Expert Excerpts: Military

                  
 
 
 
 
 
 

Admiral James Stavridis USN — the Next World War

Admiral James Stavridis USN Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Alright that is the agenda for today’s session. Let’s begin today’s session with Retired Admiral James Stavridis.

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
People ask me frequently these days, “Why would you write a novel about a world war between the US and China?” The answer in one sense lies in the past. Take a look at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, somehow, we managed to avoid blowing up the world. Part of how we did it was that we could imagine how terrible a world war between the US and the Soviet Union, fought with nuclear weapons, might be. Think of Dr. Strangelove, the Bedford Incident, Fail Safe, The Third World War by Sir John Hackett. These were all works of imagination, novels, fiction, that depicted what that war would be like. My belief is that by writing this novel, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, I can help all of us imagine how awful this might be, how we could stumble into it, what the ladder of escalation might look like. Ultimately, the hope would be that we could then if you will reverse engineer it and avoid this outcome.

Think about some of the big disasters that have struck the United States of America over the last 70, 80 years, going back to the Second World War. If only we could have imagined Pearl Harbor coming, if only we could have imagined 9/11 coming. Who could have imagined a 20-year war in Afghanistan? Or most recently, of course, a year ago, could you have imagined what we are dealing with today in the pandemic? Probably not.

The question is how realistic is it that we could simply stumble into a war with China that really is in neither nation’s interest? Unfortunately, it is a real possibility. If you look at the basket of disagreements between the United States and China, they’re big, and they’re getting bigger. Think about the dispute over who owns the South China Sea, a vast body of water the size of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, which China claims in its entirety. The opening scene of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War is set in the South China Sea.

What about cyber activity? What about intellectual property theft? The way Hong Kong is being treated, the Uyghur, human rights questions within China, the disputes over 5G, Taiwan, a thriving and independent entity, which China would very much demand become part of its loving embrace. We disagree, we, the United States, with all of those positions and we see China increasing its military capability relentlessly. It may surprise many of the listeners to know China has more warships today than the United States of America. Ours are better, we have more capability, we have a greater global presence, but ton for a ton of warships, and especially if they’re all packed into the South China Sea, big challenges for the US Navy. China’s preparing for some kind of conflict, and we are as well.

Then the novel also looks at some of the other great powers. How will Russia play in this particular game of thrones, if you will? We’re seeing Russia in China draw closer and closer together. Their ships operate routinely, not just in the North Pacific, but in the Baltic Sea, in the heart of Europe. The last time they conducted military exercises on their mutually-shared Siberian border it was the largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War. Of course, it’s not just Russia. What about Iran? What will you Iran’s role be? The second set piece that opens 2034: A Novel of the Next World War is an Iranian activity that forces down an American jet. How can that come about?

Then finally, as we look at great powers in the novel, what about the role of India? I know Larry often asks about things that are optimistic going on in the world today. I, for one, am cautiously optimistic about the rise of India, because it’s a democracy, because it enjoys an enviable geographic position in the heart of the Indian Ocean, because it has a long history and culture, because it’s already connected in many ways with the West.

Those are some snapshots of what happens in the novel, and I’ll conclude my very brief opening statement with the idea of, okay, Admiral, you’ve convinced me, I hope, by the time you’re done reading 2034, that we should avoid a world war with China at all costs. How do we do that? What are the tools we can use that allow us to avoid that war? One of them is what we’re talking about right now, it’s reading, study, learning, education. Believe me, China understands us better than we understand China. We have work to do. We need a strong military deterrent capability, but less about those traditional platforms, more about cyber, unmanned vehicles, space, hypersonics. We need that credibility and capability.

We also need allies, partners, and friends. We need to build coalitions so we can create balance against the rising strength of China, again, without pushing them into a corner, without walking into a war through an ill-understand policy, but shaping the globe with our network of allies, partners, and friends. NATO, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, on and on.
Lastly, the private sector has a significant role to play here because our economies are intertwined. Look, we know from World War I the experience of economies and nations that are deeply intertwined economically in Europe and are intertwined by blood marriage of the royal families, yet they managed to get into a world war. It would be incorrect to say that, well, our economies are really together and therefore it’s unlikely we’ll end up in a global war. But the converse can be true. It is possible that there are private-public cooperation zones that the US and China could work in, for example, climate, or preparation for the next pandemic.

Well, I’ll close and turn it over to Larry by simply observing there are dangerous times ahead. If you look at human history going back 2,500 years and you have read anything of the works of Graham Allison, my good friend and mentor at the Kennedy School, you’ll understand that there’s a looming Thucydides Trap, as it’s called. So often in human history, when an established power is challenged by a rising power a global war ensues. It goes all the way back to Athens and Sparta. I’m Greek American, so I’m allowed to know my Greek history. But it goes back just a hundred years ago, established power, Great Britain, rising power, the Kaiser’s Germany, World War I, and you can drop a plumb line to World War II. That’s what we need to
avoid, and I think by imagining our way into the future, we have our best chance of avoiding that kind of horrific outcome. That’s the purpose of the novel, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
Larry, back to you.

Larry Bernstein:
Thanks, Admiral.

Admiral James Stavridis QA USN Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
We had Graham Allison discus the Thucydides Trap on the program a few months ago and I wanted to open up with that. China is obviously a growing power and it has certain political and military objectives. Given the changing power dynamic, how do we encourage China to behave in a way that it doesn’t threaten our allies and encourages them to find non-military solutions to their political hopes and desires?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
Yeah, we begin by understanding their strategy and using empathy, which is one of the least used, unfortunately, tools in diplomacy, put yourself in the shoes of the other. What you see is China, which wants to continue to feed its very successful economy with raw materials and then export finished goods, this is called sometimes One Belt One Road. It has two paths, one goes across the land to the north, the other through the Indian Ocean to the south. China will seek to expand that route. They will seek influence all along, this is why they are purchasing or leasing ports, for example, all along that route. Number one, Larry, we need to understand what China is doing and try and put ourselves in their shoes.

Number two, create a strategy. This is where I would fault the Trump administration. They attempted to engage with China, they had a pretty clear-eyed view about some of the challenges, that’s good, but they never developed a coherent strategy. I would argue what the Biden team must do is create a strategy that integrates military, diplomacy, political activity, strategic communications, economics, and in particular, that strategy needs a very strong component of engagement. It’s a good thing that the senior Biden cabinet officials will be meeting this coming week in Alaska with senior officials from China.

Third, here’s the basics of the strategy in my view. Confront where we must, cooperate wherever we can. We have to confront on the South China Sea, we can’t simply turn that over to China as territorial waters. My view, we have to confront China on gross human rights violation, for example, in the treatment of the Uyghur population, we have to confront China when they push on India in the Himalayas at the top of the world. We have to confront where we must, but we should cooperate where we can. The two examples I gave earlier are perhaps the best opportunities, climate and pandemic preparation, because there will be another pandemic. This is a subject that could take up hours of conversation, but there is a quick snapshot of how I view it.

Larry Bernstein:
You mentioned China’s objectives is to feed its economy with raw materials. If you go back to World War II, the Japanese wanted to feed their economy with raw materials as well and the Americans put themselves in a position to prevent Japan from feeding its economy with raw materials, which led inexorably towards war. Is that a lesson to be learned, that when we have a disagreement, we shouldn’t put pressure on raw material supplies?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
I think the lesson to be learned, and by the way, what you’re discussing from the Japanese Empire was what they call the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and it was a strategy that had some similarities to what China is doing today. The lesson, I think, is don’t back your opponent into a corner. The great military strategist in human history was Sun Tzu, he wrote the classic short, very readable book The Art of War. Sun Tzu is famous for saying the greatest victory you will ever attain is the battle you do not fight, it is trying to outmaneuver your opponent, create alliances, form patterns that draw your enemy where you want him to go. But Sun Tzu also said, Larry, when on death ground, fight. What we want to avoid is putting our opponents in a corner where they feel they are on death ground, because then they surely will fight. That’s what we need to avoid.

Larry Bernstein:
In your novel, one of the commanders, Commander Hunt, is responsible for three battleships that are sunk and there’s a commission that is to decide whether or not she should continue to keep her command. In your other book Sailing True North, you describe when Admiral Kimmel, who was in charge of Pearl Harbor, there is a commission, and you say that with this sort of loss of life and what happened at Pearl Harbor, there was no chance that Admiral Kimmel could ever be given a command again. But here in your novel, Commander Hunt is given almost immediately a very important position in the Navy, on the frontlines again. Is that possible, once there’s been a catastrophe for an admiral, or any commander to be given a command again in such a live compat arena?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
It depends on the disaster. Pearl Harbor, you’re absolutely correct. Admiral Husband Kimmel is the commander of the Pacific fleet when the Japanese conduct a surprise attack and destroy the entire fleet. The work of the commission came actually after he was relieved for cause. President Roosevelt decided he no longer had confidence in Admiral Kimmel. Admiral Kimmel was a very senior four-star Admiral. The heart of his responsibilities at Pearl Harbor was to run the entire US-Pacific fleet and be ready for all eventualities that came along. Commodore Sarah Hunt, who is in charge of three destroyers, conducting the freedom of navigation patrol, is at a
very different position in the Navy hierarchy. She’s not even a one-star admiral, let alone a four-star Admiral like Kimmel. She’s a captain, she becomes a commodore when she takes responsibility for these three ships.

One of my great mentors, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, was asked once about second chances in the military. He said that you can forgive a general at times for a general’s mistakes and you can forgive a captain for a captain’s mistakes, what you cannot do is forgive the general for the captain’s mistakes. What he meant by that is that, and in the case of Admiral Kimmel, when the mistakes are so big and the scale is so enormous, no, you cannot come back from that. When you’re a much more junior officer and a mistake is made, and in the novel you’d have to have a debate about whether a Sarah Hunt actually makes a mistake or not, it’s an ambiguous situation, she, I believe, would have been given a second chance. She is in the novel, and she survives to fight another day.

Larry Bernstein:
We had Professor James Holmes from the Naval War College on the call a few months ago and he spoke about containing the Chinese navy, in particular, what the naval operation would look like in the South China Sea. As you said, what’s unusual about it is it’s on the Chinese border so they’ll have access to the mainland to protect that space from the air and launching missiles, et cetera. On the other hand, it is the Chinese mainland and so they’re much more at risk. How do you think about the naval exercises that will go on in that physical space, as well as the American desire to protect Taiwan from an invasion?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
Yeah, this is a very hard, pure military problem, and you’ve put your finger on it. The Chinese in this scenario if, God forbid, we ended up in a war with China, they have the home court advantage. Their logistic chains are effectively non-existent. All of their ports, all their logistics, their parts, their food supplies, their oil, gas, everything is right there on the mainland. In addition to everything you just mentioned, Larry, they also have the ability to operate out to, I’m sure James talked about this, I know Professor Holmes quite well, what’s called the first island chain and the second island chain.

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah, he did.

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
These are the island chains, the reefs of islands that go from Taiwan in the south up to Japan in the north, and the Philippines are on the outer side of those rings. China is very capable of operating with a lot of ships, flooding the zone, if you will, and covering it with hypersonic cruise missiles, particularly potentially being directed from space. It’s a very hard military problem.

The best thing the United States can do is, again, back to allies, partners and friends, have access to these island chains so that we can have logistics support and be in close, put pressure on the Chinese forces before they can launch at us. That becomes a very delicate dance, because this is one of the themes in 2034, in the novel, is escalation. Just because you think, as a war fighter, that you are acting in a very measured, careful, nuanced way, your opponent may not see it that way. Again, back to Sun Tzu, when on death ground, fight. When you cross a line and attack the homeland of an opponent, in my view, you really do cross a line, a pretty significant one. That’s part of how the story unfolds in 2034.

Bottom line, no easy answers here. We need a capable cybersecurity, space, forces that can go forward, operate with allies, partners and friends, and be prepared to act from strength if necessary. Again, this is what we want to avoid.

Larry Bernstein:
When I was in college, the primary textbook that we used in our political science class was John Louis Gaddis’s book, called Strategies of Containment.

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
Sure.

Larry Bernstein:
In that book, Gaddis describes two different models to deal with the situations. He calls one the symmetric response and then other, an asymmetric response. In your novel, it seems that the Chinese engage in an asymmetric response, they choose where we’re going to attack every time, while the Americans choose a more symmetric model, where they meet one attack in a similar sort of way, right back at you. What Gaddis argued was that an asymmetric was a better approach. I’m wondering if we follow this war game through, are you suggesting that symmetry is probably a bad idea? I guess what I would say is what do the Chinese desperately not want us to do? I would put to you that I think an independent Taiwan is what they don’t want. If the Chinese start acting aggressively in the South China Sea, should the United States then move in a different direction and say, “You know what we’re going to do if you get aggressive?

We’re going to support an independent Taiwan and we may even provide them with nuclear weapons so they can protect themselves.” Is that a more appropriate response than direct military engagement?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
It is an asymmetric response. I know John Gaddis well. I know the book well. In fact, I was with him just before the pandemic up at Yale. I think that you’re correct. China is using asymmetric approaches. Their way of war, if you will, comes from Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu was very much a fan of the asymmetric approach. Western powers tend to be Clausewitzian, meaning we go right up the middle very frequently.

I think in this case, asymmetry is a good thing to consider, but I’m going to give you both a good and a very dangerous asymmetry. I’ll start with the very dangerous. The very dangerous asymmetry is the one you suggest. An enormous red line for China is the status of Taiwan, and the more we become tempted to “encourage them to independence”, the higher the likelihood of actual combat between the two nations will go up. This is why for decades we’ve had a policy that’s called strategic ambiguity, meaning we haven’t declared that we will fight for the island of Taiwan. We imply that we would look with grave misgivings at any military move on Taiwan and we have been very measured in the military defensive systems that we give Taiwan, or we sell to Taiwan I should say.

I would say that is an asymmetric threat to China. That is very, very direct and you would want to really only come to that in extremis, knowing that you are probably going to tip into active combat between the United States and China, and no one knows how that will come out. That is also something we explore in the novel, 2034.

Let me give you, I think, a good example of how the United States could be using asymmetry as we think about conflict in the South China Sea. It’s how we use the US Marine Corps. For the last 20-plus years, how have our wonderful, almost 200,000-person Marine Corps been used? They’ve been used like a land army in Iraq and Afghanistan. You could kind of take the Marine out of their name, they haven’t really done anything from ships. As we look at a potential conflict with China, some of the most forward-thinking war gaming is being done by the United States Marine Corps, thinking about how they could get behind those island chains that Professor Holmes told you about and operating from ships, hopefully very stealthy ships, very capable ships, conduct, if you will, special operations-type activities at scale. That’s an asymmetric response that I think is less likely to drive us directly into the throes of a major war. Again, pushing for Taiwanese independence, we ought to think of that as behind the glass, reserve that for the ultimate emergency. You are correct in your assumption, that would certainly get China’s attention, Larry.

Larry Bernstein:
Completely different question here, I want to talk about The Battle of Midway for a second. In June 1942, Admiral Nimitz decided to throw all of our aircraft carriers at Midway. Admiral King, back in Washington, thought this was a terrible idea because there would be nothing between basically Hawaii and California to protect an attack against the mainland. Roosevelt favored Nimitz and allowed the aircraft carriers to all go to Midway.

I bring this story up because you focused that the engagement with China would probably be in the South China Sea, but if I were the Chinese, I might want to attack the mainland United States. To what extent as we think about our use of naval resources, how much do we have to preserve to protect a direct attack against the United States mainland versus containing the battle ]directly in the South China Sea and at the Chinese border?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
As we sit here today in 2021, I’d say the odds of China launching significant strikes on the United States continent with rockets, bombs, missiles, are quite low because they’re attributable, because Chinese capability is somewhat limited to do so. I think as you project forward to 2034, the year in which the novel is said, the odds go up significantly. Without giving anything away in the novel, there’s a significant cyber-attack that changes the calculus along the lines of what you are talking about.

I would argue we need to protect ourselves certainly from an attack on the mainland US. I would say by 2034, roughly 15 years from now, the best way China could use asymmetric attack against us would be using cyber, particularly if they continue to stride ahead of us in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, machine learning. All these things potentially could tip that asymmetric balance against us in cyber. That’s, I think, the real longer-term concern.

Larry Bernstein:
We had John Mearsheimer on the call a few months ago and we discussed the rising Chinese power. I asked him what the role of Europe would be in this coming South China Sea confrontation. He said that the European countries had no ability to project power in the region and Europe would be irrelevant. As a former leader of NATO,I wonder how you think about that, the role of Europe in this sort of struggle, and in your novel, Europe plays almost no factor. How do you think about Europe in the context of a confrontation in the South China Sea?

Admiral James Stavridis USN:
I am more or less with John Mearsheimer on this one. I think it’s unlikely, particularly in the 15-year future, that the Europeans will want to tangle with China. But that, again, is the whole point of writing the novel. What we don’t want is what happens in the novel, where Europe is largely irrelevant. What we want is a strong, robust NATO. We want to see European defense spending continue to increase; we want Europe to be able to forward deploy combat power. By the way, the British have built one, and are building a second, large deck aircraft carrier. The French are building a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Europe spends today about $300 billion a year collectively on defense, that’s more than China spends. I wouldn’t dismiss them entirely, but again, in writing a cautionary novel, how we don’t want things to come out, they don’t play a very significant role in 2034. but we still have time to try and address that, and I think the best way to do it is to work closely with them. I think you’ll see the Biden administration do that.

Larry Bernstein:
Admiral, thank you.

                  
 
 
 
 
 
 

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