In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development Elbridge Colby about his new book The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict and whether the U.S. military is ready for a new era of great power competition. Colby discusses doubts among analysts about the ability of the U.S. to win a war against the Chinese military. He notes that there is substantial bipartisan agreement that China is the biggest threat against the U.S.
- What’s at stake in confrontation with China: “If we go back to the basics, which is one of the things I tried to do in my book, what is American foreign policy and particularly defense policy given it’s about, war and peace and loss of life and so forth. What is it fundamentally about? I think it’s about the American people’s security, freedom and prosperity. Long story short, I think our basic goal is what I think of as an anti-hegemonic one, which is basically we don’t want any country or entity to be able to be so dominant in the international system that it could impose its will on our on our way of life and really undermine our way of life. If we look at the world that way, by far the most significant challenge of that happening is China dominating Asia, because Asia is going to be upwards of 50% of global GDP in the coming years. It’s kind of the center of the world again after half a millennium. And China’s by far the strongest state.”
- Could U.S. win a war against China? “I’m very much of the view that we need to prioritize what needs to be prioritized. And that’s China in Asia. And there are real doubts about our ability to win a fight with the Chinese military in the years to come over a plausible war in that region.”
- Everyone agrees China is “biggest threat”: “In an era when there’s a lot of obviously divisiveness at home on almost everything actually, one area where there is quite substantial agreement is that China’s not only a threat but really kind of the biggest threat.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH MICHAEL MORELL: ELBRIDGE COLBY
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Bridge, thank you for joining us on Intelligence Matters. It’s an honor to have you on.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: The honor’s mind Michael. I really appreciate being on the show.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bridge, last month you wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled “America’s Industrial Base Isn’t Ready for War with China.” And I found it both compelling and a bit frightening. And I immediately wanted you to join us here on the podcast to talk about it and really about kind of the bigger issue of, are we prepared from a military perspective for this era of great power competition? That’s what we’re going to dig into. I should also note that you wrote a book that was published about a year ago called The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. And I would imagine that the paperback version of that is going to come out soon.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: It is. Thanks for asking. It’s coming out actually this month in September.
MICHAEL MORELL: Terrific. So the bottom line is, I can’t think of anyone better for us to have this conversation with in terms of, are we ready for this new world that we live in? And what I would love to do, Bridge, is run through a series of kind of big picture questions and then we’ll kind of choose along the way where we want to dive a little deeper. So as you know better than anyone, the fundamental purposes of the military are to deter our adversaries from taking actions that would undermine our security. And then two, to be able to defeat those adversaries in war should that deterrence fail. And so my first question is, in this new era of great power competition, who are the adversaries that we need to deter and what do we need to deter them from doing?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think that’s an excellent question. And I think the right place to start. In fact, that’s kind of how I start my book. I would say the states that are threats and the entities that are threats, you know the terrorist threat better than anybody, they haven’t really changed all that much. It’s more that the scale has changed, particularly because of China. If we go back to the basics, which is one of the things I tried to do in my book, what is American foreign policy and particularly defense policy given it’s about, war and peace and loss of life and so forth. What is it fundamentally about? I think it’s about the American people’s security, freedom and prosperity. Long story short, I think our basic goal is what I think of as an anti-hegemonic one, which is basically we don’t want any country or entity to be able to be so dominant in the international system that it could impose its will on our on our way of life and really undermine our way of life. If we look at the world that way, by far the most significant challenge of that happening is China dominating Asia, because Asia is going to be upwards of 50% of global GDP in the coming years. It’s kind of the center of the world again after half a millennium. And China’s by far the strongest state.
Now, Russia is still very obviously a very dangerous and aggressive power. Iran’s out there. North Korea is out there. Terrorists are out there. The list could go on. But the question is, unlike, say, 20 years ago, we’re not so much more powerful than any of our potential threats over the things that we would care to fight about. We’re not talking about marching to Moscow or Beijing. What we’re talking about is defending our allies. Our allies are important not in and of themselves, but because they’re coalitions to prevent China from dominating Asia or Russia from dominating Europe potentially. So that’s what we are focused on.
MICHAEL MORELL: Where is the United States military today in being able to meet the requirements of this new era of great power competition? What grade would you give us and why would you give it that grade? In what ways are we prepared? In what ways are we falling short? But I’d love for you to start with a good old fashioned letter grade. How are we doing?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: Interesting. I would give us, unfortunately, something probably in the C minus vicinity. And that’s not because of anything wrong with the people serving in the military or anything. But it’s because I’m very much of the view that we need to prioritize what needs to be prioritized. And that’s China in Asia. And there are real doubts about our ability to win a fight with the Chinese military in the years to come over a plausible war in that region.
There are good things happening. And that’s why I’m not giving us an F. The Marines, for instance, the Air Force is doing some good stuff, things out of the INDO PACOM, U.S. Army Pacific, these kinds of things. But it’s not enough. And I wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs last month in August juxtaposing some very good rhetoric, particularly out of the Biden administration about the problem of China and particularly the threat to Taiwan. But the divergence between the rhetoric and what’s actually happening, we’re not making the moves that are necessary to keep up. To me, Winston Churchill said if you get things right in the key theater, you can put everything else right again afterwards, but not the reverse. We’re not where we need to be in the key theater and things seem to be getting worse. And of course, we’re dealing with Xi Jinping, with a leader who seems very assertive, confident and frankly brutal. So I think that’s imprudence at least.
MICHAEL MORELL: Where are we right now in our ability to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion if they decided to do it within the next few months?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: You’re an intelligence professional. I don’t have access to all the data. But I think even more we’re dealing now with a situation with a conflict where it’s inherently unpredictable to some extent. Because when you’re thinking about how a war would go, you’re thinking about how individuals and systems would interact and who would win and so forth and how they would work together. It’s really impossible to be certain. But what’s disturbing, I would say, is that I think we’re in the window, we have entered a period in which it is a close call at best. So just to give you an example, the Taiwan defense minister, actually this was last year, said that China may already have the ability to take over Taiwan in an invasion, including in the face of an American intervention on Taiwan’s behalf at relatively high cost. But that by the middle of the decade, Taiwan’s assessment is that China would be able to relatively easily. And if you look at the best military thinkers and analysts, people like Andrew Krepinevich and Bob Work and David Armagnac, they’re sounding the alarm. It is a remedial problem if we allocate the focus and the resources and the senior level attention. But right now, I think we’re on a trajectory to really put ourselves in a position where losing is, if not just a very real possibility, maybe even the probable outcome.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then let’s flip to the other side of the globe for a second. Where are we in terms of our ability to, say, defend the Baltics if Putin made a move against them?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I’ve always taken the Russians seriously, but I think we have to say that they’ve, you know, their capability has eroded. I know the official assessment, DNI, Avril Haines said that they would struggle to mount a second front war. Of course, they’re having difficulty against Ukraine. And that’s without the full scale NATO response. So I would say we’re in a better position, mostly because the Russians have kind of broken their spear, but also maybe demonstrated that they weren’t as formidable as we thought. And again, I don’t think we should count them out at all, to the contrary. But I think we’re probably in a better position. And that’s part of what informs my assessment that we should even more after what’s happened in Ukraine. Actually, instead of getting us to focus more of our military effort on Europe, it should actually be the reverse, because the Russians are having, they’re bogged down, they’re having real difficulty. The Europeans are doing more. So why don’t we focus on that decisive priority theater?
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, it’s interesting, right, that as Russia is getting weaker, we’re investing more in Europe and the Europeans are investing more. Just the opposite of what you would think. So Bridge, why are we falling short? What are the factors that are behind, are not being where we need to be. Is it a lack of recognition of the threat? It is a lack of a strategy to deal with a threat. Is it bureaucratic inertia inside the Defense Department? The politics of war fatigue? What’s going on here?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: It’s a really important question, Michael. And it’s one I actually struggle with a lot because in a sense, kind of what you just said. It is strange and it’s particularly strange given that there is sort of a consensus. In an era when there’s a lot of obviously divisiveness at home on almost everything actually, one area where there is quite substantial agreement is that China’s not only a threat but really kind of the biggest threat. And yet it’s not happening. And I confess, I kind of go up the wall from time to time because I don’t understand. I think if I had to put it down, there are these bureaucratic explanations and organizational difficulties. But I think the United States, if we put our mind to something, we can usually figure it out. If it’s something solvable. If we wanted to, we could get out of this problem.
I think that the explanation, if we were looking at it as an analyst, is I don’t think that there’s a sufficient appreciation of how strong China is. Especially, I’ll be candid, especially in the frankly more senior and older ranks of the political leadership and the national security leadership. I’ve always found it’s actually less a state of a partisan issue about how much China’s a challenge than it is an age issue. In the sense that I think China’s rise has been so meteoric over the last generation that it’s kind of hard to process. And I think a lot of people just don’t really believe that they could actually pull off challenging the United States directly. I think that’s a grave mistake. But that’s sort of all I can really account for because what people are saying and what we know analytically and empirically is our strategic situation, our military situation is not being matched up with what we’re doing.
MICHAEL MORELL: I wonder to what extent the Russian invasion of Ukraine will get people’s attention on China. One of the things I do is I brief companies of the threats in the world. There’s been a big change in how closely people listen now to what I say. Given the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine. So I’m wondering if people may pay more attention.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think you’re right. I think in a way, it’s a mix. I think it’s distracted us in the sense from Asia, in the sense that it’s pulled attention to Europe. You know, better than anybody, senior level attention is scarce and there’s only so much of it to go around. I think too much of it is going to Europe and Ukraine. I will say that I do think we should support the Ukrainians and oppose Russia’s invasion. But I look at it from a strategic point of view, geopolitical point of view, we’re not allocating our– if you were a company, we would be misallocating our resources and efforts in the grand scheme of things.
And I think to your point, Michael, the key thing is I think people can now imagine that a major war would happen. They can imagine that a country like China would decide to, as Harold Brown put it, make the cosmic roll of the dice and not only invade Taiwan, but precipitate a war with the United States. And I think that that’s salutary in the sense that that is an accurate assessment. And Putin has, in a sense, shown that that is a real possibility. I think also, especially with companies that the political and military and strategic are not really separate from the economic right. These are going to be integrated at some level.
MICHAEL MORELL: One of the things when you talking about, do people sufficiently understand the significance of the threat? I was thinking back to prior to 9/11 and how difficult it was to get policymakers in both parties, Clinton administration and the Bush administration, the early Bush administration, to understand that a group of ragtag guys in dirt training camps in Afghanistan could pose a significant threat to the United States. It was just difficult to get your mind around. That’s what I was thinking when you were talking about, do people fully appreciate the threat? The other thing I was thinking, which is actually more scary, is our country, as you know, has a way of not dealing with an issue until there’s a crisis. We’re not proactive. We weren’t proactive on terrorism prior to 9/11. We weren’t proactive on the pandemic in terms of preparations. So that worries me here. Right. Does something bad have to happen before we wake up and realize what we have to do here vis a vis China?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I’m worried about that a lot, too. Another historical example would, of course, be our entry into the Second World War. Right. But I think in the back of people’s minds, there’s sort of this idea that, ‘hey, we’re America, and if we need to, we can always just gin up the Detroit deterrent or whatever, you know, the industry and so forth. And we’ll be able to take care of the Chinese if they get too big for their britches.’ And that’s wrong for a couple reasons.
One is, as you mentioned kindly, the Wall Street Journal article I co-authored with my good friend Alex Gray, which is our defense industrial base, is a shadow of what it was, or our industrial base as a whole is a shadow of what it was in 1941. In fact, the world’s largest industrial base, the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, is in China. And that’s and that’s also a very costly way of doing it. And China is a peer economy. When Japan attacked us in 1941, it was 10% the size of the American economy. Al Qaida, exactly right, if we put our mind to it, we could make a lot of progress, thanks to the efforts of people like you, could make a lot of progress against that threat. With China it’s a really fundamentally different story. And I think a lot of our habits are bad.
The one major instance that gives me more hope, though, is the Cold War. We were not prepared in Korea, but after Korea, we did maintain a footing in Europe that was never going to let the Soviets really get away with running the tables on us the way that China could. I think the Cold War is an imperfect model in a lot of ways. But I think in the military context and thinking about deterrence, it’s a good example.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to switch gears here to what do we do about this? And I want to put you in two different roles here. The first role, I want to put you in the job of the national security adviser. And I want you to talk a little bit about an overall strategy vis a vis China, not just military, but an overall strategy. What do you think that strategy should look like? What are the key components of it?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think our overall strategy, again, is this anti-hegemonic goal. Our goal needs to be to deny China a soft imperial control of Asia, because if they have that position, they will be able to be dominant in the world and they will undermine our liberties and our prosperity. I have little, no doubt. So I think in this context, how do we do that? We’re not powerful or really resolute enough on our own to do it. So we need a balance of power. We need a coalition. I mean, it’s pretty old school, but there’s a reason it’s tried and true. And so the key here needs to be forming a coalition that can block China’s attempt to dominate Asia. Now, so far, so good. I think that’s pretty unremarkable and widely agreed. I think where I would differ from the way, as I understand it, the administration has been pursuing this, and I’m taking this not only from their statements, but Jake Sullivan wrote a piece in Foreign Policy a couple of years ago that was actually kind of pivoting off of an argument that I had been making or uses as it as a foil, is how central is hard power and how much is this a regional versus a global context? In fact, this is kind of Nadia Schadlow’s reaction, the lead of the national security strategy in the Trump administration. This is kind of the key issue, I think the ascendant view, certainly in the administration. But I think actually more broadly among many, many across the spectrum is that this is a global competition. It’s mostly about economics, soft power, and international institutions. I have a little bit more of an old school kind of realist view, which is that at the end of the day, what matters above all, is to get that hard power military and hard economic power balance. And that’s largely a matter of regional balance.
Asia is really the priority theater. Why do I think that? It’s a little bit for a counterintuitive reason. I actually think economic sanctions and economic leverage are very difficult to turn into really effective political outcomes. And for that reason, I don’t think China, despite its enormous economic heft, is going to be able to turn things like Belt and Road Initiative and these kinds of things into getting the Taiwans, let alone the Vietnams Indias of the world to give up and accede to their regional hegemony. I’m informed by the trouble China is already having but also our own experience. Look at the difficulties we had against Iraq and Iran and North Vietnam, North Korea, pretty modest record. I mean, sanctions have a place, but I think they tend to be exaggerated in their efficacy. So that’s good news, in one one sense that China’s economic heft will not allow it to be dominant.
But it means that the military instrument takes on a greater importance. And in fact, I think one thing Putin in his abominable invasion of Ukraine was right about analytically was that he would need to use military force, decisive military force to get Ukraine to heel. So he’s correct about that. I think China will come to the conclusion. In fact, I think Bill Burns, your successor, said, actually I think at Aspen, that China would take from that Ukraine situation, that overwhelming force was the right. So I think that’s correct. But if that’s correct, that makes the military balance in Asia really, really central. I analogize it to kind of like law and order, which is like, if you live in a safe neighborhood, you’re not worried about the police. But if you live in a dangerous neighborhood, that’s all you think about. And so once we get that right, then it will be a long term competition in economics and technology and all the stuff that that the administration is talking about. And I agree with. But I actually think they’re presuming that that will be the nature of the rivalry with China. But actually we need to work to get to that point. That I think would be another difference because of that is that I would be more ecumenical about who we work with.
If I’m right, then countries like Japan, Australia, but also India, the ASEAN countries, of course, Taiwan and South Korea. These take on much greater importance. And Europe, while important, takes less importance than I think we’re giving to it now. It’s not because I love going to Europe, it’s great, whatever. But I don’t think the Europeans are going to bail us out if there’s a war in Asia. They might help on the margin with things like economic sanctions on China. But I don’t think they’re going to be material. So that really gives a different coloration and emphasis to our overall strategy.
MICHAEL MORELL: Perfect transition. So you’re no longer the National Security Advisor. Now you’re the secretary of defense and the president asks you to come to him and tell him what we need to do militarily. What does the defense budget need to look like? What exactly do we need to do in terms of force structure? What do we need to do in terms of new concepts of fighting? What does your briefing back to him look like?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: Let me actually flip it a little bit. My experience is that and what I try to contribute is I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. What I do think I can do, though, or somebody in that position I believe should really do, is make it very, very clear what the problem to be solved is and the support that they will have. We mentioned high level attention. Secretary Austin is in Europe. There’s this contact group. If I were secretary defense, I’d be like, ‘cancel all my meetings. I’m going to have a meeting on Taiwan all week until we get to a good place. And then we’re going to meet again next week. And we’re going to meet over the weekend and we’re going to get a plan. And are you coming in to help me, if you’re the undersecretary or you’re a general or admiral, are you coming in to help me solve this problem? What do you need? Give me a credible plan. Okay. I’ll take option A, B and C, because I want to be sure. And then everybody else, back to the line.’
In a businesslike way about what is our priority and what do we need to do to get it. The line that you hear sometimes from the Pentagon that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. I mean, no serious company is like, ‘oh hey our strategy is to walk and chew gum at the same time.’ I’m also like, is China walking or chewing gum? That doesn’t sound right. I would be like, this is my priority. What do you need to achieve it? Do we need to change authorities? Do we need to invest in industry, which could be, by the way, the established players, but also new players. This isn’t about just helping the fat cats, so to speak. Do we need more money for the budget? Do you need me to call up Senator XYZ, Congressman or woman XYZ to say, ‘this is why we need to get rid of this program and invest in a new one.’ Then I would say, Mr. President, is what I want is the backing and authority that if I’m going to get flak on this from the hill, from the press, whatever, that you’ve got my back.’
There are other people who know what the right operational concept is, what the right force structure is. I think there’s some truth, for instance, in the idea that the Pacific, especially our interest being more of a maritime theater, obviously the Navy. But look, the Army may have a role too. Ground forces entrenched on islands, as we learned in Okinawa and Iwo Jima, can be really tough to deal with. So let’s hear it out, but let’s move and let’s cover down both on the long term, which is where a lot of the emphasis is from the Pentagon right now, but also from the near term. If we’re saying we’re going to be ready in 2035, we’re going to have 100 B-21 next generation heavy bombers. And China knows it’s going to have the ability to do it this decade, but it’s going to lose the ability to take Taiwan in the next decade. Well, they’re going to have a strong incentive to move this decade. So that’s the approach I would take. I would say, ‘today’s priorities, China, China, China, China. Okay, we’re in a good place on that? Okay, there’s a Europe issue. An Iran issue’ That’s not to say these aren’t important. No, but I’m saying we need to act in a way that is consistent with our actual strategic situation. And fundamentally, we’re not doing that.
MICHAEL MORELL: You’re talking about leadership. At the end of the day, you’re talking about leadership. And it reminds me, Bridge, that people ask me, what difference did Leon Panetta make to the hunt for bin Laden? Because obviously we never stopped looking for him. The difference he made was because of his leadership, he did exactly what you said. He came in and he said, ‘okay, you guys have been looking for him for eight years. I want you to come and see me every week and tell me what progress you’ve made.’ And believe me, you don’t want to come to that meeting and say nothing happened last week. So it drives you. It forces you into action. And it’s just basic leadership at the end of the day that you’re talking about here, whether in business or government.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: Yeah, exactly. And recognizing that that’s going to mean less attention doesn’t mean that you’re just going to ignore something else. The way I put it is like I mean, that’s a great example. I might steal that. But let’s say you’re in a pretty large boat, but you’ve got a hole above the waterline. You got a hole that’s maybe like Iran or North Korea. You got a hole just above the waterline where water’s getting into the boat, but you’re not going to sink it. Then you’ve got a big growing hole under the waterline. Doesn’t mean you’re not going to take care of those other holes. But you better make sure that you get that hole below the waterline taking care of stat. That’s your number one priority.
MICHAEL MORELL: There’s got to be a piece here where the senior leadership of the country, the president, the senior cabinet members on the national security front, senior members of Congress, have to talk to the American people about the threat that China poses and what we have to do about it. Or we will never get the buy in we need from the voters at the end of the day.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think that’s right. I’m actually a bit mystified why that hasn’t happened. In fact, at the risk of being a little bit trite, I think the voters are ahead of the elite in the sense that China is the top threat that’s registered in polling, from what I can tell. And I think that’s now true across the political spectrum. Under the Trump administration, I think Democrats were not necessarily there. But I think since the Biden administration has come in and both their own emphasis, but also the treatment from China, I think the voters are pretty much there. I think it’s more a matter of allocating political capital. I got to be honest, I’m a little mystified because I think the administration is pretty candid, including their senior intelligence officials, that there is a threat to Taiwan. That’s a very real threat before 2027. And it’s like, well, if that’s real that’s by far the most significant thing that could happen in the international security domain. Wouldn’t you want to cover down on that? Why wouldn’t you give a speech?
I’m not an economist. But we’ve spent a lot of money since the pandemic, rightly or wrongly, wouldn’t we want to take care of I don’t know, $50 billion? It’s a lot of money. But in the scheme of what we’re spending, wouldn’t we want to cover down on that? And I think there would be a lot of receptivity across the political spectrum. Maybe some parts of it, obviously not. But it’s kind of mystifying to me. And then again, you asked earlier what’s missing. And I can only infer that there isn’t really a true appreciation of the scale of the threat, because I think if there were, that would be happening.
MICHAEL MORELL: Or as you talked about earlier, which I thought was a fantastic distinction. What is the threat at the end of the day is it this global economic and influence threat or is it a military threat? That could be a big difference here.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: I think you’re right. That could be it. Except the administration is talking about the military threat now. I think to your point, the Ukraine situation should have shown us that this stuff can happen.
MICHAEL MORELL: We’ve been talking a lot about the military. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about some other critical enablers of deterrence and start with maybe something that I might have better insight into than you do. But I want to ask you about intelligence capabilities. Do you have any insight into whether the intelligence community, particularly those parts that serve the Department of Defense, are where they need to be to deal with this threat?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: You would certainly know far better than I,Michael, that’s for sure. I would say I was encouraged by Burns’s statements, both in his nomination hearings, but also since he’s been serving as director, that China is the focus. I think intelligence often gets a bum deal in the sense that it’s an inherently difficult enterprise because you’re being asked to predict things that really can’t be perfectly predicted. And you’re trying to get information from countries that have a strong interest and ability in deceiving you and hiding. So we’ve got to be realistic in what we can expect. But I think from what I can tell, and some of this happened during the Cold War, too. I think there was a lot of focus after 9/11, for very good reason, on the counterterrorism threat. We’ve got to get back to the espionage basics of intelligence, obviously espionage, but also technical intelligence collection methods. But just trying to get after these really hard targets, particularly China, but also Russia. I think that’s especially and again, you know it infinitely better than I. But in an era of ubiquitous electronic surveillance and connection, that’s probably tough. But I think we need to try to do our best.
MICHAEL MORELL: I think what you described the secretary of defense needs to do is exactly what the director of national intelligence needs to do. I wouldn’t let the intelligence community off too easy with regard to this is hard work. When I was briefing President Bush every morning, I made the mistake once of telling him that intelligence collection in North Korea was hard. And he said, ‘Michael, I know it’s hard, but I still expect you to do it.’ So we shouldn’t we shouldn’t give anybody any room to.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: That’s right. That’s right. Don’t let them off the hook.
MICHAEL MORELL: Don’t let them off the hook. Right. A real businessman wouldn’t do that, right?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: Exactly. Exactly. I know. Expect the impossible.
MICHAEL MORELL: Exactly. The second question I want to ask you is about the economic piece of this and how you feel about industrial policy vis a vis China. Where are you on that?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: Yeah. Well, first, I’m not an economist, so it’s more a derivative view for me. But I do think industrial policy is warranted, particularly in key areas, of course, the defense industrial base, but also things like semiconductors. I think we could have a debate about whether industrial policy is better than a pure free market system in the abstract. But that’s not the world we’re living in. We’re living in a world in which the largest economy in the world and the largest growing economy in the world with us is actively practicing industrial policy on a galactic scale. So in that context, I think industrial policy is kind of necessary because we can’t- I think we ran an experiment probably over a 20 year period after the entry of China into the WTO, where we we said, ‘well, there might be a practicing industrial policy, but we’ll be free market, not pure free market, but more free market than they. And we hope that, we expect that we’ll do better.’ I don’t think that’s been borne out, as you can see, through the industrialization and the semiconductor problem.
So I think industrial policy is necessary. I also think that trade is in bad odor in the country across the political spectrum. I personally am sympathetic in a lot of ways because I think it’s related to the industrialization issue and a loss of credibility on, for instance, holding China to account for its commitments in entering the WTO. But again, thinking about it kind of from the overall strategic picture, China is going to be 1.4 billion people, the population is shrinking, but over a billion people. And as Bob Work and Eric Schmidt point out and others in their AEI commission report, scale is absolutely critical.
The Chinese have a huge internal market. They’re going to have like cadet markets that they’re selling into. We have to be able to scale out at a comparable level. We’re going to have a free world, free world sounds offensive rhetoric. But I mean, we’re going to need a trading area that’s going to match it. Now, what I would say is that maybe we can have that negotiated by Bob Lighthizer or somebody like that,, so we get as good a deal. But I think that’s where we’re going to have to end up. If we succeed in getting into a long term economic competition with China, that’s the model we’re probably going to need to go towards.
MICHAEL MORELL: Without being partisan in any way here, the last issue I wanted to talk to you about is our politics. It seems to me that fixing our politics is a necessary condition for us to be able to do what we need to do in a foreign policy and national security sense. I just want to get your reaction to that.
ELBRIDGE COLBY: Well, I would agree to a point. I’m not sure we need to fix it. Obviously, that’s a term that can encompass a lot of different meanings. We’re both Americans. We know the history. But I look back at American history, and I see a lot of turbulence, frankly. A lot of vim and hefty debate. Things are pretty intense right now. And I think it would behoove everybody to step back and take a deep breath and also keep things in perspective. I have my own strong views and I have real concerns about where the country is going and all that. But I mean, there’s not mass starvation. We’ve got a great thing going here for two centuries plus. There are lots of things that need to change. And I have one view of where they need to go, others have other views or whatever. But let’s keep this in perspective. And one thing that’s for sure is that a world dominated by China and an America that’s at the mercy of China is going to be a lot worse because we’re not even going to have the power to change and to chart our own future. That’s one of the premises about a lot of our debates right now is like, ‘hey, we get to choose our own future. It’s really up to us. That is at issue right now. And we need to keep these kinds of things in perspective.’
MICHAEL MORELL: Any final thoughts you want to leave our listeners with?
ELBRIDGE COLBY: No, it’s really a great conversation with you Michael and with your distinguished record. But also, I just think this China issue, the way I end in my book and I will try to end this is I’m really passionate about this because I don’t know the future. I mean, you’re an intelligence professional. You can never know the future. But I look at the factors that China might have in front of me. And if I were- I try to be a ruthless jerk for America as a strategist. And as a part of that I try to think, well, what would my analogue in Beijing be thinking? And I look at the factors that they might see. And I see a lot of reasons. Why they could think it’s in their interest and rational to precipitate a conflict, frankly. And that worries me a lot. And I desperately don’t want that to happen. But I’m also equally convinced that the best way to prevent that from happening is to be manifestly so prepared and so ready that Beijing, they always decide, ‘Sure, I might like to take back Beijing. Sure, I might like to unseat the Americans. Sure, I might like to humiliate Japan. But it’s just not going to work. So I’m not going to try that.’ We have a limited window to try to try to fix that. And we should seize the opportunity.
MICHAEL MORELL: We want them to every time they think about one of those things we want them to say, ‘but the risk is too high.’ Bridge, thank you so much for joining us.
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