U.S. Navy helicopter in the South China Sea. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/compacflt/17174540208/">U.S. Pacific Fleet</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">(CC)</a>
U.S. Navy helicopter in the South China Sea. CREDIT: U.S. Pacific Fleet (CC)

A "Chaotic" White House, and the U.S. Role in Asia and the World

Feb 23, 2017

In this outspoken and thoughtful interview, former State Department adviser Eliot Cohen expresses his dismay at the "chaotic and very badly run administration" and discusses the threats from China and North Korea, the role of the U.S. in the world, and the different approaches to military strategy taken by the West (Clausewitz) and China (Sun Tzu).

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today I'm speaking with Eliot Cohen. He's a former State Department advisor. He is currently professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he is the author of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

Eliot, thanks for speaking with us today.

ELIOT COHEN: Good to be with you.

DEVIN STEWART: You gained a lot of attention last year coordinating a letter that was warning about a possible Trump administration—it was a letter that was signed by many Republican foreign policy experts—and you have recently warned about a possible foreign policy catastrophe, or calamity, and even have gone so far as to dissuade people from going to work for the Trump White House.

How do you feel now? Do you still feel just as critical?

ELIOT COHEN: Yes, I am. Just to set the record straight, I, together with Bryan McGrath, who's a friend of mine, organized a letter early last March—I actually began putting it out in February, and about 120 people signed it—very critical of Trump. Then there was actually a second letter that I contributed to that was put together by John Bellinger, former chief lawyer at the State Department, over the summer, in July, and I got involved in that too.

The central part of both of those letters was a critique, partly of Trump's foreign policy outlook, but also fundamentally of his character and temperament. I think all of us felt that in some ways it's the character and temperament even more than the foreign policy positions themselves that were troubling.

After he won, I figured, "Well, look, I'll encourage people to work there"—at least that was my initial reaction—"because he is, after all, the president that we've got."

Then, after just watching what the transition team was like—and I had one particularly bad interaction with them, where they had asked me for some help and they just sort of blew up—I decided that actually it's best to stay clear, certainly of the White House—I wouldn't say that of the Defense Department right now.

My views haven't changed. It is really a chaotic and very badly run administration, and I am very concerned about what kind of foreign policy is likely to come out of it in a pretty dangerous world.

DEVIN STEWART: What types of calamities are even possible do you think?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, we've already caused a sort of slow-moving calamity in one way, which is by really unnerving our allies, to the point where they're not quite sure that they can trust us. That is just a constant theme in conversations with allies around the world. They really don't know what to expect. So that's one thing.

For sure, he has damaged relations tremendously with Mexico, which is an incredibly important neighbor—over 130 million people, tremendous trade ties—and there has been an enormous amount of work that has been put into improving what was historically a difficult relationship, and that has all been shredded.

I think a third possibility, which may be diminished somewhat, is a really misplaced alignment with Russia. Now, the departure of Michael Flynn and various revelations that have come out may undermine that, but that potential is still there.

And we don't know what's next. I mean there is a kind of recklessness here which is very disturbing. I just want to stress that comes from the White House; it does not come from either the State Department or the Defense Department.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say you are concerned about Trump's character, would you like to elaborate on the specifics?

ELIOT COHEN: I would say, first, the deceitfulness, the bullying, the vindictiveness, the superficiality, the unwillingness to learn or to study, the grandiosity—he is, I think, a narcissist. Those are all pretty crippling. People have to believe a president's word. You need somebody who's steady. It's very hard to, say, look at the stream of tweets that come out of the White House at odd hours and think that this is somebody who is steady. And you certainly can't think this is somebody who is truthful.

People, I think, underestimate just how important truthfulness is. The president has to be able to go into the Oval Office, make an address to the nation, and have other people believe him when he says something.

DEVIN STEWART: Being at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, we definitely appreciate that type of comment. Is sounds like leaders require trust, in other words.

ELIOT COHEN: They absolutely do. Now, sometimes the trust has to be "you do something and I'm going to react very forcefully." That's also a certain kind of trust. It's a different kind of trust.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you're talking about deterrent and credibility to deter other countries.


DEVIN STEWART: Professor Cohen, let's talk a little bit about your fantastic book The Big Stick. I have a copy right here.

ELIOT COHEN: Oh, great.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a very illuminating book. You talk a lot about philosophy, military history, military philosophy, and its application in U.S. foreign policy.

Your overarching argument, if I may, is that the United States should maintain its military power, and you argue that it is the United States' responsibility to do so, to maintain world order rather than world chaos or anarchy. wWhy do you feel that way, and why is it America's responsibility?

ELIOT COHEN: Let me back up a bit. The book is intended to be a contribution to a debate in way that should have happened at the end of the Cold War, when it would have been reasonable to expect Americans to think very hard about why should they continue to maintain the very large military and the range of commitments around the globe that we have and that were in large part one of the main reasons for the Cold War turning out the way it did.

That debate ended up getting deferred because the 1990s were a pretty peaceful decade and preeminence did not cost much. Then, in the 2000s you have 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth—there's a distraction.

The book is conceived of as a contribution to that emerging debate. My argument is very much that the United States does need to play a leading role in maintaining world order and in supporting the institutions that we helped create at the end of World War II.

In fact, the first chapter of the book is called "Why the United States?" What I do there is I try to lay out what I think are the five main arguments for why maybe the United States shouldn't do that—maybe the world has become a more peaceful place; maybe other people will take up the slack; maybe the United States isn't really competent to do it, and so on.

I try to make the case that that's not right. The basic fact is if nobody else does this, if the United States does not assume the leadership role—not doing this all on its own, but if it doesn't assume the leadership role—nobody else will, and I think you could get quite a chaotic world political disorder, not dissimilar perhaps from the 1920s and 1930s, but with nuclear weapons floating around. That's a pretty disturbing prospect.

I do believe that one of the things that's very troubling about our world is we have forgotten or we find it difficult to imagine catastrophe. But catastrophe can happen.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you subscribe to the point of view that American power is exceptional in world affairs?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, for sure it's exceptional just in terms of the kind of power that we have, the influence that we have, both hard power and soft power. But I think the United States is an exceptional country because of how we were founded and what our political system is based on, if that's what you mean.

But for sure, in terms of our weight in the international system, there's nobody remotely like us. Even the Chinese, with their very large economy, don't have the kind of alliance systems we have; they don't have the kind of cultural appeal that we have; they don't have the depth of institutions—you can go on and on. That really does make the United States unique.

DEVIN STEWART: Definitely.

Let's talk about China. In your book you describe China as the greatest challenge to the United States in international affairs. Why pick China? I think, running an Asia program at Carnegie Council, I would totally agree with you. But for listeners, why not something else? Why China?

ELIOT COHEN: The first thing is China is the only country that has an economy that is really comparable to the American—it's probably not quite the same size, but it's certainly comparable—which is dynamic and which has poured an enormous amount of money into military spending. I think most people don't realize just how much the Chinese have very successfully invested in building up a navy and in building up the ability that can push us out of the Western Pacific—and they're reasonably straightforward about that.

They also have claims, particularly in the South China Sea, against their neighbors, which if they were allowed to stand, really would profoundly challenge the order of freedom of navigation and territorial sovereignty that has been a very large part of the fabric of international order.

So they are a very substantial challenge.

Now, I would stress, I believe it can be met. I don't think this is a threat or a challenge that can't be met. The Chinese are not looking for a war—the Chinese have all kinds of weaknesses of their own—and the United States has a kind of ready-made array of alliances that it can turn to. But there has to be some effort put into it.

DEVIN STEWART: I have to say probably one of my favorite parts of your book is a topic that's very close to my heart, when you look at the differences between the United States and China and the philosophical background of Chinese military thinking versus American military thinking. Of course, China is influenced by the works of Sun Tzu and the West and the United States are more heavily influenced by Clausewitz. Can you tell our listeners a bit about that contrast?

ELIOT COHEN: The Chinese are very seriously influenced by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu lived well over 2,000 years ago, may have been a mythical figure—scholars debate this. His work, The Art of War, is a classic Chinese text. The Chinese military continues to study it. It ends up being studied in the United States as well. But it really has a very special place in Chinese military culture.

Carl von Clausewitz, a great German Napoleonic figure, wrote his book, On War, and that really shapes an awful lot of the Western approach to war.

There are a number of very interesting differences between them. One of the things that's so interesting about the Chinese approach—certainly the Sun Tzu approach—is that it is very heavily psychological. There seems to be a belief in it that, as Sun Tzu says, "If you know your enemy and know yourself, in 100 battles you will never be defeated." It almost comes down to not having to use force, that you can manipulate the other side so that if there is actually a battle it's utterly one-sided.

Clausewitz was more pessimistic. He wrote really much more about force-on-force kinds of war, which is grinding and hard and fraught with lots of possibilities for things to go wrong.

This is obviously a shorthand description. People should look at the book for more. The result is two very different ways of thinking about conflict, both of which are quite powerful, both of which have both strengths and weaknesses. I think part of the upshot of that is the Chinese may think about the use of armed force in a way that's quite different from the way Americans will think about the use of armed force.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you come down on which one might be more effective?

ELIOT COHEN: They are both very effective in different ways.

I tend to come down on the side of Clausewitz for two reasons: partly because Clausewitz really is very much focused on politics and the importance of having military power serve political ends; but I think also Clausewitz has a much deeper appreciation of what he called "friction," the tendency of things to go wrong—and, of course, the very famous term that he coined, "the fog of war," that it's hard to figure out what's going on in war. That simply squares with my reading of history and my personal experience, that things go wrong all the time and people don't know what's going on. I think Clausewitz is ultimately more realistic about what it is that actually can be accomplished and about the tendency of things to fall apart.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely. I think the older I get the more I feel like I don't really know what's going on.

ELIOT COHEN: I think most of us tend to feel that way. I know I do, for sure.

DEVIN STEWART: The book also identifies North Korea as a major threat to the United States.

Why pick North Korea? And, as the United States, do we have any options available to deal with that threat?

ELIOT COHEN: The difficulty, what makes North Korea a really serious problem, is of course that they've got a nuclear program and that, despite sanctions and all kinds of well-intentioned efforts, they are going to be able to build intercontinental ballistic missiles which can reach the United States with a nuclear weapon on them. That seems to be where they want to go and it's where they actually can go.

I think all of us feel that this is a very dangerous, unpredictable regime. At least what's in the papers today is that the half-brother of Kim Jong-un was assassinated by a couple of women firing poison needles at him. I think most people would bet that that's probably a North Korean hit. This is a dangerous regime.

What can we do? Well, several administrations have made extraordinary good-faith efforts to negotiate them out of developing those kinds of systems. They have failed. And they are probably doomed to fail, because if you were a North Korean dictator, you'd probably want to have nuclear weapons too; otherwise it's a really weak regime that doesn't matter to anybody and would probably be doomed.

So your choice at some point is going to be: Are you willing to take some sort of military action, or are you going to live with a North Korea that can hit the United States with ballistic missiles? That's a really hard choice, and nobody wants to have to face that. But I think at the end of the day that actually is the choice that is out there.

DEVIN STEWART: Another very fascinating part of your book is you take aim at the notion of grand strategy, which was very interesting. Would you just, please, give us a sense of what your problem with grand strategy is?

ELIOT COHEN: The idea of grand strategy goes back actually to the mid-1940s, in fact during World War II, when a man named Edward Mead Earle, who put together what was really in many ways the first strategy textbook, called Makers of Modern Strategy, coined the term "grand strategy." The way he thought of it—which is pretty much the way people think of it now—is as this kind of supreme integration of all the different tools of particularly military power to pursue national interests.

Now, in one way I think the issue is trivial if people are just using the words "grand strategy" when what they mean is policy. American foreign policy, for example, says, "We want a Western Europe, a Europe that is free and is in a military alliance so it can protect itself against Russia." Okay, that's fine. That's policy.

If you begin to think that you can really have a well-orchestrated combination of means—military, nonmilitary—that are completely integrated, then I think you can end up fooling yourself and underestimating the amount of chaos and uncertainty in the international system. That for me is really the critical thing. The international system is always uncertain, but I would argue it is even more uncertain now than it has been in quite a while. That has something to do with the rise of a number of countries, but it also has to do with the United States deciding to pull back.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that you looked at the various decades over the past 100 years and mentioned that people would never have predicted what happened 10 years later.

ELIOT COHEN: Right. I call that "history leapfrog," where you sit and imagine yourself in 1917 and ask yourself, "Could you have imagined what the world of 1927 would look like?"—and in 1927/1937, and in 1937/1947, and so on. If you sit back and do that, you realize no, actually you couldn't. Even to go from the world of 1997 to the world of 2007 is actually a huge leap. It makes you realize how much changes, particularly these days.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely.

A final wrap-up question, Professor Cohen. I've heard that President Trump doesn't like to read books, unfortunately. But if he were to read The Big Stick, what would be the big lesson that he would take away do you think?

ELIOT COHEN: You're right, he doesn't read books, and I'm probably not the guy that he is really looking forward to read these days anyway.

But if he did, I would hope he would focus on the last chapter above all, which is about how to think about the use of force. One of the points I make is that Barack Obama did not want to be a wartime president, George Bush did not want to be a wartime president; but that's what they were, and that's what Donald Trump will be.

The thing is that nothing actually prepares a politician to be a wartime president, a wartime commander-in-chief. I think there's a lot of caution in there about thinking that you can achieve quick and decisive ends when that frequently isn't the case.

For example, right now the administration has been talking a lot about destroying the Islamic State. Well, they will be driven out of Mosul and Raqqa I'm quite sure. But the problem will just change, it will metastasize, it will transform itself into other things. It is not going to be over that quickly.

So I would be very glad if he would read at least that chapter so he could think realistically about what is entailed when you begin using force.

DEVIN STEWART: Maybe someone can put it into a picture or a chart, a pictogram.

ELIOT COHEN: Or a set of tweets, I suppose. But that would actually be a lot of effort.

DEVIN STEWART: Eliot Cohen, author of The Big Stick, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

ELIOT COHEN: Very good to be with you.

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