Elbridge Colby is former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. And he’s co-founder of the Marathon Initiative, which aims to prepare America for an “era of sustained great power competition.”

In a recent Foreign Affairs article with Robert Kaplan, Colby warns against stressing ideology in America’s strategic competition with China. I ask him about his perspective on this question in light of America’s propensity to moralize its foreign policy.

Colby identifies as a foreign policy “conservative realist” in sync with an Augustinian sensibility that sees morality in defending the national interest without resorting to consequentialism.

You will find Colby’s views to be insightful and very timely.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: This is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of talking to Elbridge Colby, former Assistant Deputy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Defense, you can correct me, and also a co-founder of The Marathon Initiative. I’m going to start out asking him about his very insightful and provocative article in Foreign Affairs, suggesting that ideology should not play a major role in America’s strategic competition with communist China. So Bridge, thank you for joining us.

Colby: Thanks Mark, happy to be here and talk to you.

Tooley: And since I was unable to say it, what exactly was your title at the Defense Department?

Colby: Yeah, it’s like one of those Monty Python titles. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, so it’s a mouth full.

Tooley: And after you left the Defense Department, you co-founded The Marathon Initiative. What is that?

Colby: Sure, it’s a small new think tank I’ve co-founded with my partner and good friend, Wes Mitchell, which is focused on developing strategies for this new year of great power competition. So, it’s a non-profit think tank.

Tooley: And this article that you co-wrote for Foreign Affairs on ideology in our strategic competition with China, it seems counterintuitive to many Americans who reflectively would prioritize the ideological differences between American democracy and authoritarian China, but you make some very different points.

Colby: Sure yeah, I mean I think ideology is a reality that is part of this dynamic, and actually I think the government in Beijing may see ideology as a very, very important part of this competition. Our point of view, and certainly my point of view, I think I can speak for Bob Kaplan as well, is that Americans should not see this competition as primarily being about ideology, and that’s for a couple of reasons. You know one is that fundamentally what we as Americans need to try to do is to ensure open and free access to trading and engaging in the world’s largest market. And you know, it’s important to keep our eye on that because if we set our sights sort of much, much higher or sort of in a more thorough way, trying to change China’s ideology, that really raises the stakes in a competition that already is going to be very dangerous and intense. The phrase used is a little bit, maybe a little bit kind of informal, as it could turn it more into an existential cage match, which is to say make the competition with China more dangerous even than it already will be. The second reason, you know, if I go through them is that the more this competition is framed as being really about ideology, there are a couple of consequences that might not be obvious but we could see in the history of the Cold War in particular. One is that it will tend to make it a lot harder to work with countries that are themselves not democracies or not model democracies, and this is particularly important because this is the case with really probably the majority of the important states in Asia. You know as we put in the piece, it doesn’t help us a lot if we have Netherlands along for the ride, but we’re unable to work or we’ve alienated with say Vietnam, which is of course a communist country. India, which while a democracy, gets dinged by places like Freedom House for some of its internal governance issues, as well as pretty much almost all of the countries in Southeast Asia. Singapore is a kind of quasi-democracy, Thailand is currently under a military government, and so on and so forth. So, we’ve got to be careful about that. Another reason is that the more it’s seen as an ideological competition between the United States and China, the more it turns even sort of fundamentally peripheral contests into sort of tests of the system there. Therefore, it can kind of seem to amplify the importance of things that could otherwise be let go, and this is, of course I’m thinking about Vietnam in particular here, where you know I think part of what drove us into such a major investment, into something that at the end of the day was not necessary to prevail in the Cold War, was a sense that the sort of system was at issue and that everything was kind of interconnected. And I think that’s something that we really want to be careful about moderating. So, that’s kind of how we see it. I think the reason that we wrote it was we see a rising tendency, really across the political spectrum actually, to see things as primarily ideological. And I emphasize again that this is not incompatible with understanding that the Chinese may see things as in an ideological prism, for instance even Xi Jinping himself, but it’s really more about how we, you know, sort of assess and calculate what we need to do and what we don’t need to do, and who we can work with and who we can’t work with, as we go forward. In fact just on that point, there was a Wall Street Journal piece today about a future Biden administration kind of emphasizing, a potential Biden administration, saying that you know in a lot of ways there would be continuity, but one of the quotes from Biden’s advisors, one of Vice-President Biden’s advisors, was saying, you know, the world is sorting into a competition of techno-democracies and techno-autocracies, and that’s exactly the kind of thinking that we want to complicate, to use an academic term.

Tooley: Obviously ideology played a major role in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. How is our competition with China different from that with the Soviet Union?

Colby: Well I mean, you know, I actually think that in some ways I do think we’re in a new Cold War. I mean, you know frankly people say, “Oh my gosh, the old Cold War was terrible,” and I think to myself, “Well if you compare it to the resolution of other major strategic great power competitions, it was actually pretty great.” I mean, we avoided major war and the other side ended up giving up. Of course, the Chinese are very attuned to the lessons, and Xi Jinping himself in fact ordered I think Communist Party cadres around China to watch videos on how to avoid what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. So, they look at that as an object lesson. You know, I think in a sense what the analogy that we make in the piece and that I would have taken I think if I were there at the time is a hardline position in a lot of ways, but less ideological than say for instance the famous document NSC-68 of the Truman Administration, which you know, if you go back and you look, is very much seen as an expansive system-wide ideological contest. And not said Soviet communism wasn’t loathsome, it was, and it was an evil empire in very important respects, but actually I think one of the best proofs to show why it was not primarily ideological itself was the fact that we still have problems with Russia. Actually, I mean in a sense we did what, you know, somebody would want if you see the competition is primarily ideological and yet here we are with a relationship worse with Moscow than it was probably in, certainly in, the late 1980s ironically. So, you know, I actually think to put a fine point on it, even if China became a democracy, we would still have many of the same concerns and, probably, problems that we have today.

Tooley: Is it fair to say that you sound a little bit like George Kennan in the 1940s, warning that Russia is Russia regardless of who its rulers are?

Colby: Yeah I think, well Kennan was kind of an erratic and sometimes, I mean he was a brilliant perceptive, but also I think somewhat erratic and frankly unreliable thinker. But I’m certainly closer to that and the thought of like Hans Morgenthau. And in some ways, I would say the political figures would be people more like President Eisenhower and President Nixon and so forth. I mean, I think one thing to clearly differentiate is that I’m in this sort of school of wanting to see things as less ideological than others, but that’s distinct about the hardline-softline. It’s not like I’m, I mean right now in fact I’m quite hardline on China, but I think given the circumstances and conditions, if you think about things in more ideological terms you tend, your goals, tend to be far more maximalist. And so, I think it prevents the possibility for a détente later on if we get into a good position. Whereas, I think what I’m talking about, you know, what Bob and I are talking about, there would be a readiness to deal with the Chinese but from a position of strength, or I should say certainly with the Chinese, but even with the Chinese Communist Party-dominated China so long as they respect our interests. Now, I think that would be a different model than we pursued in the 90s and 2000s, which was a kind of liberal, in the sort of true sense model, which was engagement in the hopes of changing China. That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, it might happen but really it would be, look there are going to be clear lines and walls and rules of the road, and if China doesn’t respect them they’re going to meet a forceful counter response from us and those who share our interests in setting those rules and boundaries. But if they do change their sort of calculus and behavior in a way that’s credible and verifiable in a sense, then we should be prepared to deal with them. And I think that’s a little bit different than the détente approach of Nixon and Kissinger. I mean, Kissinger is such a, you know, fraught and sort of complicated figure, but I think there was always in the détente approach the sort of weary titan aspect of Kissinger’s assessment and to some extent President Nixon’s. I don’t think that’s what I’m talking about. I’m actually talking about détente from a position of being open to it if the Chinese change their approach, but clearly Xi Jinping, and the Chinese leadership of today at least, needs to be chastened and they need to be shown that a more assertive and aggressive approach is not going to pay off.

Tooley: And do you yourself identify as a realist, with some qualifications?

Colby: Yeah, I would describe myself as sort of a conservative realist. I mean, I think realism has to some extent been hijacked, particularly in the academy. You know, I mean obviously there’s phenomenal work being done there, but I think realism in the last couple of decades has become more about the pursuit for a parsimonious explanation of international relations because that’s what the academy prizes, I mean with Kenneth Waltz being the most famous exponent of that. And then in practice, in its political manifestation, is also often more akin to libertarianism frankly than conservatism. I mean, I think if conservatism means anything, it means a recognition of, you know, the limits of what can be transformed: the international environment, the propensity for bad outcomes, and bad behavior if they’re not penalized and if there’s not credible deterrent and counter force available. So I mean, I look back to sort of the more classical realism of, you know, I’ve mentioned Morgenthau and the people kind of around that school. And you still saw until, you know, a few decades ago people like Robert Gilpin, but I think that in that kind of realism you absolutely have to be active in the international environment, because of the notion that if we just kind of retrench and come home and then everything will be fine and dandy overseas. You know, I don’t see how that’s cognate with sort of a realistic, kind of conservative, approach to order and the potential for anarchy and bad outcomes. I do think we need to be much more selective and focused on strategic in our outlook. I mean, so it’s very different from the views of President Clinton, or for that matter President George W. Bush, you know, which is I would see as more of a liberal approach, in the sort of Gladstone sense if you will. But, mine is more, I guess you could look back at some of the Gladstone opponents. I, you know, probably get into trouble with historians if I try to take the analogy too far, but yeah, I would put myself in that camp.

Tooley: And would realism, as it did with the Soviet Union, imply that we would potentially cede to China a certain sphere of influence?

Colby: Yeah I mean, spheres of influence are, I mean it’s a fraught term, I think where a lot of the debate comes in, what I would say is that realism certainly you recognize the fact of other powerful states’ power and the fact that will have implications for the international environment. So, you know, spheres of influence became intimately associated with the captive nations and sort of like letting them go effectively, which I think probably would be justly accused of. I wouldn’t associate myself with that, but I think I would, you know, for instance a country like Mongolia, just to be candid, I think there’s very little that we can realistically do to relieve Mongolia’s very, very difficult strategic position. So, if you’re, you know, talking about Mongolia, I would say there’s things we may be able to help them here and there but there’s ultimately not much we can do. There are probably similar things over the long term in Central Asia, but I’m certainly not prepared to climb to China’s sphere of influence over mainland Asia, or should I say Southeast Asia, and certainly not Maritime Asia, which are covered by our defense perimeter. But I think certainly spheres of influence, to the extent that they imply a kind of a political recognition or sort of formal concession, I don’t think we need to be in that business really at all. I mean, I think one of the areas where ideology can be helpful from, and this is frankly in a kind of instrumental way, is by not giving China a concession to a sphere of influence. I mean, I think one of the things that’s sort of a problem with realists, and this would be academic real estate, probably realest of all types is sort of a tendency to say, “Well if we just understood what Moscow wants and gave it to them, you know, they would be satiated and we could work with them.” And I think there’s, and actually Wess, my partner, has really influenced my thinking on this point that, you know, sometimes, especially if you look back historically, if you’re looking realistically at how other states make decisions sometimes you need to be tough or you need to not concede to them. Now, obviously that’s where statecraft comes in, and sort of the costs and benefits of doing things, but I mean, I don’t think we’re in the business of saying, “Oh, well you just get a free hand in xyz places” and that’ll solve all of our problems. You know we can stand for freedom; we can stand for country self-determination- the point I’m making is Americans should not conceive that we need to make sure that Mongolia and the Central Asian states and Afghanistan and so forth are free democracies and so forth. That’s, you know, critical to our interests; there are limits on what we should be trying to do. You know we can, people can, donate money and try to help here, supply arms, even these kinds of things, but we need to be, as we embark on this probably long-term future competition with China, we need to be careful about the things we, the courses we, set now, as sort of at the beginning because if you, for instance, if you go back to the history on Vietnam and how we got involved there, I think that some, a good chunk of it, was a result of decisions that were made fifteen years, ten years before and sort of got locked in. So, I’m kind of very attuned to trying to avoid some of these, some of these pitfalls.

Tooley: One challenge to your perspective might be arguably because of America’s spiritual and religious nature. It tends, in its competitions with other nations, almost reflexively to see it as a moral, spiritual, ideological challenge. So how do you deal with that aspect of American character that seems to have this almost Manichaean desire?

Colby: Yeah, well this is, you know, as Henry Kissinger puts it “only in America is the term ‘realist’ an epithet.” I think you’re right actually. I was debating Aaron Friedberg, a professor from Princeton who has a more ideological view, and he makes exactly this point. He says, “You’re not dealing with the Americans as they are.” You know, I think Americans clearly have to conceive of themselves in a moral way, and that’s probably true of most countries, but I think it’s certainly true to us to a greater degree. If you go to the famous book by Walter McDougall, I am in the “promised land” camp more, at least in terms of how we should conceive of our moral role in the world- that our primary, you know, sort of aspect is to, or primary mandate, is to demonstrate a sort of moral example rather than a sort of “spread our creed,” which by the way is contested internally, as you know, I think especially in this day and age in which even the most basic American values seem to be under attack domestically. You know in practice, often the evangelization abroad is not what, I mean I think what certainly you and I would see, is what American values are, which is that’s more of an instrumental point, but I think it is important to bear in mind. That said, I think that my approach, the sort of classical realistic approach, actually is deeply infused by a particular kind of morality. It is, which is certainly not only compatible, but cognate with certain traditions in Christianity. In fact, in particular more Augustinian sort of, I mean not to caricature Augustine, who’s a very complicated thinker. And I wouldn’t pretend to be able to speak to this, you know, the fulness of his theology and so forth or his political philosophy. But I mean I think, used in a little bit of the simplistic term, is more conscious of the fallenness of the world from a Christian perspective, and in the sort of tragedy of acting in the world and in practice to use in more contemporary terms, more conscious of the consequences or moral intent rather than the purity of intent I think. You know that’s not the same thing as a purely consequentialist morality because the nature of government and statecraft is that you’re actually acting on behalf of, and with consequences for, other people. So, I think one of the things about Christianity, obviously, can never be compatible with a true consequentialist morality, but when you’re thinking about the state, you’re inherently thinking about the interests of some people as related to other people. And so to my moral, this sort of burden is primarily on the interests of Americans, and I think we’ve kind of gotten off of that for the last couple of decades in particular. This sort of “new world order” thinking, and you know, I would commend the sort of line of critique of people like Senator Josh Hawley, who I think are kind of trying to reroute our foreign policy and, you know, cui bono who’s good. Well, you know, first and foremost the republic should be for the benefit of its own people. I mean, that’s the function of the republic. That’s it’s moral duty. And it’s actually in my view. It’s actually behaving immorally if it’s profligate or not seriously considering the consequences of what would happen if, you know, with its people. I mean, I think the obvious example, of course would be a very painful example, for a concentrated part of our country is wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, if you don’t have a clear end goal and a way to a theory of victory, and we’re still in Afghanistan twenty years later, and some people are still in Iraq, and these are complicated issues. But I don’t think, candidly, I don’t think those wars were conceived and conducted with the kind of mindset that I’m talking about to be totally honest. Having had some very partial and limited junior perspective on that, I, you know, that’s part of the reason I think this way to be totally honest.

Tooley: Elbridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and co-founder of The Marathon Institute, thank you for a very insightful conversation.

Colby: Thanks, Mark.