Joshua Walker, who was the global head of strategic initiatives at Eurasia Group and is now president of the Japan Society, spoke about geopolitics and US grand strategy in the G-Zero world at Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in November 2019. The following is a transcript of the lecture. 

But our next and final afternoon speaker is Joshua Walker, who has been with the strategic initiatives at Eurasia group here in Washington, D.C. He is moving on to New York City to head the Japan Society, an exciting new adventure for him. He is the son of missionaries, he was Baptist. He became sort of Methodist, maybe had an Episcopalian phase, uh, so he is Ecumenical and I’m sure he’s got a great message for us. Thank you. 

I feel like now I need to defend myself about all of these different denomination things. I still consider myself a Baptist. I have Baptist heritage, I will not give that up so obviously, the politics has changed a lot of things in this country including the way we talk about religion, which is unfortunate. Um, what I want to talk about is really the idea of grand strategy and I’m going to use my own personal background.  

When we talk about grand strategy, oftentimes we put it in a very, you know, august setting and it’s hard to say anything without acknowledging these very formidable military leaders behind me, right? This is the people who do grand strategy, not some geek dude like me or any of the folks in this room. But I actually think that now in the era we’re living in, grand strategy has never been more applicable to each of you, uh, than it was to these individuals. You’ve got the most powerful weapon in the world sitting right in front of you. You’re trying to avoid looking at it right now. 

That iPhone, that smartphone that you have connects you to the entire world. And I’m going to use my own personal narrative as someone who grew up in Japan with Southern Baptist Missionaries who’ve been there for over 40 years and spent most of my professional life working on the Republic of Turkey, which just celebrate its 96th birthday a couple days ago on the same day that the U.S. Congress passed the Armenian Genocide resolution finally declaring that what happened in 1950 was a genocide. And to think about the worlds colliding in such a different way. 

So by, by a brief biographical sketch, if you read the most recent version of the… the most… edition of Providence, you’ll see an article in there that kind of lays out my experience in Turkey, so I don’t feel like I need to actually get into it. I’ll just do a quick, um, commercial about that in the… the journal that Mark’s already talked about, probably extensively, today.  

But the bottom line is, I felt in many ways that when I left Japan, I was never going to look back. Because Japan in many ways, as you know, was this formidable player that during… before World War II was kind of the guardian of Asia. It was guided in some ways, that generation’s China that was in the 1980s, very much like China is today. The difference is of course in 1980 when Japan was considered to be number one, they were buying up all of Rockefeller Center and all these areas in America, we still had American military forces there. So no matter how heated the economic debates became, you know whether about cars or beef or whatever else, we had the upper hand as Americans because we had military forces, they didn’t have military forces. 

The debate now has dramatically changed, right? Japan has no illusions about being number one and they after the disaster, the triple disasters, it’s called on March 11, 2011, which really was a turning point for me and my life as well because I lost contact with my parents that day. They were in the affected regions, cell phones are just not working, and it happened to be a couple days before my birthday, and not being able to get a hold of your parents kind of shakes you. Sorry for the pun there, but it really shakes you to the core to find out that your parents, who are supposed to be living in one of the most stable democratic countries, um, you can’t reach them. And it made me evaluate what my own calling and life was, my own passion.  

What I realized was it wasn’t necessarily any individual country or people. My parents feel very particularly called to Japan and came to serve there for 40 years. With as little success as they have numerically in Japan, if they had a choice of going to Japan or Korea, I joke that they always made the wrong choice. 50% of South Korea is Christian, about 1% of Japan is Christian. And Japan is one of the most advanced societies in the world where you’re born Buddhist, you’re married Christian, and you die Shinto because that’s kind of fluidity of religion to them. It’s more about formulaic and expressions to them and it’s kind of all roads lead to the same place, which is a very different viewpoint than particularly evangelicals who would take on the world. 

And so for me that… that disaster allowed me to come back and really see Japan through a new lens. But I spent most of my professional career working on a country that most of us equate with Thanksgiving. Because when you say I’m a Turkey expert, your first question is you know, how to carve all the… and there’s all sorts of funny jokes about that. But there’s not really a country that’s as consequential in many ways to the debate currently even in Washington. Now, we’re not really talking about a foreign policy in Washington because we have the Nats on the world series. I go to the other side and you have an impeachment trial. And so, you know, foreign policy’s just not in our purview right now. It’s just not the main focus of what’s going on in Washington. 

But as you know if you live in Washington, or you come through Washington, everybody else in the world knows what we’re doing. Everybody has a strategic relationship with the United States, right? Every country that as an embassy right here along Embassy Row will talk about the U.S. as one of its strategic allies. And we use that term a lot, we have a strategic relationship with Turkey, a strategic relationship with Japan. But really we’re not being very sincere. I think the U.S. cares a lot more about our own internal interests and we’re more tactical. We’re not strategic in our thinking. 

And I think t’s only gotten worse in the last decade because of American domestic politics. What my current boss, Dan Burger, talks a lot about is this concept of a G0 world. You know, you kind of have to play around with words. You have the G7 and the G20. Really, you know, none of those institutions which we have seen very vividly in the last couple years… have really been able to keep the… the system that we think of from making major disasters, right? It didn’t stop the economic crisis back in 2008, it certainly didn’t stop the Syrian crisis that’s ongoing. It didn’t stop the Arab Spring. It really, in some ways, is just an opportunity for those that have to come and talk about those that have not, and not really empower either side.  

And I think anyways as Christians, we fall right in between this, right? There are many of us that are privileged to work in this space where people keep faith, and many of whom are represented in this room. But oftentimes we find ourselves at a loss, because our Christian tradition and our social justice, kind of, side of things, compels us to kind of… to care for the least of these, but those of us that are more hard-headed on the realist side are like okay, how do we deal with this? And that’s kind of where the Christian realism tradition comes out and what you’ve heard about today. 

But I think grand strategy oftentimes is only equated with one side of that equation. It’s kind of like well, if you’re a bleeding-heart liberal and you care about these poor orphans and refugees, you can’t possibly know anything about grand strategy. And I would argue that actually, the same way that my own life and my own work at the State Department and other places has let me, I don’t think that diplomacy anymore is being done just by people in pinstripe suits at the state… the suits at the State Department. It’s done by each of you when you travel around the world.  

When you say I’m a Christian or I’m an American, you’ve just branded yourself. You’ve just unofficially become an ambassador, because everything you do is a reflection of those communities from which you come and the hats which you wear. I think that in the world where it’s increasingly leaderless, where this is not a statement directly about what’s happening in this town. I think in general I can say that we’re lacking leadership. Full stop. In our churches, in our communities, in our nations, we’re lacking leadership.

Now you can blame one individual and say well it’s all Trump’s fault and the populist movement that led to his election, you can blame the Brits for Brexit, you can complain to a lot of different people. But really this… this is about a symptom versus a cause, right? My particular political persuasions will not surprise you having worked for Secretary Clinton, so you know that I was not a big fan of the current President, but he’s our President, right? I want him to be successful. I believe in America’s place in the world and so, unlike some of my other friends who are spending a lot of their time doing other things, I believe that American grand strategy needs to figure out how to maximize our abilities, our resources, to a maximum end, right? 

And I think that one of the challenges that we have when I think about the two countries that I love dearly, and a lot of my professional and personal career in both growing up in Japan from 1 to 18, and then working in Turkey as a Fullbright Scholar, as an embassy official, as a State Department official, and as a scholar and a researcher for over two decades now… I see a tale of two countries, right? If you think about Turkey and in 2002, when I first went to Turkey, who had a new shiny government that came to power led by then mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who basically used his religious beliefs as a devout Sunni to make the case that Turkey needed to unshackle itself from it’s Halal legacy to the secular past that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had found, and that it’s time that the hidden middle class step up.  

In may ways, you could argue that the Anatolian Tigers, so-called in places like Kayseri and many other places in the Anatolian heartland, um, in some ways followed under Calvinist tradition, right? They… they wore their religion on their sleeves. They use it to kind of show that they were not corrupt. The word “white” in Turkish, “ak” is the same as the party in power: Ak Party. So it was basically an implicit criticism of the corruption of the old Turkish system. They swept the power and because of some technicalities they one close to 40% of the vote, but they got close to 70% of the Church Parliament.  

And in a system that has over 20 parties, one party with that high of a number immediately rules, and so they’ve been in power since then. They haven’t let go of power. In fact, if anything, that power has been morphed into one individual, and that mayor that had that bright future, who led Turkey towards the EU promise of the EU membership, and also his ability to kind of look at his surrounding environment and find strategic environments for Turkey to play a decisive role has only been honed.  

But instead of being honed by the West and by its tutelage and by European Tutelage or its relationship with America, increasingly it’s looking more and more to the various authoritarian regimes of the region. Particularly Mr. Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, which is a very dangerous trend in many different ways.  

If I look at this from a purely geographic scope, Turkey has always from the Ottoman times to current, occupied a very unique place, right? When you think about where West and East meet and all the cliches you can think of with Turkey, it’s been part of every major world event. In some sense, this is where the Gordian knot quite literally is, this is where Noah’s ark is rumored to actually be, this is where the Roman empire met its untimely end when the Byzantine empire… the Muslims swept out from Saudi Arabia.  

It was not that the Arabs… others who really made Islam and the Islamic theocracy into a worldwide empire. It was the Turks. And the struggle in the Middle East has never really been about the Arabs and Jews. It’s really been between Persians and the Turks. And right now you see that playing out in spades with Turkey’s role in the world, with Iran’s role in the world.  

Turkey has always been a reliable US and NATO ally is now in danger of no longer being anchored by the West, which you know, my Turkish friends would be very angry at me for saying that, but it’s a statement of reality. When you have an American administration that has a warm personal relation, you know, president to president, but our societies and our governments have never been as far apart up to the point that we’re now about to sanction them and we’re also thinking about ways of diminishing their role despite the fact that they’re the second largest military and maybe the only Muslim-majority nation that plays such a unique and important role. 

Particularly in my own life when I think about the post-9/11 environment, a lot of our policy in Turkey was to do good things in such a way that we could not be accused of perpetuating a global war on Islam, right? By having Turkey with us in Afghanistan, by having Turkey with us in what was coming after the Iraq war, America was trying to have a grand strategy that ultimately did not end very well for us and we still have so-called “endless wars” that are ongoing.  

But I think about the spectacular way in which Turkey has changed and dramatically reoriented itself, not necessarily because Turkey made up to do a choice, but because the environment in which it found itself changed. You think about the Syrian Civil War, that’s a great example. Um, Turkey… There is no country and no leader that is more anti-Assad or Syria than Turkey.  

And it was fascinating because my former professor and someone I consider to be a mentor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former Foreign Minister then the Prime Minister of Turkey, had a term. He used the term “jewel” to describe Syria, and said Syria is the jewel of Turkish foreign policy which, when I was there, basically Turkey was bringing Syria out of the cold and being able to bring it in the linkages between southern Turkey and northern Syria are very robust, to the point that they were… it was visa-free travel, so my friends from Gazea tech could easily jump in a car and drive down to Damascus. Then they could go to many of the Aleppo and areas that used to be these great cities of civilization that have now been reduced to rubble.  

And so, when Assad began his murderous campaign against his own people and the uprising reached its climax, um, while we were debating red lines and resolutions, the Turks were taking action. Now of course, the actions that the Turks were taking were very self-guided and self-directed. They had been very consistent over the last five years, they had been telegraphing what they are about to do in northern Syria for a very long time. There have been no questions about what the Turks believe the White Kajib represent. There is no question what they believe the Kurdish allies of CENTCOM represent. They call them exactly what they are: terrorists. Um, and then he has also had a very clear view on what that means

Turks will tell you that this is not a war against Kurds. It’s hard to believe that given some of the actions of the last couple of weeks obviously, and I think America necessarily now has blood on their hands. This is not the first time we sold out the Kurds. Nor, unfortunately, will it be the last time. And it breaks my heart given that I have so many friends in the region and the problem of course is we all share a similar destiny when I think about the future of the region, right? When I think about the Ottoman empire and what kept that together so well. It was not, uh, a very strong imperial force at the top. It was basically that they allowed the regional rule to take place. 

And I think what I’ve seen in the last couple years has been particularly problematic because, even among Kurdish fighters, there’s not a sense of union, right? The Kurds of northern Iraq, the Kurds of Iran, the Kurds of Turkey, the Kurds of Syria… there is no one unifying force that speaks on behalf. And so, uh, when you have the complete about-face and you have the U.S. President that does not prevent the Turkish forces from entering, we wish we know what was going to happen next.  

I think everybody knew in the security establishment knew what was coming. You then have what we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks and then now you see a case in which the Kurds have basically flipped from being U.S. allies to working with the Russians because they’re realistic. They have to deal with an enemy. If we’re not going to put our troops in harm’s way, it’s not that a couple hundred of Special Forces are going to actually stop the advance of Turkish forces, but it’s a signal. And the Turks will not cross it. They understand the force of the U.S. military, they would not do that. But when President Trump signaled to President Eroman that he was okay and you could take care of your business, it was a real disaster that unfolded.  

And of course, the thing that really is problematic for me in a lot of ways is that I’d say this was a long-term strategy failure. They said okay, we’re going to lose the Kurds and we’re going to get closer to the Turks. This might actually work because Turkey’s got a large military. It’s worth selling out… selling out a friend because of the greater good or whatever the saying you want to use. But instead it actually was a goal, right? Like, you play soccer and you turn around and kick it to your own goalie and then you score. That’s what I’d call it. That’s pretty disastrous. 

And so now we’re trying to pick up the pieces. The irony of course is that as Turkey… as the country and as a civilization that has a population has gone through a very dark period of time beginning with the coup a couple of years ago, coup attempt I should call it, and its estrangement with the U.S., there is positive development. You look at the new mayor of Istanbul, no one would have expected that, I mean, in a country that has been problematic from an authoritarian point of view for a while, you have a new mayor that represents a different political persuasion, different type of party. It’s why it seems that he will probably challenge everyone at some point in time. Looks like, if the trends continue, that you would have a pretty good chance given that the Turkish economy is in a pretty difficult spot. 

But at the same time, Turkey has gone through this monumental re-shifting of its international priorities from going Western and focusing on the West, which is more or less falling apart, right? When you think about European institutions, we think about populism at home and in Europe, we’re weaker than we’ve ever been. We’re more internally focused than we’ve ever been and it’s very hard to trust the United States not just because of what just happened to the Kurds, but when we think about all the things that we’ve been doing.  

Whatever your political view may be about the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade Zone, or whether it’s climate affairs, climate accord, even if you personally don’t believe in those things, there is now a question mark when it comes to U.S. leadership in the world. And while we may have the military powers and hard powers, Professor Nye at Harvard talks about the soft power of the U.S.  

The attractiveness of the U.S. is on the decline. And so while we have amazing institutions and educational facilities, we have Hollywood which I guess produces movies that people watch, and we have pop culture that continues to give us such gems as Kim Kardashian, what American culture and civilization looks like is beginning to look more and more like the decadence of Rome as opposed to the rise. And it concerns me because I am one of these Americans that believes that America’s place in the world is one to be a model, particularly a city on a hill as Reagan and many other presidents before him called about it. 

The one bright spot that I will focus on Japan. Um, Japan doesn’t really have any illusions of being number one, but it does have a… have a role to play as the third largest economy in the world. He went through it’s own disasters as I described it to you in 2011, but as a result of that disaster, the political experiment of the new political party was kind of thrown out and the old guard and the ruling party came back again with a vengeance. And a former Prime Minister that had failed miserably one time before came back and is now about to become a longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.  

One of his keys to success has been that Abe seems to have learned from his past mistakes in that period of time. A lot of his associates will talk to you about the idea that Prime Minister Abe never forgets what it was like to fail so abjectly and to understand what humility truly looks like. In many ways, Japanese grand strategy, if I can put that term on it, is to go beyond their region. They have such a problematic history with its own neighborhood because of the imperial history of World War II and the lead up of what they call the Pacific War that led to Pearl Harbor and all history that we know of. You have deep-seated feelings between Koreans and Chinese and Japanese that you can’t erase, right? These scars are there.  

Obviously, you know, everyone points to the Germany example to the Germans. The Germans did it, can’t you just get past it? Tell that to any Holocaust survivor, you tell that to any Jew that watches the Neo-Nazi movement sort of rising in different parts of Europe. And while they did a much better job than Japan, one of the reasons that Japan left the system the way it was was because of us. We occupied Japan for almost a decade, right? Under McArthur. And you think about the way in which we structured the international order in a post-World War II environment in Asia, that is very much American grand strategy. Whether it’s the Marshall Plan in Europe, or whether it’s the hub-and-spoke model with Asia, Japan has been a critical player in that space, and its own constitution precludes it from having a military force, and yet it’s probably the seventh most… largest and most sophisticated fighting force in the world. That’s not the military. It’s called the self-defense force euphemistically. 

You know, the distinction between offensive and defensive weapons is a little bit strange, you know? It’s like this gun is a defensive weapon that I can shoot and kill somebody with. Well, you know. Semantics, right? And I think what Japan has been able to do is within this, what I call strategic ambiguity, is found a place for itself. So, like, being able to host American military forces that would be on the front lines or the tip of the spear, as they call it, whatever happens in the Korean peninsula contingency or whatever happens with Taiwan. Whatever happens with mainland China, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or any flash point, they’re all coming from Japan. And the fact that there’s this burden-sharing agreement that Japan has willingly paid more of, and there’ll be a bigger debate next year. 

Abe… Prime Minister Abe has really got Trump’s number. He seems to understand Trump better than any other world leader. In other words, he basically flatters him to his face, and when they have disagreements they paint right over. There’s really no overt or direct attack on President Trump, um, and there’s an understanding that we need to work directly with him mano a mano. But then, um, our bureaucracies will do different things, which has been difficult in the national security establishment given the rotating cabinet secretaries and also the number of national security advisors that we’ve seen under this administration. 

So from the Japanese point of view, they just want to stay the course and they want to make sure that no one questions their commitments to the U.S.-Japan alliance. In fact, sometimes they are even more in favor of it. And obviously with the new Imperial Era upon us, there was just the enthronement a couple of weeks ago that was ruined a little bit by the typhoon that came through that none of us in the U.S. heard about…  

There was a feeling that under Raela era, which means beautiful harmony, that Japan will be able to play a larger role. Not necessarily in East Asia, but in what we now call the Indo-Pacific, right? And this is a euphemistic way of basically taking all of the part of that world that’s not Western and putting it together. Because everything from the Indian subcontinent to the shores of Hawaii, Guam, and everything between is now considered the Indo-Pacific.  

Now, it’s hard to call that grand strategy because we don’t actually have the same terminology. When a Japanese person says Indo-Pacific, they actually mean Africa too. In fact, the speech that laid out the Indo-Pacific strategy was actually first delivered by Prime Minister Abe in Nairobi, Kenya about five years ago during the development conference where he made… he said we need to leave these areas together. It was a not-so-subtle alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.  

And what’s interesting is now we as a U.S. government has… have adopted the Indo-Pacific strategy and something like PACOM that used to be Pacific Command has now been transferred to become the Indo-Pacific Command. And so that shows you very clearly from a strategic point of view that we are moving in that direction. As a… As a scholar and a student of history, it’s always very telling, right? The part of the world that I was focused on has been called everything from the Near East to the Middle East and now Southwest Asia, right? Which tells you the perspective, because if it’s Near East, it’s near compared to who, right? It’s East in comparison to the British Empire that defined that term. It was the Middle East in relation, kind of, to U.S. power positioning. It’s now Southwest Asia in relevance to where East Asia is, right? Because the center of gravity is clearly moving to Asia, right?  

So my friend Kura Khan has written “The Future is Asian,” but the bottom line is America has this amazing ability to be both European, Transatlantic, and Asian at the same time. I think that’s a major advantage, and particularly for those of you that are below a certain age, that is where the future is going to be, right? So if you’re asking what languages you should be learning in your classrooms and schools, increasingly it’s going to be Chinese. Increasingly it’s going to be the languages of Asia, whether it’s the fastest growing population in India, or it’s the most lucrative populations, this is where increasingly the center of gravity is going.  

It’s not as much French or German anymore. Most people are not going to Paris or Berlin even though they’re fabulous cities. You go there to enjoy food and enjoy art and culture like you do in Rome, but nobody goes to Rome anymore to learn about grand strategy. We’re learning history. When it comes to the Roman Empire, it doesn’t have any relevance today.  

But I think directly looking at what the future of U.S. foreign policy towards China is going to be direction of all of us are going to struggle moving forward. I think that history is yet to be written from the other point of view, but I increasingly begin to think that that history is not going to be written by what one individual President does here in Washington but by what the mayors and governors of other states and increasingly private sector businesses.  

I would argue that Mark Zuckerberg has more influence in terms of the global empire then sometimes the President of the United States with the ability he has to shape the preferences and guidance and get inside of your mind with the phone you have in front of you and these wonderful little red dots that pop up to notify you get. And we’re literally like primal apes that are like oh, we’ve got to get more likes here. And there are literally studies that show that your mood is affected by these things. 

If that’s not a grand strategic challenge, I don’t know what is. And you think about the ability that companies have to shape our preferences and likes in a very successful PR commercial sense. It makes me wonder how a U.S. government is going to compete with that, because when you look at the Senators who have questioned these tech startup leaders, it’s clear that we’re just in different generations and don’t have even understanding. You know, we watch the Twitter account of the late John McCain, it was basically humorous to watch, right? Because you know that John McCain doesn’t actually do it himself. You know that he doesn’t even use email, and they’re coming up with pithy memes and other things that don’t really fit at all. 

You know, President Trump, none of us question whether he uses that phone, I was living in Asia for that period in diplomacy at that point in time… But I think with some of these leaders there’s a word in Japanese which is “tatemai” which means what we put out in front of everyone which is the screen, and then “hondei” which is the true self.  

And I think the divide between these two worlds has gotten even more extreme on social media. And I think that’s going to play itself out in a diplomatic sense as well where we’ve always had diplomats that have to go and deliver tough messages or smile and say things that may or may not be true, but I have to represent the best interests of my country. Increasingly, we all are having to do that, right? And whether or not you want to represent your own country or your faith or your family or your… any creed you come from, you are going to be called upon because you are your own individual brand. And in a world where each of us has to compete for our own individual brand space, what does that mean when you’re bringing online a billion people at a time, bringing in people who want to have the American dream, the American lifestyle?  

It’s something that we as Americans don’t think as much about although it’s very telling that if you walk a couple blocks over here, you’ll walk by the most powerful house in the world, you will find homeless people literally sheltered right there. And that’s something that all of my international friends point to me, but it doesn’t really strike many of us as being strange despite our faith tradition because we’re so used to it. We’ve become a little cynical and jaded to it.  

So I’ll simply conclude my thoughts and perhaps they’re a little rambling. I apologize. Uh, to think about what making U.S. grand strategies can look like in the next, let’s say century. Because I think it’s really important. If you try to make a decision about the next five years, it’s really hard, right? Right now if you’re an officer in the Pentagon trying to figure out who our biggest adversary is going to be in 2030, and trying to figure out what kind of weapon systems we’re going to need in a world in which nobody’s actually out there on the battlefield. It’s just a bunch of gamers sitting at home and flying the drones. And if that happens, what… what implications does that have for our own morality?  

And how can a Book that’s written 2,000 years ago and a Savior that’s risen that… who we kind of think about in a euphemistic sense… have an actual operational control on this? I think that’s where I see the role of the magazine and the journal like Providence. I see each of you playing the role as people of faith who think about national security rather than running away from it and saying, well, leave unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and let them fight the wars. I think increasingly, running towards that space and thinking about, well, you know, there’s a moral conviction that have… before I start criticizing the Turks for all the things they have done, before I take a speck out of my brother’s eye, I’ve got a big log in my own eye.  

I think right, now it’s very clearly done a full display for everyone from this town to see the problems that we have, the partisanship and the lack of grand strategy, the problems were suppressed. It tends to be… you’ve got to identify some great key phrases early on. If you can’t even call your enemy your enemy, right? Or you can’t even call an adversary your challenger. It’s really difficult. 

So in the case of China, of course… of course you’re not angry at Chinese people. There’s nothing but respect that we have for Chinese culture and civilization, but I think the PLA and the Communist Party that runs China today has been continuing its regime in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and other places around that area need to be called out for what they are and if you’re going to have that kind of euphemism, or saying okay, we’re going to have an economic space and security space. And you know, in the security sphere, we’re adversaries. On the economic sphere, we can have a win-win, well that plays right into the hands of debates such as 5g or AI or supercomputing, because that is the battlefield of the future. And so if you are allowing a so-called “commercial entity” that is taking direct back to the Chinese state to do different things, then we’re not playing on the same field. 

And I think that’s where a country like Japan is actually a little bit ahead of the curve. Right? Asians don’t tend to punch you in the face, right? That’s not the style of fighting that the Japanese have. There’s a reason they’re called ninjas, right? They’ll kill you in your sleep. You won’t even see them coming, okay? And one of the things I find most fascinating when it comes to Middle East politics or even fighting, you walk up to the person, you tell them you hate that person, you punch him in the face, and then you go have a beer afterwards, right? And since they’re Muslims they’re not supposed to be drinking, and so okay, we don’t tell anybody. Right?  

Where as in Asian culture, generally you… you never say anything direct. You never say anything insulting to anybody’s face at least. But then, when they’re not looking, you stab them in the back. And so in some ways I think that’s exactly what we’re confronting. Americans tend to think of ourselves as straight shooters. We call it like we see it. The problem is sometimes that has direct ramifications.  

And I think in the case of North Korea, right? In the Peninsular context, putting on this charade of a conversation only delays the inevitable which is that we clearly don’t have the same view on things. So either North Korea is going to become a new type of regime that is acknowledged and has it’s own place to play in the world as a realist power, or there’s going to have to be change at some point in time that’s going to be driven mostly from Beijing.  

When I see Russia today, there’s no love lost between the Russians and Chinese. The biggest threat that most Russians feel is from China. There’s only 3 million Russians living in Siberia. There’s well over 100 million Chinese that are right along their border. So they’d love to just walk right across their border and take that part over. And yet somehow, the U.S. foreign policy up until now has done an amazing job of bringing these two powers directly together. And if you look at the foreign policy space, the two greatest winners in the last decade at least have been China and Russia whether it’s the war in Iraq, whether it’s the Iran competition, whether it’s North Korea.  

Whatever it is, we seem to be on the wrong side of history on all these areas. And I’m not just talking about the wrong side of history from a moral point, but I’m saying from the actual strategic point of view we are lightning years behind where we were at the beginning of the Cold War when the fathers of grand strategy and foreign policy thinking like George Kennan and others were walking these streets that we walk now.  

And I’ll return to where I began on the lack of leadership. It’s my hope that there is a new generation in this room and beyond that can meet us there. A little obviously pessimistic at the moment but I’m an optimist at heart. Thankfully, I’ve got 10 years to spare. My prediction is the U.S. is going to be going through one of these moments where we look at ourselves internally a little bit like after Watergate and the Vietnam War. They kind of showed our fundamental faith in ourselves. That’s not a prediction on what the impeachment means, so I’ll only state that no matter what political party wins the next election, it’s going to be more about domestic politics and we’ll increasingly lose our face and our ability to shape the world outside.  

And what it means is 10 years from now we have this amazing opportunity. And I am an optimist; I never think we should bet against the United States of America both in terms of just the raw talent and also the resources. You can’t pick, you know, a continent or a space between, you know, one sea is the Atlantic and the Pacific and having neighbors like Canada and Mexico to kind of have one of these land masses and be the superpower we have been without acknowledging how blessed we are in the sense of the providence which we have.  

Thank you very much. So I think we have five minutes or so if we want to stay on track. I’m happy to take questions if anyone has them or if I’ve not completely depressed you. And if you can introduce yourself, that will also help me. 


Question: Gordon Middleton, Patrick Henry College. Um, certainly some reports coming out of Turkey about the amazing move of God’s presence and spirit there in Muslims coming to faith. At the same time, as you described, the government tends to be on a trajectory going toward a harder Islamic law. Can you confirm either of those, perhaps the first or the second, however you want to address that? And perhaps going from grand strategy to cosmic strategy, um, how do you see those two vectors interacting, and what does that potentially look like for the future?  

Answer: The first thing I have to say is I had a dear friend who went to Patrick Henry who played on your basketball team many moons ago when I played basketball and we went to Brazil together. He was the best player we ever had and we’d never heard of Patrick Henry College until then so I have a lot of respect for you guys.  

Response: So Patrick Henry College is known for its basketball players? 

Answer: Clearly, right? It’s just where I was at. It’s really not that good as far as playing goes. Um, the first part: I think I addressed it a little bit in the article that I write about. Um, if you’re looking for numeric indicators, Turkey is not a very optimistic place in the world, right? It’s literally illegal to be a missionary. The term “missionary” means to convert somebody with the sword that came to them in the Crusades. So when I described what my parents do, which is kind of awkward, right? What do your parents do? Oh yeah, they’re murderers who use a sword to convert people… That’s not what I wanted. So I said my dad is a pastor and my mom is a first grade English teach, because at the time that was functionally what they do. Lot of respect for them, they’re people of the Book, great, wonderful. 

You know, Istanbul’s one of these amazing places where you can go to Asia and Europe in a couple minutes. And also, you can like, throw a stone between a mosque, a synagogue, and a Church, whatever type of Church you want to find. The problem is, as we saw at the end of the Brunson, the… Pastor Brunson the… whatever term you want to use… hostage, faith opponent, whatever… And he’s coming out with a book and it will be interesting to read his experience. But clearly, there’s a suspicion, to put it lightly, of the people of faith in Turkey whose entire mission is focused on converting people. 

My approach on this, and I had a privilege working from the U.S. embassy office. At times I would come across Christian workers there who were there on non-missionary visas but were doing missionary work. Which from my perspective as a Christian, we’re all called to be missionaries, right? Just because the Southern Baptist Commission pays my parents’ salary, doesn’t mean that we get a pass, right? Just because I give to the Lottie Moon doesn’t mean that I can be like well I don’t need to tell anybody about Christ’s love, right? We’re all called to do that. We have a pretty lazy and very American way of doing things. 

So I got pretty heated with some of my colleagues who were over there who would say they’re working an “import export” business and did no business because, I’m like, you just look foolish. You’re a horrible businessman, so if you’re going to use the title of businessman, do it well. I think the Mormon Church is a great example. They do it for the laity. There’s no Mormon who’s over there as a mission. They are there doing work teaching English. They actually are running businesses, doing all of these things.  

So if you’re going to… if you’re going to convert Christians, and I think the… the point you’re referencing… there is… I mean, God can move in miraculous ways, and actually the tougher and more difficult it is, the better, all right? I think about my experience with Palestinians, right? There’s no people in the world that have suffered more than the Palestinians. Whatever that political statement may be. But you think about the heart of Christianity, it’s some of our most historic sites, whether it’s in Bethlehem or in others. When people think about Jesus as a Christian, most people think about Him looking like most of the people in this room. I guarantee Jesus was not this light-skinned, right? He lived in a part of the world that they resembled much more the people of Israel today and Palestinians.  

And I think the challenge has been that oftentimes in our own American, Christian understanding of things, we believe you have to do things our way. This American exceptionalism is not just for foreign policy. It’s in our Christian faith too. And when I think about the Global South and the rise of Christianity, increasingly we’re not in the driver’s seat of foreign policy or even Christian doctrine these days. We’ve seen very clearly the Methodist Church, right?  

I think it’s very interesting to watch how Christianity is working in Turkey because literally if you go to Cappadocia, this is where St. Paul… you know, Antioch, the very first Church in the world was in Turkey, right? In Antioch, which is right close to where a million refugees from Syria huddled around these caves where St. Peter started his first Church and the Catholic Church grew.  

And you go from that period of time to today, where I think, numerically, there’s only 7,000 Christians who go ahead and name… In Turkey, you have to put your religious Creed because that’s a legacy of the Ottoman period. There are a lot of people who have some Muslim on their card that are very much like people here who are calling themselves Christians but don’t particularly have a community of faith. But don’t particularly have any real persuasion but they like to Celebrate Christmas and Easter but don’t have a personal faith.  

And so in many ways I find it much easier to work in a place like Turkey where it’s so dry and so… so clear-cut. You know, I prayed before most of my meals and I would invite my Muslim friends to do that with me. They thought it was the greatest thing ever. This is amazing. We have… we have a prayer that we say but it’s kind of formulaic and we just kind of chant. We don’t actually have a meaning behind it. You actually think about what you’re saying and you bless this food and talk about the people that are around there and you’re able to actually have a personal relationship with your God? That’s awesome! That’s appealing. But increasingly, it’s harder and harder to get people that have that cross-cultural and cultural ability. 

And it kind of hurts me a little bit to say this, but I just feel that the Americans I see increasingly of faith, and the idea that they have going over there is to basically take a Bible to the middle of the streets and start thumping people upside the head with it without realizing that you’re really making it difficult for the indigenous Christian population. You’re actually hurting them if you come all the way from Texas – I’m not picking on Texas, I love Texas – they would come over here and they would go to the street corner, and they almost wanted to get arrested because it was a great story to tell back home. “I was like in the country where Paul got arrested and I got arrested too.”  

That may be great for you and for the embassy official who had to get your sorry bottom out of jail. It’s annoying to me. But what does it do to the other Christians? Because then they’re like oh yeah, you need outside support. Oh yeah, that Andrew Brunson, he’s working for CIA but he’s… he’s related to the coup. So I don’t blame, kind of, Andrew Brunson or his family for their work. He has a passionate heart for the Turkish people. Even now, despite everything that’s happened to him, he preaches forgiveness. Right?  

And when you look at the defining moment in U.S.-Turkey relations for the last three years under this President, President Trump, the Brunson Affair is kind of the top one. And so I think there is a role and a special place that we all have to play but we need to play it from a sense of humility and a sense of understanding the region. Um, I probably lost track of the second part of your question. What was it… Okay great. Maybe time for one more question? 

Question: Chung Won-Li from South Korea. So I’ve got a question about you personally. So I guess IR liberals and many who are in South Korea would be worried about what they view as almost like a fulfilling outcome of hawks… um, U.S. hawks, um, reached a broader strategy on China but they fear that what could be avoided actually becomes a reality. More U.S. government hawkish by China, and China bounces back while equally hawkish and the countries in the middle can transpire. So, in your view, do you believe that U.S.-China’s Second Cold War is inevitable, or is something that, with reasonable prudence and cooler heads, can be clear… can be prevented?  

Answer: So two things. Unfortunately, we’re already intent on Cold War. Right? We can’t avoid that. China’s already made it very clear that the great Chinese firewall will prevent anyone from entering and we have to to make choices. The 5G is a great example, right? Uh, the recent action of the Administration against Huawei is a very clear indication that anything that you do or say on any Chinese network is no longer over, right? It is clearly being controlled and used. Now, we can make the case that Apple also has this treasure trove, but really this is not a competition between Washington and Beijing. This is a competition between Beijing and Silicon Valley, alright? I would argue that GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon – have a lot more in that struggle than anybody else watching it has, and we’re just trying to play catch-up.  

Having said that, we’re not quite at the Cold War yet, right? And it’s very different, right? Because the Soviet Union was economically cut off from the rest of the world, and the “free world” as we called it, the leader of the free world was back here in Washington and really was able to mobilize people. 

So our grand strategy, my professor at Yale John Gettis, talks about empire by invitation or empire by force. The Soviet Union was the route by force. And you literally forced everyone behind an iron curtain to be part of their… their side. Whereas Americans generally were invited in. Now sometimes we invited ourselves, we stayed a little longer than we should have, but more or less… If you have to make a choice in the world between who you were going to go with, the Americans were the most benign influence. 

My fear of what’s happening now goes back to my point about leadership. We’re lacking leadership everywhere. Right? I don’t actually think Xi Jinping is a particularly strong leader. Right? That’s a controversial statement, but I don’t think he is. I don’t think a strong or visionary leader like Mao would have let the province in Hong Kong persist the way they are. I don’t think the Uyghur problem would get to where it is.  

Yes, I don’t believe there’s been some sort of flowering and opening for these things to happen, but they were pretty mismanaged, right? And what’s amazing to me is instead of being able to take that to our advantage, we actually, like bungled even worse, right? What I mean by that is we are driving ourselves into a world in which we are exactly what you said, in which we are self-possessing strategy. 

And you said you’re from South Korea. Let me just point this out. There is no bigger strategic threat to U.S.-China then what’s happening right now between South Korea and Japan. These are our two closest allies in the region and what’s happening? They’re going at a Cold War at each other. You as a South Korean going to Japan will be accused of different things, right? Japanese buying South Korean products will be accused of not being loyal. That’s absurd.  

We have more military forces – the army on the Korean peninsula, the air force and navy on Japanese Islands, than anywhere else in the world. And yet we’re allowing this to go back and forth. Now, you could say well we’re not… that’s not our problem. That may be true. But these are two key allies that now don’t have an intelligence-sharing community anymore.  

So I don’t particularly have a fond view of President Putin right now, obviously. But I also don’t have a fond view of the Japanese began by putting in moral whiteness. There were mistakes made on both sides. And the thing that’s most egregious to me, because I’m not Japanese and I’m not South Korean, is the lack of U.S. leadership. And that lack of leadership is present everywhere that we’ve seen. Right? And to me, the South Korea-Japan situation is far worse. 

Now, I can make the case that South Korea is no longer a U.S. ally because it’s already in China’s orbit, right? I mean, think about the level of integration between the Chinese economy and South Korea, and you think about these different things going on… I could basically look out 20 years and see a scenario in which South Korea would much rather get along with its more powerful neighbor to the North and its neighbor to the North immediately, the North Koreans, than have some type of peace settlement. Because if a peace settlement is going to be a preemptive strike, a bloody nose, so to speak, to South Korea, that’s probably not South Korea’s interest because of the lives that we’ve lost.  

But I still believe, maybe naively, that the U.S. power in this region is not necessarily by forcing people to do things, but by providing good offices and opportunities to drive in that direction. When I think about South Korea’s economy and how interlinked it is to the Japanese, and I think of the people in this town who are making lots of different decisions about how to deal with the fallout from the pushback against China and the supply chain, the last thing we need right now are the two most powerful allies we have there, and the two biggest economies going at it like children. So, that might be a little harsh but it’s kind of what I feel right now.