Misha talks to Bridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, about how to prevent China from taking over Taiwan, whether the Biden Administration is maintaining the Trump defense strategy, and why Taiwan is vital to US interests.
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Misha Auslin: Welcome back to the Pacific Century, a Hoover Institution podcast on China, America, the world, and the fate of the 21st century. I'm your host, Misha Auslin. And today I am very happy to be joined by an old friend and colleague Bridge Colby, better known formally or to the police as Elbridge A Colby. Bridge as many of you know, who listened to this podcast is the co-founder and principal at the Marathon Initiative but before that, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Pentagon from 2017 to 2018, where he was the lead architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Bridge is a fixture in Washington, DC and other points around the globe. And is the author most recently of the Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, a book that has made a lot of waves and we're going to be talking about amongst other things today. So Bridge Colby, welcome to the Pacific Century.
Bridge Colby: Great to be with you Misha and with your listeners. Thanks for having me on.
Misha Auslin: Well, there's obviously a lot of talk, not only about the book Strategy of Denial, but about increasingly the issues surrounding the book I.e How does America defend and protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific specifically with regard to Taiwan, but much more broadly than that. But before we get into that, which is what readers and listeners really want to think about, we also want to ask a question of you, which is how did you get involved in this specifically? How did you get involved in the defense side of things versus let's say the diplomatic side of things or the intellectual side of things as a professor, what drove you to where you are?
Bridge Colby: Well, it's an interesting question and you and I go back. We first got to know each other when at Yale, when I was in law school. You were teaching Japanese history as I recall and I think in that sense, I could have gone a different direction. I would say I've always been interested in national security and I guess national security would probably be the best way to put it. Since I was a little kid, I was joking with somebody recently, I probably spent too much time with my nose in a book growing up, although I did play some sports. But I think what's drawn me into this field in particular and in this sort of defense strategy field is I think I have this baseline interest in national security. But what I really have sort of glommed onto or hooked onto in this strategic discussion and it works with my mind if you will, I don't know if that's good for everybody else, but I appreciate it in the sense that it's a kind of a logical and abstract and sort of deductive way of approaching things that I think I come out of from when I was in law school, I did a lot of work on nuclear strategy and it's a similar way. I think they're compatible, but it's different way than saying, having an area expertise, obviously you do really important strategic work as well, but having depth in a culture or a specific set of issues. What I enjoy about this kind of strategic thinking is it's obviously very important, it's significant, but what's appealed to me as a thinker, as a person, is that you can try to develop an argument about what's best for the country and I think it's a rigorous argument. That's not probably something I did get from law school. My main legal advice is don't take legal advice from me. But I think one thing is I appreciate this kind off rigorous form of let's understand what we're trying to do what's of value and how do we best approach that? And I think that's my conceit and it seems I think unfortunately circumstances seem to support this, that it's increasingly important that we do do this kind off rethinking. That we go back to the sort of basic in the same sense that a business would go through a strategy rethink or something. If I were more interested in that world, I would probably be drawn to the strategic how do you help companies rethink, look at their market, look at potential opportunities, look at what assets they have available and that sort of reassessment I find compelling.
Misha Auslin: Yeah. So actually before we dive into the specifics actually you raised a very interesting question. One that I've thought a lot about. I think as you mentioned, we first met, you were in law school and I was teaching and we were both at least peripherally if not directly involved in the grand strategy course at Yale with the professors there. And some of the people, certainly we knew them and that may have been the first course specifically of that kind, of its kind, but it's been replicated at other places, of course. And now it seems like everybody's doing grand strategy. And in fact, early in the book, you make a very I think, important distinction about we're talking strategy and not grand strategy. We're actually talking about specific military strategy. But since you brought it up, you opened the Pandora's box. Let me ask you how do you think about assess or even grade how good we are as a country at strategic thinking? I think there could be an argument to be made that we may not be so great or not as good as we think given the number of mistakes we've made, the problems we face, the surprises. I always talk a lot about strategic surprise. We seem to live in an era of strategic surprise. How do you assess how good we are at thinking strategically?
Bridge Colby: Well, traditionally pretty good, but recently pretty bad. I would agree with you. I think if you look at the long arc of American history, I think we've had a tremendous advantages. So probably not, we shouldn't get too arrogant about it, but if you go back to the founders in the early Republic, I think they kept their eye on the ball in terms of not getting embroiled in European conflicts unnecessarily. There was the war of 1812 but generally focusing on internal development and expansion and sort of sometimes ruthless say in the war in Mexico, but really focused there. And then when we did become a world power probably some things I certainly would've done differently say in lead up to the World War II and so forth, but on the whole pretty good, the Europe first strategy and the World War II for instance. And then in the Cold War, I think pretty well. Some mistakes early on, probably not recognizing the Soviet threat, the Korea [inaudible] and then of course, Vietnam but on the whole we got it right. We had sort of tremendous success without a massive total war with the Soviet Union. So I think that's pretty good. I think since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I would say pretty poorly because in some sense it's structural, it's a feature of uni polarity. We probably became hubristic arrogant. And so one of my critiques and I think I make it in the book and you're generous to draw this point. I think it's a critical one is this is a book. Because it's about war and peace, a defense strategy has to be connected to some kind of grand strategy. But I think a lot of our grand quote unquote grand strategy debate over the last generation is more like a form of rhetoric. It's a series of aspirations or a like oratory element that's like, "We need to do this. We need to do that. We need to spread peace in the world. We need to spread democracy. We need to solve the climate with cooperation." It's a lot of fuzziness and sort of aspirations. And that's my view and I say it in the book is that a strategy it's not a clever, sometimes building literally a strategy is a clever plan, but when I think of a strategy, it's really more of like a deductive framework, but it should help us make decisions in conditions of scarcity to get back to the market analogy. And I think a lot of our, what passes for our grand strategy debate over the last generation is more just expressions of sort of vague or sort of ridiculously exaggerated ambition. So I think if our debate gets back into a clear conception of what our strategy, what I'm talking about, even if people don't always agree to me, I think that's a step forward.
Misha Auslin: Again, I have all these questions related to the specifics, but you keep raising things that are jogging other thoughts. So before I forget, because as regular listeners know, I will forget almost immediately what I wanted to ask. What would you recommend then for the budding strategist? You said going back to sources or going back to the beginnings what are... If you were teaching and I'm sure you will be one day, if you haven't already strategy 101, what are the fundamental texts that a listener who wants to do exactly what you said, get into a rigorous frame of mind, a logical approach to the question and not simply some sort of exploratory, we need to do this. And every person's idea is equal to everyone else's, but really based on fundamental facts and ground truth as they used to say. What is it? What would you say we should be reading?
Bridge Colby: Well, that's a great question, Misha. Obviously I'd put passwords and [inaudible] and yada yada, yada. Okay, great. And those are the old texts. I always thought you could tell a lot about a book by which of several I'm sort of a realist and hence I quote Kasowitz, I remember a project from CNS like 15 years ago and they quoted the Fun Shu handbook at the beginning. And I was like, "That's some other intellectual group." But I would say what I would add to that. So among the cannons, I would recommend Nicholas Spykman.
Misha Auslin: Yes. Love Spykman. We're Spykman fans here.
Bridge Colby: Yeah. That I think is very like minded or sort of I feel in the shadow and it's that sort of thing. But I think what I would say, one of the things that I think I sort of selfishly I really got as a self-styled, I suppose, strategic thinker from my Pentagon experience and that you've wrestled with very admirably as well Misha is military strategy has a clarity and sort of concreteness that I think encourages more of a reckoning with constraints and trade offs and so forth. So in a sense, I would read fewer national security strategies, certainly in the last generation and if you were teaching a strategy class and I'm not to hammer everything as a nail but I'm not saying that everything is reducible to military strategy. But it would be interesting as a teaching exercise to really focus on defense strategies and not all of them have done this, but they tend to have to make relatively concrete decisions within the context of constraints. And that I think is a useful exercise because for instance, you could look at the same thing and say our economic power, say sanctions. Sanctions are not, you know this very well sanctions are not unlimited in terms of their efficacy or their staying power or what have you. But I think understanding, because I think what I would say to budding strategists is you should be reckoning with the realities of the situation. And my, particularly in the last few weeks, one of my big critiques of the sort of traditional [inaudible] of the strategic debate is that they're ignoring or denying the reality of scarcity. And I don't think it's helpful, I don't think it's the right way to do things. I think that's probably not as hard of a sell to younger people who didn't grow up in uni polarity but I think a lot of people who are say 60 and over, they're still living basically mentally in the world of 1999 or 2005 or something. So I don't think they're actually helping us grapple with, well just to take an example that it's not just military, you don't like the way the Saudis are treating the Houthis or what the Khashoggi issue but we also maybe need their help for oil. How do you like rack and stack that in a strategy? What's your approach? Do you try to fudge it? Do you take one course to the other? But that's sort of where I think our conversation should be rather than we need to stand tall and exercise leadership or we need to just come home and these very broad I think ultimately sort of too general sort of level of debate.
Misha Auslin: And we're going to, I think a little bit later on, we'll get to that specifically with regard to Ukraine and Russia, because that's obviously the great issue right now. Unfortunately, this is not a podcast of calling out people by name and naming and shaming and it would be far more popular were it that? And I understand that, but immediately some names and I'm sure all the listeners can bring up the same names to their mind that are coming up to my mind as you say this, and I'm going to try to weave it in a responsible way though. I do want to make one note for the elders of this podcast like myself, it stopped me for a second when you said those who don't remember a time of uni polarity, right? You were talking about those who are younger may be more sensitive to the concept of scarcity unlike those who remember uni polarity. I'm thinking, "Well, what about those of us who remember bipolarity?" We're not even relevant to the debate anymore?
Bridge Colby: No, you're not over 60. I gave it generous-
Misha Auslin: Not quite though. I see it. I see it over the hill. No, but it is actually very interesting that move from the Cold War which dominated strategic thinking obviously for an entire generation plus the grappling during the unipolar period of what it meant and then that, of course in a sense being fractured by 911, even though you were unipolar, there was a completely different sort of I like to think of it maybe it's too simplistic, a Huntingtonion return. Now you've got something that you thought was in the rear view mirror is right in front of you. And now today we're actually almost going back... Well, now we're almost back and I'd like to get your thought of it in some ways again maybe too simplistic to the 19th century. We've moved into now great power competition. Of course, that's the subtitle of your book. American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. So before we get to what might equally have been called the strategy of scarcity, or maybe the strategy of constraint, let's talk about the 2018 National Defense Strategy. You were the lead architect, you were the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. I always want to get the title exactly right. And it was described as one of the biggest revisions of defense strategy in a generation. How so? And how did you think that NDS, as we would say in DC, the National Defense Strategy was different from what came before it and what's going to come out now, is coming out right now under the Biden administration.
Bridge Colby: Well, I think somebody had a role in the process suggested that it was the most, I would say sort of realistic or realist strategy since the Cold War. And I think what was most significant about it was a couple things. Fundamentally, it reoriented the department to focus on great powers. And as secretary Mattis put it, it's no longer about terrorism, it's about great power competition. Obviously, there's a lot more complexity to it than that. But at the end of the day, I think these things, I think strategy should be pretty simple. And basically for the 25 years after the end of the Soviet Union at that point or a little bit more, for a long time, we didn't have a defense strategy because we were so much more powerful than anybody else over anything we would care to fight about that we could fight like multiple wars at the same time. So like in that situation, you don't really have a strategy because you just beat everybody at the same time. Like that's-
Misha Auslin: And at that point now, and I just want to because at this point, I just want to ask to the degree that you also thought that may have been a function. So you again, in a very [inaudible] type way, you've put it, we had no strategy or less of a strategy because of the fundamental conditions under which we operated. But there were also some ideological currents at the time that were very powerful. The end of history theory by my colleague at Stanford, Frank Fukuyama, and then also coming out of the department and Andrew Marshall's office of net assessment, the ideas of the revolution in military affairs, at least articulating something that was going on. Did those also play a role do you think or was it just simply no. At the end of the day we looked out at the world said we're not facing a real threat.
Bridge Colby: Well, no, I think the ideological elements very real, but I think it was enabled by structure. Those elements existed before in bipolarity in the Cold War. But they were sort of regulated by the reality of the scale of the Soviet threat. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it essentially became unchecked. And those elements in American political life were empowered, essentially were opened up and became ascended to some extent under Clinton, but really most significantly under President George W. Bush. I think that as you'd suggest, I'm a structuralist. I think things are largely determined by structure, but the question is like how much? How far? How fast? So one of the things... At this point the Biden administration the one thing it's probably continued from the Trump administration is the focus on China. And it seems that their defense strategy and its outlines is going to retain a lot of what we did in 2018, including for instance, the force planning construct, which is kind of the heart of the document which was a big shift. So traditionally the force planning construct sounds arcane but it basically is one of the core levers that you pull in a strategy. It basically says to the military establishment, this is what you should size and shape and train for over time. And the traditional standard have been some variant of what's a called a two war standard. We could fight two adversaries at the same time and beat them. But the reality was as China rose and as Russia resurged, we were not achieving that. So our focus on two wars was leading us to focus on like these rogue states, quote unquote, that had been the problem in the 1990s but now in our view, we were neglecting the primary threat. So the National Defense Strategy said, don't worry about being able to fight wars at the same time, as much as first, make sure that you can win the big war. So it's kind of a one war plus. The analogy I think of because there are critics particularly on our side of the aisle, Misha of the two war thing, which that's not reckoning with the reality of constraints. I wrote a piece in time recently, even if we dramatically increased defense spending, we're still going to have to prioritize because as you've ably written over the years, China's such a formidable challenge. And the way I analogize it is let's say you're in a boat and you've got a couple of holes in it. We can think of Iran or North Korea as a whole where the water's going to come in and it's going to get you wet but other than that, you're pretty much okay. Russia is a hole. It might cause the boat to list but you're definitely going to survive and the boat's going to be okay you'll get it repaired. China is a major hole below the waterline and it's expanding. So you have limited resources and time to plug these holes. You have a limited amount of tar or whatever it is, what do you do? Well, the one more idea is make sure you plug that darn hole before the water line. It's not to say the other holes aren't a problem but let's rack. And that's the kind of strategy discussion that we need to have. That's not without constraints. Some people say, "Well, you're neglecting the simultaneity problem." It's not neglecting it. But what the strategy is saying, analytically, rationally, we're deciding that this is the biggest problem. The other ones we can mitigate. And that's the biggest thing. The focus on China, the focus on to lesser extent, Russia, the focus on making sure that we were ready for the big war and a restored focus on what you can think of as like high end war fighting that basically the best way to deter is going to be by demonstrating the other side that we're ready and we would likely prevail to some degree. And in instead of the post Cold War shaping and presence, and then we can get into some of this, but you're familiar with like the Navy exists to show the flag. No, no, no. The Navy fundamentally exists to win the nation's wars. And so you contribute to that. And that's what you should be doing and if you're not doing that, you should do something different. So those are the sort of core ideas. And in a sense, the book it's not a memoir of any boring, bureaucratic stuff, but I think of it as like my own platonic ideal, without bureaucratic compromise without... It's secretary Madison's document. So it's like it's written in his style, his tone at the end of the day, this is my full expression, but obviously very consistent with it is similar mindset.
Misha Auslin: And we're going to turn more to the Republic of bridge or the symposium of bridge in a second. But I'd like to ask you sort of to do some grading. So it's been four years since that NDS, National Defense Strategy. Obviously there's a lot more, we could talk about that but I think you've encapsulated the core change that it represented and why that was so important. And the core function, which is, as you said, is to get the military to shape itself, to face that primary threat that we must deal with. Where are we four years on?
Bridge Colby: So the way I think about it Misha is that we're compared to other defense strategies it was a slam dunk. It's great. It's been implemented. People took it seriously. But compared to what it actually needs to be measured against, which is the external environment it's not doing so well because we're not racing against ourselves, we're racing against China. And the Chinese are continuing to go gangbusters. 7% again this year. And that's often a bigger and bigger base. And I think it's encouraging that the department appears to be in substantial continuity with the 2018 NDS, from what I can tell, but at some level, I think that's a reflection of reality. To me a successful strategy, at some point you have to reckon with reality if it's significant enough. So it's like the fact that the, sorry, not to be [inaudible] but the fact that the administration says China is the biggest challenge for American interest, I can applaud it to a certain amount but it's pretty obvious at this point. You have to be willfully obtuse to deny that or biased or something. The point of a strategy is to be sufficiently ahead of the curve, that you can avoid the bad outcomes. And we're sort of like, for instance, we're already in what people call the Davidson window. We are already in the time when-
Misha Auslin: Explain that please.
Bridge Colby: The Davidson window is named after former in Indo-Pacific commander, Admiral Davidson. He said in testimony about a year ago that the Chinese want to be able to take over Taiwan at the latest by 2027, but in a sense it could be earlier. And so there's a lot of speculation about whether we're in a position or not where the Chinese might be able to do it. The Taiwan defense minister said a couple months ago that China is already capable of taking over Taiwan at a relatively high cost and level of risk but still. And one of the things about the Biden administration that I would say is like I don't think guys like Tony Blinken and so forth came in thinking that they really wanted to bound the table on China I bet. I don't know. Or I don't mean to pick on Blinken per se but I think they're seeing a lot of information. It's been years since I had that, but they're probably seeing a lot of information that's suggesting to them... I don't think they wanted to make great power competition or whatever they're calling it. It's ironic that they dropped great power competition because the guy who came up with it was Bob Work who was really ahead of his time along with Marshall and people like that, certainly very influential on me and on the National Defense Strategy. But I don't think they wanted to come in, but they're seeing the reality in the reporting and the intelligence analysis and so forth and hearing it from foreign partners. But the point of a successful strategy should be sufficiently ahead of the curve and now we're already in it. So now we got to really focus on just, and that's also explains why I'm even sharper now than I was four or five years ago because the situation is all the worst. A strategy is not... The situation is dynamic so a strategy has to be dynamic. If we'd done a totally perfect job five years ago and gotten the Pacific situation right. I might be like, "Hey, we can be more balanced." But we didn't. And the Chinese are continuing to go gangbusters so we have to be all the more rigorous in our prioritization.
Misha Auslin: So let's turn to the book a little bit. And obviously it's been written about in a lot of different ways. It's extremely rich, theoretically. So for those who are interested in theory of strategy and the theory of international relations and theories of alliances and understanding at the base, what they are and how they work, will find all of that in there. And it would be something you could do in a seminar. You can talk about all that in a seminar in a shorter podcast, focused on Asia we sort of have to cut to the chase and get to the core points or at least the points that probably have gotten the most attention and link it with some of the things that you've just been talking about. So let me just start with the provocative question and we'll work from there. Without I hope misrepresenting the book, but certainly the takeaway for many people has been, this is how we need to figure out how to defend against a takeover of Taiwan. And weirdly it's sort of slightly different from saying how we need to defend Taiwan, but we need to defend against a takeover of Taiwan. And I don't want to be too nuanced, but I think there are ways in which you draw distinctions, because the point as you say, and I think is the point of any responsible military strategists to say, "We don't want to fight." So how do you get to the point of not having to fight? But let me ask you the question. Why in your view is Taiwan the hill that America should die on. Why is Taiwan the fight that we should be willing to have? A small island of 23 million people, obviously traditionally for all of its history a part of China in one way or another. Why there?
Bridge Colby: Well, look, it's an excellent question. And I think it's sort of where the rubber meets the road. But I think you're absolutely right that I come to that position deductively. It doesn't come out of some kind of affinity for Taiwan. I admire Taiwan but I don't have any special affection for Taiwan. I'm just thinking about this from the interest of the American people. Obviously in an enlightened way I hope for the best for people on Taiwan but that's not my primary goal. And the Taiwan fight is really about ultimately our own interests and it's about China and China's ability to dominate the world's largest market area which is Asia. And I think that's becoming increasingly clear that those stakes are so significant. I think the American people understand it, they can see it and things like the industrialization, the influence over some of our major corporations and in lead institutions and so forth. So I don't think I need to belabor that point, but if we want to deny China that goal, we're basically not going to be able or willing to do it by ourselves. We're going to need to work with others. So this gets into coalition politics, coalition formation, coalition cohesion, and defense. And it's exactly, Misha you put your finger on it very well which is China's basic incentive to get to the rub is what I call a focused and sequential strategy. So again, I approach these always deductively from the best, what do I think is the best strategy for China? And that's again a dynamic assessment, but if I'm trying to put myself in their shoes, I don't want to start World War III here, meaning total war against a fully mobilized coalition. Look at how the Russians are failing by bringing everybody together against them. Finland and Sweden look like they might apply to join NATO. So China doesn't want to anything like that, but China wants to gain hegemony over Asia and basically be able to coerce us and others at home. How does it do that? It's got to break apart that coalition. How does it break apart that coalition without starting World War II? Well, basically I think you go after the parts of that coalition that are vulnerable but also tied to the Americans because the Americans are the center of gravity. And it has nothing to do with more worth per se, but the Americans are the big, heavy by necessity in this, what I call an anti hegemonic coalition. You and I are big admirers of Japan, but it's a much smaller society, economy, military. India has a long way to go to develop, et cetera. So the Americans are the big heavy. And if you're going to bring down the coalition, you got to basically go after that center of gravity which is American credibility. The sense that every country in Asia is always going to be evaluating, yeah, I'd love to not live under the Chinese thumb but is it worth getting scorched over it or missing out on the party. And you know Asia better than I do. I spent a lot of time there myself, but that's a real dynamic in every society. Everybody wants to make money, everybody wants to stay out of the firing line, et cetera. But they're only going to have a rational basis for participating in this coalition. And this coalition it's more of an idea than a thing is to think it's prudent. And that's only if they can trust the Americans. And so I think Taiwan is China's best bet for that because it's tied to the Americans whether we like it or not. They have a pretty good claim, relatively speaking for the reasons you suggested and to boot it's important strategically and militarily including the defense of Japan. It's got high level semiconductor. So it's like overdetermined, but it's not that Taiwan is the end of the story. It's that if China were able to seize Taiwan and my view is that they don't need to use military force to do that given that Taiwan doesn't want to fall under their thumb, it's not going to stop there. It doesn't mean that China is going to create a territorial empire, but if it is going to establish this hegemonic position, it's going to need to browbeat a few more into line. And that would probably be the Philippines, maybe South Korea eventually. And then eventually, they wouldn't need to sail into Tokyo Bay at some point, the government in Tokyo would say, "This just isn't worth it. We're going to make our place in the new Sino-centric order, it's been like that for many centuries past, we'll just deal with it." And that's the outcome that we don't want. The critical point Misha that you touched on as well is our interest then in Taiwan and in anywhere in Asia is not existential. It's not a hundred percent interest. It's important but it's not a hundred percent. I equated to like 70%. This is really important. And this is something that's often lost in the... And I'm trying to resuscitate a bit that was more present in the Cold War, which is that really acute attunement in the strategic and the military conversation to how the war is fought, the military you build and what the level of cost and risk will be for the American people. Because our interests are very great, but they're not total. So if we exceed a certain threshold, the American people either they won't do it or they'll give up, like we saw in Vietnam. That'd be the most infamous example, but many other situations you can find and we don't want to get there. And that explains a lot of my fervor about prioritizing and denial is because if we can deny China's ability to invade and occupy Taiwan, season hold Taiwan at a reasonable level of cost and risk, we're much more likely to do it. And then the Chinese are likely to see that and they're less likely to try. So we'll have peace. And that gets back to this last point, in fact, that's get back to the hole in the boat thing. If I'm thinking of how do I allocate across those risks, I want to do as much as possible to ensure that's the world that we're living in. And this some of the debates within the military community about, do we need more forward forces or should we have more of a surge? My view is let's do both because I want to be super sure that we can do this because it's the most important thing, but I don't want to cross that 70 threshold.
Misha Auslin: Thanks. Yeah. And for those who are hearing, we've got bells going off all over the place here, probably because of what Bridge is saying. The bells are ringing, we'll try to keep those to a minimum. So let me actually ask you about this question of which ultimately of course becomes, as you noted it is a question of resources, a question of strategy, but it's a question of political will. And then that in turn, of course is affected by what is happening on the battlefield. And so you talked about the essentially acceptable costs. Well, you have to have the correct strategy, but it has to be done at an acceptable cost. What is it that gives you confidence as you worked through, as you said, deductively and logically you worked through the issues leading to the strategy, the preferred strategy that you have, what gave you the confidence that this could be maintained as a limited war. That we would be able to maintain or determine that pace that the Chinese would not break out, they would not escalate vertically as some would say, or even potentially horizontally in a way that would just make the cost seem too much. How do you have the confidence that once you get into this, assuming you do get into it, that's the point we're talking about that we'd be able to control it?
Bridge Colby: Well, I don't think we could control it. I dedicate a chapter precisely to this issue. Well, actually several chapters in a way to this issue of how do we deal with a limited war and managed escalation. One of the sort of, and I know you're not saying this, but one of the sort of layman critiques I've encountered is people saying, "Oh, he thinks that we can limit this war so easily." And it's like, did you actually read the book? I actually don't think that at all. And in fact, I assume there would be significant escalation. The point is to frame a defense strategy and actually also a defense and political strategy. This is this idea of the binding strategy that is always attuned to incentivizing China, to be more restrained. So there are people who say limited war is impossible. Well, I don't think that's a prudent assumption. There's never been a limited war between superpowers, but it's worth remembering that during the Cold War, both sides were planning for a very large war and certainly for some kinds of limited war the whole time. And right now both the American and Chinese militaries plan for limited wars and just rationally, if the Chinese know that we think a limited war is impossible, that our choices are going to be suicide or surrender to go back to, I think it was, Nixon's used to say, then they'd burn the tables. Because if I know that you're not going to do anything and I think a limited war is possible and there's some risk, well then I should press you. So by that same token though, the best way to have deterrents and peace is for the Chinese to understand, whoa, those Americans they're ready. They're prepared to fight a limited war. They're not blase about it. They're not thinking that it's going to be controlled easily or anything, but they're ready and I don't have a sort of a Trump card play. I can't just shatter them by going up a ladder of escalation and just saying, "I'm good." It doesn't mean that we need to dominate at every level because that's not realistic against China, but it means and that's why do denial is actually a lower standard than dominance, lower standard than we pursued in the last generation. But it's to say that they are not going to benefit militarily and ultimately politically by escalating. But look, I think a war with China, I would definitely not advise it. It would be a horrible idea except we may not have a good alternative and a better than just like saying, well, we could either surrender or we can launch the end of the world kind of attack on China. Let's have some way of potentially fighting it in a way that will keep the risks and costs at a reasonable level. And then if the, this is this critical idea in the book of the burden of escalation, if China wants to do something, apocalyptically crazy well, that's going to be on them and everybody's to see it. And that's going to change our behavior and others' behavior accordingly.
Misha Auslin: Yeah. And I'm glad that you actually clarified better. The question that I wanted to ask and made it more clear. And of course having written a scenario of a [inaudible] war between the United States and China that is limited and is capped at a limited level. I certainly agree with the take that you have, that first you can plan and you prosecute, and as you said, the ultimate gamble is perhaps out of your hands. But then perhaps the scariest part of listening to you talk about it is we don't seem to have that right now. What you've done is created a way that as you said, denial is sort of lower level of standard or lower level of demand almost on an adversary, which would allow the strategic situation to be stabilized hopefully. But if we don't have that, and then we stumble into something because tomorrow two planes collide or two ships collide, and we've had that happen and we've been very close to that happening, what level of confidence do you have today since we haven't gone down the road that you've put in the book, what do you think would happen?
Bridge Colby: Well, that's what worries me. I'm worried less about accidental escalation of the kind that you're talking about. I'm worried more that the Chinese would determine that it would be in their advantage to precipitate a major conflict that would be-
Misha Auslin: Because we're not ready.
Bridge Colby: Yeah. That we haven't done... And again people, oh, Bridge, you're kind of unbalanced. And it's like, well, another analogy, yeah we've got tennis elbow, we've got arthritis and we have acute heart disease. How are you spending your time and money with your medical efforts? I hope we're spending it on your acute heart disease because like, we've been talking about this specific pivot. This is one of the things that that drives me nuts. People saying, "Oh, it's the pivot to Asia's faults." Like the pivot to Asia never happened. It never went through the formality of actually occurring. So we've been talking about it. The Pentagon has shifted more to China, so I don't want to undersell it too much in terms of the impact of the NDS. But again, we're not racing ourselves, we're racing with the Chinese and they are just super focused and they're at a scale that we have never encountered before. And our muscle memory, particularly for people I think who are older to get back to beating up on the old days, they just don't have it in their bones and they're finding it very difficult to adapt. And what I worry about in particular is that it would be a rational decision for the Chinese to move against Taiwan, because they thought they had a decent enough chance to win and that they could succeed. And so one of the things that I worry about with the current defense plan is that there seems to be a lot of focus on long term. There's a lot of investment in R&D in what's called divest to invest. And I am all for divest to invest, I'm all for long term, but we have to worry about the short term and the medium term now as well, because this is not... When Bob Work was talking about capability of capacity, eight years ago, the Chinese didn't have the... We weren't in that window. So we could realistically talk about taking a knee, but now we can't. And so we may have to divest to invest in order to get the right stuff. But then there has to be some plan for the near term, because if we decide to modernize for 2035, but the Chinese are like, "Oh, I see they're modernizing for 2035 and we're ready to go now. And they took a knee. Well, why don't I just move?" And this has happened historically. Because the three factors that I think there's a will over Taiwan, there's a way over Taiwan and now there's a potential for a sense of urgency or window over Taiwan among other opportunities to the Chinese. And if the Chinese can gain enough ground, we might have the best long range missile system for 2037 but if they've already established a sort of impregnable position in Asia, we won't matter. So again, I'm not a near term obsessive. I'm just like we have to balance risk across time now. And if that means spending more money on defense, we should do so. But the point I make to my fellow Republicans is, we're not spending our way back to uni polarity. We'll be lucky if we could keep up with the Chinese. And so that's the key thing I think to take away at this point.
Misha Auslin: So before we wrap up with a final question or two and I do want to ask you briefly about Taiwan, I'm sorry about Ukraine, let me ask you about one other element in the book. Which is sort of the wrap up, which is the attempt to achieve a stable piece in which you use the words Dayton. And I've heard you speak about that before. To some, the concept of Dayton sounds like a surrender. That we're accepting that we can't, and I don't even think it's necessarily a uni polarity question but it's that China which in many ways is the dominant force in Asia will remain as such. We will come to live with it, a peaceful coexistence and will understand it but that even, even doing that, I think some might argue means will continually be on the defensive and always to some degree losing ground because they are at least for now inexorably or seemingly inexorably growing. So how do you respond to a critique like that Dayton, it may be realistic, but it also surrenders the initiative. Again, the comparison would be with Reagan who moved away from the Dayton of the Nixon era to say, we are going to roll back. It's not just containment, it's a rollback. And ultimately that was successful, two very different societies. Of course, very different systems. But anyway, just wondering about your thoughts on that for those who are saying, "At the end of the day this sounds almost like an accommodationist strategy."
Bridge Colby: Well, it's a great question and thanks for asking. A couple of points. So this is very much, and this is a debate I have. Often, I think people, not you but others sometimes conflate or mix up two categories. One is what is our basic goal here and how do we think about it? And then what are the tools we have available and what are the arenas that this competition will go into? And my view on the first one is our goals are not to transform China. That is not our ultimate goal. And I'm not suggesting that's your view. Our goal is to protect Americans prosperity, security, and liberties, along with those of our allies, because that's necessary. We have to have a sort of enlightened self interest, common goods. But that I want to find basically a minimum reasonable standard for what will achieve that because I also want to avoid the other side which is something that people... There's a lot of like sort of nostalgia for the Cold War going on right now. And it's like, we almost blew up the whole world and we got into Vietnam and there were the McCarthyism and all this. We don't want to repeat that. We don't want to repeat the excess of the cold world. We want to repeat the success of the Cold War. But to me, the lesson of the Cold War is, don't get carried away, it's project solarium. It's like, okay, this is going to be a long thing, that aspect of it. And that's what I'm trying, because I see, and a lot of friends of mine are like, "We're going to change the Chinese government and it's going to be all over and they're going to be freedom. And then we can get out of Asia." And I think that's wrong. Because I actually think even if the Chinese are democratic we're likely to have big problems with it because they're so strong. And the other thing that I would say... So basically what I'm saying here, and I want guard in fact, I'm very confrontational now vis a vis China, precisely because of the point that you're raising Misha which is we need to reset. That was one of the logic behind the National Defense Strategy and other parts of the Trump administration was to reset expectations. We don't want Daytons now. Now, we need to reset and then to get to a position of strength, then Daytons will be possible because then the Chinese will have an incentive and we won't have a superpower. That's different than how do we think about the use of values and democracy and ideology, et cetera, as a tool of state power, which it certainly is and as a form of competition. So one of the critiques that I get from a lot of the new generation of China types, "Yeah. You're under appreciating the ideological nature of the Chinese Communist Party." And like, well, I'm not saying that they're not thinking about ideology that they don't. But I'm just saying what's in it for us. So yes, we should use values, ideology, et cetera, for our own purposes. But this is also relevant here too, that we not get carried over because a lot of the countries that we're going to need to work with are not perfect democracies particularly in Asia, which is the most important theater. So I think that's the thing. The only other thing I would say is that if we look at Reagan's strategy was successful, but Russia, we have a hostile relationship with Russia right now. So in a sense you had success and Russia's still a problem. And I think that's people kind of like you had the victory of Yeltsin but then you've had Putin. And that to me is suggestive that like the China problem, even if we get some Yeltsin life figure in China, you're likely to get a Putin. Not to be too [inaudible] but something like that dynamic because China's an incredible... And I think you're familiar, you talk to the Japanese and others, they don't see this primarily as an ideological. It's not like if China turned into a democracy tomorrow, the Japanese would not be warned about the Chinese. Japan, it had an Imperial system you would know this [inaudible] better than I but it had features of a parliamentary system in the early twenty century when it was beating up on China, for instance. But it's a great question. I think how to negotiate that is going to be... But I do think there's a tendency, just a kind of final thought in the blob and in the sort of transatlantic conversation, there's a very ideological sort of values oriented. But actually I think in the actual conversation with China and the conversation in Asia, that's not the right way to talk. I think the way that I'm talking is actually going to be more effective for coalition formation and cohesion not only with the Vietnams and the Thailands and the Malaysia, but even the Indias and the Japans. And it's going to be more important to talk in this way and have a goal that's not millenarian if you will.
Misha Auslin: Well, it's a detailed and I think most importantly, incredibly clear response to the question, it's not necessarily the most important question, but I think it points up.
Bridge Colby: No, I think it's critical. I think it's a critical question.
Misha Auslin: Yeah. Well, I think it points up a lot of the ways in which you're thinking is different from many of those who deal with the question. And also of course, Redland of John Miir Scheer, who I interviewed a few months ago in the sense of he said the same thing. It doesn't matter if China's democracy or an autocracy. And I actually brought up the ideology question and I think folks like me who were trained initially in the waning years of the Cold War, when of course actually could have made the argument, the ideology didn't matter at all to the Soviet Union, but you were trained to understand the ideological sources of what had ultimately eventuated into this global conflict that all of that seemed again with that sort of end of history to be dropped. And so to then hear what Xi Jinping says and what the Chinese say about ideology in the party is that it is important. But your point, I think is just extremely clear and extremely persuasive and important in terms of understanding from our sets of interests, what we face. The Chinese will do with ideology, what they will, what does it mean in terms of how we respond to all this? So, look, we've gone long and you've been very generous. And we could really keep talking a long time. I say that about most of the podcast, but I really mean it on this one. We could just keep going.
Bridge Colby: I agree.
Misha Auslin: Let me just ask you briefly about Ukraine and if what's happened in Ukraine and of course in the book, you do make a point about, again, getting away from the two war standard, focus on the main thing, but at the same time, there might be one carve out and that carve out would be a Russian attack on a NATO ally. Now Ukraine's not NATO, but we have seen movement there in a way that we haven't seen in Europe for decades. Has that just impacted any of your thinking at all on this? Are you still pretty well said in the sense of this is what we need to focus on and then what are we going to do in Europe? I don't know. But how are you thinking about that today?
Bridge Colby: Well, I self-identify as a hedgehog in the [inaudible] of Berlin. Then that won't surprise you that I, it has not. If anything, I would support it under any circumstances, but I think that how things are going in Europe suggests that it's all the more prudent to focus on Asia. We should do so anyway. And in the book, as you would nicely recall, I do talk about specifically a Russian attack on NATO as one of the tougher scenarios to deal with. But the stakes are greater because Asia's more important and China's a much more formidable challenge. And also the other Asian states are far less capable of balancing China than the European states are of Russia. And so we've seen a few things that just to me, actually, it's weird to watch the debate right now because it's like, oh, there's this sense among a lot of people that's like, oh, this focus on China was mistaken. And I actually think nothing has changed about China. If anything what's happened is that the Russians have shown themselves and I'm hesitant to discount them, but it does seem that they're less formidable than we thought and the Europeans are finally getting off their [inaudible]. So that to me, if you just look at it structurally, that means, oh yeah, we should totally focus on Asia because they're finally getting their act together in Europe and the Russians are going to take years to recover their conventional military capability I think. My view is that there are three basic non-negotiable missions of the armed forces that people ask me, "Well, why don't..." My view is that I think it's, and I get into friendly debates with some of our mutual friends about this. I think it's a little bit special pleading to say, "Oh, we should double the top line, our defense spending." My view is I'm a defense strategy guy, it's for the American people to decide and their representatives and kind of more general minded people to decide exactly what. What I say is I think these things are absolutely non-negotiable for our basic interests and then we should spend whatever that requires. And then I think there's an additional thing that you mentioned. And the three things are prevent China from dominating Asia, have a nuclear deterrent that allows us to not be dominated by anybody, and that means both Russia and China and have a low cost counter-terrorism thing. And I would suggest having an additional smaller mission, which is contributing to NATO's defense with the Europeans taking the lead. And whatever that costs, I think that's what we should spend. Ideally, we would spend not so much because we prioritize accordingly and we cut things that we don't need. But that's where I come at. But I believe if anything, I actually don't even know what you would... Why would we double our presence in Europe when the Russians are showing their limits and the Europeans are doing more? That's doesn't make any sense to me.
Misha Auslin: You're rigorously logical, which of course is not always a feature of thinking in DC or the debate. So last question, let's go full DC. Last question. What's next for Bridge Colby? What is it-
Bridge Colby: You never know Misha. You know this. Look, obviously I'd love to serve in the government again but you know. You never know. What I'm trying to do, and I think you were too, if I could speak for you, but is try to make a dent.
Misha Auslin: Somebody has to.
Bridge Colby: Is to try to make a dent on the way we think strategically and what we do. And I think what I'm trying to have my value add be is like, here's a book and a set of arguments that are I'm flattered that you would say they're clear and hopefully persuasive. And it says, it gives a sharpness to the debate that people then have to say, "Okay. I see where we're going to have to grapple with this set of facts." And so you're going to be miserable if you're always looking for the next job, but I think if I can make some progress on that, then I will find it satisfying. And I joke I'll never have a better job, even if I do go back in the government than on the job I had in the Pentagon, because I was senior enough that I could have an impact, but I wasn't [inaudible] that I had to do with all these terrible political... I could really focus on the strategy and I'd never probably have that chance again. But yeah, that's what I'm doing. And that's what the marathon initiative that my partner West Mitchell and I set up, that's what it's enabled us to be able to try to drive forward this debate and conversation on great power competition. So in that spirit, it's really wonderful to be able to talk to you here on the podcast Misha.
Misha Auslin: Well, I appreciate it. For those who don't know, just a quick note West Mitchell was the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe for, I don't know, do we divide it between west and east? I don't think so. It's just west. That's the old Cold War era in me coming out.
Bridge Colby: Yeah. Right.
Misha Auslin: West and east. [inaudible]
Bridge Colby: I think yeah. Europe and Eurasia even. So it's just so real.
Misha Auslin: Exactly. And that's the marathon initiative, which is a group that you head up. Well, for those of you who were listening carefully in the background, you heard bells going off, you heard things dropping on the floor and that's because I was blown away by Bridge as usual. Blown away by the coherence, the clarity and I'm actually not joking. The Strategy of Denial is the book. It is obviously being seen as a seminal addition to the literature. And that's what you said you wanted to be able to have that impact. I think you are. It's obviously there are those who disagree and those who think you should have gone more. That means it's a good book because it-
Bridge Colby: You're over the target if you're getting flack. Right? That's my-
Misha Auslin: Exactly right. If you're getting buffeted that's it. So once again, we've been talking to Bridge Colby, who's written the book, The Strategy of Denial about China, about defending Taiwan, our allies, and really about what our stakes are in the Indo-Pacific. So Bridge, thanks so much for joining us on the Pacific Century.
Bridge Colby: Thank you, Misha. Real Pleasure.
Misha Auslin: Well, I'm Misha Auslin. Thank you for listening in to this episode of the Pacific Century and we will see you next time.
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