The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, with Elbridge Colby

Mar 15, 2022

In this wide-ranging talk, U.S. defense expert Elbridge Colby discusses the changing nature of American power with Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal. As the lead architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Colby details the threats and challenges that the United States faces, most notably from Asia, and how it can adapt its geopolitical and military capabilities to meet its goals. How can the U.S. counter China's rising power and its pursuit of regional hegemony? Does Russia's invasion of Ukraine change how America pursues its policies?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Greetings. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

It's my distinct pleasure to welcome Elbridge Colby to the Council for a discussion of his new book The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Bridge has been part of the Carnegie Council family for many years now, and we have had a long-running conversation about realism and what it means to be a realist with a moral compass. I would like to talk about some of that this morning on the occasion of the publication of your book.

Just by way of introduction, quickly a few highlights of Bridge's career. He has been deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, and during that time he was responsible for parts of the 2018 National Security Strategy document, he has been a fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), he is now principal of The Marathon Initiative, and, of course, the author of this new book The Strategy of Denial.

Bridge, I want to start off by giving you an opportunity to talk a little bit about the origin of the book. Why this book? Why now? Maybe just give us a little context, and then we'll dig in.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Thanks, Joel. It's wonderful to be with you and to be able to talk at the Carnegie Council, which is such an important and unique work and institution at the intersection of foreign policy in a very serious way, but also the critical moral and ethical issues that invariably arise, and does so in, I think, such a serious way. I am delighted to be here.

The motivation for the book, in the briefest sense, is my profound concern about a mismatch between not so much what our strategic documents actually say, but the way we behave as a nation and the power realities of the world.

That basically is what you might think of, as the economists would put it, as a "condition of scarcity," which is to say, unlike 20 or 25 years ago, we cannot realistically or reasonably think that we can essentially cover all of the potential threats we might face in the world through our own resources and maybe with some minor contributions from our allies. We are now in a world where we are very, very powerful, we are one of the two superpowers, but we are not so dominant as we once were. That is not a self-flagellating comment, that's just a reality.

In that context, you really need a strategy, in my view. A strategy, in a sense, is a framework, it's a heuristic if you will, to decide what you need to focus on and what you need to focus on less, where you allocate your resources, what risks you run, what risks you don't need to run.

Our national conversation, unfortunately—I think in some ways we continue to see it even now with the Ukraine tragedy—is indisciplined in how we think about that. What I wanted to do—and you could think about it in a way that is analogous to a business or even a family facing a difficult situation—is: Let's look at the world as it is, the threats that we face, which are real and at least in some respect manifold, but let's also look at the resources we have and the potential strategies we can adopt to deal with those threats in a realistic way. That is what I want to do more than anything else.

It is particularly important in matters of war and peace because it involves life and death and life and death in very large numbers potentially, and, of course, we want to avoid that, but we want to avoid that in ways that meet our core interests. The purpose of the book is to lay out, in a clear and hopefully concise and accessible way, what our geopolitical strategy is and then what military strategy we need to substantiate that overall foreign policy strategy.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Hans Morganthau liked to say that the way we define our interests, or the way we should define interests, is in terms of power. In your book you take up this idea of how we define America's core interests.

I just want to read a couple of sentences, and maybe you can elaborate. You say: "America's core interest is in preventing the hegemony of any other state over a key region of the world, and the main threat to that interest is China in Asia." Then you go on to say: "All alliances and other defense commitments should be made, retained, deferred, or exited in light of this priority."

My question is: Am I right, is that the core idea of your book, and, if so, could you elaborate on that a little bit and how you got there?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Yes. I would say actually in some sense the core idea is Morganthau's. I'm writing in the shadow of a few authors.

What is Keynes' line? "Everybody is a slave to some defunct economist." Everybody is a slave to some defunct strategy.

There are few things that are genuinely new under the sun, and I am definitely writing in the shadow of Morgenthau, as well as people like Clausewitz, Tom Schelling, Nicholas Spykman, and Robert Gilpin, you could probably say. These are the influences that I derive from and kind of the same mindset, if you will.

The core thing that you mentioned is the central salience of power, and that is the most important thing that I think the book is grounded on. The book is looking at: Okay, how do we defend the American people's security, prosperity, and liberty?

Well, the thing to focus on in that context is power. It's not intent at some particular time, it's not necessarily other factors that you might look at. Those may be important, but the basic thing that we need to concentrate on is agglomeration of power. I actually think this is a very American idea because, in a sense, the central idea of the American political system is the separation of powers, the Madisonian idea that nobody can be trusted with too much power. That's the thing that we must fear because intentions change.

These are the old clichés of the realist tradition, but they are clichés for a reason—the Crowe Memorandum that you don't know and intentions will change. But if you have a lot of power, it is much more possible to pursue aggressive strategies, and it's more likely because it becomes more tempting, and that gets into the human nature aspect of traditional realism that I am very much in the tradition of.

If we look at that, the central deduction of the book is that China is by far the most significant challenge that we have to face, for two reasons: (1) China is going to be about 20–25 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), which is a rough, imperfect approximation of power but probably better than the alternatives, and (2) Asia is the world's most important area, which is going to be roughly half of global GDP and probably growing, and China is in Asia.

It's not necessary. The United States is a superpower, but is in a relatively weak region, but China is not, and I think we can see that China is in fact pursuing something like regional hegemony and possibly more. So that needs to be our prime goal, and there are no other threats, including Russia in Europe, that can plausibly threaten that. Europe is considerably less significant than Asia, it is very significant; and Russia is much weaker than China, as menacing, dangerous, and nasty as the Russian government is; and also the Europeans are more capable of balancing Russia, and we are seeing that happen right now.

The mindset is: "Okay, that's the basic idea. How do we array our resources and efforts to prevent that outcome while also serving our secondary interests?" Just because an interest is secondary doesn't mean you ignore it, but it does mean that you prioritize the primary interest.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We are being tested in real time here—I understand this is a recorded event, but for those of you who will be listening at a later time, this is being recorded on March 11, 2022—so we are all being tested and your theory is being tested in real time with what's happening in Ukraine. Could you share some of your thoughts about what we are seeing there and how your theory informs what the appropriate response should be from an American defense and foreign policy perspective?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Sure. First, let me say—and I think it's important especially speaking as a realist—that you wrote a wonderful book called Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power, and American Culture in the Nuclear Age, and there is a great quote attributed to, I think, Walter Lippmann talking to Morganthau, saying: "You're not the cold, heartless realist that paint you. You're actually the most moral man I know." The point I would like to say in that vein is that we should absolutely condemn and abhor Moscow's behavior in Ukraine. It's abominable.

But the idea of Morgenthau, I think, and the logic of that, is that moral condemnation absent or detached from power realities is not only feckless, it can be actually counterproductive. Morganthau had the experience of course personally of being driven from Europe by the Nazis effectively and losing his family, his livelihood, etc., and making his life in a new country, much to our benefit. The idea is: Let us think about the consequences of our policies and our actions in order to avoid this outcome credibly. That is the real moral goal.

The thing I would stress, Joel—and it's very salient right now—is there are a lot of people making very dramatic policy recommendations motivated by moral fervor—which sometimes I think even verges on posturing or "peacocking" if you will, a form of moral theater—when we are talking about nuclear weapons, major war in Europe, profound consequences, and the potential for a disaster in Asia as well.

And so I think it is even more important that we think in a realistic way because, if anything, what this abominable invasion has told us is that war is possible and that revisionist authoritarians will employ dramatic, dominant military force if they think their incentives are in that direction. So it's actually critical that we think in a realistic way.

In that vein, what do I think we should do? First of all, I don't think anything that the Russians have done has changed the fundamental power factors. My view is that we should aid the Ukrainians in their fight, we should strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by arming up and encouraging the defense increases of the Europeans, we should have intelligent sanctions on the Russians and we should pursue energy independence, but we should prioritize Asia, in fact, we need to prioritize Asia even more because the power realities have not changed at all.

I am cautious about saying this, and you say this is a recorded event. If anything, we don't know how the military campaign will go. I tend to be a bit skeptical about some of the very negative assessments of the Russian military's performance. Clearly, I think at this point it is indisputable that Moscow expected things to go better, but we are only about two weeks in, and the Russians do appear to be bringing in mass and they do enjoy significant military overmatch in a lot of respects. So we will see how this goes.

But if the Russian military is actually underperforming relative to expectations and is diminishing some of its, for instance, stocks of munitions and important capabilities, if anything, that actually makes a shift to Asia all the more feasible.

Again, I would advocate it under any circumstances, but we have two fundamental things going on: (1) We have the Russians getting bogged down and having difficulty in Ukraine, and (2) more importantly, we have the Europeans finally stepping up. The critical argument I make is that in Europe we can take more risk because the Europeans are there and have more latent capacity. Finally, most significantly, the Germans are spending €100 billion extra this year on their military. The Poles have gone up 3 percent, the Romanians have gone up 2.5 percent, the Danes, the Swedes, and others are increasing defense spending. This is the basis for a strong European NATO defense in which the United States remains engaged but focuses on Asia.

Unfortunately, I don't know that that is where we are going to go, sadly, but that's where I think logic leads and where the interests of the American people lead.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Let's look now toward the Pacific, having just talked a little bit about Europe. What is your assessment of the situation now from an American defense perspective? You wrote a piece recently in Time magazine about this. Maybe you could elaborate a little bit.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think the military situation, and thus our geopolitical situation, is very grave and is in fact deteriorating. For reasons that remain somewhat opaque to me, there is still a sense that we can't actually be beaten by the Chinese, and I don't think that's correct at all. In fact, in a lot of military audiences in some quarters there is almost a throwing-up-of-hands kind of situation.

China's first target for breaking apart what I think of as an anti-hegemonic coalition in Asia is Taiwan, which, while we have a politically ambiguous position on it, from a defense planning point of view I think it is effectively within our defense perimeter.

From public statements of defense officials and military officers we know that we are getting beaten in war games going forward, and that situation is deteriorating. The Chinese increased their defense spending earlier this month by, I think it was announced, over 7 percent again in the midst of the economic slowdown they're facing, and, of course, they have advantages of scale, proximity, and focus that we don't. So, we actually need to be increasing our prioritization on Asia rather than going with inertia or the status quo because we are significantly vulnerable in a lot of ways. The problem, Joel, in Asia is that China is half basically of the GDP or the power of Asia.

So there is no buffer in a way. The tragic fate of the Ukrainians has provided the Germans effectively with a buffer so that they could decide after Ukraine was invaded to go to 2 percent. It would have been better for the Germans to have done that before and maybe avoided this outcome.

But if Taiwan falls, the geopolitical and military situation in Asia will be exceptionally acute. Japan is a lot smaller than the Chinese economy even, let alone the other countries.

Look, if we learn anything from what has happened in Ukraine, it's that, as I said, Putin and the Kremlin invested a lot of money in restoring the Russian conventional military, they clearly telegraphed significant interest in Ukraine, and eventually we had an invasion. The Chinese have invested a lot of money in shaping the People's Liberation Army for the Taiwan fight, and they have telegraphed very clearly their willingness to use force against Taiwan, so I think we should take them at their word and be prepared in order to avoid it.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: A big part of your book is about alliances. One read of what is happening in Europe now—we'll see—could be a success, which is that NATO is finding itself again becoming reinforced and so on with the United States playing its role. We could discuss what that role is, if it's a balancer or if it's a leader, whatever, but it's playing an important role.

What I wanted to ask you about was more about alliances in the Pacific. There has been a lot of activity there with AUKUS, the Quad, and so on. Maybe you could talk a little bit about where you see the alliance structure going and how the United States is doing and what it should be doing moving forward.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Sure. In the book I really focus it around what I call an "anti-hegemonic coalition," which is more of a conceptual model rather than a procrustean idea that we need to fit everything into.

I think the idea here is I talk a lot about alliances, but it is in this same spirit of realism, which is that alliances are instruments of national interest, not in a zero-sum or kind of nasty way, but there has been a tendency—in fact, the president refers to our commitment to NATO countries as "sacred." My view is the sacred obligation of the president and the government is to the American people, and, of course, we have a very strong and important commitment to Europe and to NATO, but it's ultimately an instrument.

The analogy I use is that we need to think of our alliances less as almost like love affairs—there is a romantic quality to it—and more as what I think of as like a private business partnership. Like if you go into business with someone, you're an accounting firm, law firm, or something, and it is a private business, there is a strong personal overlay; you might socialize as families, but at the end of the day everybody is supposed to pull their weight, and it's supposed to serve a common interest, which is putting food on the table and sending your kids to vacation or camp or whatever. That's how we should look at these things, but always with the model of a kind of an enlightened self-interest.

In Asia I think what we want is this coalition, which is essentially a balancing coalition, that works sufficiently effectively to check Beijing's aspirations for regional dominance. This is not an "Asian NATO." I am not actually against an Asian NATO, although I am very skeptical that it would be actually worth it, because that would be a tremendous amount of capital invested in a kind of symbolic organization or an overt organization, whereas really what we want is actually capability and resolve.

India, for instance, might not want an alliance, and actually that's great in a lot of ways because they are willing to pull their own defense weight, they don't want a security guarantee from America. Great. Okay.

While it is different in Japan and Taiwan, I think on the whole this anti-hegemonic coalition is going pretty well. Frankly, we have Xi Jinping to thank for that. That is good news.

The bad news is that Beijing can see this and can adapt accordingly and pursue strategies to try to short-circuit, inhibit, or collapse it ultimately, and that is, I think, where we're heading in the next couple of years. I don't think we should be spiking the football over things like AUKUS and the Quad—those are good—but it's the paradox of strategy that good news can lead to a countermove that can actually increase the danger. It doesn't mean don't do it, but you have to account for that and remain a step ahead.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of coalition and alliance. You have a chapter in the book toward the end called "The Binding Strategy" where you are thinking about what holds the coalition or the alliance together—we talked about this before—where the essential element is likely to be fear, that there is something feared and there is a common interest around that.

I want to push you a little bit. Are you satisfied that it's just fear of an aggressor or whatever or is there another dimension to it which might go to commonly held values? Or is that the wrong direction from your point of view in thinking about what will bind us together in coalitions?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I am of the view that what really is most important—as Hobbes said, "The passion to be reckoned upon is fear," and I think that's the right mindset. When you're thinking about alliances which are ultimately tools of war and peace, and therefore involve the potential of people dying in large numbers and so forth, we really have to be clear in our heads.

I think what I would say—and I think what you're suggesting—is that in Asia fear is not an immoral or amoral emotion because the fear or passion is of the things that a country highly values—and frankly, I think we see that in Ukraine—the fear of the molestation or aggression against one's own country, one's own family, and one's own community is a moral duty and that has a moral quality.

I would go a little bit beyond that because, particularly outside of Europe, "nationalism," "national autonomy," and "independence" are not bad words. In Asia nationalism is associated with the anticolonial movements and the ejection of the European powers, so it's a good thing, it's the standing up of the Asian people—including the Chinese people, by the way—and the assumption of an independent and strong national life and a place in the world.

I always like the term "free and open" in the Indo-Pacific because it was saying, "Look, there is a kind of ecumenical quality to it in terms of who is welcome in this coalition." But it's saying, "Look, you are going to figure out your own national life, and we might have views on—obviously we don't like Vietnam's system of government, but the priority here is an anti-hegemonic coalition, and Vietnam deserves to have its own independent course and national life. I hope it becomes a free society and treats its people with more dignity and so forth—but the core goal here is to prevent China from dominating us all." That is, I think, the moral quality.

This is very important actually, and I think Russia is seeing this right now. I think Biden has a different view, and people like Secretary of State Blinken, that there has to be this positive idea, which is the rules-based national order or democracy or something. A couple of things:

One is that is going to cause problems in Asia. If you read people like my friend Ashley Townshend from Australia, that doesn't travel well. If you look at the Freedom House rankings, for instance, in South and Southeast Asia, there is no country that is green. I'm not saying they are perfect judges, but it gives you a sense. If that is your central message, you might get Luxembourg and Denmark, but you're not going to get Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, or even India. That causes you real problems.

The other thing is I think it's built on a bit of a foundation of sand, which is—and I think, frankly, we're seeing this with Ukraine right now: the Ukrainians are fighting for their own homes and freedom and their own independence, they're not fighting for an abstract rules-based international order.

By the way, the Germans in increasing their defense spending didn't respond to pleas for the rules-based international order over the last year. What Chancellor Scholz said in his speech was that they were responding to an increased threat to themselves basically. The Poles, for instance, whom the administration has not been particularly fond of, are leading the charge because Ukraine is their neighbor and they fear Russia very directly for very good reasons.

So I think this is both a sounder foundation to build upon and I think it's moral. I think there's a strong moral foundation for it.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I am going to ask you to say a little bit more about that. In the book you use the term thumos, which the way I read it means "resolve." I guess this is a little bit of a political question, Bridge, but how do you judge the American public in terms of its willingness to go along with your strategy? Have you thought about connecting that? Where is the resolve and the commitment as it relates to what your strategy would require?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I have thought a lot about it, more in the abstract, but actually I've been doing a lot of radio across the country as part of this, and one of the more rewarding parts has been to engage with outside of "the Blob" or what have you and with normal Americans, not policy wonks, on that level.

To step back from the thumos point, I think the essential point in the book—and this is really somewhat of a Clausewitzian idea—resolve is a dynamic quality that depends on how war starts, who is perceived as the aggressor, and how the opponent behaves.

The fact that, tragically, whether deliberately or not, the Russians have been bombarding hospitals for instance, has resulted in a different mindset, not only in Ukraine but I think throughout the world, that has an impact on the military situation because it makes both the Ukrainians and others prepared to do things they might not otherwise have been prepared to do.

The idea in the book and the focus on thumos is thumos is like "intelligent passions"—it goes back to Plato and it's a bit pretentious—I think is a useful concept because it's this idea that in a war passion matters.

When FDR got up in front of the Congress on December 8, 1941, he said, "The American people 'in their righteous might.'" That is a thumotic statement, and the thumotic passion of the American people led to a very ferocious campaign against the Japanese over the subsequent three-and-a-half years that, in a sense, the Japanese brought upon themselves. The book tries to grapple with this idea.

In terms of the American people, I think we are actually seeing some of the thumotic aspects right now. I think there is a very strong and justifiable strain in American life across the political spectrum that says: "We got in all these stupid wars, and what do we have to show for it, and why do we listen to these Blob people that are bad at their job? Look, Quod erat demonstrandum." I actually think there's a lot of truth to that.

On the other hand, what you're seeing now is the American people don't like to see barbaric atrocities and aggression by one country against another that we are, if not allied with, linked with, and is close to other countries that we are allied with.

I don't have a specific answer on this specific point on what's happening right now, except to say this has to be part of our defense strategy and thinking, and in an intentional way we have to think about the thumotic element, both for good in the sense of harnessing it in our own interests, but also carefully, so that we don't get carried away in a way that I think some people are getting carried away—in, for instance, a no-fly zone recommendation, which I think is profoundly irresponsible—that you could say is maybe people are getting carried away by their moral fervor.

I think we need to be much more conscious and strong but prudent in how we think about this.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to ask a related question. It's not in the book, but it occurred to me since reading it. I guess it's an Eisenhower question about the military-industrial complex.

We are at a moment, I think, where there is definitely one chapter closed and another chapter opens. It's rare that you can actually see this so clearly, but I think the end of the war in Afghanistan and so on was really a marker and now we are opening a new chapter here with what is happening in Europe.

You have such a unique view from the Pentagon. What sort of procurement are we going to do? What are we going to spend on? From my perspective as a layperson I see, "Okay, now we're going to do cyberwar, we're going to do space war." If you wanted to be skeptical, you could say: "Well, here goes the military-industrial complex. Just turn the page, new chapter, all this new stuff."

Have you thought about that at all in terms of proliferation, if you will, and the ongoing irrepressible appetite of the military-industrial complex to keep going?

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I am around it and I've worked in it, so discount accordingly what I say. I don't think the military-industrial complex per se, as in like defense companies, are that much of a driving factor. They are there, they are sort of an interest group, but in my experience defense companies tend to be cautious, they are almost like extensions of the government.

I think you could say they definitely don't want to lose share, but they tend to be nervous about—it's not like the defense companies are paying people to go out and advocate for new wars. Their interest is the quarterly earnings call stability. They are highly regulated industries, so they are very close, but it's more like any big regulated industry.

I guess what I would say is one of the things I really try to do as a defense person—at the end of the book, if you recall, I try to work this out a little bit—is I don't like to comment on what our level of defense spending as a nation should be. My view of the role of a defense strategy person is to say: "Well, look, here's the problems, here are the interests out there, here's what we have, here's what we should do, here are different things that you could do and levels of security that you could have," and then say, "What do you want, American people?"

In practice, I think some level of increase in real defense is necessary for the basics—according to very credible figures like Mattis, Dunford, Bob Work—to say, "We need 3–5 percent real growth in the defense budget just to keep up with inflation and operating and maintenance costs." But I am not out there—and there are a lot of people in my line of work who are out there—being like, "We should double the defense budget."

My view is (a) do your job. The American people give us a lot of money in the defense world. Over 3 percent of our income every year is going to the national security establishment. Can't we do better? So let's see what we can do within the program.

What I tried to do in the Pentagon and in the book is: "Okay, given the threats in the world—China, Russia, terrorism, others—here are the things we need to worry about, here are the military strategies that I think are going to be plausible given the American people's cost and risk tolerance," and then it's for others to say in a sense how far we want to go.

In the end of the book I say the three core, nonnegotiable missions of the U.S. armed forces should be:

One is leading an anti-hegemonic coalition in Asia, which means basically defending Taiwan with a strategy of denial, which is a demanding military standard. That is first because if we get that, then we can defend Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, and then the coalition will work and we won't be in a situation where China dominates half of global GDP and can coerce us in our national life. That's first. That's expensive.

The second is a nuclear deterrent that is sufficient to deal with both China and Russia, and the reason for that is it is my view that I don't think the American people should ever be subject to grand nuclear coercion; that's the fundamental interest—and, by the way, we can extend that umbrella to our allies—and that imposes some additional costs.

The third is a lower-cost ongoing counterterrorism effort because we don't want another 9/11. It seems to me we should pay for that. None of us wants to go through that again who lived through it, and that's part of the costs. Of course, some of that is intelligence, State Department, police, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and all that.

Those are the three things that I would say we absolutely need and that we should reshape our military to do those things. Our military is not shaped to do those things, so my first call would be to do that first and then ask for extra money.

The fourth mission that I think the American people could reasonably want more, if you were to ask me, is I would want to provide some capability to help NATO defend itself against a Russian assault simultaneously effectively because we can't use the same things in two different places at the same time. But the good news is that the Europeans can take a much larger share of that effort, particularly the conventional forces in Europe, so we are kind of like the "high-end provider," if you will.

But that is basically it. A lot of my friends on the Republican side say, "Oh, we should just increase the defense budget and we'll be fine. We can do everything like it's the old days, like George W. Bush time." No, no, no, no. That's fake. That is a falsehood. Even if we increase defense spending, we are still going to have to make hard choices because the scale of what particularly China can do is so great.

By the way, in addition, for instance, a lot of this year's budget is going to go just to covering inflation, so we are not going to get real significant increases. Also, spending takes time to kick in.

Then, finally, are the American people ready to spend? I don't know—maybe a bit more—but my view is we should also get our allies to spend a lot more. It's inexcusable that the Japanese are spending 1 percent of GDP on defense while we spend 3 percent. That's insane. So I think our job as defense people is to say, "Well, let's get our allies on track," and finally that is happening in Europe.

That's how I look at the problem, and then it's up to the American people and their representatives to say: "Okay, I see what you're saying. I don't want to take that risk. I want more comfort, okay, plus x percent, okay, got it." My job is to lay it out and give it to people in clear terms, I think.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You conclude the book with a chapter called "A Decent Peace" as sort of a coda to the book. Before we conclude, I want for you to say a little bit about that goal and how you see it.

Maybe to put a little spin on the question, we are sitting here on the East Side of New York, we're near the United Nations, and the United Nations has been in and out of this most recent conflict. To answer the question, maybe you could say a little bit about how you view this concept of a "decent peace," and then, what do you think as Americans from a defense and foreign policy perspective should be thinking about international institutions?

To tie it back to Morganthau for just a second, if you remember, in Politics Among Nations the last section of the book is about diplomacy. He comes back to diplomacy, he doesn't just leave it aside. I would be interested in any comments that you might have about that.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think what differentiates me from a lot who are hawks—I don't like the term "hawk;" I don't consider myself a hawk, because sometimes you should be a hawk and sometimes you should be a dove depending on the context—some of the people who are also kind of harder line on the China issue right now are basically for regime change. They say, "We can't live with the Communist Party."

I don't agree with that. I think we can have a decent peace with even a China run by Xi Jinping. I don't like him, I wouldn't want to live under it, I'd feel bad, but should we fight a war over it? No, it's not necessary for the American people to die in large numbers for that goal in my view.

What is the end goal? An end goal is a stable, adaptive balance of power in which the Chinese are compelled to respect us and our allies' and partners' interests. Of course, it is going to be a variable exactly what that is, but that would allow détente.

I am not looking for regime change. I am not looking for the dismemberment and humiliation of China—and I have actually made this point to the Chinese—but I think this end goal is consistent with China being one of the two superpowers in the world. That's pretty great: "You can't dominate everybody, you're not going to be the Middle Kingdom of the whole world, but you'll be a Middle Kingdom essentially, and there will be a sphere, and we can trade across that divide with restrictions, but it's sort of a—'trust but verify' is probably not the right word, 'live but verify,' if you will"—coexist but defend yourself robustly and stoutly, I guess, would be the idea.

That is again that goal of realism, which is to correlate what we're prepared to do. I think Morganthau had a great line. I love it. I'm not sure where it's from, but he said: "The purpose of our military is to make it clear to our potential opponents that it is irrational for them to use military force because we have the ability to rationally employ our military force." That is sort of the basic logic of this book, that we have a rational way of employing our military that they then can see would lead to more cost than is worth it for them to use their military, and then they decide to go in another direction.

Xi Jinping is in high dudgeon these days, he's bumptious, he's aggressive, but if it proves to be a poor strategy in the future, they will adapt and they will say: "Well, I would have loved to have dominated the Western Pacific, but it's not worth it, so I'm going to go in a different direction and adjust my policy." That is the basic logic.

Diplomacy is critical, and I really commend the work of my partner Wess Mitchell. I am thinking more about the military end of this stuff, but he is thinking about the diplomacy side.

Diplomacy is critical, but it's a different kind of diplomacy than I think we have been practicing in the unipolar era, which is almost a form of instruction or a missionary kind of administration out in the world. This is high diplomacy of the traditional kind, which is understanding power and the threat of force and arraying things appropriately in order to avoid that outcome.

I think we essentially need that diplomacy, but actually we are really out of practice. Maybe not all the celebrity aspects, but something more like Kissinger and Nixon—that model of thinking, Okay, here's where the world is going, here's what are interests suggest, well, let's change how we're doing things—* doctrine, opening to China, other things. That is actually exactly what we need.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I would like to encourage you, Wess, and your colleagues to write another book. I do think that there is a sequel here picking up from where you left off.

Thank you so much for sharing this time with us and for going deeper into the book. I commend it to everybody.

I can't resist. I want to conclude by reading one of the blurbs that appears on the back of the book from our mutual friend Bob Kaplan, who called your book: "An exceptional book on defense strategy that reaches theoretical mastery akin to Hans Morganthau's Politics Among Nations. There is no better guidebook to how we should think about war and peace in this new age of great-power competition." I agree with Bob.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: Thank you very much. Wonderful to be with you.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thanks, Bridge. Thanks so much.

You may also like

MAY 13, 2022 Article

Ethics As We Know it is Gone. It's Time for Ethics Re-envisioned.

Given the troubling state of international affairs there is reason to be greatly concerned about how ethics is framed or co-opted. To meet this moment, ...

A United States Marine escorts a Department of State employee to evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2021. CREDIT: <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Afghanistan_withdrawal_Image_3_of_7.jpg">Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/Public Domain</a>

AUG 23, 2021 Article

The Ethics of Exit from Afghanistan

Carnegie Council President Joel H. Rosenthal discusses the post-9/11 evolution from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency and analyzes the ethics surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. ...

L to R: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plen%C3%A1rio_do_Senado_(24998818073).jpg">Beto Barata/Agência Senado</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">(CC)</a>, <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/36707749773">Annika Haas </a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">(CC)</a> and <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Prime_Minister,_Shri_Narendra_Modi_addressing_at_the_webinar_for_effective_implementation_of_Union_Budget_in_Defence_Sector_(cropped)(2).jpg">Prime Minister's Office, Government of India </a> <a href="https://data.gov.in/sites/default/files/Gazette_Notification_OGDL.pdf">(GODL-India)</a>.

JUN 9, 2021 Podcast

Illiberal Democracy on the Rise: Examining Brazil, Hungary, & India

The post-World War II liberal order faces unprecedented upheaval as countries and their leaders retreat from globalism, embrace nationalism, and attack democratic norms. Whether it’...