Elbridge A. Colby (@ElbridgeColby) is a prominent American security analyst who is known for playing a key role in the development of the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy in the Trump Administration. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017 to 2018 and he is the autor of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (2021). He is also is co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, a policy initiative focused on developing strategies to prepare the United States for an era of sustained great power competition. Selfdeclared realist, Colby is one of the most importants voices in the US who supports the focus to challenges posed by China’s rise.
In Descifrando la Guerra we have had the opportunity to ask him about the Sino-US competition, the war in Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East, and many other issues.
– [Q] One of the main topics of your analysis is the US strategy in Asia-Pacific and the rise of China. Why is China´s threat the biggest challenge to the US? Has Beijing the potential to become the number one power in the world?
[EC] I look at things through a realist lens. Realism looks first and foremost at power. Only powerful countries can ultimately present the gravest kind of threats. Looked at through this lens, China is by far the most significant actor in the international system other than the United States itself. It is a roughly peer economy, and is already the largest industrial state in the world. Also, by deduction, the most significant threat China could pose to America –and, by extension other states in Europe and Latin America– is if it could dominate Asia, which will comprise over 50% of global GDP in the future.
If China could attain hegemony over such a large market area, it would dominate the global economy and be able to use that enormous influence to undermine the prosperity and freedoms of even the mighty United States. Importantly, China is very unlikely to achieve this hegemony peacefully. Unfortunately, it is undertaking an historic military buildup to be able to pursue this goal through military force, likely first through Taiwan but not stopping there. It is very clear –for instance based on China’s military force development– that Beijing’s ambitions go well beyond Taiwan. Thus, if the United States loses a war with China in Asia focused on Taiwan the consequences will reverberate far, far beyond that island. Such a victory would comprise a major step for Beijing toward achieve regional hegemony over Asia and, from that position, global preeminence.
Needless to say, if Americans are fearful of this outcome, others in places like Europe should be terrified. I should stress that China’s incentives to try to attain such hegemony over Asia are not surprising to me, as a realist, but that doesn’t mean they are tolerable for us.
– [Q] You have been very critical of the Biden Administration Foreign Policy. What do you think are the main mistakes of the Administration? And the successes?
[EC] The Biden Administration has done some things right, for instance in continuing the tougher policy toward China that began in 2017. It has also advanced relationships in Asia and made some progress in our military shift toward focusing on China.
But overall the Biden Administration is not moving with anywhere near the requisite urgency, scale, or speed to address the threat China poses. I think this ultimately stems from their liberal internationalism in foreign policy and their related lack of emphasis on the importance of the military balance. They appear to think that norms, sanctions, and international institutions will help deter China in Asia. That is an unreasonable assessment. The thing that will deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese military force in Asia is U.S. and allied military force. And, because only Asian states have militaries relevant to Asia, U.S. alliances with Asia are key.
This also highlights another flaw of the Biden Administration, which is a major over-focus on Europe. Europe remains important but we are no longer in the world of 1900, when it was the economic and geopolitical center of the world. Now Asia is. This is very important because if we consolidate our position in Europe at the expense of Asia, this will be a false victory. China dominating Asia will ultimately dominate Europe too. Moreover, Europe will not provide material help in the event of a war with China. As is increasingly clear from the example of Russia, economic sanctions do not really work – certainly not to coerce a resolute and powerful state like China.
Accordingly, even if the European states do try to help America in the event of a war with China by applying economic sanctions on China, those sanctions will not matter very much. And I am also skeptical the Europeans would actually follow through and apply them. Frankly, I sympathize after the economic damage of the war with Russia. My view is that we should ask Europe to focus on ensuring its own self-defense, not trying to “globalize” our alliances.
This relates to another flaw in the Biden approach, which is its hyper-ideological framing of “democracy vs. autocracy.” This is not how the world works. States largely pursue their geopolitical, economic, and security interests. Observe the reaction of the Global South to the Ukraine War. So, this is not an accurate framing. But it also repels potential partners by injecting an overweening moralism into our foreign policy – observe the behavior of Saudi Arabia’s MBS. And it unnecessarily worsens our already very dangerous rivalries with Beijing and Moscow. We should focus on realism, balance of power, which requires strength but also allows for some degree of negotiation and compromise even with our enemies. That is why I ended my book with a vision of “a decent peace” – not the realization of Francis Fukuyama’s dream.
A final criticism I would make is the yawning gap between the Biden Administration’s rhetoric about the threat we and our allies face and what they are doing about it. President Biden speaks as if we are in 1938, but does not call for greater defense spending, is not really overhauling and revamping our moribund defense industrial base, and is not putting real pressure on our lackluster allies in terms of their defense spending. If things are so bad, why does he not do these kinds of things?
– [Q] In your point of view what should be the main focus in the US Asia-Pacific strategy?
[EC] The main focus of our policy in Asia must be restoring our military edge for a denial defense. This sounds old-fashioned but the fact is that – as we see in Ukraine – military force is what matters for determining whether aggression succeeds. Because of this, the other elements of geopolitics are much less important – whether they are high-profile multilateral arrangements, economic measures, etc. These can only work if they are based upon a strong foundation of military strength, specifically the ability to deny China the ability to seize and hold the key territory of an ally or Taiwan.
Yet objective, respected analysts –and indeed some Biden Administration officials– assess we are not in this position. This is extraordinarily dangerous because it makes military aggression more attractive for Beijing. So, our laser focus must be on restoring our military edge. But this will not be easy because China is a huge, peer economy and is undertaking an unprecedented military buildup. We must respond accordingly, as must our key allies relevant to this problem, especially Taiwan, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines. We must all move very fast, very urgently, and at scale to be ready now. China may move as soon as the coming years.
– [Q] Taiwan is a central piece to the US strategy in the Pacific, but you have noticed that Taipei is not ready for a confrontation with China. Do you think there is a real possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan? According to that scenario should the US intervene in favour of Taipei?
[EC] There is absolutely a real chance of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. They are manifestly preparing for it. And there is almost certainly no other way Taiwan will fall to Beijing or that China could break apart the aborning anti-hegemonic coalition. Many security experts fear the coming years of the 2020s are a time of maximum danger of a Chinese assault. Moreover, Beijing appears to expect the United States to intervene, so it is quite possible this would mean a larger regional war, not just a narrow campaign against Taiwan.
The United States should defend Taiwan if it can do so successfully and without suffering crippling losses. Vital to this is Taiwan’s own efforts to improve its own defenses. Yet Taiwan is clearly lagging in this respect. This is an exceptionally dangerous situation.
– [Q] President Joe Biden has said that the US has the capacity to fight a multifront war: Ukraine, Middle East, Asia… Is Biden overestimating the US power? What are the risks for the US hegemony of a multi-front war?
[EC] Yes, he is. The Biden Administration’s own 2022 National Defense Strategy makes clear the United States does not have the capacity to fight a multi-front war effectively. This gets back to my fundamental critique of President Biden: a kind of blase hubris that does not match the gravity of the situation.
If China attacks Taiwan, we should expect other fronts to be in danger. Why? Because Beijing would benefit from American distraction; Beijing has great leverage over Russia, Iran, and North Korea; and because these states have their own reasons to exploit such an opportunity. So we must all be ready. In particular, the Europeans need to step up to take much more responsibility for their own defense, which does not appear to be happening except in a few cases like Poland.
– [Q] There is a new big crisis in the Middle East. What should be the US strategy in the region? If Iran intervenes in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, what should do the US?
[EC] For the reasons laid out here, the United States must not become enmeshed in a large Middle East war. The United States should support its very close ally Israel in its self-defense, and support the ability of countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia in countering Iran. Overall, we cannot reasonably expect the Middle East to be stable, but we still cannot afford to intervene heavily in the region. Regional countries and perhaps select European states like the UK, France, and Italy should take up that burden more.
– [Q] The Russo-Ukrainian War has become a long attrition war. In Washington, there is an increasing reluctance to keep sending more military aid to Kiev. What do you think is the US goal in Ukraine? Do you think the US has to help Ukraine “as long as it is necessary”?
[EC] The United States should support Ukraine in its just self-defense to the extent compatible with a genuine prioritization of the Asian theater and a denial defense against China. Unfortunately, the United States has not done so. Realistically, the United States will need to reduce monetary and military support to enable a greater focus on Asia, especially the defense of Taiwan. Europe should step up to fill this gap. It is manifestly capable of doing so if it has the will. Several European countries have larger economies than Russia. West Germany alone had an army of fifteen divisions in 1988. So this is the major solution. But Washington must make very clear this is the need, and that America will not compromise its primary interests in denying China hegemony over Asia to backfill European lassitude.
I don’t really see a clear, realistic, and compelling strategy for Ukraine right now. Are we seriously expecting to outlast Russia in a war of attrition over Ukraine? That doesn’t make much sense to me. I would look to Ukraine and the Europeans to find the right strategy but consistent with the lower level of American support outlined here.
– [Q] There are many reports of the issues for NATO to continue supplying Ukraine with weapons and ammunition according to the pace of the war. Taking this into account, do you think the US is ready for a high-intensity war? And what about their EU allies?
[EC] The United States is not sufficiently ready for a high-intensity war with China. So that must be the overriding focus for us.
Europe is not ready for a conflict with Russia, but fortunately Russia is only 1/10th the GDP of China and far smaller in economic terms than NATO Europe. It has also been bloodied in Ukraine. So Europe has time and space. Moreover, countries like Poland are showing the way. Other European states, especially Germany, should follow Warsaw’s lead to build a strong European collective defense with a more modest American contribution.
– [Q] You have supported the idea that the EU must take the burden of the Ukraine war effort. Do you think the EU has the capacity to keep helping Kiev without the US leadership?
[EC] Yes, I do. It is a matter of will. European NATO when NATO was far smaller in the Cold War spent far more on defense and had much more formidable militaries. Europe has more than enough economic scale. The current situation in Europe is one of learned helplessness. Washington should make clear we will not compromise our interests in Asia if Europe perpetuates this.
– [Q] The EU has to increase its military capacities to become a real power in the context of the Great Power Competition. You have declared that this would be in the US interest, but a more powerful EU could not be more independent of the US strategy. That would be a risk to the US Foreign Policy?
[EC] I think that would be a good deal, as I laid out several years in Internationale Politik. The U.S. doesn’t need or even want to be dominant everywhere. We need to secure our interests while avoiding become exhausted by being entangled in wars everywhere. That requires strong partners that act with energy and initiative. So strong partners like India and Israel are what we want, not deferential ones that don’t pull their weight.
– [Q] If the Republicans win the next presidential election in 2024, do you expect a major change in the US Foreign Policy?
EC] Yes, I do. The Biden Administration is a kind of Indian Summer of the old foreign policy, one which is manifestly not suited to the challenges of our time. I believe a Republican Administration would follow a more realistic and sensible one focused more on our geopolitical interests and the reality and gravity of the situation.
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