Elbridge Colby’s lecture at Christianity & National Security 2023.

Elbridge Colby discusses China, realist foreign policy goals, and the just war tradition. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Daryl Charles will be here for the rest of the conference today and tomorrow and is staying here in the Army Navy Club, so you can have access to him for the next 24 hours if you have any more questions or comments for him. Our next speaker, uh, wonderfully, is Elbridge Colby, a leading spokesman and expert in terms of the challenge the U.S. faces from China. He was a senior official in the Department of Defense, wrote a very important book… book last year on this topic, leads a group called the Marathon Initiative, and I always mention when introducing him I had the honor of, uh, meeting and hosting his grandfather about thirty years ago to speak to my church group. His grandfather was, um, William Colby, uh, director of the CIA and a great figure in intelligence, uh, in World War II and, uh, during the Cold War. So his grandson continues in that tradition. So Elbridge, thank you so much for joining us.  

Well, thank you so much Mark. Thank you, and thanks. It’s great to be with you again this year. Uh. It’s really a pleasure, uh, in this important conference and on, on a really uh, very important topic of, um, you know, the Christian tradition or the Christian belief and how it’s squared, uh, uh in… in the world of geopolitics and… and war and peace and I think, I mean… we’re here, um. I mean, I… I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that we are in something, uh, like a world crisis, uh, you know? To use the Churchill phrase, I mean… It’s always, always dangerous to um, presume to use phrases of Winston Churchill for multiple reasons, but I think it’s not an exaggeration… I mean the possibility after uh, a war has broken out and has been going on in Europe, the largest war in Europe, in… since the Second World War has been going on for about 20/21 months. And now there’s a potential for a uh… uh… a war, you know, expanding in the Middle East. 

Obviously, the Israelis have been atrociously and brutally attacked, uh, by… by Hamas earlier this month, and now we’re preparing a… looks… what looks like a ground invasion into Gaza, um… but the potential for that war to expand, um, uh, to include other players like Iran, Hezbollah, and potentially, God forbid, the United States itself, and then you know, most significantly the potential for, uh, a conflict with, um, between the United States and China… Uh… I think has only, uh, deepened. 

Um, you know, if you’re China and you’re looking at the situation now in the United States is… is uh, already, um, you know depleted, our, our you know… A lot of money stockpiles and political capital and so forth in uh, in Ukraine over the last 19 months, and now, or 20 months, and now has uh, um, the potential to be drawn into a Middle East configuration. Uh, you know, that’s a very propitious opportunity for Beijing. I don’t know what they’re going to do, um, but… but they uh, are clearly preparing for a large-scale war against the United States. Um, and they have made clear that, you know, they are willing to use force to resolve the Taiwan issue, uh ad I think more broadly, Assistant Secretary of Defense Eli Ratner said the other day that their ambition is to eject the United States from the uh, from the Asia-Pacific region, and if that… if that happened, uh, that would have a… a profound and even catastrophic impact on our daily lives here. And our… our freedoms and our prosperities. So uh, in this… in this context, I mean thinking about it as… as a Christian, um… How do we think about this?  

Well I wrote a piece in First Things, uh, last year called “The Morality of A Strategy of Denial.” Mark was very kindly mentioned my, um, my book a Strategy of Denial, which is much more of a kind of pure work of strategy, although it has a… there’s an implicit morality to it. Uh, but I build out that moral framework in that… in the article called “The Morality of a Strategy of Denial,” which is a defense of basically just war in the cont… context of um, you know this, the strategic problems that we uh, that we face today, which are very acute and um… Unfortunately, as… as a… as a Roman Catholic, I have to say this issue is of whether just… just war is a licit and a, uh, relevant framework has been, um, elevated by uh, his Holiness the Pope, uh, repeatedly, who’s pushed back… back against it, but I… I have argued consistently… I was arguing against it on, uh, on Twitter. That just war remains, um, the best framework, and of course, it’s not a perfect moral framework, and as I think was being said here earlier, it doesn’t give a clear and easy solutions. But that’s true in any difficult moral situation, obviously.  

And I think the morality of the strategy of denial is basically one of, you know, I think the way I put it, using, um actually forget the exact Bible, uh, or, um, Bible passage, but it’s basically the… the Gospel parable of the steward, which is a model of stewardship, which is… I would differentiate it from pure consequentialism, which does not, you know, uh, weigh… um… everything is calculated, but I think, um, basically, if you have the model of the… of the steward in mind, the… the… the uh, the… the moral judgement of a statesman or statecraft, uh, is not the purity of intent or the, um, sort of uh, admirability, if you will, of… of the aspiration. You know? 

So when George W. Bush said that he wanted to end tyranny in the world, the aspiration has an element of… although it has a… has a Pelagian kind of vibe to it, but anyway, as… as a, uh, as… as an expression of will, it… it has an admirable quality too. It is… It’s a… It’s a good thing to want, but of course, if you measure it by the logic of stewardship, which is that of reasonably anticipatable consequences seeking to end evil, I was referred to as a dreamer, by uh, David, from which I thought was pretty ironic since the guy wrote a book called an End to Evil in the World, which I was like, well, that as long as human beings are fallen, that seems like… that seems, uh… And you know, they haven’t had the Second Coming. 

I think evil will be around. I think that’s a pretty reasonable assessment. But I think that’s the point, is um, that especially in this… in this era, I mean, if you looked at the President’s comments the other night, I don’t question well. I have very strong disagreements with the President, but I don’t question his, um, his intentions to have a world that’s stable in which there is peace and which people are treated fairly. That’s not my question. That’s not my question at all. 

My question is that I think that the policies that he is pursuing in his administration, or pursuing can reasonably be judged. Not to be that they will not succeed in that… in that goal, and that is the measure you know, essentially a kind of a fiduciary measure, a trustee, that we should judge our… our statecraft by. And if that’s the case, then you have to reckon with the fact as I think Pope Benedict did, uh, that sometimes war is necessary. I was…  

You know, Pope Benedict himself, uh, I think it was on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, you know? He gave remarks when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. I think, um… You know, to the effect that… that D-Day itself shows a pure form of pacifism is unstainable, right? Because, for obvious reasons, and I actually took it a little further after… after he passed away… I pointed out that, you know, given the fact that the Soviet Union was so central, in a sense did most of the fighting in the defeat of Nazi Germany, that actually carries even further that… 

You know, the Soviet Union was genuinely an evil empire, um, so that has, you know, that’s a real… That’s heavy, you know? That’s heavy, heavy stuff. But I think as long as Christians are going to be engaged in speaking seriously about statecraft, um, that is the only kind of plausible way of, of looking at it. Obviously, when Christians were in the sort of primitive environment, and were not, uh, you know, in any way close to political authority, and many of them believe the, the… you know… the, the world was about to end, it seems, um, they didn’t need to have this kind of situation but as… as… uh… I, I, I took a little, uh, time to kind of point out the many times the Christians have relied on military force to protect the Christendom or the Church or whatever.  

You know going back to like, uh, the Huns or the Arab invasions in the 7th Century and so forth and up until, uh, the Soviets and the Nazis in the last century. And so… I think that’s basically the right… the right way to look about it, if… if that’s the… if that’s the way, then I think the way to think about… How we should think about our foreign policy from a just war point of view is what is a legitimate goal? And are our actions in pursuit of that goal? You know, rational and proportionate, right?  

Which is to say, um, you know? You both need to have the goal be itself, uh, legitimate. One, you know, you could pursue an evil goal rationally and proportionately, but would still be evil. Vice versa. You could pursue a legitimate goal in a way that is… is irrational and disproportionate and, and is itself an evil act. It’s sort of evil in say, and then evil in the way… it’s, it’s you know jus in bellum and jus ad bello. Basically, or jus in bello and jus ad bellum. So, I think those, and by that standard my view is, that the strategy of denial that I advocate for is the most consistent, because it has a more… It is a sub… uh, reasonably and efficiently high aspiration to be, um, you know, ensure the… the… the… the just goals of the American people: our freedom, our security, and our prosperity. But it’s not so high that it basically consumes everybody else’s legitimate goals.  

So if you’re thinking in the just war framework or the natural law kind of framework, you have to recognize the legitimate goods of others, and so you know, protecting our own security, freedom, and prosperity does not necessarily in any way require that others suffer. That may be instrumentally necessary under certain circumstances. But it’s not the same thing as saying, like, ‘Well I’m Genghis Khan, I… you know, my only way of satisfying my good is to have, you know, womenfolk driven before me and hear their cries and lamentations,’ right? That’s a bad goal. 

Um, so I think, my goal is good. I think it’s better than George W. Bush’s goal of saying we’re going to end terrorism in the world, because I think that is an unreasonably high goals, um, but I also think that if you set the goal too low, you say, ‘well all we want is physical survival.’ That’s not high enough, you know? Some people might say, ‘well, it’s not worth fighting for our freedom and it’s not worth fighting for economic security and prosperity.’  

I don’t think that’s fair either. And then, if that’s the case, then we need to have a strategy that’s rationally and proportionately linked to that, and I think that’s what the strategy of denial does, which is based on a balance of power? So it’s not domineering. It’s a reasonable conception. And then the use of military force is tailored to that conception, and actually the application of military force.  

And there may be situations in which a high degree of violence, and it could be quite lethal for our opponents and, God forbid, ourselves, but it’s ration… you know, it’s rationally correlated to that… that goal: the restoration of a balance of power or the sustainment of a balance of power through an anti-hegemonic coalition. Um, and basically guided by the… the line, you know? From… from Clausewitz who in some ways is actually a very moral thinker, who said that the political object should always be present in the… in the military conception. That you should… it should never become divorced, because then you can pursue things without… and you know, not everything in our history necessarily stands up to scrutiny. 

I do think, of instance, the atomic bombs do… I think some… The bombing campaigns maybe not in every particular, um, I think… The campaigns uh, of the federal army in the latter part of the Civil War generally stand up. But not… not everything. We don’t have an unblemished record, but I think it’s… it’s a… it’s a sufficiently demanding but not an unreasonable… it’s not a kind of an otherworldly or sort of Quaker, all due respect any Quakers in the house… um… it’s not… it’s not something that cannot actually be put into practice by… by… by a government. 

So, I think that’s where we are. I think what that means, actually, is that, um, in this situation today, I… I basically believe that failing to take steps to put us in this situation where we can defend and where we can… where the reasonably anticipatable goal of failing to prepare is to make war more likely… That is actually not only, uh, not correct from a strategic point of view, but it’s actually immoral. I mean, if we are, you know…  

If the President, for instance, and he’s not the only one – there’s Republicans too – but if they are actually… and it’s… and it’s anticipatable what the consequences of their… We don’t know the future but it is possible that we are vey… possible that we are neglecting our defenses in the Pacific and thereby making war more likely by making Chinese aggressive action more rationally palatable for them. Then that itself is, I think… I think that is an immoral act at some level. I mean, it’s not like… you know, um, you know, burning down a city, but it’s… it’s something that we should not just… um, regard as an innocent mistake because people… 

And this is the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about this. Because, you know, I think um, uh, you know, I have… I have… I have good… good amount of respect for… for Jake Sullivan. But you know, Sullivan has said, said recently I mean there… there’s a very profound weight of responsibility on people in these high positions and Sullivan said a couple weeks ago, the Middle East has never been quieter. 

I, personally I… I wasn’t clairvoyant. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but that’s a heavy responsibility and… and it’s really important that people who assume these positions of responsibility are prepared to be judged. And I think, you know, in some cases, things happen that are hard to anticipate or are just bad luck or something, but I think our… our failure to prepare adequately for threats that are facing U.S. is an anticipatable problem. And there is a fundamental mismatch between the strategy that we’re pursuing and the resources that we are allocating for it and the way we’re appro… you know, using all the resources that we have available. And I think that that’s, um, that’s something that, you know, those of us who served in previous administrations or this administration should all be judged by that standard. 

So maybe with that I’ll open it to questions or comments, criticisms. Thank you.All right, oh, seems to have carried the room, this is good. Yeah, in the back. 


Question: Yeah, hi. Uh, Ethan Coffey of, um, University of North Carolina Capel Hill. Um, yeah. I was wondering, because it’s the… it’s the anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative with China recently, um. And I wondered whether you would… you would say that the U.S. should be competing with China in that kind of investment aspect as a means to, um, yeah, increase kind of its global um, power, and to encourage kind of, friends of the U.S. to do that as well. Um, or do you think it should go for a different approach? 

Answer: Um, well, I mean, I think we need to be able to, um, you know, present, uh, economic opportunities for countries that are, you know, you know… the Chinese are making a play for now… The Chinese and the Russians probably together, um, you know, have our own sort of structures. I think, you know, there’s a lot left in the Capital that’s available to be sort of directed by the central government in the United States. To use the, you know, federal government and in, in European economies probably, as well, so… you know, some of our, some of our, um, uh… You know, our appeal is going to be… as people kind of get a sense of what’s entailed by taking a lot of money from the Chinese and, you know, what you get in response and how they try to use as leverage over you… Then maybe the Americans and the Brits or… and the Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans, maybe the Australians, maybe their capital is a little more attractive, you know?  

I tend to think that the economic dimension of this, or the sort of economic statecraft dimension is often… its… it’s salience is exaggerated because I think it’s very difficult for states to use economic leverage to achieve decisive, coercive outcomes. And I think we’re seeing that right now for, in our own case vis a vis Russia. Uh, so what… That actually makes me a little bit more sanguine about Belt and Road than a lot of people, because I don’t think China is actually getting out of the Belt and Road like this, sort of. 

And I mentioned Sullivan… He wrote an article a couple years ago that, um, has a different view on that, and I think what we’ve seen is that a lot of countries are actually, basically saying ‘I’m not interested in keeping going with the Chinese,’ or, you know ‘I’ll take money from them but I’m not going to do exactly what they say,’ and ‘oh, I didn’t know that they’re going to have a 99 year lease on this base…’ 

So I think what really matters is the military balance in terms of… Otherwise things are more likely to kind of equilibrate out. Um, and I think you can see that, even in countries that are really impoverished, I mean, like in East Africa, have been pushing back against Chinese economic influence. So, you know, I don’t want to sound biased but I don’t think that’s the primary threat that we face. 

Question: Isaac Weber, Patrick Henry College. Um, piggy backing off of that question, if the Chinese are not getting as great a benefit as they thought off of the Road Initiative, especially in Africa, like you mentioned, what kind of policy changes can we expect from the CCP, and how does that impact United States’s own strategy? 

Answer: Right, so good question. So that’s exactly the next… the next point. I think it makes military force more attractive for them because if… if economic statecraft and economic leverage is not as effective and coercive as they would want, they have… they can either accept that, and, and the consequent limits on there, um, on… on their ability to influence other countries, or they can look for other means of pursuing that coercive strategy. And I think what they’re doing manifestly with their military buildup is building the tools to coerce countries with military force, and of course, that doesn’t mean the… the.. the economic condition isn’t part of that, but ultimately, at the end of the day, like Taiwan is not going to give up because the Chinese have a lot of investments.  

And a lot of tiny Taiwanese companies have invested in the mainland. I mean, they tried that… you know, seven or eight years ago, and it’s backfired. And I think the same is true in places like India, uh, in Japan, you know, with the rare earth issue. South Korea with the… the Thad, um, deployment, and the actions against companies like LTE. Uh, Philippines. They’ve tried it, and you know, you see the Philippines standing up to China right now. Australia is a great example. So I think that’s… that’s what worries me is that China would then use its military, uh, for that.  

Question: Do you see that as a regionally applicable, in to a greater extent outside of just China’s local sphere of influence, like in Africa or South America?  

Answer: Well, I think, I mean, I think China’s first focused on Asia because Asia is its own theater and it’s the now-decisive theater of… of geopolitics because it’s where the vast majority of global GDP is, and is increasingly going to be. So once… if you control Asia, basically, then you’ll be able to, you know, have much more… much better position to dominate places like Africa and the Middle East.  

Question: So, if we can expect more military bent of Chinese policy, does the United States need to have a stronger, um, military stance towards its allies and pseudo allies in the, um, Eastern Pacific Ocean?  

Answer: Yeah, well… Western Pacific, you mean? Yes. Yeah, uh, yeah. Yes. Absolutely. 

Question: Uh, actually, if I could ask a question, my name is James. I work at Providence. Um, I’d love to know what your take is on the sort of China decline thesis, that maybe as some people in the room have seen, uh, China’s population is now declining. Uh, it seems like they have some kind of uh, real estate crisis. Very few months… uh, and I’ve read a number of writers from a variety of, uh, across the aisle, uh saying that China has recently, or just about now in fact peeking in power, and whether that’s a well-assuming in the long term, it is a positive thing for us in the short term. It could make them, you know, more dangerous, more prone to aggression. What do you think of that?  

Answer: Um, well first of all, I’m not pers… well, first of all, um, we don’t know the future and so we need to prepare for the downside in which China is… continues to be strong and grow in strength. Um, because if we’re balancing the outcomes, if… If China actually does decline, then we’ve kind of overprepared, but if China continues growing and we’re understand that’s the worst of the four quadrants, right?  

Secondly, I’m not convinced China’s in decline. Like, I don’t think that’s born out yet. I mean, it’s possible, but, um, I mean, you know, I mean if… If you read for instance, like, people like Michael Pettis, who’s the uh, guy who’s writing on… He’s said I think, Carnegie Beijing whose um, analysis of the Chinese economy I think has been pretty born out of the last couple of years… Um, they… they’re not predicting that China’s falling apart. They’re… they’re predict… they’re basic… what they’re saying is that China’s going through a significant slowdown.  

Now it’s possible that China grows old before it grows rich. Personally, if China’s still growing at 2 to 3% GDP, I think it’s going to grow in relative share of global GDP. I mean, we’re not growing consistently at… at 2% over the last 25 years or so. Certainly not the Europeans, or the Japanese, um, and the Chinese have enormous, um, latent catch-up opportunity with… Large portions of their population that are not at, like, the frontier, so you know I… I think we’re… and I mean, for instance, like the real estate thing is, I mean, you know… And this is… There’s a lot of debate about this and I’m not… I’m not an expert on it, but um, you know, they um…  

Not bailing out the real estate sector has come as… is… makes some sense because they… they’d have an inflated real estate sector and at some point there has to be a correction. So, you know, are they going to have a slowdown? I think… I don’t think China is going to be growing at 7% anymore. I think that’s pretty clear. But I think the notion that China’s in decline, and decline is a relative concept, right? I mean okay. China’s population is contracting quite rapidly, but from 1.4 billion people. Japan’s population is contracting, Taiwan’s population is contracting, South Korea’s population is contracting. The, you know, native-born population of European societies is contracting. So that’s a common demographic issue around the world. So, I think, um, you know… I think the reasonable basis… The reasonable prognostication from a kind of strategic point of view is, you know, 2 to 3% growth could be… could be faster, could be slower, but you know the idea of China collapsing or something like that…  

And the other thing is, I don’t think the Chinese think they’re in decline. I mean, if anything they think we’re in decline. Which I don’t… I mean, morally have a debate about it, talk about it, but like, I think from a national power point of view, I don’t really see that borne out. But you know, if they were going to move, um, they would probably think that they were in decline. I don’t… I’m not sure I see any evidence of that yet. 

Question: Great, thank you. My name is Isa Monero and I am from Biola University. Um, so at the beginning of the Ukraine war, um, Russia was going into this war as like, definitely, like, the better or the higher, more capable of the two nations. I mean, they were regarded like the second-most, arguably, the second most powerful military in the world. Um, and they’ve been unable to, like, conquer or take over all of Ukraine. Do you think that might be the same case with China? It’s… it’s… it still remains largely untested, but it… it projects a lot of power. Do you think it might just be a facade? It might not necessarily represent their actual power? 

Answer: I mean, it’s possible. Uh, I don’t think we should bet on it because, I mean that’s not, you know, you don’t bet on winning the lottery. Um a couple things. I mean, the Chinese um, uh, the Chinese problem for attacking say, Taiwan, is much different from the Russian problem. So Russia’s like, what? Four times the population of Ukraine? China is about 75 times the population of Ukraine, you know? Ukraine is a very large country with very large land borders not only with Russia but with NATO countries like Poland, um, which makes resupply easy, uh, or at least plausible. 

Uh, Taiwan is a tiny island. It’s… It’s just a fraction of the size of the People’s Republic, so the big problem the Chinese face is getting across and sustaining operations across the Straight, which is, you know, a very formidable problem. Um, but you know, fundamentally tractable. We’ve done it before. Um, and so, I think you know, if I were China, and I you know, imagine they’re… they’re just as, if not smarter than we are, um probably smart, maybe smarter, um… the lesson you would take from Ukraine is that Putin did two things.  

He fundamentally underestimated the Ukrainians. He overestimated his own forces and then he underestimated what was going to be involved to conduct the military operation that… that… that they ended up pursuing now. Whether I don’t know what Putin’s… plan was, did he intend to take over, fully take over Ukraine? I don’t know. I mean, because to put like what? 130,000 troops to take a country of that size doesn’t really add up. So I… I don’t exactly know what he had in mind. I don’t talk to him, um, but I… my guess is that Putin thought, um, what it looks to me like is he thought he kind of had the country wired and that the Ukrainians were going to collapse. And he… and they were going to, like, they were going to… going to come on side. So it was kind of a show of force plus invasion. Show of force. I don’t know. That’s… that’s kind of giving it the most generous interpretation from a strategic point of view.  

If I’m China, I basically say I’m not… China, I’m not going to… I’m not going ot try that because that fails very poorly. Now Putin’s stuck two years later in like a quagmire stalemate in Eastern Ukraine. It’s not going well for the Ukrainians either, but like, that’s not where Putin wants to be. That’s not where China wants to be.  

So I think if they’re going to go in, they’re going to go in much bigger and more decisively to make sure they don’t screw up at the early days. The other thing we should bear in mind is, you know, our military has been engaged heavily in essentially counterinsurgency, stabilization, counterterrorism operations for the last generation. You know, our Navy has not had a fleet action since Okinawa. You know, our air… our air force has not had, you know, even remotely close to a period… I mean there was some air-to-air stuff, I think in the 1990 War. It was pretty mild, I mean not for the people involved, but um… And then… and then over North Vietnam and in Korea, but I mean really, you know, large scale are, I mean, for instance, the Egypt… The Israelis have gone up against the Syrians and others over the last couple, uh, generations. But so… 

We’re not exactly sure how things would go down and there’s a lot of… Actually, I would say that the assumption is that our… our side is like, a lot better than the Chinese. And I’m not… it could be… it’s also possible we’re overestimating our own ability. Um, so we don’t know, I mean… for instance, during World War II, the United States Navy was famous for what’s called, you know, basically damage control. Basically, the ability to repair. So famously, the… the carrier Yorktown was damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea. It… it sailed back to Pearl Harbor and Nitz, or whoever said, you know, you got to go out like, in a couple days, because you got to go out… There’s a Battle of Midway, we have this intelligence and they turned around the Yorktown in like 3 or 4 days.  

Now we can’t repair submarines. We’ve got… 40% of our submarine fleet is waiting for maintenance and the Bonhomme Richard burned to the waterline, basically, um, you know, burned out, and I think had to be ditched a couple years ago because the fire control was poor on… on the ship. So you know, I think it’s… I think it’s reasonable to give our side some level of qualitative advantage, but I don’t think we should rely too much on it. 

Question: Yeah. Hi. Anan Mwal with the Roosevelt Group. Uh, so, Elbridge you’ve had a front row view to all the problems in the Pentagon that have brought us where we are. And be it a st… the state of military readiness, the defense industrial base, the ship… built the ship building base, our depleting stock piles, all the FMS and backlog with Taiwan. So, and of course, you’ve also focused on how it’s not just money but also manpower that is distract… is facing getting distracted from, uh, the larger China issue. So if you were the president and, uh, there’s one issue where you could bring all the top level attention to be on it…. the Sec. Def., the Joint Chiefs, uh, the service secretaries, the undersecretaries, and uh, let’s just, for the sake of the argument assume that even the authorizers and appropriators are doing the right thing at the right time, what would be the one thing you would focus on to make sure that we don’t face a moment against China? 

Answer: No, thanks, that’s a great question. I mean, I think being ready for a war against China would be focused on Taiwan, if Taiwan hopefully survives the coming years. Um, or, if not Taiwan, you know the perimeter behind it. Uh, that… that is the orienting strategic rationale. I think the biggest thing, you know, there are specific weapon systems like munitions that are, you know, torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles, air defense. Those known, um issues, where I would put, I think political capital, and I’ve been surprised the president hasn’t done this, is towards a resuscitation of the defense industrial base at like, a fundamental level. And I think that’s sort of… they’ve kind of… like, we’ve put band-aids on the problem, but like, we have like, a broken leg, or you know, pick your metaphor, um, we need like, major surgery.  

And we need to be able to produce large numbers of weapons and platforms quickly. Not only for ourselves but also, like for, you know, Israel, ideally for Ukraine too, you know? Uh, I’d… You know, South Korea, India, Japan, Taiwan, etc. Like, so we don’t have… I mean, 1973 when we launched the airlift, this was after Vietnam, for Israel, you know, we had a huge defense industrial base that we could rely on. We don’t… that… that’s really, uh, shriveled since then. So I think that is… and that’s something that I just… I think across the political aisle, not just Republicans and Democrats but also kind of new Republicans versus old Republicans, you know? Like the old-time more neoconservative Republicans should like it because it’s important for our national security, but the kind of new right people should like it because we’re talking about reindustrialization. 

I think if we are able to produce a lot of stuff like that, then we will be in a lot better shape. That’s probably the biggest thing, yeah.  

Question: Um, so, uh, piggy backing off of that question, hidden by par… by the way, um, I’ve seen a lot of reticence… it’s one thing to have kind of a set plan, a set strategy, both operationally and, you know, morally, for what we need to do especially in preparing for this crisis, but I’ve seen a lot of reticence not just on, you know the home front, if you will, but even here in this city among policy makers that have a stake in it. Yeah, um, so why do you think I… and having a front road not just to the Pentagon but also the White House and the political administration and this one… where do you think… Where do you think this res… this reticence comes from and what can we be doing today to try and like wake people up to the operational needs that we can be focusing on here and now? 

Answer: I think that’s the right question, something I think about a lot. I think it’s hubris. I think, is the, I mean, if you look at the President, um, and there are Republicans who are, have the same mistake… you know, commit the same crime, sin, whatever, um, he said we’re America. 

We’re America. And it’s like, okay, you know, and they’re China. I just think a lot of these people don’t take China seriously enough. Now it’s possible that China could be a paper tiger, but it’s possible if you look at the numbers and you look how economic actors are acting… it’s the first pure economy that we’ve had in 150 years. I was very struck. Robert Kagan, if you wanted to get a different perspective from the kind of liberal imperialist perspective, the kind of moralistic, liberal, imperialist, you know… His argument is for li… global liberal hegemony. America should be the global liberal empire, which I don’t think is necessary and I don’t think it’s attainable, but at this point I think it’s like, criminally irresponsible. 

Um, you know, twenty years ago we could have argued about whether it was a good idea but now it’s like, incredibly dangerous to pursue that kind of approach, especially without the material resources to back it up, which is essentially kind of what sort we seem to be doing right now.  

But um, Kagan made a very telling error in the Wall Street… he had one of these Saturday big Wall Street Journal essays and he said oh China’s not that big of a challenge because actually, it’s smaller relative to the U.S. economy than the U.S. was to the three Axis powers in 1941. And I was like, uh, that’s wrong, actually. China is larger. The United States alone was larger than all three of the Axis states in 1941 in economic terms and, by the way, during World War II we were allied with the Soviet Union, the British Empire, and a few other countries. China is, is… is bigger than, than that relative and in by some measures in what you call purchasing power. Parity is actually larger than the American economy. I mean, they have two, according to the naval Office of Naval Intelligence, the intelligence chief of the U.S. Navy, they have 200 times the ship-building capacity of the United States.  

We’re America, okay? I mean, I love America. I think it’s great. I think we’re the greatest country, okay? But like, meanwhile back in the real world, getting back to reasonably anticipatable consequences, just beating your chest and saying we’re America ain’t going to cut it. And the things that have happened so far are woefully inadequate to meet that challenge. And so that… and I think a lot of it is age. I think where… where a lot of the leaders who came of age in the 90s… people call Biden and some of these other guys “Cold War.” Biden was not a major… I mean he was in the Judiciary Committee… he was the Bork guy. Like, he was more active in domestic policy. He became more active in foreign policy, I think in the, the 90s, and so that’s, like, his mindset. And a lot of the Republicans, too, who are leading figures… are really shaped by the experience in the 1980s, when it was the unipolar moment when we were, like, so much more powerful than anybody else. That we could kind of do what we wanted and what were the consequences of failure? Pretty negligible.  

Well that’s not the world we’re living in anymore. And the rate at which China has grown is… is unprecedented, really. I mean, just the scale and the rate of growth and that I think, you know, again is, you know… I think Jake Sullivan has probably a more realistic assessment, but he’s not President. 

Question: Yeah, so to play off that, so how do we wake both current leaders and future leaders in this city up to this threat? And then, what can they be doing to be kind of focusing? 

Answer: Well I mean that… that’s what I… That’s kind of the core thing of what I’m… I mean, I have, um… there are different ways to attack that problem. One is to try to undermine the basis for hubris both to understand that um, the Chinese are a more formidable threat than we are. I mean I was a… I gave… it was another panel and I put on Twitter – sometimes I get accused of being a declinist which is kind of a stupid term because like, it’s not a…  

Like, what is a declinist? It’s like… like, but it’s like if you’re… if… if anyone’s a real declinist it’s the people who ignore the problem, I mean who are like “hey we’re… we’re America we can do whatever?” No, the people who are the non anti-declinists are the ones who are like “hey we have a problem. Let’s deal with it… Oh, you have a cancer diagnosis? Like, get chemo, change your diet. Whatever.” That’s how you survive, you know? And um, you know, I think um, I… in, in some sense I think that my… at least my advocacy is not succeeding. We’ve made… we’ve made or should I say we’re failing relative to the standard of success which is effective deterrence. 

And ultimately, if we need to, a clear victory against China, victory, I mean, defeat of Chinese aggression, and I don’t think that’s what we’re doing so, you know, if I’m measuring myself by the own… I mean I’m not… I’m impotent or far from it. I’m not even very potent, but like, that’s um… that’s the standard that we need to… we need to measure ourselves by. And at some level that’s what I kind of mention. And again, I say that with respect for… for Sullivan. And, I mean, he’s a very smart, thoughtful guy, but people who are in positions of responsibility… there should be a look back. And did they do… did they do enough on the problem? And there have been… and then at least there will have been a record of people like me saying this is what you need to do, so it wasn’t like they didn’t know… in to get back to that reasonably anticipatable point, yeah. 

Question: Thank you. Okay, Isa Jones from Briet University. My question is more on the perhaps subtle ways. China may be fighting against the U.S., um, perhaps like the Confucious classrooms buying farmland, those sorts of ways. And so how effective is that more subtle warfare? Should we be concerned, and how can we combat that more subtle warfare? 

Answer: I tend… I tend not to be as worried about that… I tend… I mean it’s a connected… I mean this is, you know, young people have different views, but I tend to think that, um, the thing is, and I tend to be sort of a free speech um… absolutist is a little strong, but you know, kind of because I tend to think that like, the market of ideas at some level, and I don’t want to sound like, you know, Wall Street Journal or whatever, but like… They… that… 

The wrinkle the Chinese face in that context with things like soft power is people say “oh the Confucious Institutes are everywhere,” but okay, it’s one thing for Confucious Institutes to be out there and like, here’s a book by Confucious, you know? Here’s the, you know, Chinese Opera. Here is the history of China, here is how you do calligraphy or whatever, you know? 

Like okay, but then once you try to translate that into like, and you cannot… you cannot say anything bad about Tibet, you know? In the same way the economic leverage… that’s when it breaks down because it’s like “oh, okay, I enjoyed hearing about Chinese Opera but I don’t agree that you should be able to shut me up about Xin Jiang or Hong Kong.”  

And that’s… so, so the whole political warfare thing, and this becomes a very acute issue in the context of Taiwan because like, the Chinese have been flooding Taiwan with propaganda for generations. And actually, the Taiwanese have moved away because they can see what happened in Hong Kong… that doesn’t mean they survive because China has an incredible military, but like, they’re not going to… I just worry a lot less about this political warfare stuff than a lot of people do. 

Question: Hi, um, Ryan Zner. I’m a consultant with the Religious Freedom Institute. At the beginning of your remarks, you spoke some about um, a possible depletion of resources in Ukraine. And I imagine it would be a similar view, um, in Israel. There’s a clear deterrent effect to those kind of activities. And I think you alluded to that… that… some as well, um, in terms of balancing those two concerns is there… and in terms of readiness to deal with the Chinese threat, is there a clear and knowable point of diminishing returns for that deterrence effect in… in Ukraine and Israel? And how would we determine it? 

Answer: Yeah, I don’t think there’s much of a deterrent effect, honestly. Like, I just don’t. I mean, because I… and I go into this in my book, I mean I have a more contextualized idea of deterrence. Like, I think that the Chinese are… if they’re thinking about Taiwan, they’re going to be thinking about the specific context of U.S. capability and resolve to act on Taiwan. And so information provided about U.S. support to Ukraine is kind of like a tertiary factor. 

And the best example of why this is, because you have people like Vice President Pence, and making this point is like, if the Ukraine issue were actually dispositive for how Taiwan is going to be resolved… Think about it. Who cares the most about Taiwan other than Taiwan? China. China is directly involved in the Ukraine conflict. 

No, in fact, they’re like… just happy to let it go along. That’s their optimal outcome, because it doesn’t actually… because the… the value of the depletion of American stockpiles, money, in resolve, is far higher than whatever bankshot deterrence effect. What’s going to deter them is the sense that the Americans and the Taiwanese and the Japanese have the ability to sink, shoot down, kill, whatever, enough PLA soldiers in the appropriate amount of time to defeat the invasion, and whether we have the resolve to do that. That’s the main issue.  

Question: So the… the point of diminishing returns has been real? 

Answer: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah definitely. Great. Thank you. Thanks everyone.