Despite China warning “serious confrontation in the U.S.-China relationship,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy confirmed plans to meet with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen when she visits California on Wednesday. This week on Intercepted, Elbridge Colby, former defense strategist during the Trump administration, joins Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain to discuss and debate the emerging bipartisan consensus that China threatens U.S. economic and military dominance. They discuss the impact of the U.S. war machine globally, China’s military build-up, as well as China’s rapidly expanding international prominence and economic might. As Beijing celebrates its diplomatic efforts to broker a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and makes moves aimed at ending Russia’s war in Ukraine, they debate whether Beijing poses a real threat to the U.S. and if a non-hegemonic world is possible.
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Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
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JS: Welcome to Intercepted, I am Jeremy Scahill.
Murtaza Hussein: And I’m Murtaza Hussein.
JS: Alright, Maz, good to be with you again, my friend.
MH: I’m good to be here.
JS: So, we’re going be focusing today’s episode pretty sharply on China and the kind of emerging bipartisan elite consensus that China should be viewed as the premier threat to the United States, to its national security, and also the concerns that China is threatening American hegemony. And we’re going to be talking to a really interesting guest; he actually served in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. His name is Elbridge Colby, and we’ll mix it up a bit with him.
But, before we get into that, I just wanted to say, Maz, that, you know, this week, history is being made in the United States with Donald Trump being arraigned on more than two dozen felony charges that relate to his 2016 alleged hush money payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels. And, I don’t have much to say about the specifics of this indictment against Trump, but, you know, just monitoring the media, there’s a lot being made of this.
And yes, it’s historic—you know, it’s the first time that you have a former president being criminally charged—but I couldn’t help but sort of, taking into account or thinking about the timing of all of this coming right after we observed the 20th anniversary of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. You have Vladimir Putin, also; around the same time Trump was learning that he was going to face these indictments in New York, Vladimir Putin was indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Part of the media narrative is that this, this prosecution of Trump is showing that no one is above the law, that even ex-presidents can be prosecuted. And, in that sense, this is a good thing to start the ball rolling on actually prosecuting people that rise to the highest levels of power in the US government.
But, at the same time, we have George W. Bush, continuing to be embraced as the nice painter man. We have Dick Cheney, somehow, even though he’s using another man’s heart, his evil soul is sort of lurking in the atmosphere around us. Henry Kissinger’s animated corpse is still around, and none of these people have faced any justice for the massive, sustained war crimes that were committed post 9/11.
I have a piece up on the site about this right now, but the short of it is, yes, we should be in the business of prosecuting ex-presidents, but it shouldn’t be limited to their tawdry activities or white collar crimes. If we actually want to pretend that America is exceptional, then we would actually be prosecuting presidents for war crimes, for the gravest of crimes committed.
And until that day happens, then Trump is going to continue to be portrayed as this American anomaly when, in fact, it should be a moment for us to reflect on how anemic our nation has been on the question of holding the most powerful people accountable for violent crimes that they commit, including in their official capacity as president or vice president or defense secretary,
MH: You know, the selectiveness of the enforcement of the law, as you said in this case, it kind of really takes any satisfaction you might get out of seeing Trump arrested and arraigned in this way. It really sucks the life out of it, if you put it in perspective as you did. There was a really good article, actually, in the American Conservative—which is quite skeptical of the Iraq War since the beginning—by Sohrab Ahmari. It makes the point that, look, I don’t really care that much about what Trump did in this case. By asking, like, you mean he did many criminal things as president? The specific charges, if you look at the big picture of what George Bush did: being involved in the Iraq War, torture, murder, the, really, the supreme crimes you can commit as a human being. Not only was he not charged—and even the point, you know, suggestion raised in the US—he’s still in pretty good standing in the US, and his public opinion is quite favorable towards him many years after the war ended.
So, the prosecution of Trump, it, it does, it’s very easy to loop it into a narrative of victimhood and martyrdom, not because he’s a good guy or that he shouldn’t be prosecuted for things which he did in office, and criminal things which many presidents did—usually involving killing people abroad and things of that magnitude—but the selectiveness and the ticky-tacky nature of the case against him, it’s just a bit, it’s so obviously contingent, and so obviously not accounting for the real crimes committed by his predecessors, fortunate to escape complete censure, even popular censure.
JS: Yeah. And, I mean, it’s really fascinating, as I said earlier, that this is all going down with Trump right as Vladimir Putin gets hit with his war crimes indictment by the International Criminal Court. And we’ve done a lot of work at The Intercept about how the United States has systematically undermined the ICC and International Justice, and passed laws, in the early 2000s. One of them is referred to as the Hague Invasion Act, that actually authorizes the president to conduct a military operation in the Netherlands to rescue or liberate any American personnel, or personnel from allied countries who are being prosecuted or suspected of war crimes.
And what was sort of incredible to watch unfold was that, right as this indictment hits Putin, he couldn’t have cared less. He was just like, I have zero concern about this. And, by the way, I can’t really talk to any of you right now, because President Xi of China is arriving in Moscow for a major public display of how little both of us care about what anyone in Washington, DC or the Hague says about the war in Ukraine.
And that brings us, Maz, to the topic of China, and we’re going to be talking a lot over the course of the next hour about this, but a lot of this stuff is really coming to a head with China. And Russia and China are really projecting or showing quite publicly that they intend to create a total alternative to American hegemony in the world.
And it’s not, Russia is not the leader of this; China is really rising and getting involved with trying to broker peace in Ukraine. There was the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia—the historic deal—that China basically spearheaded. This is a really interesting moment in global affairs, and China is putting itself front and center.
MH: Yeah, I think in that meeting that you mentioned between Xi and Putin, he had a quote at the end of it. Xi, he said that changes would be coming to the world which have not been seen in a hundred years, something to that effect. You know, and that’s comes on the heels of many speeches given recently where he’s talked about the US in very, very direct terms as trying to constrain and strangle China, and so forth. And I think that, for the past generation—or at least since the Cold War—Americans have been very acclimated to being at odds with powers which are much, much weaker, and even kind of considering their threats or their statements to be a bit of a joke, and things like that. But, you know, he’s a very serious person, Xi Jinping. Not a good person, per se, but a very serious person. And he’s at the helm of a country which, you know, potentially will draw off the US economy in our lifetime, uh, militarily, very expansive powers and so forth.
So, you know, I think that his statements should be taken very seriously. If he’s saying some major change is going to happen, and he’s engineering and preparing militarily and economically for a confrontation with the US, I think there’s very strong reason to believe that— Or, at least, strong reason not to dismiss that, or to think that it’s an empty threat or vain.
Because there seems to be very, quite obviously, an alliance, or an alignment at least, between all these powers across Eurasia who are at odds with the US. And you could think of Russia, China, Iran, and many other countries in between, which will probably try to play both sides. But there’s a real confrontation coming and I think that the era of small wars that commenced at the end of the Cold War is being replaced with an era of great power conflict again, which could be much more dangerous, much more deadly, and would impact the ordinary lives of Americans in a way which, let’s say, the war on terror, for the most part, never really did.
JS: Yeah. And it also, the US response to this— I mean, you could say that China is responding to US aggression, or US threats, or US posturing, particularly over Taiwan or the South China Sea. But, regardless of what framing you want to put on this, it is indisputably true that there is a hawkish drive in Washington right now to really put the sniper scope on China as the top external threat to America’s national security.
And it’s part of why we wanted to talk to our next guest, who is very familiar with what many people refer to as the “blob in Washington, DC.” These sort of elite institutions that kind of benefit off of American wars and American elite politics. And you have this momentum that always seems to kick in toward: we need an enemy in the world, we need a bad guy that we can justify all of our military expenditures and other expenditures on.
And what’s interesting about our guest is that he has served in a number of positions throughout his career in the post-9/11 America in intelligence and in military, and is sort of making a name for himself as— I don’t know, how would you describe the politics Maz?
MH: Well, I would say he’s what we call foreign policy realist. But what you could describe that as is, well, he’s someone very focused, laser-focused on what he sees as us interests and considerations, like human rights or specific regional powers, how they govern themselves and so forth.
It’s less of a concern, or sometimes not even a concern. It’s very, very about, what are our interests? How do we accomplish them? How do we do not do anything more or less beyond that? It sounds a little hard edge, or sounds a little, it can sound a little cold, especially compared to liberal imperialism, which is theoretically very mission-driven about making the world a better place, even though, I think, in practice, we haven’t really seen that.
So, he is very against, let’s say, the Forever Wars—I’ve read his stuff for quite a while—the Forever Wars in the Middle East. Skeptical of the US War in Ukraine against Russia. And very, very hawkish about China for some of the reasons we talked about. For his belief that China’s going to be the major threat to the West in the coming decades, and we need to prepare for that. I don’t know if I agree with every single proposal or prognostication, but I do think it’s interesting talking to him, because very, very rarely in DC, in foreign policy circles, do you meet someone who seems like they’re actually even talking about US interests. A lot of people have agendas for certain regions, and this postures constantly, and tries to retro fit why it’s in the US interest after the fact.
I think that he’s really, sincerely, rightly/wrongly, is very strongly of the belief that this sincerely is a US interest to confront China. And that’s kind of his one note that he plays again and again, in his books and other public commentary, which is very interesting.
JS: And, to me, the news value, also, of talking to people from that broader school of thought, is that the nature of politics has changed quite radically over the past six or so years—maybe eight years—where you now have more libertarian strands of the conservative movement becoming more prominent. And some of it plays out with kind of the carnival of crazy in Congress, with the Republicans and the Freedom Caucus people now rising to certain positions of power in the House of Representatives.
But there are really serious thinkers who have been against many of the US imperial adventures for a long time, and they don’t share a lot of the politics with leftists or others on many issues. But there is an interesting convergence on—particularly on foreign affairs and on matters of war—and so that’s why I’m really glad that Elbridge Colby is joining us.
He served in a variety of roles for the US government. He was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for strategy and force development during the Trump administration. Prior to that, he served on various US Intelligence and Defense commissions, and he co-founded the Marathon Initiative, which is a thinktank focusing on what it calls “sustained great power competition.” He is also the author of the book, “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.”
Elbridge Colby, thank you very much for joining Maz and I here on Intercepted.
Elbridge Colby: Jeremy, Murtaza. Great to be with you.
Jeremy: So I want to start, we’re going to talk about the recent summit that Xi Jinping held with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, some issues related to the agreement that China helped broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia, probably touch on some issues related to the war in Ukraine.
But, to just start from 30,000 feet, I would really be interested in hearing you lay out how you see the role and position of the United States in the world today, coming off of the 9/11 era, the Forever Wars, the unusual presidency of Barack Obama, the historic presidency. Also. in its own way, the historic presidency of Donald Trump. You, of course, served in the Pentagon when Donald Trump was president. But sort of from your perspective, the position and role of the United States in the world, given all of that history that preceded this moment?
Elbridge Colby: Well, big and obviously important question. I mean, I think there’s a question of, how is the United States behaving, or how has it behaved, and how is it that I think that we should see our foreign policy and our role in the world. I think the way I look at things is, there’s a tendency to talk about—especially in sort of blobby circles—there’s a tendency to talk about the so-called “post-war order.” But I think the foreign policy world that we’ve been living in is the post-Cold-War world order.
I mean, in which, during the Cold War, there was a bipolar system. There was a sort of internationalization and quote-unquote “rules” of the road and so forth, but they tended to be highly bifurcated, and they were ultimately oriented, as people recognized at the time, towards containment. And it was not the only thing going on in American foreign policy, but it was the primary focus or driver.
I think in the post-Cold-War world, what you had was an attempt to capitalize on unipolarity to pursue what I think Robert Kagan has called “global liberal hegemony.” And that began in the 1990s when the United States was really uniquely powerful relative, and which was somewhat surprising, obviously, even 10 or 15 years before people had been talking about US decline, the persistence of the Soviet Union, etc.
So, there was this sort of sense of rejuvenation. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Russia was weak, China was still at a relatively low level of development. That, in a sense, accelerated. I don’t see that much fundamental difference in foreign policy outlook between Bill Clinton’s administration and George W. Bush’s administration. The primary difference was in the means they were prepared to use.
Clinton’s was more multipolar, looking more at diplomacy, but willing to use military force as in the former Yugoslavia. Bush was much more assertive and prone to the use of military force, as famously or infamously laid out in things like the Axis of Evil speech and the 2002 national security strategy.
Well, I think that was fundamental—in my view, to mix in my own views—that was a hubristic view. That was, in a sense, I would say, a kind of liberalism on steroids, liberal internationalism on steroids. And the experiment was run, and I think it failed. I mean, it failed to both sort of quote-unquote “pacify” or “liberalize” areas of the world that were seen as the last bastions to kind of bowdlerize Fukuyama and Hagel. They were going to kind of pacify the last holdouts towards social liberal democracy or whatever you want to call it.
But it also catalyzed balancing behavior. And, of course, most significantly—especially if you look at it as I do from a kind of realist perspective—it involved the growth of what has now clearly become in my view the primary challenge to American interests, and the primary other actor in the international system: China.
You know, which is, for the first time, the most significant fact is not the rules to me, but the rules or the outgrowth of the power relationship, the balance of power. And, for the first time in 150 years, there is a peer economy to the United States, and that’s China.
And so, my—to just to kind of put a point on it—my view is it was exceptionally ill-advised, and I would say disastrous, to pursue this Kagan-style global liberal hegemony 20 years ago. I think it could be actually catastrophic today.
I mean, the sense that then we did not face a peer adversary. Our military was far ahead of others. And, ultimately, I think those advantages were frittered away through unwise decisions. But today we do fear. W face a peer in China. We face a highly resentful and adversarial Russia. And, of course, there are other countries that have opposed interest to at least what is established, Washington views as our foreign policy.
So I think we really need a new approach, and I think that there’s active, or latent, interest in alternative foreign policy across the political spectrum. And much of it is going to involve, I think, cross-cutting political coalitions. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to talk to you both. Is, you know, I think the status quo benefits from a kind of, you know, pushing out alternative views to, if you will, and they’re framing the extreme. And what we need is sort of practical or prudential coalitions that are willing to work for shared interest, even if there are very strong remaining disagreements on a range of issues
MH: We want to talk to you a lot more about China as well, too. But, going back to what your point about the blob and its commitment to liberal hegemony over the last several decades, can you talk about what, in your view, sustains that constituency? Because I think today it’s been very discredited by events, it seems, but there’s still a very strong constituency in DC to pursue liberal internationals, foreign policies. In Europe, of course, but also even in the Middle East or other places where this seems to have failed quite a bit. What continues to sustain that, despite the apparent missteps of the past generation?
EC: It’s a great question, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Because you say it’s discredited. Then, here in Washington, it feels like it’s still in the ascendancy. And it’s not just discredited on the left; I was interviewed for a piece in, I think, Barry Weiss’s outlet about sort of more dovish kind of Republicans, and one of the other participants said, among the younger generation of right-of-center thinkers, non-interventionism is all in vogue. It’s the total norm.
And yet, in the established power centers, congress often, the thinktanks, etc., it’s still very much 2002, 2003. Why? So I’ve thought a lot about that. And, again, using my normal heuristic, I tend to look at where is the power, how’s that arranged?
And I think the biggest thing that I’ve come away with is that foreign policy is fundamentally an elite centralized enterprise in the American system. And I’m not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, even, it’s just, like, a fact. Like, if you go back in The Federalist, you know, Hamilton and all this stuff, they’re talking about, they want a monarchical kind of structure for foreign policy.
And so, the only elected individual in the foreign, really, the foreign policy, sort of policymaking or, you know, enterprise, is the president, him or herself. And that person often has limited ability to do something about it.
And there’s this huge official Washington — and what that creates is a kind of like — I don’t know if Versailles is too much — but, you know, sort of Louis the 14th kind of courtier culture, and a pretty open, sometimes, disdain for popular views. Because that’s not where the incentives are.
The incentives are, well, you know, there’s one guy who’s elected. That person’s usually captured, if you will, or can be an acculturated member; George W. Bush was running on a humble form policy. That turned around. President Obama ran as a skeptic of that. I mean, to his credit, I think he tried in certain ways, but faced a lot of difficulties. Obviously, President Trump.
So I think that’s what leads it to me. It also leads me to think that the solution to the problem is probably not going to be purely grassroots. It has to be through the president, because that’s the person who has the power. And, ultimately, the institutions will go along if there’s enough consistency in pushing against that blobby kind of global liberal hegemony attitude. Which, of course, I think you’re right, it’s discredited, and I think manifestly does not really serve the American people’s interests. So it’s kind of— I mean, not manifestly. I don’t think it serves the American people’s interests.
JS: You know, I think—and I want to get your read on this—but it’s so clear that the Trump era, the lead up to his election, then his four years in office, and now the current situation where Trump is, you know, under indictment, yet he’s running again for president. You know, and the Democrats are scrambling for how to respond to this. But this whole era, this whole moment that we’re in, it just broke so many people’s brains. I mean, it really did.
You know, among liberals it certainly broke brains. The Republican party is in complete schizophrenic disarray. You have the neocons and the so-called traditional conservatives just struggling to tread water politically, because of what the Trumpists’ political factions have done to that party. But then, within that—and what I think is, actually, on a foreign policy level, one of the most important realities of this broken-brain political culture that we’re in right now—is that it’s been clarifying.
You have the elite of the Democratic party and the former elite of the Republican party still grasping for, you know, political relevance. They have come together, and they have this sort of secular religion of worshiping the national security state. They’re coalescing behind the war machine. People like Bill Crystal are now great, you know, welcome on the airwaves of MSNBC, with nodding heads; not shaking heads, with nodding heads. And you have this narrative set now where the so-called adults in the room believe that the war machine is going to solve our problems. Believe that the Justice department, the CIA, these institutions, these are going to, you know, solve our problems.
And it’s like we live in this broken-brain moment where to question those policies gets you tarred now, in this McCarthyist way, as either being in the service of Putin. Or, like in the case of people like Maz and myself, I did a piece once where I was talking about, as crazy and awful as I think Trump is, his instincts against this sort of interventionist policy represents one of our best chances to start ending these Forever Wars.
I was not cosigning Trump’s methods, his presidency, his ideology. I was stating a basic fact, and I just got inundated, just trolled for that. We live in this moment where, if you are saying something that contradicts the bipartisan elite consensus, particularly on matters of war, the opponents of that immediately go for this protection of the elite, and tarring you as with these sort of McCarthyite attacks.
EC: I pretty much exactly agree. I mean, that’s exceptionally well said. And, I guess, a few thoughts. I mean, one is kind of cui bono, who, who benefits here, you know? I mean, if you want to have American foreign policy be changed— and mine would be more of a realist perspective, others might have a more anti-interventionist or kind of peace first perspective, but there may be areas of overlap—then I think you’ve got to be prepared. I mean, that’s something.
And, stepping back, and I think you’re right, is there’s a lot of broken-brainedness. And it’s a difficult environment to navigate. I, I certainly don’t claim that I’ve navigated it perfectly, by any stretch. What I will say is, on the right, right now, there’s a feeling. I liken it a little bit to like the OK corral. You know, you can pull up a bunch of guys and you roll into town, have a shootout. I mean, there’s, there’s an openness, actually.
I think it’s dangerous and crazy, but there’s more fun. Because—and I don’t want to make light of the situation—but there’s a more open, it’s kind of like early Silicon Valley or whatever. I mean, pick your analogy. Where it’s like, yeah, you can actually push to change things, and there’s a real openness. Whereas I feel a little bit on the left—and again, I’m not on the left side, I don’t want to be, you know, I defer to you guys—but it seems like it’s become more sort of establishmentarian. Like, a lot, especially the Biden world, I liken them to Mandarins in 19th century China. Mandarins in 19th century China were very, very smart, but they were kind of working in a very conservative small sea. If you were looking at it sociologically, it’s often much more conservative.
And I guess my view is there’s an elite enterprise that foreign policy is, and there’s also a strong status quo bias. So, one of the things—and, again, it’s human nature and it would’ve been very evident to political philosophers in the past—but like, for instance, military people, senior military people, a lot of people often think, oh, they’re conservative. Well, not necessarily. What they are is conservative sociologically, so they’re very bought in to the traditional way of doing it.
I mean, if you’d gone and you’d asked a Roman general on the border of Germany in the second century, they would’ve said, well, the empire’s very important for Rome, right? And, in a sense, you have a similar phenomenon where people are like, the Alliance with Korea is critical, the alliance with—and, you know, these may or may not—but there’s a deep, deep investment to the structure. And I’ve seen very senior military officers go off on this in a way, and be very dismissive of the divisiveness of American politics.
And the line I think of when I see that is, like, well, when this country was founded, the standing army was definitely the bug, and the divisive politics were the feature. That’s what our country is about. And I think that that’s important here, because if you’re going to push change, you’ve got to take political risk, and you’ve got to be willing to work on your own side of the spectrum and across it with people who are also willing to do that in ways that are going to expose yourself. You’re going to stick your head above the parapet, to use a military metaphor.
And I think what’s happening is this conformist, sort of McCarthyite element, which is very real. I mean, somebody accused, it was like, pure McCarthyism, it was almost hilarious. This guy is a right wing guy, but it was, you know, but it’s so stupid, right? But it’s designed to keep the status quo and to push people down, because if we can’t, people like—you know, I don’t want to speak for you—but if people can’t push change and take risk and maybe make a mistake here or there, then nothing is gonna happen. Then it’s going to go back to inertia.
And I think that’s the big, that’s what I see with the Bill Crystals, of course. And it’s like my feeling about Bill Crystal—I mean, not to be too, you know, nasty—but like, I mean, so he either was complicit in building up this Republican party that has now existed, in which case, why are people listening on the left? Or he didn’t see it, in which case he doesn’t have a very good political eye, so why is it, you know, sort of what, you know? And then, of course he’s like, one of the fathers of the Iraq War and stuff like that.
You know, and then that’s another thing that I would just say on this point is, I think the anti-war left has gone into dormancy, you know, over the last couple of years, but I imagine that has to be a temporary feature. Like, at some point, that’s such an inherent feature of the left that I expect it will come back, and that will give more opportunity for change.
I disagree with them on a lot of things, particularly on China and so forth, but I think, again, using the idea, you know, finding areas of agreement to work on that’s, going to be an important feature.
MH: You know, regarding Jeremy’s point about Trump’s instincts, I think it’s very true that he had sort of a realist foreign policy that he campaigned on. He expressed it a bit inarticulately, in his fashion, during the campaign, but that was sort of the gut sense of what his America-first foreign policy was. But I found that, in practice, for the most part, at least, the Trump administration just kind of continued a lot of policies that the office predecessors. And maybe not deep in involvement in theaters or areas where there wasn’t key US interests, but certainly devoted a lot of political and diplomatic and administrative attention to them, and so forth. And didn’t really fully pivot as much as his campaign suggested he might have during that period.
Can you speak a bit? Because you were inside the Trump administration at that time. What exactly happened? Or why was there less of a realist foreign policy than his campaign had seemed to suggest at the outset?
EC: Well, I think, again, I think the lack of probably aligned personnel who were prepared and ready, and equipped and experienced to operate the levers of power. I mean, because the President can say something, but it’s not necessarily going to happen. And, of course, you know, President Trump’s style is less orthodox or, kind of, by the book. So it’s already going to be kind of harder to make the ship of state change.
And there wasn’t a large group of people. In fact, a lot of them— I mean, John Bolton is a great example. I mean, John Bolton was the national security advisor. He has the opposite, I mean, at least on the—
MH: Yeah, the personnel appointments themselves were a big part of the strangeness.
EC: Yeah. So I think, looking forward, what’s really critical is for this kind of point of view to have people who — more people who are broadly aligned. I’m not talking about, like, a 47-step test or something like that. But, you know, basically working in the same direction, but who are also competent. And that’s the other problem, is that, you know, sometimes I think some of the people that were up for jobs or whatever might have been in sympathy with President Trump, but they weren’t necessarily going to get the job done very well. Because, you know, it is a machine, right? I mean, it’s a big machine that has to work.
And I think, you know, that gets back to, there’s a chicken and egg problem. How do people get experience who are not bought into the system, if the system kind of acculturates and rewards people who do get bought into it? That’s a real problem, and one I’ve actually been thinking about quite a bit. But I think if a president can demonstrate a consistent commitment to this way, ultimately, people will respond to incentives. And new, a new generation, especially.
I think a lot of this, especially at the leadership level, like, a lot of this is a function of age. I mean, Trump is, I think, unusual for his generation, in the sense that people at that age range tend to be much more bought in on the Republican and Democrat side to the kind of blobby, post-Cold-War order. People who are younger I think are just, you know, they, they have, Murtaza, the kind of baseline sort of sense that I think we all do here, that this was not a successful experiment. So, time will improve it, but like, we don’t have a lot of time, right? That’s the problem.
JS: Let’s shift specifically to China, and I think we’ll definitely get into some areas of disagreement here. I know one of the projects that you were involved with when you were at DOD at the Pentagon was trying to convince the bureaucracy and convince some of your colleagues to downgrade Russia, to put in place of it China as what you were identifying as sort of the premier threat or premier challenge to America’s short- and long-term national security.
Want to give you a chance to lay out your argument, and then Maz and I can pick at it as we will, and see how it goes from there. But just sort of lay out why you believe China represents this level of a threat to the United States.
EC: Great. And, well, let me, you know, strategy obviously happens over time. It depends on the lay of the land and how the players are evolving. So, when I was in the Pentagon, what we pushed was kind of China first, followed by Russia. We were putting Russia second, but it wasn’t where I would say now. But the five years have gone under the bridge now, and the situation has deteriorated a lot. That’s why it really gives me, I’m much more urgent on the China focus than I was, even five years ago, when I was pretty, I would say, certainly relatively very urgent on that subject. And part of what I was trying to do, at least for, speaking for myself, was give NATO a boost, and then give the Europeans an opportunity to step up and take more responsibility over the long term, so we could focus on China.
And now, now think we’ve kind of come to that point where that’s sort of necessary, where there are going to be harder choices.
Why do I think — look, again, I look at it from a kind of realist point of view, which is that, you know, power is what matters because intentions change. You know, Lord Acton, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If people don’t see a check on their ability to get stuff, they’re more likely to abuse that power. Okay. And that, by the way, applies to us. I don’t think we’ve always been so great with our power. We’re not, I think we’re, we’re pretty good, but we’re not perfect, to say the least. And China is much, much, much, much more powerful than anybody else, other than ourselves, but certainly than Russia. I mean, it’s ten times the economic size, which is the main source of power in the world, and I think it’s demonstrated. I mean, ten years ago there was, I think, a good debate to be had about whether China’s latent likelihood of pursuing a more ambitious and aggressive foreign policy and military buildup, whether that was going to actually come to pass. Now I think it’s pretty clear.
I mean, if you look at Xi Jinping, if you look at the military buildup, if you look at their behavior around the world, it’s pretty clear. And this is a big difference between a realist analysis and some of the people who really watch China closely. I think those heuristics can be integrated, but my view is the dominant one we should use should be the realist one, because the China-watchers over the years would’ve told you, hey, China has a divided and consensus system of government. China doesn’t build overseas basis, China has a small nuclear deterrent.
Well, they’ve blown through all of those things, which is what a realist would expect. To say, because, you know, again, appetite grows with the eating. You know, you’re more likely to want to buy a Rolls Royce if you’ve got a billion dollars than if you’re making 150 bucks, a hundred thousand dollars a year or something like that. So, I think that’s my basic point.
And then, people question my sincerity, so I can only say it, and people can take it for what it’s worth, but I definitely don’t want a war. I think a war would be disastrous and very unpredictable, but I think that the best way to avoid a war with China in a way that protects interest that I think are genuinely important, including the ability of reformers. You know, I’m thinking more on the right, but I think also on the left—people, you know, Matt Stoller, Ro Khanna—if you want to have the leverage and the power to be able to pursue an economic reform agenda, you cannot allow China to dominate Asia, because then it will be, it’ll have so much power. It’ll be like us compared to Russia, right? I mean, to make an extreme example, right? In the sense of how much economic oomph they can put against us.
And, in that case, I don’t think we can just let them do that, but we also don’t want to fight a major war. The best way to do that—and I think the Cold War does offer an illustrative example in this respect—is be ready, be prepared, show that you’re ready to fight, and then they’ll be more likely to say, it’s just not worth it, I’ll find another opportunity.
That’s not suppressing China, that’s not dismembering China, that’s not regime changing. I mean, I hate communism, but like, if they’re going to be communist, that’s kind of up to them at the end of the day. We can find a modus vivendi, we can find detente, but I think it needs to come from a position of strength.
MH: So, you published a really interesting book a few years ago, “The Strategy of Denial,” which I read it quite closely at the time, I thought it was very fascinating. So I think that, you’re talking about how, not to contain China, but how the US should manage or respond to an ascendant China. And, in the book, you lay out some of the reasons which you alluded to just now of why a very powerful China, which consolidated its hold over Asia, would be very challenging for the United States, because it would be a far larger and more economically dominant power. It’s in Eurasia as well, too, which is historically a very important strategic zone.
And, I think in the book—and, you know, correct me on this—but I think that what you lay out is a realist foreign policy based on offshore balancing, and offshore balancing in the sense of strengthening the countries around China to contain it in a way, or to prevent it from consolidating its hold. Can you talk a bit about what exactly — you say the war is like, the worst possible outcome. But what should the U.S. do, in specific, short of war, and how does it balance China in a way which maybe China finds tolerable enough, that they don’t go to war, and then the U.S. doesn’t have to as well.
EC: Oh, sure. Thanks very much, I appreciate it a lot. I would say offshore balancing is kind of something that’s defined, other people are in that school. I would say mine certainly, probably shares elements of it.
What I think of it is, is like, the basic interests of the American people — and, again, going back to that, like, what’s our foreign policy about? Our foreign policy is about, I think, serving the concrete economic political security interests of American citizens. That’s in not allowing a country — and in this case, the most likely one would be China — to dominate such a huge market area.
Okay, how do you go about doing that in a way that’s consistent with the risk and threat tolerance, right? I mean, people are tired of war, and justly so. So we need to husband their resolve, we need to be conscious of how much they’re prepared, and rightly sort of expected to sacrifice.
So, I think, the natural way to do it is, again, it’s realism, it’s tried and true, but, you know, sometimes cliches are cliches for a reason. But it’s basically what I call an anti-hegemonic coalition in Asia, which is basically a coalition bound together, not by the rules-based international order or whatever, or some particular, Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history, but rather by a shared goal to prevent China from having a hegemonic influence.
Unfortunately, again, natural self-interest, most countries in Asia don’t want to live under China’s thumb. Now, some, for particular reasons, like Cambodia, might be. But if you’re Japan, if you’re South Korea, if you’re India, if you’re Vietnam, if you’re Australia, you don’t want to live that way, so there’s a natural coalition to work with.
And, in fact, that’s already happening, largely because of China’s own behavior. I mean, you could see it in things like Aukus, the deepening of the U.S.-Japan relationship, deepening of the U.S.-India relationship, our deepening partnership with Taiwan. That’s the way to do it.
And I think the goal here, you know — containment is a fraught term. I don’t like to use containment, I like to use balance of power. Because the goal, it’s different than canon. I think the original vision was to literally contain Soviet power until the incompatibilities within the Soviet system resulted in its collapse, or at least its mellowing.
I don’t expect China to fundamentally change its spots. I think if, like, the Guomindang (also known as the Kuomintang) had won the Civil War, or if they came back into power on the mainland, you know, alternative history, I don’t think China’s foreign policy would probably be that radically different. Because it’s fundamentally driven by, I think, structural incentives on this. But this means that you’re never going to just solve the problem.
And this is one of the real problems with the sort of global liberal hegemony internationalism mindset, is that they think, if we can liberalize China, it’s going to be a lot less dangerous, it’s going to be our friend. And I don’t think that’s right, because I think a Democratic China would have pretty similar incentives.
So, the bad news is you never get out of the problem. The good news is you don’t have to fundamentally “convert” them, quote-unquote, right? We just need to give them an incentive, cost/benefit set of incentives where it’s better to work with the system.
And you were kind enough to read the book. The last chapter, the short chapter is really addressed to Chinese people. It’s called “A Decent Peace,” and it’s basically saying, look, this strategy, if it succeeds, would have a strong coalition and a balance of power that would not involve the humiliation, the dismemberment of China. It would not involve the frustration of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. China would be one of the two great countries of the world, but there would be a balance, where they could not, Beijing could not impose its will on us.
And the danger to that, basically—just to kind of finish the thought—is that China will be able to pick that coalition apart, and that’s where the conflict is, I think, is most likely to come. So, if we can avoid that, I’m actually pretty optimistic, if we’re in a position of strength, that China will ultimately go in that direction, because the downside risks would be so great. But I think we’re not doing what’s needed to get to that point, and that makes war more likely.
JS: Elbridge, on an intellectual level, of course I understand exactly what your argument is. I guess on a fundamental level, I want to pose the following to you: who are we to be telling China or any other nation in the world anything about hegemony?
You have the Korea war, ostensibly fought about China. The Vietnam War, ostensibly fought about China. Then you can go through all the dirty wars of the 1980s. You can have the cruise missile liberalism of Bill Clinton throughout the nineties. You have 9/11, then you have global torture regime. Kidnapping people, we still have people in Guantanamo. We invade Afghanistan, and didn’t leave until very recently, and we may actually end up going back in. Iraq, we utterly destabilized the Middle East. We made a massive contribution to the radical level of instability that exists there right now. We overthrew Gaddafi in Libya, we turned it, in large part, into a modern day slave state.
I know you opposed several of these wars that I’m, that I’m citing there, but you’re making an argument that essentially says we should throw all of that aside. Let’s not pay any attention to the fact that, for much of the world, we are the hegemon, we are the country that is destabilized, we are the criminals who refuse to subject our personnel, like Vladimir Putin does also, to the international criminal court.
Like, China’s not invading countries left and right. China’s not drone bombing African nations in the Middle East. Like, when I hear it, there’s a lot I sympathize with in your arguments, and I do think there’s common ground, but I really want to just put this to you: who are you, as an American, to make this argument toward China or any other nation on Earth?
EC: Well, great, great question. I would certainly differ with some of your assessments, but there’s a lot of merit to what you’re saying. I mean, look, stepping back, I’m a realist, and so, I look at the world and I say, how do we make this work? And the framework for — and morality, I think, is very important, at least in my idea of realism, and it’s a canard that realism is not moral. In fact, Hans Morgenthau, you know, a kind of contemporary, or the, you know, sort of father of modern realism wrote extensively about political morality.
So, but it’s more the morality of — it’s not consequentialist — but it’s, it’s about reasonably anticipatable consequences and these kinds of things. And, so, but, but what I’m thinking about is, you know, the moral foreign policy for America is one along the lines I’m talking about. Because that’s the one that would result in the interests, you know, serving the concrete interests of the American people without doing things to other people that is rapacious or unnecessarily violent. I think that’s part of it. It’s kind of an enlightened self-interest model.
And the consequences, hopefully, if it’s done adeptly and well, and with sufficient urgency, should be great power peace, which is probably the best thing that we can do in the world. So, in a sense, our past is, it sort of is what it is. But if you’re looking at it from a realist lens, even if you’re like—and I know this from personal experience—the Indians think that we screwed them over in the East Pakistan war, you know, the Bangladesh independence war. And they’re, they believe that we, you know, supported China’s buildup. Rightly, actually.
I mean, Vietnam. Like, they believe that we committed untold crimes against them during the U.S.—Vietnam War. Japan, of course, believes that what we did with fire bombing and the atomic bombings in World War II were crimes and so forth. But they are all desperate for us to be pursuing the foreign policy that I’m talking about, or at least something like it, right?
So, I think, in a sense, I don’t want to sound at all dismissive of what you’re saying. But, in a sense, the fundamental way that our foreign policy has got to operate, has got to be based on aligning the interests of nations.
I personally believe that we should not — and not just personally, I think it’s actually increasingly important for us in order to succeed in this foreign policy — is not to get in these foolish interventions, that are not only foolish, but because their consequences can be reasonably anticipated are actually immoral. I don’t think we should do that. But I think if we turn it into a court of law of the past, then I don’t think that’s going to serve the American people’s interest. You know, just by the way—
JS: But Elbridge, it’s not the past. There’s an ongoing — I mean, there was a recent — I wanted to pull this up, because I found, you may, I think you’ll find this interesting too. This statistic, the Economist Intelligence Unit recently did a study that estimates that support for the US position regarding the war in Ukraine has diminished so much in the past year that nearly two thirds of the world’s population, excluding Russia and Ukraine, is now either neutral or leans toward Russia in that war.
And, certainly, there’s ongoing drone strikes that this administration is doing in Somalia. There’s ongoing strikes in Syria. There’s the — we are living with the aftermath of our disaster. So it’s not necessarily that it’s just in the past. I mean, this is current. I understand what you’re saying, I think you’re making some fair points but, just, I really want to push you on this to answer it: China has not shown anywhere near the level of offensive aggressiveness in the world that the United States has. So, I’m just questioning why you think it’s the U.S. role to be saying to China, oh, let’s make a deal, that we have these sort of two spheres of influence.
The U.S. has gone on a global shooting spree and now we’re saying, oh my god, we need to contain China. It’s just a little bit on the nose, I think, for people that know the U.S. history.
EC: Well, a couple things. I mean, you can’t let China off the hook here, right? I mean, the reason that they haven’t been more offensive, and I think this is what realism would tell you is, is they were weak. But if you look at what they did internally, cultural revolution, great leap forward, uh, the suppression of the Civil War, the conquest of Tibet, the aggressive wars against India, the intervention in Korea, and the use of human wave attacks with Guomindang prisoners. Invasion of Vietnam in 1979, etc., right?
I mean, I disagree. I think, on some key points. Like, I think we need to have a counterterrorism campaign. I’m not the world’s expert on it, so I don’t doubt there are things we could do more in a more focused and narrow way, and then some of them may be counterproductive, I’m prepared to concede that. But I think the real question is, if you’re talking about the views of the world, actually, the interests of other countries, like, if this were just purely in the American people’s interests, I would still support it, because that’s my criterion for our foreign policy in a way that’s not being rapacious and brutal towards others, you know, etc.
But, it’s actually, if you want to talk about the number of people—the people in India, people in Japan, a lot of people in Nacion —they don’t want to be dominated by China, and that’s the critical thing that’s going on. And the fact is, I mean, I love America, I think it’s the greatest country, yada-yada-yada, but the objective argument on that is that only we are strong enough to lead an anti-hegemonic coalition, and I think that’s the sort of fundamental way that I would look at it. And then, I think, I do think we should work at having a better foreign policy and not —
You know, during the Cold War, for instance, we did not intervene that often. We made mistakes, like in Vietnam, I think, we went too far, too long, etc. But, I mean, it’s possible for the United States to have a more — as George W. Bush put it — humble and focused foreign policy.
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MH: You know, I think that one of the consequences of the last 20 years in these very misguided interventions is a lot of fatigue for foreign policy in the US, understandably. A lot of Americans were killed in these wars, that there were a lot of destruction and disillusionment and promises and so forth. So, I think that a war with China, potentially, or even embarking on a foreign policy which is assertive towards China, it raises people’s hackles a little bit because a lot of the reasons Jeremy said. But, also, because people are fatigued, and they lost a lot of trust in the foreign policy establishment and the ruling establishment, generally.
So, two things I want to ask you. First of all, a war with China over Taiwan, for instance, what would that actually entail from a US perspective in terms of what reasonably can be expected in terms of sacrifices or commitments? Like, will Americans be dying in large numbers, etc.?
And, secondly, why is it important? Like, why is it important from an American perspective? If you were an American who has a Trump sort of foreign policy, America-first, very inwardly focused. Like, why should you care if China controls Taiwan and some of those surrounding countries? I think you alluded to it a little bit in high-level, but in specific, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts and your argument about that.
EC: Well, I mean, I start from the same point of view. I think people are really tired. I mean, the point I like to make is, if you watch Fox, you know, which, for all the flack it gets, actually offers quite a broad array of opinions, especially on foreign policy issues. It’s quite striking across the day, or into the evening in particular.
But there’s this ad for Wounded Warriors, which is for, you know, people who are horribly wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan or something. Or they’re widows or widowers, you know, 9/11 firefighters. I mean, it’s really, really, it’s affecting, you know? And that’s the mindset, I think, of a lot of people watching, and the kind of political coalition you’re talking about. It’s obviously not only on the right, but, I mean, people are tired of — and they are absolutely right to be skeptical of the foreign policy.
I mean, I just find it kind of staggering that, like, literally the same people basically making the same kinds of arguments are still going 20 years on. I mean, it’s actually astounding. I mean, I have an intellectual explanation, which is this, you know, the Versailles thing. But it’s like, at a human level, it’s actually just flabbergasting, to be honest.
So when I think about China and Taiwan, I’m acutely conscious of this, partially because my instincts are non-interventionist. They’re not pacifist, but are — I want to avoid wars whenever possible. I think war is an evil that creates other evils. I mean, sometimes it is necessary, but I tend to think, you know, Eisenhower said something like, you know, when you start a war, you never know how it’s going to end. So, that’s my instinct. But you can’t go too far, otherwise you’ll get run over in the world, obviously. So, but that’s my starting point.
Let me answer your last question first, because I think it’s important to kind of start there, is, why is it important? And I’m very persuaded. I’m not a macroeconomics, I’m not a geoeconomics guy, but I think it, like, makes sense. Which is, if China dominates well over 50% of global GDP, our lives are going to be a lot worse. And you can think of just kind of pure, rational actor speculation why that might be. You can look at our own behavior to Jeremy’s points over the last 30 years, and how we’ve used sanctions and the role of the dollar, etc. And then you can just look at what China’s actually saying and doing in creating this huge market area, right?
I think that’s what the stakes are. The stakes, what China wants, I think, and they’re increasingly clear about it—partially because they think we’re trying to strangle them, that’s the actual word Xi Jinping used the other day with our semiconductor sanctions and otherwise—is, I would say, a secure geo-economic sphere. And that sounds kind of arcane but, actually, if you look historically at why great power wars have happened, and what the aggressors tended to go for—like Japan, 1941, Germany in 1914—is this large market area where then you become the world’s greatest economy. And, of course, it’s like a conceit of the Tom Friedman neoliberal economics that that doesn’t matter, but of course it does, right?
They want to have the Googles, the Facebooks, the Harvards, the Stanfords, the yada-yada-yada, clustered in China. And that’s, that’s their vision. And, I mean, it’s hard to fault them, because that’s pretty great, you know? Then you get to pick what the — we get to deflate the currency, inflate the currency, whatever we want, and everybody else has to deal with it and march to our tune. Presumably that’s what China wants.
If we allow that to happen I’m very confident Americans’ lives are going to get a lot worse, partially just because China’s going to supplant us as the top global economy, but also because they are going to need to push us down to secure their ascendancy, right? They’re going to go after Silicon Valley, and with all the, the complaints, right? Rightful complaints about Silicon Valley and universities and all that. But, it’s better to have these great institutions and things in our country than elsewhere. So, I think that’s it.
The way China’s going to get at that, I fear, is not through, Adolf Hitler-style, declare a war on everybody at the same time, because then you’re too likely to fail. What it would be is a kind of series of short, sharp wars—or could be short—but relatively focused wars designed to collapse that coalition, and then get everybody to cut a deal. Which, again, is human behavior.
If you think, if you’re in the Philippines or Vietnam, you don’t want to live under Chinese hegemony. But if your alternative is to be made an example of, I mean, the Chinese cliche is, you know, you strangle a chicken to scare the monkeys in the trees, right? Basically, you don’t want to become that chicken, right? And that’s a very real possibility. And the Chinese are pretty clear that that’s the threat. But if you’re in that situation then you cut a deal. And that’s where Taiwan becomes important.
The problem is, I’ve said this to some politicians, people. They’re like, meh, yeah, that’s not very convincing. Right? And that’s a big part of the problem, because it is kind of a couple of steps. Like, I think when you walk that through, one can see where it goes, but it sounds kind of arcane. Which is part of why I think China would do that, because it wouldn’t seem existential.
And that gets to your second question, Murtaza, is—or your first question—which is, what would it entail and what the costs are. And that’s what powers a lot of my fervency and sharpness on Taiwan defense preparedness, because it’s not a zero to one thing, it’s along a spectrum. The stronger and more prepared we are, the less costly it will be. And then the more likely the American people are to support it, and the stronger the case to them to support it, right? But the more we neglect it—for instance, by over focusing on Ukraine, by allowing things to go on as they have, and the defense industrial base, etc., etc.—the closer we get to that margin, and the more it’s going to be instead of 5,000 or 10,000 which, god forbid, I mean, that’s a lot of people, but that’s different than a hundred thousand and failing, right?
It’s one thing to say, we’re going to lose 5,000 guys, and you’re going to completely succeed, and the Chinese military is going to be put in a box for ten years; that’s one world we could live in. Or, you’re going to lose 150,000 guys and you’re probably going to lose. Well, that’s going to be hard to, that’s going to be hard to deal with.
And so, that’s really where— I want us to be as far away from that knife’s as we can be, and that’s unfortunately where we’re sitting right now.
JS: I mean, I think that on this issue of Taiwan, there’s sort of two issues that I’d like to push you on a little bit. I mean, one is just on a purely military level. And I was reading some of the latest statistics on Chinese military development, Chinese naval capacity. It is true—and this more goes into your category of argument—it is true that China has begun to spend enormous sums of money building up its naval capacity. It is true that China now has more vessels than the United States, and is on track to have many more vessels than the United States.
And there’s, in military theory, there’s a, it’s a simplified thinking, but there is a notion that the nation or the force with more ships generally tends to win the battle. China has its own version of a black military budget, like the U.S. does. We’re aware that the US military budget is heading toward a trillion dollars a year; it’s $860 billion. China’s reported budget is a fraction of ours, but we don’t—it’s true, this goes into your category—we don’t know the extent of Chinese military spending. We do know that the labor associated with manufacturing weapons of war is much cheaper in China.
We also know that the United States is now baking in no-bid contracts to expand our defense industrial base, so the United States is trying to compete with China. But I think, just on a pure fact level, it’s clear that China has a much better machine capable of advanced weapons manufacturing, especially when you’re talking about lower end weapons systems than higher end. China—I wrote about this also—China recently unveiled a drone that is almost on par with tier-one U.S. drones. One of Russia’s problems thus far in Ukraine on a military level is that it failed to invest in drone technology the way that the United States, and increasingly China, is.
But on a purely military level, this would be the equivalent of China trying to stretch itself to the other hemisphere. And, you know, if there was sort of an attempt where Puerto Rico is going to break away from the United States, and China’s going to come in and say, no, no. I mean, it’s, we would get massacred in that war.
Just on a purely, if you want to say nationalistic or America-first level, the number of Americans that would die over Taiwan would be, I think astronomical. And I think every advantage would be in China’s category just on a military level. So, let’s just start with that.
Set aside any moral things, anything about, what is it, the U.S. business. Just on a military level, the U.S. would suffer catastrophic losses on a human and ordinance level.
EC: Well, it’s funny because sometimes I’m in the position of saying that — usually I’m in the position of saying the threat’s a lot worse than people anticipate, because I think there’s a lot of sanguinity, and especially the blob doesn’t want to have to make choices, so they just try to, you know, write off the problem.
But, occasionally, here — and I actually think your point Jeremy, and it’s similar, you know — was debating with Lyle Goldstein, a little while ago—the kind of point of view often that it’s beyond, it’s infeasible, I think is actually the tougher argument, especially over time. I think we have a lot of reason to be less pessimistic than you are. I won’t say we can be optimistic, but I think if we put our minds to it.
And here’s the thing. I mean, bear in mind, strategically, that all of the important countries in Asia are basically right next to China, right? South Korea’s a hundred miles, Japan, a little bit more, Philippines about, Lausanne is about a hundred miles from Taiwan. There’s nothing in the Central Pacific, so if we lose in the Western Pacific, the game is up, right? Um, so we kind of have to be over. And then that’s why our position has been drawn at what’s called the first island chain since the end of World War II. Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, etc.
So, the thing that we have going in our favor is, they have to cross and sustain a decisive military operation across a hundred miles of water. And, at the end of the day, there’s a lot of this faddish stuff about, you know, now all wars and zeros and ones. I think we can see in Ukraine that’s not true. I mean, crossing a river is tough, you know? The Russians have had difficulty, we’ll see how the Ukrainians do. But crossing a hundred miles of straight is very, very tough.
It’s not impossible. But, I mean, just to take a historical example, and they’re not that irrelevant, you know, given that military planes still use gas and stuff like that. Missiles, you know, were invented in World War II. The Germans could not develop and sustain enough military power to get across the English channel, despite having overwhelming military advantage vis-a-vis Britain in 1940. And that’s actually a worse situation, but that situation—
The other thing is, you know, our real— there’s a lot of sort of propagandistic as well.
JS: Yeah, but their forces were being depleted because they were waging a multination offensive campaign. It’s not just that they couldn’t get across the English Channel. I mean, they also were tied down in multiple other conflicts simultaneously.
EC: Right. Well, that, that certainly helped. And, and that’s, I mean, when they invaded the Soviet Union, that kind of took, what was it—forgetting the name for the invasion… Sea Lore, Sea Lion, I think—off the table. But, I mean, you’re right. And that’s one of the advantages that China has that you didn’t mention, which is much more focused on the problem than we are. You know, we think we’re living in Robert Kagan’s world, but actually we’re not, and that’s a very dangerous situation.
But the other thing I want to say is that, look, our real advantage, and I mean there’s, what I was saying is there’s kind of a rah-rah kind of element about our military. And, I mean, not having served in the military, I’m not going to like, comment on the specifics, but I’m always a bit skeptical when we say with such confidence that our military is so much better than everybody else. Like, I don’t think Tom Brady won all those Super Bowls by saying that everybody in the off season, like, you can’t be beat, right? Like, that just seems kind of basic to me.
But where we really are and have always had a strong advantage, partially because we’re a liberal democracy—and in a sense we’re an island, from a strategic point of view—is in the high capital investment, aerospace, and maritime domains, right? And so, what we’re talking about, I mean, we could evolve into a direction where there are more American ground forces involved, and that’s possible, but a lot of what we’re going to be talking about is air/maritime/space. You know, very kind of higher end.
I mean, I’m not saying that it’s all zeros and ones, but this is, from our point of view, ships, submarines, aircraft, satellites, missiles, missiles, missiles. And then we’re also working with our allies. Bear in mind, the Japanese are increasingly looking likely to be directly involved. Assistant Secretary of Defense, Eli Ratner, I think, is very, very good on this; the current, he’s in the Pentagon now. But he said, you know, this is an enormous challenge, but it is feasible. I think that’s right. I think that’s right. I think if we put our mind, we can do that, And you can present the Chinese —
Bear in mind, in the Cold War, for instance, the official assessment of NATO was always that the Soviets would win in invasion. It was just too risky. It was going to involve escalation, they couldn’t— So we’re actually, in some ways, we’re in a better situation when we were then. If we can just convince the Chinese, I think, that it’s too risky, that may be enough.
I’d rather not. I’d rather be more confident. But, I mean, look, they’ve got to get forces over, that involves ships that move slowly, that involves aircraft, you know, even forces that get on, they need to be sustained. And, of course, that that depends a lot on how hard the Taiwanese will fight, which is another factor. But I don’t think we should throw in the towel.
MH: Well, so, not to ask you to prognosticate, but, you know, in your estimation, how likely do you think such a war is likely to take place given the current balance of forces? And I know in China right now, Xi Jinping has given very hawkish speeches recently. And, surprisingly, to me at least, because I thought that post— what seems to be a debacle for Russia and Ukraine that maybe you’ve dissuaded them from trying to test, the limits at the moment, but perhaps not.
So, I want to know what, how likely you think such a war would be. And then, also, for those who haven’t read your book—which I think is probably most people listening right now—can you talk a bit more about what the “strategy of denial” means, in practical terms, in the context of the actual invasion across the straights you and Jeremy were just talking about?
EC: Yeah. Thanks, actually. I mean, denial is kind of, it had a multi-function or sort of multi-level meaning. I mean, denial at the big level, the geopolitical level is denying any other country a hegemonic position over one of the key market areas in the world. So that’s our goal, right? It’s a negative goal, which sounds bad, but actually is better. Negative goals tend to be lesser. It doesn’t mean we need to like, conquer the whole place or convert them to end of history stuff, right? It’s just preventing somebody from being the hegemon in one of these key areas.
And then the military goal of denial—and this gets exactly to the discussion I was having with Jeremy—is we don’t have to defeat the whole Chinese military, right? And again, going back to the Battle of Britain, you just need to be able to defeat the invasion force. If they can’t project and sustain enough dominant force to compel Taiwan—or, in the future, Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea—to give up, then they’re unlikely to succeed. And if they anticipate that, they’re unlikely to start.
Because, you know, Mao Zedong wanted to take over Taiwan desperately, wanted to get his hands around the neck of Chiang Kai-Shek, but he never tried, because he knew he was going to fail after the Americans put the seven fleet in between when the Chinese intervening, or when Korea broke out.
So, that’s the goal. It’s, again, it’s a lower goal. It’s not the goal of, you know, the 1992 defense planning guidance or the 2002 national security strategy. It’s not saying we need to be able to project power and dominate everybody and dissuade them. No, no, no. It’s a lower standard. But I think it should be enough.
How likely is a war? So, I mean, I’m just really, I try to be very focused on not giving a particular number, because I have no idea, right? I mean, I just don’t pretend. What worries me, Murtaza is that I could see very compelling reasons, if I were thinking about this from a Chinese point of view, why war makes sense, and that’s for a couple of reasons.
I mean, one is, Xi Jinping’s—you know, we can talk about that, his personality—but the guy has specifically linked the resolution of the Taiwan issue to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, the central goal of his leadership. He’s super empowered. So, if you look at why Putin invaded Ukraine, some of that is personal legacy. So that’s something, but that’s changeable and contingent. I think the more disturbing reasons are actually kind of more structural.
The biggest one is, China, I think, can see that there’s this anti-hegemonic coalition is coming together, right? I mean, the Indians are more involved, Japan, there’s a lot more, everybody’s talking more to Taiwan. If China lets that go, then I think they fear they may be strangled, to use the term that Xi Jinping— I’m mixing and matching a little bit, but I think that’s basically the attitude. So, for China, you want to break out.
Now, some of this is diplomatic, like what they’re doing with the Saudis and the Iranians, what they’re doing in Europe to try to drive wedges, etc. So that could work. But it’s also, in Asia, it is kind of coming together. Japan’s increasing defense spending. There’s the Aukus thing, etc. So that means you kind of want to break out, and what, how would you break out?
Well, I mean, the most effective way to change people’s calculus would be really decisive military force. Which, you know, can fail, but if it’s successful, it can achieve big outcomes. And, in there, if you’re going to do that, there are reasons to do it sooner rather than later. Because the Chinese, for instance, militarily, have been working on the Taiwan and the US and the Western Pacific problem assiduously and with rigorous focus for 25, 30 years. We just sort of started getting focused. And even despite the defense strategy that I worked on, it’s been slow, the progress.
So, if you’re China, you may have advantages now that you might not have in five to ten years. And that’s, you know, you mentioned the ship numbers, but, you know, we’re going to have, hopefully, a hundred B-21s in 10 years. Those are the replacement to the stealthy bomber. Those things are going to be dangerous. Like, that’s going to be — those, the submarines, UUVs, satellites, missiles, those are the things that are going to matter. Hopefully we’re going to be in a much better position in ten years. So, if you wait around ten years in Beijing, you may lose the window.
And, by the way, Taiwan is never, I think, going to fall into their lap peacefully. So the traditional thing was, well, they think they’re going to get it peacefully, you know, Taiwan’s going to be a ripe apple or whatever, and it’s going to fall in their lap. There’s no way that’s going to happen. I mean, even the Guomindang has abandoned one country, two systems. So, I think if you’re China, you’re saying, well, I’m never going to get it peacefully. You know, there’s this strangulation that may be happening.
And the problem is, because of our neglect, I’m not sure there’s a— This is an inherent dilemma. Like, we can’t get, I don’t ignore this dilemma. This is one of the reasons my view is we should be hitting the gym, but not beating our chest, peacocking so much. Like, everybody wants to meet Zion Wen. No, no, no. Like, we should be lower profile, we should not be poking the Chinese necessarily in the eye where we can avoid it, because that could precipitate the conflict that we want to avoid. When you’re weak, you don’t want to poke the dragon in the eye, you want hit the gym first.
But that’s kind of where we are. So, you know, whether we’ll actually do that, I don’t know. But I think that’s what really worries me. And, of course, now the official assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Committee—which is, of course, not infallible—but the official assessment, this was a fringe view two or three years ago, is that Xi Jinping has specifically instructed the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to invade and occupy Taiwan by 2027. That’s not a prediction, but like, I mean that’s pretty overt.
JS: I mean, when you look at what’s happening with China and the modernization of—particularly the technological modernization—of its military, and then you contrast that with, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently was in California for the unveiling of the new stealth bomber. And they had this, you know, it was like a film premiere or something that they were engaged in.
But it really makes me—maybe it’s because I read a lot of kids’ books these days—but it really makes me think of “The Butter Battle” book of, of Dr. Seuss, where you have the Yooks and the Zooks battling each other, and they keep going back into their brilliant boys room where they’re making these new weapons. I mean, it often feels like we’re living in that world when we’re talking about these things.
But, on a more serious front, you had this summit, and it was really interesting timing, where she goes to Moscow, spends several days there, right after Vladimir Putin has the first of what will probably be several indictments coming down from the International Criminal Court. They’re caught on tape saying that they have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t occurred in a hundred years. They’re talking about the yuan being the official currency of trade, including in the western hemisphere, with Latin American nations. You had the Iran Saudi Arabia deal, which raises the prospect of hopefully ending this bloodbath in Yemen. You have Xi releasing, or China releasing, what they call the 12-point peace framework for Ukraine.
Now, it was very spartan in its details but, clearly, China, in addition to the military issues that you’re talking about, sees a void in the world that it wants to step into and occupy. And that is, that U.S. credibility has been severely damaged. Its own war machine has dramatically harmed its standing in the world. Or, if you’re looking at it from a different perspective, clarified what the US is doing with its foreign policy. And I think that there is a logic to what we’re seeing China doing that is not all about the narrative that you’re sort of describing, which has to do with China seeing opportunity to kind of become a more hegemonic power. But, rather, it’s kind of logical that China is saying, you know, this is in our interest. We’re a big, powerful country, we have the same kinds of motivations that Elbridge Colby is laying out from the American perspective.
And, I think, on a human level, a lot of what China is doing is very logical, makes a lot of sense. I would imagine there’s a lot of American policymakers that stand in great admiration for China’s ability to do all of this without firing a single drone strike, you know? I mean, isn’t that part of this too, though, that it’s sort of like, it makes sense for China to do this. It’s not all part of a nefarious plot.
EC: Well, that’s the tragedy. Sorry, I’m not saying that what China’s doing is sort of fundamentally nefarious. I mean, look, I think it’s a Leninist system, that’s bad. But like, China’s actual activities and its aspirations, as I think I was hopefully trying to convey earlier, are not like Hitler, kind of, you know? They are the normal behavior of great power. But that’s very worrying, right?
Like, we, to take your point, and I don’t sign on everything, but like, when America was unconstrained, watch out, right? I mean, watch out. What I mean, look at our record in Latin America, look at our record in the Middle East. I’m not saying that we’re perfect. I mean, I’m prepared to stand up our record to pretty much any major state, because I mean, nobody’s got that good of a record when you look back and they’ve had the opportunity to do something about it. But China is, it makes sense for them. But that’s not okay for the rest of us, that’s the sort of point.
Like, it’s in the same way that’s sort of like, hey, you know, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates won the monopoly, it’s natural. Of course, why not? But that doesn’t make it okay, right? That’s sort of the— and I think the key here is that what I’m seeing China doing is, China’s not, again, they’re not the Nazis in the sense where diplomacy is some complete, you know, fourth-rate thing, and it’s all about the military. I think the military, they understand that the military is central, that’s why we’re investing in it.
But they’re also doing things economically, diplomatically, which is bad, in the sense that it gives them a lot more influence which can be used against us, but it’s also good in the sense that I do think that this is a country whose incentives can be sufficiently spoken to—I don’t want to say shaped—but like, spoken to, in the sense that like, World War 3 is not inevitable. You know we can deal with this.
What I do think China’s behavior shows— I mean, I was really struck by the Moscow thing. I mean, that was big. I mean, in case there were any doubt, I mean, the guy, first trip after Covid, three days in Moscow, changes are afoot that have not been seen in a hundred years. Whoa, that got my attention. I mean, and this guy, Xi Jinping, he’s a serious, serious man. Like, I don’t like what he’s doing, but he lived in a cave for five years, his father was purged. He’s made his way up the bloody pole of the Communist party structure. He’s literally killed some of his opponents. I mean, we should take this guy seriously. He’s not just kind of flitting around.
What I think this shows, though, is that—and this is a critical point—is that China’s ambitions are expansive. You know, for years going back, China watchers would say China has, you know, it’s a developing nation, and Deng Xiaoping really cultivated this attitude, was, you know, don’t, oh, we’re just little, you know, we’re coming our way up, we’re not going to do anything, we’re not going to throw our weight around. Uh-uh. That is not true. That’s the thing.
And that’s why it’s very important, I think, to see this in a Taiwan context. Taiwan is not important in and of itself. I mean, at the end of the day, look, I sympathize with the people on Taiwan, I admire what they’ve done with their “country,” quote-unquote, but like, it’s not worth having tens of thousands of Americans put their necks on the line, just for Taiwan.
But what is important is that Taiwan is not going to be the end. The military they’re building is manifestly designed to go way beyond Taiwan. I mean, they were looking at a base in Equatorial Guinea, which is on the Atlantic coast of Africa. They’re in the talks with the Argentines, apparently. They’re fishing, you know, maritime militias off the Galapagos, right? They’re building a huge number of space systems, nuclear power.
And then we can see in their diplomacy, they’re no longer just focused, you know, mouse-like—I’m not trying to be dismissive—but, I mean, literally, they were trying to avoid drawing excess attention. That is over. And I think we can expect that to continue, and that gives us a sense of what the stakes are.
MH: Yeah. So, I think others have made this point before, but it’s almost like a Thucydides-type situation as you described. Like, Sparta being challenged by Athens. So, you know, it almost seems inevitable, in that sense, that there’s going to be a conflict. And you kind of talked about, well, the ideal situation would be like, two spheres of influence in Asia, but then why would other Asian countries like a seat to that part of the anti-hegemonic coalition?
So it’s kind of hard for me to imagine, given all we’ve talked about, that this would be resolved peacefully. But can you talk a bit about what you see as a decent peace, and how would that look for China’s perspective, how it would look for the US perspective? And how might other countries who might be affected by this also find that to be something that they acquiesce to and find acceptable as a means of avoiding war.
EC: Yeah. I’m cautiously optimistic in the— well, optimistic? I’m hopeful. Because I think that the risks and chances of war are so great, that it has, even for someone like Xi Jinping, I think he would be prepared to do it. That’s the read I have of him, and that’s the military he’s building. But I do think that we can speak to him enough to dissuade him or his successors.
What would that decent peace— I mean, look, I think a country like Vietnam doesn’t want to live under Chinese— obviously, you know, it’s an anecdote, but I was in the Vietnamese War Museum in Hanoi a couple years ago, and a lot of that is taken up with the Chinese. I mean, if you look at Korean history, it’s often a lot of that is dealing with Chinese intervention and so forth. So these countries are—certainly India—these countries are acutely conscious of the ability of China too, and they don’t want to live—
In fact, some of them, like Vietnam, have famous reputations for nationalism. Precisely. I mean, partially about the French, the Americans, but historically, really, about China. They’re defined sort of against China. So they’re strong, they, they don’t want to live— and the only hope for them—and they know this very well—is the United States.
Now, the good news from, if you’re thinking about the downsides of American influence that, Jeremy, you’ve been pointing to, is that our behavior is going to be constrained as well, right? We are going to have to, you know, we’ve been all spending money, gambling, whatever, the last 30 years, because we were so rich that nobody could challenge us. Now my hope is, I think it’s inevitable. My hope is it can happen sooner rather than later.
We’re facing a, really, a sobering, literally like, sobering and disciplining force, that will make us so that we can’t be going around just randomly deciding to invade a new country, right? Because we don’t have the military edge anymore. So you can’t afford to put it all on the roulette table; I mean, to carry forward the metaphor.
I think that could work, because I think the sphere of influence would basically be like, I think geopolitically and militarily there would be kind of formal alliances, not always in every case. Like, I think Vietnam and India are likely to continue as strong American allies in the traditional sense, like the pre-1914 sense, even if they don’t have treaty packs. That might change. For instance, if Taiwan falls or something like that, god forbid.
But, I think, geo-economically, if you will, I think there will be somewhat of a bi— the way I think of it as likely is like, a bifurcation of spheres, with China as one and America as the other, with a lot of intercourse and engagement in commerce across that, unlike in the Cold War. This is just my guess, because I think we’re so co-dependent it’s— I mean, my understanding is actually trade with China has actually increased, even, in the last year or two. They’ve expanded the Panama Canal, for instance, so more stuff is coming from China.
That would be, and then you’d say, there’s sort of—the precise role of the yuan, I’m not sure—but like, Beijing is kind of the center of this, and that’s probably Cambodia, maybe Pakistan, Russia, certainly. Maybe some of the central Asian countries. And then a lot of countries that are farther from the big planets, if you will, we’ll kind of play both sides. That’s what I see Saudi doing and the Emirates doing, where they’re going to kind of— And if you look at the Cold War, you saw that with like, Egypt, India to some extent, that’s kind of common behavior.
I think that would be, I think that would be a lot better than the alternative. It might not be the global liberal hegemony of Robert Kagan’s dreams, but I think we could have peace. And I think, and kind of the real point I make to Chinese people is—just, sorry to go on, but like, one last—I was at a briefing, a number of ambassadors from Southeast Asian countries a month or so ago, and the first question I got was, how do you deal with the fact that the Chinese think that the purpose of the Americans is to hold them down and never let them be number one? And never let them succeed, and strangle them, basically?
And I said, look, I actually think, in my strategy, China could actually become number one country. You know, the number one economy in the world. It could be whatever that means, okay? But you’re not going to be able to dictate to us. So, now, I don’t know if the Americans have, I don’t know if we have it in us to take that point. I don’t think it’s necessary to be number one in absolutely every way to be America. I don’t think that was the plan when the country was founded, whatever the faults that we had. But, I mean, hey, it’d be great to be number one.
But as long as we can’t be dominated, I’d rather say, hey, China can have a larger economy, and we can avoid a war, and you can’t boss us around and everything. Obviously, we have to deal with you as a huge entity, of course. But I think that to me is like, geez. I mean, if I’m living in Shanghai or Chung Ching or, you know, even smaller cities—those are huge cities, you know—I’m saying, man, like, there’ve been enough wars in China over the last a hundred years. Like, let’s take a break, you know? Like, that sounds pretty good. It seems to me that that would be a reasonable deal.
JS: All right. Well, Elbridge Colby, thank you very much for joining us here on Intercepted, and for your willingness to mix it up with us as well. We hope you come back.
EC: It would be a pleasure. I really enjoyed talking to you both.
JS: Elbridge Colby served in a variety of roles for the US government, including most recently as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. That was during the Trump administration. He co-founded the Marathon Initiative, which is a Washington, DC thinktank, and he’s the author of the book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.
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And that does it for today’s program. Intercepted is a production of The Intercept.
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Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussein.