In this episode of True North, Daniel Strand and Marc LiVecche speak with The Marathon Initiative co-founder and principal Elbridge Colby to discuss his recent National Interest essay, “Interest, Not Values Should Guide America’s China Strategy.” Bridge reflects on the differences between alliances and partnerships, why aligning even with regimes with less-than-ideal human rights records or liberal values can be both prudent as well permissible, and how such interest-focused partnerships don’t necessarily violate moral principles. In conclusion, Bridge provides a keen description of the role of faith in foreign policy relations and strategy decisions.


Elbridge Colby, “Interest, Not Values Should Guide America’s China Strategy,” The National Interest, April 25, 2021.

Elbridge Colby, “Containing China Will Be Complicated,” Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2020.

Marc LiVecche, Rebeccah Heinrichs, Elbridge Colby, and Matthew Kroenig, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons? A Happy Hour Discussion,” Providence, December 1, 2020.

Mark Tooley and Elbridge Colby, “Elbridge Colby on China and Ideology,” Providence, September 13, 2020.

Rough Transcript

LiVecche: Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of True North, a Provcast within the Providence universe. I’m executive editor Marc LiVecche, and I am here with two friends, Dan Strand, contributing editor to Providence and down at the Air War College, and Elbridge Colby, or Bridge Colby. And Bridge, I should have asked even before we started, how unprofessional, but where are you now and what are you doing?

Colby: I’m at the Marathon Initiative and we are a non-profit initiative focused on developing strategies for the country for a period of Great Power Competition.

LiVecche: Fantastic. Well, it’s good to have you back. You’ve been on the Provcast before, and I look forward to today’s conversation. The genesis of today’s conversation, Dan Strand sent me an essay by Bridge out of the National Interest, and the subject had to deal with alliances and partnerships and values and interests, all sort of focused on China. And so, Bridge, if you can just give us the thesis of your piece to start things off. What are you talking about in that essay?

Colby: Sure. I think the starting point for my piece is that I think there’s a fair amount of consensus that we now need to focus on a period of strategic competition with China. The Biden Administration has pretty clearly signaled that it’s going to take up the Trump Administration’s line in large part, obviously, with some differences, but in the thrust is basically going to be the same. So, then the question becomes, I mean, there are obviously multiple questions that come out of this, but one of the big ones is how do you deal with a state that is as enormously powerful and wealthy and continues to grow as China. And of course, the answer is allies and partners in some way or another. I think everybody, most everybody, says well, we have this unparalleled advantage of allies and partners, but that is different than actually that leading to meaningful sort of political or strategic outcomes. I think the differences say we’ve had with Germany over the last years or Japan’s low level defense spending show that just because you’re an alliance doesn’t mean you’re actually gaining the full benefit. So, what’s the theory of the case for dealing with this? Well, my impression is that the Biden Administration actually has a pretty clear theory of the case, at least rhetorically. It’s unclear necessarily how much they’re actually going to pursue it. But certainly if you look at the president’s speeches, Secretary of State Blinken to some extent, National Security Adviser Sullivan, they’re basically saying look, alliances are bound together by shared values, particularly democracy, or at least as they construe it, and that that commonality of values will drive or impel countries to align together no matter where they are, no matter what their situation is, largely speaking to confront China and, as Secretary Blinken has said, protect the rules-based international order. I just think this is not going to work. I don’t think that’s the right diagnosis of the case, and I think that’s an empirical sort of positive assessment of the international environment, which is that states naturally look primarily to their own their own interests, generally, obviously, their security interests, but also their more direct economic interests. And that they tend to be particularly motivated to deal with challenges in their more immediate area. And so, political affinity or ideological affinity can help, but it’s generally a secondary or even maybe a tertiary factor in a lot of cases. So, I think instead what we should do is orient our overall sort of balancing effort against China primarily in Asia by looking at the states that share a very direct interest in confronting or pushing back on China and are willing to put skin in the game about it and have capacity to do so, either active or latent. And if you look at those countries, those countries don’t always share at least what Blinken and the president are saying is our ideological, I mean obviously there are big differences within the United States, so leaving that critical issue aside. But I mean, countries like India, obviously, there’s a lot of opposition to the Modi government, particularly on the left in the United States. Vietnam is a communist dictatorship, but it’s also pushing back on China in a lot of ways. The Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, etc., etc. But from my point of view, look, the main goal here is balancing and checking China’s ambitions and aspirations to dominate the region and then from there to be able to be dominant in the world. The key is to work with those who are capable and willing, and so, that’s a much different point of view from that. I have kind of three lines of effort which are pretty intuitive. One is to grow our network of partnerships; partnerships generally means it is kind of a more informal relationship, like our partnership with Vietnam or India. And where strictly necessary, our alliances. Alliances at least in the defense department terminology are countries with which we have a formal security treaty or something kind of like it. Taiwan is sort of a, think of it as a quasi-ally, it’s almost an ally but doesn’t have a formal treaty anymore. So, we grow those wherever possible and sort of urge them to take action or effort or responsibility where their interests are, where they’re willing to do something, and where they’re capable of doing so. Instead of trying to get Australia to operate in the Middle East, we should get Australia as it already is to operate in the South Pacific and the South China Sea. India, instead of dragging India into the Western Pacific or trying to get it to share our position on Russia, let’s have India kind of focus on South Asia and back them up there. In the Middle East, if the Emirates and the Saudis are willing to take a leading role, as well as of course the Israelis, in pushing back on Iran, well, let’s help them do that. And if we don’t like some things that they’re doing, well, we’re going to have to pick our battles. And then the third part to that point is let’s empower these states in particular that are willing to do something about it but may lack the capacity. So, Vietnam, I mean, I’m not a fan of communism to say the least, but this is what we need right now. So, let’s empower them in their ability to resist China. India, there are a lot of things that many people would object to that are going on within India, but look, pick your battle. Let’s empower the Indians. Ditto with the Emirates and the Saudis, of course. The terrible civil war in Yemen, and I don’t want to under understate the gravity of what’s happening there, but the most important thing that any of us can contribute in the geopolitical environment is preventing China from dominating the world. So, that’s sort of the layout of the case. I think it’s going to be more effective. In some ways, I kind of think even since I wrote the article the Biden Administration seems, I don’t know, initially they put up a freeze on arm sale of the Emirates, and they put the Saudis in the freezer for a little bit, they were kind of sending some signals to the Israelis even, but now they seem to be, I don’t know. I think we’re early in the administration, so part of what I was trying to do is send a sharp message to hopefully try to push back from their going overboard. Given the nature of the Democratic coalition, they’re going to have pressures within that coalition to push some of these issues. But I think there are people in the administration, who would be influential in the administration, who are more receptive to my kind of thinking. So, hopefully in addition to kind of lobbing some javelins at them, I also hope it’s productive in producing hopefully a better US policy.

LiVecche: Very good. I appreciate the number of pivots you make in the article, and most of them can be somewhat subtle, from Europe to Asia. You have the phrase, “moving hearts is going to be insufficient. We need to move mind and muscle, and the hearts might follow.” But in the meantime, we’ve got to make some strategic priorities. It’s an argument that’s going to sit uncomfortable with some, because they’re going to hear things that I think you’re not necessarily saying but they’re going to give themselves permission to hear. So, when Dan sent me the article there were some questions that he had about how various audiences might hear this. And so, Dan, if you could cue up some of those concerns that you think might emerge from a misreading of Bridge’s article?

Strand: Yeah. So, I read it and I think it’s sensible mostly. In terms of the substance, I was nodding, but then I put myself in the shoes of kind of your ordinary, average, everyday Christian, whatever denominational affiliation, or I think about certain kinds of more intellectual, especially people associated say with like The Gospel Coalition or Christianity Today. I’m evangelical, so I’m thinking more of this this audience at least, and when I read stuff, I’m always thinking how can I get these people more interested in these questions. Because they are tangentially, but this is what we’re trying to do in Providence. We’re trying to say this stuff really matters, and in some ways, it’s hard because they can’t just take theology and apply it to international relations the way you can to say social justice. At least the connections are a little bit more natural. There’s a lot of middle steps you need to take between these more domestic type issues where I think you can kind of work within your theological framework and make some moves, but then these international things just seem hard. So, anyway, that’s a little background of kind of what’s going on in my mind. The first question I think would be, or at least the first question that I think these people in my head are thinking, is great power competition, national interests, economic interests, working with shady countries, how can we square this with a sense of ethics or morality as being something that should guide us in what we do? And these interests sound pretty shady, I don’t want to work with the Saudis, I don’t want to work with these countries where like India is not treating religious minorities, minorities in general, very well right now. We all know sort of the dirty hands and nature of this type of stuff. So, that would be one box, maybe speak to that. And then the other kind of question I have would be how, and I know that you do this so maybe just get into your own kind of position on it, but how do we square a sort of realist, interest-based, and I guess this is connected but this might be a little bit more academic, which is how do you square a sort of realist based approach, which the realist analysis I usually find myself nodding to, I think empirically maybe not all the way down but I usually find it persuasive, so that’s why I call myself a Christian realist in part is because I think it’s just right. I think that’s the way nations behave. The way that liberal internationalists describe it I just don’t think is accurate. Nonetheless, I do have my own kind of reservations about giving a realist, lack of sort of the interest-based analysis that does seem to just say this is the way nations behave and that’s what we’re going to deal with. We’re just going to deal with the way nations behave. And I know in your article you’re focused on the interest point. You don’t say ethics don’t matter or morality doesn’t matter. But I just wonder if you’d say a little bit more how we might include, bring along, in part I’m thinking of Samuel Huntington’s kind of clash of civilizations, whatever people make of that thesis. I do think he’s right in a sense, that just civilizations have certain kind of shared values. I think maybe most of us would agree with that, right. And the great power competition with China really is about the fact that you have two pretty fundamentally different world views going on here. And I want to say isn’t part of what we’re doing defending what we take to be some pretty core, important aspects of our civilization, which includes ethics, which includes just the whole package of what we described as sort of Western? And where does that fit I guess in your proposal?

Colby: Great. Thanks for the thoughtful comments and questions. Much of what you’re saying really resonates with me. To start off, first off I would say that the kind of realists that I identify are very moral, and I don’t mean that defensively. But Walter Lippmann apparently said to Hans Morgenthau, “You’re not a cold-hearted realist. You’re the most moral man I know.” And of course, quoting Weber in the context of Christianity is fraught, but I think he makes the point which is his famous essay on the ethic of responsibility, and I think it’s called something else, like “Politics of Vocation, but basically the idea being that political leaders are essentially people who are responsible for other people I think have to account for consequence. Now that is not a pure consequentialist morality. That is not a kind of a Benthamite approach, but it is saying that if you are responsible for other people, it is not only the purity of your intent that matters. This is Aristotle and St. Thomas, so it’s not a radical idea, but it’s a kind of practical judgment approach. So, I would say the morality of the kind of realism that I’m talking about is form of that, and also by the sense about to whom are we responsible. And this is one of the main things that really frankly irritates me about a lot of the sort of rules-based international order. More than irritates. But rules-based international order kind of rhetoric is like I’m sorry, to whom are you accountable? We have a democracy, we have a republic, you are responsible to the American people. Now they should not do evil to others, but it is they to whom the leaders of this country are accountable and should be primarily serving their interests, like in the way that a father or mother is primarily responsible for their family and should be taking account of the circumstances. If a parent has the most beautiful intent but leads to the ruin of their children, we don’t admire them, obviously. So, it’s that kind of morality that I think is the proper morality of the realist. It’s almost like a category error. Often when people say oh, we should do this thing that’s self-defeating and costly that isn’t connected to the interests of the Americans but has some kind of a moral claim, it’s like well, wait a minute, how is that connected? That’s an improper calculus. In a sense to me, it’s not to say that we shouldn’t be thinking about that in some cases, but it’s not the fundamental purpose of the republic and I think moral behavior within the republic. So, that’s how I tend to think about that. Then I think to myself well, by far the most consequential threat to the well-being, the common welfare, of the American people over the long term is the only power that could essentially force us to do things that we don’t want to do in a really macro way, and that is China. And in case there were any doubt about China’s intent and so forth, the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, leaves no doubt about what kind of government it would be. One of the arguments, I get in a lot of these ideology versus interest arguments, but it’s kind of like well, the best way to preserve our ideology is for us to be successful. So, even if you’re really, really sort of ideologically-focused, you’ve got to make sure we win, right. And then there’s arguments about how relevant ideology is in competition and so forth. I tend to think less than many people think, but I think that’s really important. Realism as I understand, and certainly as it’s developed say over the last century, is very distinct. In a way, it’s almost the antithesis of a kind of machtpolitik, which if you go back, I don’t speak German unfortunately, but my impression is there’s a difference between realpolitik and machtpolitik. Realpolitik, and certainly realism as it’s evolved, is kind of a clear-eyed recognition but almost like a little bit of a tragic sensibility precisely in order to avoid living in the world of unfettered power politics. Machtpolitik, the power of just unbridled power, that truthfully or not, people think of say like the Wilhelm in Germany or japan or something, or of course Hitler. That’s what we don’t want. But the way to avoid the machtpolitik is not idealism. That was not to be simplistic, but the pacifism of the 1930s enabled machtpolitik. So, I think that’s the argument there. A clash of civilizations, I actually don’t think it’s a clash of civilizations I think empirically if you look at how states are behaving. I actually was a big fan of professor Huntington, and I took his class actually when I was in college. I’m a great fan of a lot of his scholarship. Not that he needs it from me. He was a titan and revolutionized the field in multiple ways. But I just don’t think that’s how states are wracking and stacking. I mean, if you look at it, Japan is growing closer with the United States, India is growing closer with the United States. That basically is about geopolitical interest and threat perception, and frankly, if you go back to the history of Western Europe, you had Catholic France aligning with the Lutheran king of Sweden and the electors and the Protestant rebels against the emperor. And frankly, even the Turkish alliance at the time, when the Turks were like the bywords for savagery in Europe. Obviously, these kinds of ideologies, probably not always the right word, but these sort of intellectual differences or cultural differences can play in, but I tend to think they’re in most secondary and sometimes tertiary. Your friends or colleagues or whatnot at say Christianity Today, I think international politics, I’ve actually come more and more to think it’s actually not that, it’s politics all the way down. There are certain differences, obviously there are differences in the domestic environment because of sort of constraints placed on what you can do that you can’t in the anarchical environment of international life generally. As the Bible says, I’m going to send you out as lambs among lions, or what have you. Christians need to reckon with reality, and from there, be able to defend Christian life as appropriate, which I think is increasingly in question in important respects. But also, contribute to the public discussion in a way that is connected with reality, right. This sort of idea of complete, and I’m not saying that’s what you’re saying your colleagues are like, but a complete removal in engagement with political life and political reality is not where Christianity has evolved over, I mean, it’s not a natural evolution that we’ve always felt that we had to reckon with. It’s reality; it’s very difficult. Most of these questions don’t have clear answers. Not to get too arcane, but I sometimes go back to the emperor of Theodosius I think defeated one of the barbarian armies and executed the survivors of whoever it was, and Saint Ambrose later I think he actually may have even excommunicated him, which that was like a direct threat by a marauding pagan army. And one of the most famous doctors of the church excommunicated the emperor. So, it’s a tension that we live with and have been living with for 2,000 years.

LiVecche: Yeah, that’s fantastic. You’ve pretty much eliminated every follow-up question I had for you. I appreciate it. You get to the heart of the tensions I think within Providence, right, what does it mean to call an ideology or a disposition Christian realist, in the sense that Christianity permeates all of life. Christian baking, Christian music, Christian gardening, right, Christian Realism. I think you’ve given a great discussion on what it means, and what it is that I think Providence is after. That these things, interests and values, are not binaries. Maybe the one question that I would conclude with is, and I think you touch on this in your essay, is somebody could lament that we’re partnering and making strange bedfellows with regimes that we don’t necessarily have a lot in common with in terms of values and that maybe we should somehow compel them to change before we partner with them. You take that into account and you suggest look, there are ways that regimes can change by compelling them to, by not selling them the weapons they need in order to procure their own defense, or using sort of strong-arm tactics as one strategy. And it may or may not work. History suggests it doesn’t work. There’s also the power of inspiration. And maybe partnering with us, and I guess to ask it as a question, is a nation like Vietnam, in terms of the possibilities of its liberalization, is it better off partnering with the United States or not? And what influence can the United States have in the midst of that partnership focused on shared threat interests and such things in changing and nudging Vietnam toward a culture in which human beings can flourish?

Colby: Well, I think you’re exactly right. And actually, this goes back to a point that Huntington made in his book The Third Wave, diagnosing where a lot of the moves towards democracy came from, particularly in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And basically as the Cold War went down, I guess more the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I think you’re right. Look, I think countries that are aligned with us, it goes back to the Peloponnesian War, if you’re aligned with us, the air is going to be democratic. And our values, because we are the predominant player in our camp, and our key allies as well are going to be, it’s going to exert a pole function, even more if we’re successful. Huntington made this point. Most of the societies that democratize, or many of them in the ‘80s and ‘90s, did so as the Soviet Union collapsed. So, that basically showed the United States as kind of the main sort of draw and also limited the downsides to our exercising leverage. But the key point was winning the Cold War, right. So, like in the 1980s, when South Korea, I mean, in the 1970s and ‘60s we overlooked the military coups and pretty nasty stuff in South Korea for instance, because it was too important. Whereas in the late 1980s, by the time the Cold War was winding down, we took a different position. And the South Koreans knew that. Same in Taiwan. The Taiwanese, Chiang Kai-shek’s son, he realized that he was toast, Taiwan was toast, if it didn’t move towards the United States. I’m simplifying a little bit. Ferdinand Marcos, Reagan was a friend of Marcos, but the tide was going in that direction. There wasn’t really enough of a good reason to push back against it. Similarly, I assume Pinochet in Chile with similar dynamics at the same time. So, the best way to promote democratization is to make sure we do well in this big competition with China. It’s not to say China’s going to fall apart, I’m skeptical that’s going to happen. But, I mean, there’s a number of leading Democratic senators who just introduced a bill against selling arms to human rights violators. I’m not exactly sure what the criteria are for that, but that kind of thing can have real ramifications where it matters. If we can sell weapons to the Dutch, it doesn’t matter. The countries that need to really be strong are the ones that are trickier.

LiVecche: That’s right. And I suppose the correlate, if we don’t sell them weapons in order to protect themselves then they’re going to align with somebody who doesn’t threaten them. So, we end up pushing them.

Colby: That’s going to be the dynamic, yeah.

LiVecche: Elbridge Colby of the Marathon Initiative, Dan Strand at Air War College, thank you guys both for an invigorating conversation. Thank you for the essay; I hope it changes minds and moves muscle.