Elbridge Colby’s lecture at the Christianity & National Security Conference, 2022.

Elbridge Colby discusses the People’s Republic of China, American grand strategy, and great power competition. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Thank you, Mark, uh, and wonderful to be here again. It’s really a pleasure and an important conference and I’m privileged to… to join it. Especially, a really interesting and distinguished roster of speakers and I’m sorry I missed the last presentation because it looked very interesting and actually pretty apropos because what I’m going to talk about… Um, maybe I’ll just kind of informally hear, uh, and then go to the question and answer… is actually, I think proceeding from a pretty similar basic point of view, um, which is…  

I laid out for those interested in an article in First Things, I think in the last issue, the October issue. And it’s called the Morality of a Strategy of Denial, and what I want to do other than being a little bit self-referential, uh, was to provide a moral account for the kind of, uh, strategy that I advocate for the United States but also the kind of point of view which is rooted in… in realism. But I would say, I think in this context although I talk about it as the classical moral tradition, I think it’s very compatible with the Christian natural law, uh, way of thinking, which obviously it’s self-rooted in the… in the classical role tradition. I think this is important for two reasons. First in and of itself. I think in this audience I probably don’t need to belabor the point that, um, a foreign policy or any policy should have some, uh, you know, compelling moral foundation for people of good conscience to adhere to it or support it.  

But also, you know, instrumentally. I think it’s important that, um, any strategy or… or policy have a, uh, what people feel is a moral sort of element. Otherwise they’re unlikely to support it. It’s actually been interesting over the last couple of weeks. I’ve actually been a little bit surprised that… that the… what I thought would be kind… a little bit of a piece sort of to us, a narrower community, is actually registered, uh, more… more broadly. I was… I was in a Zoom call with an Australian politician who said “oh I read your…” and I thought he might say in again… not, but I thought he might say oh I read your book and he said “No, I read your article on First Things and I think this is really important.” And this was a politician. So I think this is a… this is an issue not… not… not solely for Christians or people of faith and… and moral views to think about but also of… of the importance to the… to the broader body politic here… here and abroad. 

So you know, my view is, um, basically that uh, you know the… the appropriate way to approach foreign policy is maybe similar to Charles, but I might put a slightly different spin which is that the purpose of… of a foreign policy in a republic in particular should be to pursue the enlightened self-interest of the citizenry, and I define that as basically, uh, you know our security, our freedoms, and our prosperity and economic security essentially, and that our foreign policy should be key to that… that the, you know, purpose of a republic is the Commonwealth, is the common… is the common good of the people who compose that, uh, republic. And I’ll get to how I think I have a similar… different view than the last speaker about how that relates to the international, uh, uh, community. Um, and my view is that the… the biggest threat to those interests is China and particularly China’s ability to dominate Asia, uh, in order to frustrate that.  

We need what I call a strategy of denial, which has a strong geopolitical element which is the basic foundation but also a critical military component. Um, and that, um, you know my view is that in order to make that work we need to be prepared to fight, uh, a war including a very potentially… very damaging war with China over, uh, potentially Taiwan as well as other allies in the, um in… In Asia. In particular to… to… to pursue that goal and in my book I really kind of laid out the sort of rational strategic, uh, for that and what I wanted to do in… and I’m happy to go into the details of that strategy a little bit more if people are of… people are interested. 

But it’s basically the logic of, if you want to avoid war, you’ve got to prepare for it, which you know, uh, people like George Washington and the Romans said so. I feel like it’s pretty good, pretty good authority. But my view is, you know, sometimes the thing is a cliche because it’s true, uh, and doesn’t mean you should ignore it, but uh… So that’s… it’s very much in that logic. It’s in… in the desire to prevent a war, but as I… as I close the book, um, with uh, with the goal of a decent peace not only for Americans but, uh, for others including… including Chinese. 

So what’s the morality of this? Um, and it’s interesting because I think realists, I mean realism, has become a kind of a, um, a thing in the academy, uh…. that has a particular sort of personality and, like, sociology I would say, but I mean to me I don’t really identify so much with that. Sometimes here and there but you know realism is more of like, a disposition or an approach to politics and certainly international politics but domestic politics as well. Um, and… but you know, the moral debate has been dominated essentially uh, for years really, um, by you know liberal hawks or you know neoconservatives or pacifists or you know global do-gooders, or what have you. 

And I actually don’t think that’s… I actually don’t think that’s true. I mean bottom line up front, I think that this strategy that I’m advocating for is actually more moral than the alternatives. I’m not saying that other foreign policies are not moral, necessarily, but I think mine is certainly. The one I’m advocating is moral and that what it calls for is in a sense morally obligatory. And why is that? Well basically, I lay out you know the… the basic moral obligation of a, um, what is the basic moral obligation of a state?  

Well I think I would have a little bit of a different view than what was previously said, uh, in that a state has a basic duty to pursue the good goals of its citizenry. That is… that is then, it’s nature in the sense that I, and I model this on the concept of stewardship which is certainly a rational one but it’s also, if you… I’ve been struck for those of you… I don’t know if everybody is on this liturgical cycle but for those of you who are Catholic, over the summer, a lot of readings from Luke where Jesus actually talks about in The Gospel reading, Gospel readings, he talks about the model of stewardship quite a lot, actually. Um, and that basically, you know, like a trustee or a parent, uh, the basic goal, the basic duty of a state is to ensure that it meets its core goals, um, uh, to… To those of whom is you know, to of whom it is constituted and to whom it is primarily responsible, that it meets some goals above and beyond. 

Now in doing so, that that is a good goal. So basically, in the classical moral tradition, it’s kind of like an Aristotelian or sort of domestic approach. If there is a good goal, if you pursue it rationally and proportionally, then those actions are good. So it’s a more teleological approach. Now, there are things that are in and of themselves evil and we can talk about what those might be, although I would say in the world in the… In the realm of war, international politics, that is a relatively elastic standard. But if something is rationally and proportionally correlated to that goal, then it is of… of itself good, because the end is good. Um, now that doesn’t mean quote unquote that the ends justify the means in all contexts, or that it’s consequentialist. But does account for consequence and that’s particularly so when you’re not dealing with yourself. When you’re dealing with those to whom you know who have entrusted you with their benefit, right? 

And that’s why you know the model of stewardship is so relevant an example I use is, you know, God forbid if I… If I die or you know, or whatever and my children have a trustee or a steward, I would expect that person first and foremost to use whatever resources are available to make sure that my children are benefited in an appropriate way, in a good way, and not to give it all to charity immediately, right? Or, um, uh, um, uh, forgetting the other example I usually use but that, I mean, I think that basically gives you the idea, uh, you know if you’re… if somebody… if somebody bequeathed an inheritance to a university or a Church, the trustees are not supposed to, even if it’s, even if something else is in some sense good, you know, to give it to, um, you know starving people or whatever, if it vitiates the basic purpose of that bequest, then it is not actually acting rightly, I would say. 

And so the state, it’s very simple. It’s very similar. The state needs to make that it takes care of those basic goods first and foremost in a rational and proportionate way. Uh, and… and, and, and, and that requires acting with an anticipation of consequence. So the critical thing about this mor… this view of morality is that you do have to be… you have to… you have to think of the consequences. It’s not purely a matter of intent. Intent itself is not sufficient. Now you shouldn’t be acting out of evil intent to do a good act, but you should be thinking what are the other consequences of what I’m doing for my primary responsibilities? Now nobody knows the future so you can’t purely hold people to account based on… um, on… on just the results. 

So I think what it, you know, what the kind of… this classical moral tradition would have you, uh, focus on is reasonably anticipatable consequences, right? I mean acts of God, whatever force measure these are different, but you know if you… if you bet, uh, you know, your children’s education fund on a lottery ticket, that’s not acting in accordance with reasonably anticipatable consequences. Similarly, if we say, well you know we’re gonna… we’re gonna invade Central Asia and pacify it, and that’s our… you know, that’s our… our route to… to world peace, and then everybody will like us. That’s probably not a reasonably…. and you know, acting in… in connection with reasonably anticipatable consequences, and we can think about this a lot because, you know, a lot of mistakes that we’ve made over the past generations have been ones that may have, I… I believe were often made in very good intent.  

But a reasonable anticipation of the consequences would have shown that it would vitiate the basic responsibilities of… of that… that these leaders were in… in… entrusted with. So that’s the sort of… that’s the sort of the moral model where that leads you to. Actually, I think in this context is not only thinking that it’s tolerable to build up our strength vis-a-vis China but actually to think it’s morally obligatory because in this context, neglecting our… the primary danger to American foreign policy which is, and sorry not American foreign policy. Two American core interests which I would say is China.  

I mean we could talk about the threat of wokeism and stuff which are also, you know, pernicious and so forth in a different way, but… but at least in the… in the… in the kind of fundamental geopolitical sense, the greatest danger is China. That if somebody says well I… I want world peace or I don’t want to perpetuate a security spiral or you know, I feel that I need to do more in sub-Saharan Africa or whatever, that is not itself a good act if it vitiates our ability to meet that primarily responsibility. And that includes saying well, I… you know, I’d rather not spend more in the military and I’m not saying that we should hand over money to Raytheon or Lockheed as a… as a, like, moral act in and of itself.  

There’s many different ways you could do this, but the basic idea is that strength is actually, in some… in some contexts not only permissible, but I would say, uh, obligatory, especially if you want to avoid a war, which I do. And if you want to avoid a war and you think that the best way to do so, and I think there’s a lot of reason to think so is to have a kind of measured and restrained strength so that if you end up not contributing to that strengthening, you are not acting morally. And I mean we should all be careful with, you know, Hitler and Churchill analogies, but I mean, I think there’s a reason that we think Churchill was not only wise but more moral than the… than the, you know, disarmament crows of the 1930s. Uh, which was you know, more outspoken, more high dungeon, and many I think, religious people were very sympathetic to it.  

But in the end, I think it’s fair to say, uh, you know certainly the consensus view would be that it contributed to the outbreak of the war, whereas if, uh, we had had a measured strength, uh, in that context, then we would have, um, than we would have been better off. So I mean I think that’s the sort of… that’s the… the basic, um, bottom line. I mean, I guess what I would say, um, is you know, the context uh, that in terms of the last presentation, just because I heard that the tail end is that, you know, it really has to do with kind of what are your primary responsibilities and then a realistic assessment of what you can and cannot do. And this is… this is where you can’t make a moral judgement absent a sense, a realistic assessment of how the international politics works and this, you know, geopolitical situation and so forth.

And what I would say in response to that is that we have an obligation not to do evil to others, and we have an obligation, I would say, when we have the… the ability to do so to help other people. That is true, but that should not detract, in the same way that a parent shouldn’t neglect uh, his or her own childen for things that might in the, in… in the abstract be good but are not their primary responsibilities. So the state should make sure especially a republic, uh, should make sure that it takes care of its primary responsibilities, which is the promotion of a decent peace and our kind of core… core interest that I laid out, and not seeing… I don’t see like the international rules-based order or something as a moral entity. That… that is the international order is… is an… is a… is a thing that exists, that adapts based on power relations and interests and so forth. But I don’t think we have a, um, I don’t think we have a… a compelling primary interest as the current administration does in its preservation or promotion.  

This is… this is interesting because I think in all fairness I would say, you know, I mean traditional Catholic political thinking probably. What ironically was probably more in that vein, so the last speaker, you know, is certainly tapping into a very long-standing, um, uh, tradition. Although I know Mark is at least a Protestant so maybe, maybe I’m just playing to the crowd, but uh, but I mean there is something. Um, I think that… that my… my approach is somewhat, uh is… is I would say a kind of more, uh, realistic one than at least that element of Catholic traditional thinking. And I mean, other current… the current… the current pontiff has… has not been, uh, positive about just war theory and the classical moral tradition in the context of war and peace. So, um, I may be saying something a little off, uh, off the message but, uh, but anyway, that’s what I think is… is… is right and, uh, rational, and what’s in our interests but also uh, we should… we should do so. 

Uh, maybe with that I… Mark, I don’t know if that… it that, or is that, uh, maybe field some questions or comments. Thank you. Press the button on the microphone and it’ll… press it until it’s green and then when you’re done turn it off so there’s no feedback from the answer. 


Question: Did it… Yes. Oh very good. Hi. I’m Olivia Keane and I’m a sophomore at Colorado Christian University. And it’s kind of a vague question but it’s something I’ve been thinking about over the last two days of just feeling very helpless as a 19-year-old girl in a dorm room. And so it’s kind of a very broad question but what is the most proactive thing I can do in just global conflict in general from a dorm room for the next three years because I feel… I feel like I want to help more than I can, but I don’t know necessarily how. 

Answer: Well that’s a good, uh… I certainly respect your… your instinct. I… I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself. There’s probably not a tremendous amount that, um, that… that you can do. So I… I wouldn’t feel like you’re… you’re letting… letting us all down by… by, uh… by not, you know, jumping into the breach. But, um, well look. I mean, I guess if you think about things the way I do, I think… I think it’s important to, um, look you know in terms of the world as such. I mean, obviously helping people who are in distress or hungry or sick, that’s always obviously a Christian, uh, thing to do, um, particularly or in the realm of conflict, people have been hurt or, you know widowed or orphaned or what have you. Um that… that is something that always is… is good, right? I mean, I think, uh, and um, if… if you’re thinking about thigns in the way that I’m…  

I’m thinking, I think, then the most important way to help in the… in the long term is to be educated and experienced and have a kind of a realistic view of the world. Um, I mean you need people who are not realistic and who are idealistic to do a lot of things, particularly you know to help people, uh, you know where it may seem like it’s hopeless or something. You know Mother Theresa was not a realist, right? So… but that’s my impression, but um, but I would say I think um, the world probably needs… needs both. Uh, um I mean not… not in a position to moralize but like, you know, it needs saints and it needs… but it also needs, you know, people to make sure that the saints are protected, you know, and um, so it, uh, it seems like either one of those, uh, would…would be, uh, a good way of contributing to… to the world and conflict and hopefully not having conflict. Um, which is… which is my goal. Which I think is, you’re never going to get rid of it entirely and you’re certainly never going to get rid of the potential. But if you… If we play things right, you know, we can have less conflict than we might otherwise.  

Question: Thank you sir. Uh, hello. Mike. Uh, this one. Hello. Um, my question is, um, in the Western Pacific. How much of the security burden do you see falling on the Japanese Navy, the Australian Navy, versus the American Navy? Because as we’ve seen with the August deal, um, not too long ago, plus uh, Japan’s kind of rearming. Now you could say, um, I’m increasingly heartened that, um, whereas before it may have seemed like oh, America, you know, has to go at it alone, um, I’m very pleased at the way our allies have been kind of stepping up. But, um, how much of that do you see as being, like really tangible?  

Answer: It’s a good… great question. Um, I would say that, uh, the Australians are doing a lot but they’re a small country. You know, they’re about a tenth the size, eleventh the size of us. Uh, Japan is moving slowly in the right direction, but too slowly. Um, and the… the fundamental fact, unfortunately as I kind of share your instinct is that China is so big and… and wealthy and strong that America has to, I call it the kind of cornerstone to use a Biblical term, uh, a cornerstone of this coalition. So we need a lot more from Australia and Japan and Taiwan for that matter and others. But, um, but America is really going to have to… have to play the… the heavy lift, um, because of the simple scale that the… the PRC can generate. 

But if… If Americas there, you do see the Japanese and the Australians becoming increasingly solid partners. Yeah. Yeah I mean I think um, again this is kind of sort of, I think geopolitical reality is that the Japanese and the… and the Australians and others, but they in particular are very worried about China dominating, you know, their region and… and them. So they are, you know, really quite on board, uh. The question is just, uh, are they… are we doing enough? That would be the… so I mean, the administration released its um defense strategy yesterday, which I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but you know, basically seems like it’s, you know, pretty… pretty solid. The question is not so much the… the strategy and the rhetoric now. The question is… is the execution. Thank you. 

Question: Hi. My name is Greg Moore. I teach politics, international relations at Colorado Christian University, and I just read your book on the plane over here and, uh, I actually didn’t know it was so much about China. Actually, I’m a China guy. I’ve been studying and living in China for thirty years and I… I really salute you because I completely agree with your conclusion. My question for you is kind of a practical one. I… I recently wrote an article that the editors gave a really annoying title. It was called “Biden is Right, We Must Defend Taiwan.” My point was not that Biden was right. I know, I’m a republican. So I never hold authors responsible for titles. That’s awesome and credit for that. But he is right, I think.  

That we need to uh, the point was that strategic ambiguity has been very useful but we actually need to start deterring if we’re serious about standing up for Taiwan, uh, that we need to communicate that to China lest they, you know, like the April Gillespie thing and, uh, where the U.S. Ambassador told Saddam Hussein that we did not have a security interest in defending Kuwait back in 1990 and then the Dean Acheson Press Club speech in 1950 where we told the Communist world that we would not defend Korea or Taiwan and then that led to, in both cases the… the other side thinking we have a green light to go ahead and do this and I think we needed to be very clear. And I’m surprised and pleasantly surprised that Joe Biden has been saying that. Um, mic… and, and so I… I assume that you support that.  

My question is… I was just talking to somebody at the Heritage Foundation yesterday about this whole thing and he just… he… he just doesn’t think it’s in our interest to get involved in this Taiwan thing and he said persuade me. And so I don’t know if I did or not but my question is for you, if… if you’re right and I think I’m right, yeah, that Taiwan is… we’re standing up for… how do we persuade everybody here? I would guess in this room most people here would be like why is that? Or why is that our fight? And I think that’s a real chance… challenge because if in a democracy if we’re going to do that, and I think strategically it’s the right thing to do, how do we, and maybe this is what you’re working on right now, is to persuade the community here in Washington and the larger republic that this is worth it for American national interests?  

Answer: Well thank you. I appreciate the kind words and I’m delighted… delighted to hear it, um, although your expertise in China, uh, it’s sort of… it’s… it’s… it’s… it’s personally gratifying but also, uh, worrying because it’s just, you know, you know, you know China better than I do and that the fact that I’m right is not… is not… not reassuring. Uh, on that point, um, so, um, but… but thank you. I mean, I would say just on the streets of ambiguity question my view… it’s a little bit, and I don’t usually like to be too nuanced because I think it’s… nuance is overrated often, but um, but uh I… I think we are actually right now almost possibly too far on… on the talk and not on the walk. So we’re… we’re…  

Actually the worst situation is when you go too far and you commit your credibility to something that you can’t defend because then it increases the incentives to the other side to do something and it hurts you. So what we’re doing now is speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. I actually think that China… it’s pretty clear to me that China thinks that we would come to Taiwan’s defense so we don’t need to formally abandon the policy of strategic ambiguity, which is overrated but you know it… and it would be kind of provocative and it wouldn’t generate a benefit. The real thing we need to do now is hit the gym and, like, get us… get ourselves and so the bottom… is my by biggest script to take on this stuff with my administation is… they talk but they ain’t walking the walk and that… I don’t get… I mean the… their national defense strategy yesterday is all focused on China and they want to end up there and then and Secretary of Defense Austin just talked about Ukraine the whole time, basically. 

I mean, it’s a small example but it’s telling. And there are some good things happening but not at the scale that is an urgency that… that is needed in my view. Uh, so that’s basically the number one thing I work on right now is trying to persuade the American people why it’s worth defending Taiwan and… and I should say that the defense of Taiwan, as I think you know from… from reading the book is… it’s very important but it’s not an existential interest for the United States. And so the way to make it correlate, the scale of the interest at stake is to have with… with uh, you know, with… with the costs of the conflict is to focus on ensuring that we have a military that can fight the war so well that essentially drives down the costs. 

So the way I think about it is like if Taiwan is worth 70, we need to keep the cost below 70, but what we’re doing is we’re pushing it up where it gets to the point where even I wouldn’t necessarily support defending Taiwan because it’ll be so damaging and the historical analogies that I like to use, and maybe there’s a better one, is in the Battle of France. As the Anglo-French forces were collapsing, the French were saying to Churchill give us more aircraft to fight on and Churchill wanted to send those aircraft to… to the fight but, uh, air marshal or chief Marshall Doubting or whatever his title was, Marshall Doubting said if you do that we won’t be able to defend the British Isles. And so, Churchill didn’t because he was… not because he wanted to lose France but because the alternative was worse. 

If we, if our military is totally hobbled by a failing defense of Taiwan, we can’t do it. But that’s still going to be terrible. So, um, so I had a piece in Time, uh, Magazine or online whatever uh, earlier this month that actually was, um, uh, partially derived from some remarks I gave at the national conservatism conference because you know, um I think here in Washington among kind of blob of elites… I think it’s less of a hard sell. Like the financial community is not bought off but, like, foreign policy types are pretty sympathetic at least rhetorically. I don’t know if… I don’t think they are prepared to go through with what’s necessary to actually realize what’s… what would that… so that it’s more of, again, it’s the talk without the walk.  

That said, I have spoken with members of Congress including Republican members of Congress who, um, are not convinced that… that there would be total support in the Congress. And I definitely think that among the American people and particularly conservatives, um, not particularly but including conservatives, that there’s a real skepticism about it and frankly I totally get it. I mean, as I… I… I think with the Middle East wars, were a huge mistake. Um, uh, other than the kind of narrow mission against Al-Qaeda and… and the punishment against… of the Taliban. I mean, I… I was against the intervention in Liya… it, against intervention in Syria.  

So I’m not in favor of military intervention as a general principle but this is different. This is a decisive… this is the decisive theater and the decisive opponent and if they… if they get Taiwan, um, really almost any way they do it, it’s going to be a major low to us, and the problem is that, um, it’s so far away, it’s so small, nobody really knows anything about it. Very few people, though you know it’s kind of like… there’s a sense that it sort of like, push it off to the side, but the key to making it worthwhile is to laser focus on it. And… and again, get that, that um, capacity to dry down the point. I mean, the bottom… I mean, look, I think basically what it has to do with is who… who does China dominate Asia…  

If China dominates Asia, we’re all going to be working and living in a Chinese-dominated world and economy, right? Like all the major econ… like you can see, like, do we think that Wall Street and Larry Fink is going to stand up? Like, no, of course not, right? And the social media companies are either going to be Chinese, they’re going to be owned by the Chinese and their data is going to be shared with their Chinese, and if they don’t like you, and now they get ticked off only about Tibet and the Uyghurs in Taiwan. But in the future, when they’re much more powerful, they’re going to go after us. And by the way, look what we can do to people that we don’t like, like the Iranians or the Russians or the North Koreans? It’s pretty… and… and we’re… if they… if they dominated the Asian economy they’d be much stronger than the sense… than we are. I mean it depends on how you measure it, but… and I think they would have a real incentive to put us in our place because we’re the only ones who can challenge them.  

So this notion that you sometimes hear on the kind of national conservative, right, which is like, uh, we’ll come home and have autarchy and reassure industry in a way. It’s not gonna… even if you did that, we’d be like 15 to 20% of the global economy because we’re going to shrink us. They’re going to exclude us from the trading area, so our companies are going to be… and not even the Latin Americans are going to stick with us because they’re all… They’re all their biggest trading partners already. China… So we have to prevent China from dominating Asia, and Taiwan is really important to that. And if Taiwan falls, it’s just going to get harder. So that’s kind of the… uh, my… my take.  

But um, I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of raising the issue and people becoming, getting it and more supportive. But we haven’t… the thing is, like, if we only get 85% of the way there and China still wins, it’s still failure for us. 

Question: Um, I’m Kaylee from George Washington University in Elliot. And um, I’m from South Korea. I want to ask you that. How do you think of the phenomenon that many Asian countries are trying to deploy a self-defense system because um, I need nuclear non-proliferation class and I can see many Asian countries, students are thinking about their own self-defense system and will be better than relying on American defense system, because I think it is, because so… to say that, but Asia likes allies in Asian countries are really feeling the actual threat from North Korea and also China.  

But we think that United States is not that active and are not that, like, have real… that protect their allies, and sometimes it is related to economics partly because this time Joe Biden visited South Korea and they kind of made pressure to Samsung invest in American factories and then they made an act that is called CHIPS act that means the semiconductor to be only, like, manufactured in America. So it makes the allies to think about is United States trying to be exclusive country and I think it is impacting on the security part. So I wanted to ask you what will be the future role of America?  

Answer: Yeah. Asia is the critical theater, and I mean the allies are going to have to do more because China’s so much of a threat. Um, look. South Korea is a top… it’s a… in some of the… maybe the Baltics, but in… or Taiwan… but South Korea is one of the toughest geographies in the world. I mean South Korea is, I think the eleventh largest economy in the world. Something like that. But it’s surrounded by China, Russia, Japan, crazy North Korea, and… and then it has the Americans involved. So my basic view, and I’m not South Korean, but when I talk to South Korea, you know, I mean, South Korea can’t really be neutral. Because it turns in… it turns South Korea into a battlefield, metaphorical or… or… or physical. Because it’s… you know if you’re New Zealand… New Zealand can, you know, go you know, prattle on and you know, just ignore China and free ride and whatever because no… It’s so marginal, just like physically marginal, right? But South Korea is like right there in the center and it’s too important to be ignored.  

So I think… I think the South Korea and the United States are kind of fated to be allies to get… it’s a strategic cap. And also South Korea is very important to the defense of Japan, which is the most important ally of the United States in the world, I would say just as a function of the size of its economy. So I… I think you know, I to me… I think South Korea actually does quite a lot, has a very capable military, um, spends a lot on defense. Um, the reality is the United States has its hands full focusing on… on China so I actually think U.S. forces… Korea is increasingly going to have to focus more on China and South Korea is really going to have to be primarily handling the North Korean threat, which is… has diminished over time, but which remains serious. And given the possibility for collaboration between Beijing and Pyongyang it’s very serious. But it’s a tough, it’s a tough situation. But the alternative… if China, if in the last administration South Korea… if it tries to hedge you know, it… it either becomes over time, like, let’s say there’s a war between the United States and China over Taiwan that extends, say, to include, uh, attacks on U.S. forces in Japan and Philippines… 

I mean, if South Korea tries to hedge or be neutral, I’m not saying South Korea would need to necessarily contribute troops, but if there’s a perception that’s going to put South Korea in a very difficult position and ultimately it’s either going to be a… a battlefield or it’s going to fall under China’s shadow, which is… I’m pretty sure that being under… being in the American sphere is better, if for no reason that we’re very far away. So that’s my advice South Korea. Thank you. 

This is a tricky microphone. Maybe project and I can. Hello. There we go. 

Question: Uh, Ryan Burton. Regent University. Um, so you alluded to how China’s… well not alluded to. You’ve explicitly stated that China is a treat, the major threat. And then you’ve also kind of alluded to, um, how their… their involvement with, uh, the United States. And so my question is how do you defend and prepare for Chinese intervention, say with, within, um, divisions, within the United States and trying to stir up those divisions because, um, like, on the road to war, they’re going to be doing stuff inside of the U.S. How are we going to prepare and drive them out of doing that? 

Answer: I personally tend… it’s both a matter of, kind of, principal conviction and, um, strategic assessment. I tend to worry less about that stuff because I think a conflict is mostly going to be about, uh, the… the battle, you know? Like, which, you know, political resolve is a… is obviously important for how a battle goes, but I also… I just, like, I’m… I mean I’m not suggesting, you’re not. But I’m… I’m a fan of free speech, like, and if the Chinese somehow are figuring out how do, like, so I don’t know what. So division means, you know, like, I think a lot of this disinformation stuff is basically suppressing speech. So I’m… I mean, I don’t agree with Elon Musk on everything, but I’m glad he’s taking over Twitter, you know?  

Because it’s like, hey, you can say and if somebody wants to say, like you know, I’m talking about China all the time but if somebody’s like Xi Jinping’s the greatest guy, I don’t think he should be kicked off Twitter. I… I’ll make an argument for why he’s… or if somebody says hey Taiwan, we should have banned it, okay. Well let’s have an open debate and people can… I mean some lies… the best disinfectant, and I mean, I don’t know if we’re all on the conservative side here, but you know, I mean, I feel like it’s definitely used against us, more so. Um, and I… and I think that I mean, like, the National Security review. They were going to do… to block, potentially block Musk from getting Twitter was just like too precious, right? Because it’s such a tendentious use of this or kind of, you know, and again I mean, I don’t agree with Musk on everything, but… but like, his program for Twitter is… I mean it seems to me like what we… what we want so that… that I… I… I… I’m… I’m… I’m not suggesting this is what you think, but I… I tend to discount a lot of the disinformation and that kind of stuff. 

Like, our system is about having an open debate and, you know, if somebody wants to come up with a peace proposal that the… you know, people don’t like well, let’s have… let’s… let’s hear it, you know? That… that’s the… that’s my view. Thank you. Yeah. 

Question: Hayden Parham, um, let me just say that I… I tend to agree with you. I read your book. It’s very good, um, the main critique that I hear, or the ones that… that kind of continually, apparently, comes up is, um, you know, China will fall into the middle income trap. Uh, they’re an aging population. It doesn’t matter how much they try to invest in AI. Uh, eventually the inherent, uh, shortcomings of a command economy will lead them into some sort of it, will prevent them from ever grading reaching the heights in which they aspire. Let’s just focus on our own domestic policies because we have a tried and true system then we can just wait forty years and you know, we’ll be back on top. What’s your response to that kind of critique?  

Answer: Well, uh, I’m not… I’m not an economist and economists themselves don’t seem so great at predicting the future economically. So… but I mean, I um… My… my initial instinct is that, like, China’s still got a lot of people who live in semi-poverty. And by the way, people like Eric Schmidt and Bob Work say they’re at the forefront of artificial intelligence development super computing. So like, I think that personally, my gut is… I think they still got some significant room for growth, even if they have major debt crises. 

I mean, if you look at the history of the American economy, I mean we had huge financial crises, uh, over the course of our history. Uh, before the Great Depression and then there have been market collapses several times in the last couple decades. Um, uh, if it is true, um, well a… there’s still an economy, roughly comparable in size to our own. So they’re still huge. They’re still ten times the size of the Russian economy. Um, also demographic decline is happening throughout the advanced world. It’s… It’s catastrophically bad in Taiwan. It’s also very, you know Korea and Japan have very low birth rates, uh, as well. Um, and so it’s a… it’s kind of a matter of… a relative matter and then the… the final point and this is something that other people talk about more. I tend to, um, not emphasize it as much but I don’t rule it out is if that’s true that might incentivize China to act, uh, sooner right?  

I mean, Hal Brands and Michael Beckly emphasize this argument a lot. I mean, I personally think the reasons for near-term Chinese action have more to do with the military balance and possibly Xi Jinping’s own personal calculus, but I don’t rule out the possibility. I mean if Xi Jinping agrees with Beckley and Brands, then well, if your goal is to create a geoeconomic area, you could break out of this decline by, um, by, uh, by… by acting aggressively. So I don’t, um, look. I think the main way that my, um, that I would be wrong. So it’s good to like, you know, show how your thesis could be invalidated is if it turned out that the Chinese were really had feet of clay, you know? Like the Russians or, uh, this… maybe the Soviets.  

We don’t really know. Um, but the thing is even if they’re, let’s put a 50% discount on the quality of their military for instance. They have so many things. They have so many missiles and planes and first of all, I don’t think we should do that, but… but even if you apply a pretty significant discount, that… that’s still… they still have so many advantages they could potentially win. And I’m also not sure that we are everything that we’re cracked up to be at the mil… on the military side. And you know, if you talk to serious military professionals, they’re quite frank about this because they know. So that’s my, um, in fact you know, I don’t… I don’t think this, like, they’re gonna collapse sort of. I mean. I think I find the tougher argument to deal with actually from the other side, which is “we’re screwed and we should cut a deal.” 

So, like Neil Ferguson, uh, I was going back and forth a little bit on Twitter a couple months ago about detente. I actually think detente is our long-term goal. Once we get a position of strength, but first I’m saying like, we’re in so much trouble. We should just sue for detente now. And other people like Lyle Goldstein, used to be at the Naval War College, militarily they have so many advantages. Taiwan defense might be hopeless, so I don’t think that’s true, but I find the argument harder to deal with. All right. Thank you. 

Question: Samuel Vanaput from K11. I’m wondering, um, it seems that the comparative advantage of the U.S. towards China is declining militarily, right? And how should that inform U.S. strategy?  

Answer: Thank you. I mean, when I was in the Pentagon, a strategy was to, like, focus up. Michael Bolton is… is to get… get, you know, hit the gym and focus up on the primary challenge. That was the whole idea. It was pretty simple, which we just haven’t been doing enough. Now we’re in a situation where they… we’re already at a point where they might think that they could win, so they might have… they might have an incentive to… to move if we… if we bend that curve back, right? Because if you look historically, why, you know aggressive wars tend to happen, it’s often because the aggressor judges that his relative advantage will never be greater.  

So as I understand it, the German High Command was opposed to the outbreak of war in ‘19. Well the initiation of war by Germany in 1939, but Hitler rightly in this context, unfortunately judged that the… the Germans were at a high point relatively. Now whether, but… you know the British re-armament had begun. I guess French rearmament. So like, that was… that was why they decided to go. And so we have to manage that at this point, which is on of the reasons that I’m in favor of actually kind of taking down the profile or the temperature to kind of like, you know, we’re hitting the gym. We’re in spring training and then we’ll… we’ll be back on the field, but please don’t do anything while we’re… while we’re in there. Great. Thank you.