sense that you have that we are going through some profound domestic changes that will make the world of the 2030s look a lot different than the political world that we are familiar with right up through 2021?
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I think it's entirely possible. I have two daughters in their late 20s, and they look at both political parties and just shake their heads. I think many Americans feel as though we are just stuck with this. We are stuck with Republicans and Democrats as though in the Constitution somewhere Article XX says: "There will always be two political parties. One shall be called Republicans. One shall be called Democrats." News flash. That's not in the Constitution.
When we commissioned the United States of America there were no Republicans. There were no Democrats. We started out with Whigs, Nationalists, Federalists, and eventually we got to Democrats, we got to Republicans. There is nothing to say that we cannot change again. A hundred years ago the surging political movement was Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party, the actual name of the Bull Moose Party. Ironically now "progressive" has been co-opted by the left of the Democratic Party, but it was originally the center-right wing of the Republican Party.
My point is that I think there is every opportunity for the possibility of a new political party or a change in the system that can elect an individual on their merits. The president in the novel is someone who is of neither party. Deliberately we did not make up a new party and have her be the flag bearer of that.
I think it is entirely possible we will have a different process. Will it be 10 to 15 years from now or 50 to 75 years from now? We don't know. But I would say as always in a book like this you have to imagine your way into the future, and I think this is an area that Elliot and I are going to explore more in the future in our writing as well.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I would only add that if you are writing a book about a war that the United States is engaged in in the near future, you have to project the doubt that our politics are going to remain some version of what we see today. That type of domestic dysfunctionality obviously affects our ability to respond coherently to crises like we imagine in 2034.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: By the way, you were saying a moment ago about Georgetown versus Fletcher. I will point out that probably the darkest character in the book is a graduate of West Point. Go Navy! Beat Army!
In all seriousness, you made a really important point a minute ago that I don't want to gloss over, which is that this is what I call the principle of "Big doors swing on small hinges." That means, as you said, a tiny meeting where someone is not invited but that person has the data point that might have changed the course of everything. That's real.
As I mentioned earlier, six tours in the Pentagon, one at the State Department, and one at the National Security Council staff. I know the inner agencies pretty well. Elliot—White House Fellow—has been in this world as well. It is remarkable how often the big door of decision swings on some small hinge—a midlevel person, someone who arrived late at work and didn't get into the meeting or didn't have a chance to read their email queue before they went to the meeting. That changes history, and you see it again and again, and you see it in 2034.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Both of you, Admiral and Elliot, use the words "imagine, imagination, and imagining" the future. In previous interviews I have been reading, you said that you started out at a much later date, but then events brought you back and back and back. What date did you start out with? I am so curious. You said that in another interview. Where did you start out? How did you come to 2034?
Part two of that question is, you mention also that events overtook your drafts. You had to add in the pandemic, and you add it in really brilliant nuanced ways, and I won't give them away. How much did you feel like you had to add in things that were happening that you did not even expect to happen?
Part one: What year did you start out with? And how did you get to 2034? And then, what did you feel you had to add in from 2020?
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: We started with the date always in pencil in the early drafts, but it was out there. It could be the late 2050s. I think when you are writing a book the book has to tell you its mood, when it is taking place. But what very quickly became clear to us was that the date was almost like a tide coming up a beach, and it kept getting closer and closer to our toes until we had been talking about the date so much that we realized the date was going to be the title of the book, and that actually occurred pretty late in the process when we figured that out.
With regard to your comment on present events overtaking the narrative, that certainly happened. Probably the most obvious one was the coronavirus. Another one I remember very specifically was over Christmas of 2019–2020, that winter period, was when Qasem Soleimani was killed. We had earlier drafts where the character Farshad had a different backstory with Qasem Soleimani, so I remember opening up my phone the next morning—I can't remember who called whom—and we were both like, "Ah, now we're going to have to rethink all this and how it features in the book."
But I think that's also the joy of writing a book. It forces you to reimagine the narrative. So much of this book has been—listen, if there is a year where we have gone back and said "I can't imagine, I can't imagine"—I don't think any of us have said it as much as we said it this past year with the pandemic— and I think if you look at the pandemic as one of the great catastrophes that America has been through the last 75 to 100 years, I think you could say 9/11 was another catastrophe that we endured, and the Pearl Harbor attack, for instance. All three of those were things where the postmortem was that these were failures of imagination.
The spirit of this book is: "Okay, let's go ahead and let's try to imagine what can happen next as a way of inoculating ourselves from it," because I think at this point you might be able to say that imagination has become a national security imperative. We need to be projecting out what some of these catastrophes might be just to improve our readiness.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Let me add to that. If you put a marker in your mind that 10 to 15 years from now the trend lines are driving us toward a war with China—I think that is inarguable—then it becomes possible to reverse-engineer it back to the present and say, "Okay, what led us there?" You don't wake up in 2034 and go to war with China. There is a series of discrete things that happen that we could debate about in foreign policy circles. Will Taiwan fall to China in a military invasion in the next five to seven years? That was just testified to by the current four-star admiral commander of the Indo-Pacific command without any qualification. He simply said, "You know, I think this could happen in the next six years." This is Admiral Phil Davidson, who commands all U.S. forces in the Pacific, and—news flash—is reading the highest-level intelligence that anybody has access to. His relief, who is testifying in front of Congress to get the job, said two days ago that a military move against Taiwan is "much closer than people think."
This is real, folks. It does not mean that we have to just stumble along and accept all of these bad outcomes, but it does mean that we have to think consciously about the far end of the spectrum, reverse-engineer our way back, and avoid it. That is the essence of 2034.
Also, I think we are coming to an end of a certain series of cycles. We have already discussed a bit that we may be coming to an end in a domestic political cycle. We are certainly coming to a new start in a technological cycle that is beginning that will carry us forward. We are coming to an end of a particular post-Cold War cycle in international affairs and a move towards much truer multipolarity in the international system. Thinking back and reimagining, "reverse-engineering," as you put it, is quite critical.
One last point, and then I think we will give Tatiana a last question as well and then go to the audience. In some of the things when I was reading 2034 I was thinking about a presentation that Michèle Flournoy gave at the Hoover Institute prior to the pandemic, so it must have been about two years ago and some of these things that she was worried about looking forward. One of them was the question that we do not yet have worked out, either among ourselves or with our competitors, rules of the game when it comes to the use of cyber: Where does cyber tip over into nuclear? Is there a type of cyberattack that would be so devastating that we might consider or be forced to consider using nuclear weapons?
As we move forward, in part of this reimagination is there a need for the Biden-Harris administration to convene strategic stability talks even if they are autocracies and we do not see eye to eye, but at least saying, "Look, we don't want to stumble into a conflict where we are on very uncertain ground and the nuclear question could then come back?" Certainly for the last 30 years we have all lived with that sigh of relief that the Cold War sword of Damocles is no longer hanging over our head, but now it appears that we are stumbling back into something that—
You talked about children. I never expected a day that my son would be living in a world where he might have to worry about the type of nuclear war or nuclear exchange that everyone between 1945 and 1989 lived with as a certainty.
Any thoughts there about reverse-engineering? Is there a proactive measure of really sitting down with China, with Russia, and with other emerging and emergent powers to say, "We really need to set some rules of the road so we don't stumble or sleepwalk into a conflict?"
JAMES STAVRIDIS: When I conceived the idea of the novel I was not looking forward. I was looking back. I was looking back to World War I, where these nations that were economically integrated and were united by ties of blood in the royal families—the kaiser of Germany was the [grandson] of Queen Victoria—yet those nations sleepwalked into a war.
I was also looking at the Cold War, at Dr. Strangelove, at Fail-Safe, at The Bedford Incident, and at The Third World War: August 1985, by Sir John Hackett. All of that literature and film helped us during the cold war to imagine how terrible a war would be, and I think it motivated us to avoid it and it helped us—to your point, Nick—to create regimes of deterrence that avoided the use of nuclear weapons.
The short answer to your question is, yes, it is past time that we brought certainly the United States, China, and Russia around the table. Frankly, because this is an asymmetric weapon that is open in many ways to Iran, North Korea, and other, if you will, "rogue" nations, we need to start creating a regime of deterrence around cyber, much as we have in the case of nuclear weapons. I think tri-party talks between the United States, China, and Russia are in order.
Unfortunately, we are in a period of extreme acrimony between the United States, China, and Russia at this very moment. We have the president of the United States declaiming—I think accurately and correctly—that Vladimir Putin is a killer. We have our secretary of state, my good friend Tony Blinken, meeting with his counterpart in Anchorage, Alaska, and throwing verbal hand grenades at each other for an hour in front of the press. This probably isn't the most propitious time to bring these parties together, but it is long past time that we do it for the sake of our children, for the sake of trying to avoid this war, for the sake of not sleepwalking, and for the sake of creating deterrence in the world of cyber.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I see a very full queue of questions, but I want to ask one before we go to the queue, and I am not going to try not to repeat what I have been reading. Where does the media and popular opinion rest in your book? I see ABC mentioned, a couple of other channels. Is it really just these players? Do we—I say "we;" I'm a journalist—have any role to play?
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think if you look at the book there is actually one significant point in this escalation. Without giving too much away we mention how this one Marine pilot is taken down into Iran, and during the course of his captivity he becomes a cause célèbre with the hashtag "Free Wedge" trending across all social media platforms. There is an almost Falklands-esque desire in the United States to not be shamed with one of our pilots trotted out before the media of our adversaries. That begins to force the president into a more hawkish posture than she might otherwise have taken on her own. There are also factions within the White House that want to see her take on a more hawkish posture, and some of this does start to play out in the media.
So there is certainly a media component in the novel. I would say it is probably not the driving narrative of the novel, but you definitely do see it in places.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I will just add, as Elliot referenced, over my shoulder is the USS Maine, which blew up famously in 1898, and the United States launched into what was literally a global war with Spain in 1898 in the Philippines, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean Sea, and in the Pacific. It occurred because this beautiful ship blew up suddenly and mysteriously in Havana Harbor. It was attributed to Spanish terrorists. Later that was debunked, but it wasn't debunked until 50 years later, and the United States had a rallying cry driven by Hearst, so-called "yellow" journalism of the day, and the rallying cry was, "Remember the Maine!" You can drop a plumb line from that event to "Free Wedge" in 2034. Media matters. It matters deeply, and it is often part of the spark that creates a war.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think we will turn it over to Alex Woodson. Again, we have so many questions. We will try to get to as many as we can and certainly invite our panelists—if you have the chat open, you can at least see what the commentary has been.
Alex, you are the keeper of the queue, so we will let you take it from there.
ALEX WOODSON: Thanks, Nick. We have so many really great questions, and hopefully we can get to all of them.
I am going to ask two together here. They are not really related, but I am trying to get through all of them, so I will ask two at first.
Two people, Haris Hromic and László Szôcs, both want to know what in 2034 is the role of Europe.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I will start with the Orwell half of the question and maybe take on some of the Europe and then allow the admiral to take the last half of that.
With regard to Orwell, listen, his novel 1984 and many of his other works are obviously huge works in the realm of what one might call "dystopian fiction," but I think there are also other works like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think for us we spent so long in the writing process trying to orient ourselves into when exactly is this happening that that is how we landed, as I said before, on it being the title of the book insomuch as we thought it would be smart to really anchor a reader from the get-go so they know exactly when this is all going on. And I think there are some nice artistic echoes there.
In regard to the role of Europe in the book, Europe doesn't feature too prominently in the book, but a lot of that too also comes down to just narrative and the type of book that we were trying to write. We really were aligned from the outset in that we were not trying to write a Herman Wouk-esque Winds of War 900-page doorstopper with appendices of characters that you had to continually cross-reference. We wanted this to be a quick read, an accessible read, and even a fun read given a grim subject matter. That being said, with five primary characters there is only so much of the world you are going to be touching on directly through their experience.
I will hand it over to you, Jim, for anything else on that.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Excellent points all. The only thing I will add is that, as Elliot said, you have to narrow the focus and have principal characters on the stage. We wanted really deeply to include India because I think personally when 300 years from now the history of the 21st century is written, it will be less about the rise of China and more about the rise of India because of demographics and because it's a democracy. It is already linked to the West by a colonial past and a lingua franca, English.
I think India will play a very significant role in this century. We really wanted to include India. By the time you are done with the United States, China, India, Russia, and Iran you have filled the stage with characters. If we do another novel later on, maybe there will be a European. Maybe Japan will have a significant role. Wait and see. But we picked these. I think they are the right ones for 2034 in terms of where the world will be focused.
ALEX WOODSON: I will ask three questions now, all connected to technology.
Charles Rosenberg asks: "Does warfare in space play a role?"
Ekko English asks, in regard to the cyberwarfare piece of the book: "Do we have the cybercapability to shut off China?"
And Carlo Zappieri asks: "Can you talk more about the role of technology? One of your main characters mentions a 'cult of technology' as a weakness for the U.S. military. Is she speaking for the authors here?"
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Do you want to take the third one, Elliot? I'll grab the first two.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. With regards to the cult of technology being mentioned by one character, I think it is something that we were certainly thinking about in the book, which is: How can the most advanced technology ultimately become a hindrance?
If I could share an anecdote. I also work as a journalist and covered the Syrian Civil War for a number of years. I was down on the border once and had the opportunity to sit down with another Iraq War veteran, except he was a former member of al-Qaeda in Iraq, so we fought on opposite sides. The two of us sat down like two old veterans, talking about our war, and sharing a cup of tea. At a certain point in our conversation he quoted Albert Einstein to me. He said: "You know, Einstein predicted everything that is going on right now"—"right now" meaning across the border in Syria. He said: "Einstein said that the Third World War would be a nuclear war, but the Fourth World War would be fought with sticks and stones, and that's how we defeated you in Iraq and Afghanistan, with stick and stones."
This idea of an overreliance on technology and perhaps a complacency in believing too heavily that your superior technology will carry the day can become a hindrance. It is a theme that we definitely wanted to get out in the book, and one character mentions it, but I would just say that lots of characters say many things in the book. I try to write the types of books I enjoy reading, and I don't like reading didactic books, so you are going to hear from a whole lot of people a whole lot of opinions, and it is not me or Admiral Stavridis trying to tell you what to think.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I will add that on the character point I would invite everybody listening tonight to think about What's my favorite book, and I guarantee you, you will not be able to remember the details of the plot or precisely when the book was even set or what characters had to eat. You won't remember all that. You will remember the characters. You will remember their personalities, their personae.
For me, I love Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea, probably because I am an old man and I have spent a lot of time at sea. I have always loved Santiago the fisherman because he is old, he is destroyed, but he is never truly defeated. He cares about the next generation coming along. He is resilient. There is a lot to love about Santiago, and I think for all the characters in the book there is something compelling about each one of them, in my view.
When I was preparing for this book tour, we had written the book over a year ago. It is a long production timeline. I thought, Well, I'd better read the book again just to make sure I have everything in my head. By the end of the book, this old grizzled admiral was in tears about outcomes, some good, some bad. That's the reality of a book that you really love. It's the characters.
To the first two questions about technology, space is kind of offstage but is critical. I think the creation of a Space Force by the Trump administration was the correct move. I would argue that by 2034 there will be not only a Space Force but a Cyber Force, and I think that is the right move for the nation because space and cyber—as some would say the fourth and fifth domains after land, sea, and air—are increasingly vital and important. That's why we need professionals in the military who are utterly devoted to those domains.
If you go back to the end of World War II, we had an Army, a Navy, and a Marine Corps. We didn't have an Air Force. Why? Because the services kept pushing back, didn't want it, and said, "We'll take care of the aviation side." Today we can't imagine conducting military operations without an Air Force. We are at that point I believe now with both space and cyber. They need to be separate services so we get a cadre of warriors who really focus on them.
Cyber, broadly speaking—go read Ender's Game, a great novel about young people in cyber who save their world because they are, if you will, "digital natives." They are not bound by the past. I think we are going to face significant challenges in cyber because of the massive threat surface that has been created by the Internet of Things, probably 40 billion devices, each one of which is a separate pathway to everything else in the Internet.
This is a big challenge. We have not solved it, and it gets back to what Nick and I were talking about earlier. We are not going to be able to defend it, and therefore we need deterrent regimes so that if China decides to blink our electric grid, we have a series of responses, they know those will come, and therefore they will be less likely to pull that cyberweapon out of the toolkit any more than they would pull the nuclear weapon out of the toolkit, although in 2034 both appear.
ALEX WOODSON: I think we have time for four more questions, so I will do two and two and see where we are after that. Lots of great questions, really good stuff.
Derek Wessman asks: "At one point in the novel, after the first salvos have been exchanged, the narrator suggests that the U.S. president's greatest weakness is her fear of appearing weak. With that in mind, Track II diplomacy plays a prominent role in the book, especially with India in the ultimate deescalation. Do you feel that Track II diplomacy in the hyperconnected environment still provides a face-saving avenue to resolve disputes between great powers or otherwise?"
Then, Shelley Garrett asks: "Does the aging demographics of China figure in 2034?"
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I'll take the first one. Certainly without question, Track II diplomacy matters. Diplomacy has a personal component to it, and in the novel you are correct, whoever asked the question, that, yes, there is a significant level of that behind-the-scenes interlocutor engagement, and I think it will continue. There is a powerful backstory in terms of one of the characters and his ethnicity, his national background, and how that becomes a significant factor.
Again, back to "big doors swing on very small hinges." What if that had not existed, that channel, could events have turned out worse because of different engagement by India? I think very possibly.
I will turn the other question over to Elliot, demographics in China.
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Sure. We already alluded to demographics in China. One of the reasons India is a key player in this book is because of its demographics, and the one-child policy in China has been a disaster. You see a China that is still formidable, but there are also many other emerging powers.
To the front part of that question I would only add the comment about the American president's greatest weakness is the fear of being perceived weak. I think we have seen that in our history. If you go back, for instance, to the end of the Eisenhower years and the Kennedy administration, Kennedy's fear of being perceived as weak led to strategic miscalculations in places like Vietnam, for instance. Some of those larger, broad-brush themes are certainly throughout the pages of 2034.
ALEX WOODSON: Two more questions.
From Jonathan Gage: "Please reveal some of the specific reverse-engineering steps you imagine in our China relations aside from multilateral talks, specifically regarding Taiwan and the developing and perhaps deteriorating circumstances in Myanmar and elsewhere in Southeast Asia."
From Mike MacCracken: "Do the United Nations and international law and treaties play a role, or are they overwhelmed by the powerful just not paying much attention to the smaller nations?"
JAMES STAVRIDIS: I will grab the front end of the question. I think that inevitably the United Nations and international organizations are going to play some role going forward, but in the world of 2034 we see a world where they have faded out.
Again, that is part of the first question: What are the steps of reverse-engineering? I will give you five real quick for the United States, from our perspective:
One, we need to learn more and understand more about China. The Chinese understand us better than we understand China. Without unpacking that fully, that simply means we need to become more empathetic and understanding, not agreeing with them, but understanding them.
Two, allies partners and friends, creating a network. Let's try to get this out of the channel of the United States versus China, which is where we end up in 2034, and let's end up with allies, partners, and friends. "It is no coincidence, comrade," as we would have said in the Cold War, that the United States of 2034 is essentially bereft of allies, partners, and friends. To me that is perhaps the darkest end of the spectrum.
Three, technology—we have talked about it here—as in we have got to up our game in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, cyber, and space, all the things we have talked about. They are going to be critical in this competition with China, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Four, unification here in the country. The divisions in our nation are particularly pernicious in my view. If we can't correct those going forward, we are going to be in very dire straits facing China.
Five, finally it is what we have talked about all night. We have to imagine distinct outcomes so that we can create the kind of steps that I just spoke about.
ALEX WOODSON: I guess we have time for one or two more questions. I will just ask two quickly.
This is from Catherine Penny: "Is there any referencing to the impact of the global disbursement of funds from China?"
From Matthew Deffenbaugh: "At one point, the Chinese defense minister discuses the predictability of the Americans. How much of a vulnerability do you believe all of our strategic predictability is? How do you balance that vulnerability with the necessity to assure our allies?"
ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I will start with the comment about American predictability. I think throughout the novel, obviously if we are going to create a book that has believable Chinese characters, you are going to hear them speak to one another and also read their interior thoughts about how they view the United States, and their critiques of the United States are not always charitable.
I actually think that was one of the things that was the most fun and enjoyable in writing this novel, was to really stand in the other's shoes and ask, "How do they view us?" In many respects they view us as predictably moralistic and view us that we live and work in a democratic system that is incredibly inefficient and at times indulgent. I think we saw this past week up in Alaska from the mouths of the Chinese how they view us and view what they believe to be certain hypocritical strands in American society. Those are in the pages of this book because it would not be a realistic story if those views were not given a full airing.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: In terms of disbursement of funds, I'm not quite sure I follow the question, but I will expand it slightly and say that if the question is how are the United States and China economically intertwined and will that help us prevent war, the short answer is I hope so. We are very economically intertwined. We trade more in a day than the United States and the Soviet Union traded in a year. We are deeply intertwined with China.
I think that will help although I keep going back. What rattles in my brain is Barbara Tuchman's marvelous book, The Guns of August, about how intertwined all of those European nations were right before they went into the big dance and killed 20 million of the finest young Europeans in the First World War.
Economically, yes, we are intertwined. China owns a lot of U.S. debt. That is a capability they have. If they started selling that, it would impact our economy. On the other hand, we are their biggest market. If we simply shut it, as Donald Trump alluded to doing at one time, that would be kind of a nuclear option economically. Could those kinds of things happen? Possibly.
But I think more likely, at least in the immediate term, we are going to continue to be economically intertwined. We will have a lot of geopolitical friction around that core of integration. The question is: Does the geopolitical friction get into that economic core? An invasion of Taiwan would do it. Sinking three American destroyers in the South China Sea to consolidate your claim to ownership of the South China Sea would do it. A massive cyberattack would do it. But absent something that drives into that economic integration, we can be hopeful that that will at least be part of the reverse-engineering we spoke about a moment ago.
Folks, I am going to have to leave it there. That was a terrific session with lots and lots of good questions. I want to thank Tatiana and Nick for having us on.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much. Again, I encourage everyone, if you have not read the book yet, to get it. I fully expect that we will be seeing the limited Netflix or Amazon series that will be developed, hopefully, coming to screens in 2022 or 2023 to take the characters, which have leapt from the page, and bring them to the screen.
Thank you very much. Thank you, everyone, for joining us this evening. Please even after we have concluded our session continue to post, whether at the Carnegie Council or Doorstep Twitter accounts, further comments and the like, and we hope to continue this conversation and have you back, especially if and when your book becomes translated to the screen, to see how Hollywood takes your characters and who gets cast.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Danny DeVito is going to play me.
Thanks a lot.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Good night.