Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – In an episode of battlegrounds earlier this month, Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow H.R. McMaster was joined by General Sir Nicholas Carter, former United Kingdom chief of the Defence Staff, for a wide-ranging conversation that covered strategic dynamics across the globe, threats posed to the world order by Russia and China, the legacy of the two-decade war in Afghanistan, and the future of warfare.

A newly appointed distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Intuition, Sir Carter explained that the level of global disorder and instability today is reminiscent of the 1930s. As then, the United States and its Western allies are confronted by revisionist powers. For Carter, Vladmir Putin’s Russia represents an acute threat as demonstrated in its military campaign in Ukraine. China, through its vast wealth and capacity to mount global influence operations, is a chronic challenge. Both Russia and China, he explained, are allied with an axis of nations that share similar worldviews.

The development of US foreign policy toward these powers has also had a bearing on the character of this great-power competition, he maintained.

Carter described how the current world order has been broken down into three categories: nations that are pro-West, anti-West, or nonaligned. He said that the third group consists of nations including India, Brazil, and South Africa that have sizeable populations and which are waiting to be influenced by the other two groups.

Carter stressed that the American-led rules-based order constructed at the beginning of the post–World War II era is no longer respected. Moreover, the rapid pace of technological change and the democratization of information is revolutionizing politics and warfare.

“You have a cocktail of ingredients that led to the disorder that we are now seeing,” Carter said.

According to Carter’s analysis, Russia and China have vulnerabilities that may prove to be limiting to their long-term ambitions. Russia is a declining power that is overly reliant on state revenues from the sale of its fossil fuels. It also faces a shrinking population.

Similarly, he explained, China’s demographic issues also worry Communist Party leaders. China stands to lose 10 percent of its population in 10 years and 30 percent in 30 to 40 years. This problem won’t be solved unless the CCP opens China to immigration, which it is unlikely to do given its long history of xenophobic attitudes. Nevertheless, Carter maintained, President Xi Jinping must be taken seriously in his public statements about where he wants China’s global posture to be in the next decade.

Carter said that he was surprised at the level of cohesion displayed by the West after the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine. NATO members have rallied around Kyiv by providing ammunition and other materiel support. Meanwhile the Western-influenced Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communication (SWIFT), in short order, imposed sanctions on Russia in the form of excluding it from its system of global payments.

These actions proved that democracies—however messy their politics are—are much more adaptive to geopolitical shifts than are authoritarian governments, in which power is centralized and institutions are fragile.

However, Carter in this interview was not hesitant to say that Western democracies should be self-reflective about the way the world perceives them. Carter explained that in his travels to Africa and South Asia, he has heard his counterparts draw equivalencies, for example, between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the United States’ intervention in Iraq two decades ago. In other instances, he has also heard people question why Western nations provided multiple shots of the COVID-19 vaccine to their own citizens before delivering initial doses to less-fortunate populations around the world so that they too could be inoculated against the infectious disease.

“We need to remind ourselves what Western soft power was all about,” said Carter. “We need to remind ourselves that the values that we espouse and the soft power that flows from those values need to be given to these countries in a way that genuinely resonates.”

Carter affirmed that the ability for a state to project soft power is ultimately underpinned by its hard-power capabilities. But given the nature of how the nature of war is evolving—specifically the blurring of lines between war and peace, state and nonstate actors, and the virtual versus the real—building deterrence capabilities has become much more challenging.

Adversaries can now deploy asymmetric tactics such as cyberattacks to evade and work around a state actor’s hard-power capability. Carter underscored that serious academic study needs to be conducted on how NATO can reform its doctrines and strategies to deter 21st-century threats.

Carter said that the US and the UK need to improvement their processes of procuring technologies that will help the West defend itself in potential future conflicts. He noted that Ukraine has been particularly adept in experimenting with commercial technologies in the battlefield. For example, it has used Starlink satellites supplied by tech mogul Elon Musk to acquire intelligence in real time to inform its targeting processes. It has also used Uber technology to maneuver artillery pieces to aim at high-value targets.

As a British Army officer, Carter served in various posts in Afghanistan, including as deputy commander of the International Security Forces Afghanistan. He described the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban as “a painful moment” after two decades of efforts to stabilize and bring peace to that country. He underscored that the West should have exhibited more strategic patience and greater focus on understanding Afghanistan’s local politics after it decided to undertake a campaign of what was ostensibly nation building.  

Carter said that Western policy leadership would have done well to follow the 2017 White House National Security Strategy, authored by McMaster and his then deputy Nadia Schadlow, also now a Hoover Institution fellow. The document stressed the importance of a self-reliant Afghanistan in helping to counter terror threats to the US and its allies.

Carter warned against forgetting the recent history of Afghanistan. Nations in Africa that are confronted with terrorist violence from Islamic extremists can learn much from American forces who have fought against similar adversaries.

Toward the end of the conversation, Carter told McMaster that he planned to use his time at Hoover to study the political dimensions of warfare. Recalling his experiences in commanding troops in southern Afghanistan, he said that the nature of the conflict there proved to be the reverse of the axiom coined by Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that “war is the continuation of policy with other means.”

“What you are actually doing is armed politics. Ironically, in a way, politics is an extension of the war. What you have to do is understand how you can therefore use tools often short of kinetic in order to have the sort of conversation that would probably lead to stability,” he explained.

Finally, Carter reflected on how the United States and its partners should strengthen their global leadership and outcompete their authoritarian adversaries. He explained that a turning point in the early Cold War came in February 1946 when George Kennan, US chargé d’affaires in Moscow, delivered his “long telegram,” in which he told Secretary of State Dean Acheson that in the long term there could be peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union.

“That led to the Truman Doctrine, and the Truman Doctrine became the bipartisan doctrine, and of course all the NATO allies got behind it. History judged that it was very successful as the Cold War came to an end at the end of the 1980s,” Carter said. “I think in a way we almost need another moment where we recognize the nature of the problem and, as a collective group of like-minded nations, we work out what the strategy should be to deal with the problem.”

overlay image