"Don't screw around"(CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

April 1, 2023   16 mins

Since writing Donald Trump’s National Defense Strategy in 2018, Elbridge Colby has become one of the most influential conservative defence thinkers in America. If a Republican wins the presidency in 2024 — whether Trump or DeSantis — he is likely to be at the centre of power once again. His perspective thus gives a glimpse of possible American foreign policy in the very near future.

When we spoke earlier this week, he set out a radically different focus for the American military — away from Ukraine, and towards a conflict with China that he believes could come as soon as 2027. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.


FS: You’re neither a full isolationist, nor a full maximalist — what’s your vision for American strategy?

EC: My perspective is that the right equilibrium for America, but certainly for a Right-of-centre political movement, is to ask what is in the American people’s concrete interest.

If you look at the voting bloc of the Republican Party — not to say that foreign policy should only serve them — but it’s made up of working- and middle-class Americans. I don’t think our foreign policy has served them. We’ve had this maximalist foreign policy that has proved disastrous. Americans are really tired of the “forever wars”. If you watch Fox News over the course of the day, the ad that leaves the most impressions, though maybe not the most common, is the one that’s for wounded warriors, people who were horribly wounded during Iraq or Afghanistan, or were killed in 9/11, or their widows. That is the mindset of a lot of Republican voters. I think there’s a real distrust and discontent about that foreign policy establishment, which is often the same people making the same arguments that got us into Iraq and the long war in Afghanistan. So what I’m saying is: let’s be unashamed in asking, “What’s in Americans’ interests?”

FS: And what is in their interests — let’s start by asking if America is too committed to the defence of Ukraine.

EC: The way you frame it is exactly the problem — we should be starting with China. It’s very revealing because a lot of not only the Biden administration but many Republicans of that above-the-waterline iceberg agree with you. I think that is the problem, because China is clearly by far the most significant challenge to the concrete, regular American interest. It’s far more formidable economically, but now also militarily.

The way I look at Ukraine is not in a vacuum or separate from China, but precisely through the lens of China, and through the lens of the recognition that we are neglecting the scale of the challenge posed by China. Through the defence strategy that I worked on, and other efforts, we have become more attuned to China, but it’s not a self-referential exercise. It’s more like a business. If you’re GM in the Seventies and you’re changing to adapt to Toyota, but you don’t do enough, you’re going to go out of business — or IBM vis-à-vis Microsoft.

In that context, I would say, yes, we are focusing way too much on Ukraine. I’m not in favour of just simply cutting the Ukrainians off. I think what Russia did and is doing is evil. That’s not the issue. But if our foreign policy is about Americans’ concrete interests, then we’re doing too much. We’ve already spent over $100 billion. We’ve sent equipment, which is not easily replaceable, which is relevant to the potential fight over Taiwan, and certainly the implications as it reverberates through our defence industrial base is very relevant. This stuff sounds arcane, but it’s not. For want of a shoe, the kingdom can be lost. Why are we taking risks on the most significant challenge to the US position in the world and our interest in the world in 150 years? We were a much larger economy than the Soviet Union. We alone were larger than the three Axis Powers, let alone with the British Empire and the Soviet Union. That’s the right way to look at this.

FS: But what does that mean, practically? If you were Senior Advisor to the President right now, what would you tell him to do?

EC: I would say, “I don’t want to talk about Ukraine right now. We’re going to talk about Taiwan and China and Asia first, and once we fix that problem to a satisfactory degree, we’ll spend time and political capital and resources on Ukraine.” I think we should put a lot more pressure and encouragement on Europe to step up and take the primary role. Why is the United States providing the vast majority of military and financial support to Ukraine — certainly in the military context, but also in the civilian area? That makes no sense. Europe is a vastly larger economic area than Russia. It has enormous latent military advantages vis-à-vis Russia. A lot of people have been celebrating US policy saying “American leadership is back” — I actually think this is bad. This is a failure, because if anything, it’s suffocated any effort by Europeans to stand up and say, “We’re going to take leading responsibility.” My basic attitude would be that Americans need to focus on China. We’re not just going to cut the Ukrainians off, but we are going to get the Europeans to do what we’ve been trying to get the Europeans to do since Dwight Eisenhower.

FS: But European countries have stepped up — Germany famously has torn up its postwar neutral position.

EC: No, the Germans haven’t, sorry.

FS: They are committing to vast amounts of increased expenditure on arms. Even if they were committing as much as you want, it’s going to take years or even decades for them to get the kind of military that you would need. You need American power there anyway, don’t you?

EC: Let’s get to the nub of the matter, which is: we don’t have time. It’s the assessment of the US intelligence community that Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be ready for a successful attack on Taiwan by 2027. It’s not a prediction, but that’s about as much warning as you can expect in the tough world of international politics. So we don’t have time. That’s four years away — in defence planning terms, that’s yesterday. We actually have very limited things that we can do.

The Germans deconstructed their military, not as a result of World War Two, but as a result of the end of history and the peace dividend. They had a very large and impressive military when the Federal Republic was seeking to defend itself against the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc. This has been a matter of policy, particularly under former chancellor Merkel — whose legacy will be ashes in her mouth. But the question is: can Germany do it? They’re not stepping up. Their military budget is going to be way below 2% of GDP again this year. The country that deserves applause, in this respect, is Poland, which is committed to almost 5%, and is actually putting its money where its mouth is.

FS: What about the UK?

EC: I give it a lot of credit for its ambition. Under Boris Johnson, it almost committed to 3% but I think that figure has been knocked down over time. My view is it’s great that Britain is more engaged on the continent, precisely because we are going to have to shift to Asia and the UK has very limited ability to project serious military power. if we’re looking at it from the enlightened, self-interested point of view invented in the United Kingdom, then we can’t get China and Asia wrong.

If China takes over Asia, in a hegemonic situation, which I think is its goal, our interests are going to suffer far more than they would suffer because Asia is a much, much larger economic area than Europe. China is a much larger and more formidable power than Russia is. So the question is, who’s going to bear the cost?

If Europe presents a future administration with “we just can’t do it, it’s going to take us too much time”, then, I’m sorry, you have to bear the consequence of that decision and inability. If you want to change that, we will help you, but we, the American people, are not going to allow China to take over Asia because you won’t take the steps needed to be able to defend yourselves. I think this administration is — and this is the point I made in UnHerd last year — actually not helping Europeans by providing a false sense of assurance about what the United States can and will offer in the future.

FS: Does that mean that attempting to keep back the Russian line in Ukraine or even push it further east is a dead project?

EC: I don’t think that’s true. Obviously, you can do things at the same time. The point is that at the political level, we need to make sure that everything that is even remotely needed for a Taiwan fight is allocated — that the resources go there. We gave a bunch of Abrams tanks to Ukraine — it is pretty hard to imagine Abrams tanks being useful in a fight with China. F16s and F35s are going to have trouble against the Chinese. So I don’t see why we couldn’t give F16s potentially to the Ukrainians. But also the Russians are having real trouble. They’re not ten-feet tall; this is not the Red Army of 1945. The notion that they’re just going to roll over the Ukrainians — you don’t have to accept that, Europe. You’re a huge economic area. The problem is that Europe is not stepping up.

FS: Where does Nato stand in this new world?

EC: During the Cold War, the relative balance of expenditures on defence between America and Europe was closer to 50%. I think we should go back to basics, which is: it’s not about the United States. And this is where that establishment and Europe’s interests do align, because the establishment in Washington loves to be the global leader — the Madeleine Albrights, George W. Bushes. “We stand taller; we’re the indispensable nation.” That’s great for that Washington establishment, but that is not what serves the people who are watching the wounded warriors. Why are the American people spending 3.5% of their GDP? It’s really insane when you think about it, that the Americans in Duluth, or Dubuque, or Denver are spending 3.5% while the Germans — who have more responsibility to provide for collective defence than anybody by orders of magnitude — spend 1.5%. And people say: “Germans don’t feel threatened.” Do you think Americans do? The only way to make this sustainable is to have a more balanced approach. I’m not advocating that the United States get out of Nato — to the contrary. I think the treaty is great. But if you go back and look at the ratification in 1949, this was not supposed to be the outcome — in fact, this was the concern.

FS: The treaty holds that “an attack on one is an attack on all”. That, if Russia invades Poland or Lithuania, it should be treated by America as an attack on America, and therefore would call on all of its defence capabilities.

EC: That’s not actually what the treaty says. And, of course, we would not treat an attack on a European ally the same way as an attack on the United States itself. The whole Nato strategy during the Cold War was explicitly about not doing that. That was why we developed flexible response, because there was a difference between an attack on Western Europe and an attack on the American homeland. Obviously there’s a rhetorical level at which that happens. The good thing is the Russians are not sufficiently threatening to make that a problem, because they can’t threaten European Nato, given the attrition that they’ve had in Ukraine, at least for some time.

That is a problem, much more of a problem, with China, which is, in a sense, the new Soviet Union. The point about Nato is that it’s got this post-Cold War model. We need to go back to something closer to the Cold War model, not the post-Cold War model, which is, basically, America takes care of everything. That benefited the Washington old guard, and benefited a lot of Europeans who could disarm. That doesn’t benefit the regular American people. If Nato continues in this direction, it risks breaking. My approach is designed to sustain Nato over the long term.

FS: What makes you so sure that China is actually planning some kind of attack on Taiwan?

EC: I don’t think it’s much of a debate anymore. The leader of the most unified Chinese government since Mao Zedong has explicitly given instructions to the party-army to be ready to attack Taiwan by 2027. And the Chinese pretty much assume that the Americans would come to Taiwan’s defence. That would mean war. That’s not a prediction, but if you go back to some old British wisdom represented in the Crowe Memorandum before World War One, usually aggressive powers won’t give you a precise date and time on which they’re going to move. And Xi Jinping has actually given us that. So we can never say we haven’t been warned.

The other thing is: it ain’t just rhetoric. Look at the military they’re building: it is obviously designed to take on, not just Taiwan, but the United States, Japan. They’re clearly developing a global military that looks like the American military: aircraft carriers, space satellites, nuclear powered submarines. Their basing architecture: Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Pakistan, Equatorial Guinea, which is on the Atlantic coast of Africa. This is the future. I don’t make any predictions; I have no idea what Xi Jinping is going to decide to do. But if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, maybe it’s a duck.

FS: Do you think it would actually be an attack rather than just a blockade?

EC: One of the lessons of Ukraine is: don’t screw around; don’t pussyfoot around. If you’re going to do something, do it right. If you’re going to send two missiles, send six. I think the Chinese are clearly developing the capability to do just that. Yes — it’s difficult to mount and sustain an amphibious and air invasion across the strait, 100 miles. It’s not impossible. We’ve been able to do it over the last 75 years. With the exception of the Persian Gulf War, we haven’t, but everybody knew that we could drop marines pretty much where we wanted in large parts of the world, and that nobody could do anything about it. That’s one thing we have in our favour, the difficulties of such an operation.

To go back historically: the Wehrmacht was much more powerful than the remaining British Army after Dunkirk, but the Germans couldn’t find a way to get across the Channel and sustain it. That’s the model to think about. But the reason I think they’re not going to do a blockade — which I think they could, it’s not impossible, and that could succeed — is that it would leave a lot to chance. It leaves a lot in the hands of the Taiwanese; it leaves a lot in the hands of the Americans. It cedes the initiative, it cedes the element of surprise, and I just don’t think the Chinese are likely to do that. I think they’re at least as smart as we are — probably smarter given our foreign policy over the last 25 years — and so I would expect them to take the most advantageous approach: something that would move below the threshold of our response.

FS: But China is actually quite a cautious state. Why risk plunging the whole world into war?

EC: I don’t know how the Chinese have gotten this reputation. They won the Civil War through the most brutal means possible. Then they seized Tibet through invasion. They invaded Hainan Island as part of the conclusion of the Civil War, and they were planning on invading Formosa before they directly intervened in the Korean War with huge amounts of troops and fought the Americans and the British to a standstill. They also directly attacked Vietnam in 1979 — their ambitions were to go a lot further.

Why would they do it now? I think they actually feel that they need to. Xi Jinping is saying that the United States is trying to strangle China. You see what he’s doing with Vladimir Putin and Russia — they regard us as being in an almost existential struggle, which is very dangerous. The reason they would use military force is to secure their place as the world’s top economy, and a large guaranteed geo-economic sphere, because they can see what’s happening with things like Aukus and so forth. There’s a lot of balancing behaviour to check China’s overweening ambitions, and if they want to get out from under that, they have a strong incentive to use military force, and they’re preparing to do so.

FS: Let’s say that attack does happen. What do you want the American response to be?

EC: This is a situation where being “half-pregnant” is almost the worst approach. My preferred policy — which is, of course, designed to deter and avoid a war, rather than get into it — is for the United States to act decisively and expeditiously to defeat a Chinese invasion, which would involve anti-ship, anti-air, attacking Chinese ground forces that land on the islands. It almost certainly would involve selective attacks on the Chinese mainland that would be constrained to try to help manage escalation, which would be an uncertain endeavour. The best thing in this situation is to be as prepared as humanly possible, and not to get close to the marginal edge of a conventional fight — and that’s what we’re not doing right now. I think the problem is that if we half-bake it, we could get a situation in which the Chinese do it, and we offer an unsatisfactory or unavailing response, which means we’re at war with China, but we’ve lost. That’s the worst outcome, and that’s actually going to be worse for Europe, because in that situation, there’s going to be a giant sucking sound of every US resource going to the primary theatre.

FS: And that means greater investment in military hardware and deterrence around the South China Sea?

EC: No, actually the reverse. I’m in the “speak softly and carry a big stick” department. I think we are peacocking right now, and probably with the strength of a peacock. It’s mostly for show. Forgive the analogy: if you remember the movie Rocky 4, but Dolph Lundgren is the Soviet boxing star who was all business and quiet, and then you have Apollo Creed in the American flag dancing around, then Dolph Lundgren kills him in the ring. That’s my fear of the situation that we’re heading into.

I actually want us to really focus on sharpening that stick, making it a bigger stick, if you will, and doing less in the way of publicity. All these people are on the island and making all these statements about Taiwan — “the CCP is evil” and all this stuff. Sure, the CCP is evil. I sympathise with Taiwan’s freedom. But we are in a super dangerous situation and should focus on hitting the gym. In Europe — I’m not picking on Ukraine — we’re not anywhere near as disciplined as we want. There’s waste in the defence budget. There are difficulties in resuscitating the defence-industrial base. But that’s the world we have to live in. We have to live in the world of now. By the way, the American people are not showing a lot of interest in dramatic increases in defence spending. This is not 1980.

FS: Isn’t that a problem? If the American people aren’t interested and regard this as another “forever war”, they may not be with you on Taiwan.

EC: That’s exactly the problem and that’s one of the reasons I’m so worried about Ukraine. People say we can walk and chew gum — no, we should be husbanding the voters’ resolve. We should be very careful with their money. I think we can do it. We’re already spending almost a trillion dollars on the defence budget. But then, if we’re going to do that, we can’t think we can fight a proxy war with Russia indefinitely. I’m acutely conscious of whether the American people will support a defensive Taiwan. And the Taiwanese are not helping the cause by spending less per capita on defence than the American people do, which is insane. We are really on a knife edge.

FS: And you don’t buy the reverse argument that weakness on Ukraine would signal weakness on Taiwan?

EC: It’s such a tendentious argument. There’s a group now, particularly more on the Left, of people who are Ukraine hawks, who are starting to call for détente with China. I actually appreciate that, because at least we’re seeing a choice. You find this particularly among hawks, who say, “We’re going to do Ukraine, and it’s going to show China and then we’re going to pivot.” It’s a “we’re going to win the lottery” sort of strategy.

Obviously China is looking to some extent, but China’s main calculation is going to be the balance of military forces vis-à-vis Taiwan, and how resolute the American government and the American people are vis-à-vis this specific conflict. It’s the same argument that defenders of the Vietnam War used: that, if we don’t win in the rice paddies of Vietnam, we’re not going to win in Europe. Europeans at the time were saying: “We actually think this is a waste; we think you’re eroding American people’s support.” And in the wake of Vietnam, initiatives like the Mansfield Amendment tried to pull US forces back from Europe. You have the Robert Kagans of the world, who just constantly harangue the American people to “fight the jungle”, and about “global liberal hegemony”. And they’re tuned out. Of course they’re not going to do that kind of thing. So what we really need to do is be much more careful and respectful and husbanding of the American people’s resolve.

FS: Is there a chance you could make conflict more likely by anticipating it?

EC: It’s a very serious worry. We are now in a situation, because of our neglect of Taiwan, where the Chinese clearly want to subordinate Taiwan. That is not the issue — we are not going to catalyse something that they did not already want. They’ve been working, since the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis, assiduously and carefully and ruthlessly to develop a military to do this. By neglecting our defences there, we’ve now brought it into the realm of the possible. So now we’re in the situation, frankly, that Britain faced in the late Thirties, where you’re understrength in the primary theatre. Your choices are: to be weak and essentially ensure failure — you might avoid the war, but at the cost of all your important interests. Or you can arm — but then you might precipitate, at more of an operational and tactical level, a Chinese response to get out from under this. This is a problem I take very seriously.

FS: The alternative historical analogy is the First World War, which some historians would say that we would have been better off not having and was the worst case for everybody.

EC: The worst case was what happened. The second-worst case would have been German dominance of Europe, which would clearly have turned against British interests very quickly. The best case, and it is directly analogous, is that Britain — and I think Britain actually behaved really admirably from a strategic perspective — reoriented its whole military and strategic policy. The historic enmity with France — it settled that issue. It settled the enmity with Russia; it cut deals with the Japanese. It cut deals with the Americans, who — for all this Special Relationship stuff — saw Great Britain as our primary opponent in the 19th century. Britain settled that as well and focused on Germany.

The problem is it didn’t go far enough. In the decisive moment in the July Crisis, instead of Britain saying clearly it was committed to the alliance with France, it equivocated and hedged. And, more than that, if the British had the military forces already generated and ideally deployed on the continent — that’s the lesson Nato learned in the Cold War — I think the Germans could have been dissuaded. The lesson here is that getting 90% of the way there, or 85% of the way there, is not the same as getting 100% of the way there. You have to get 100% of the way there.

FS: How would you position the two leading Republican candidates — Trump and DeSantis — on these foreign policy questions?

EC: Both Governor DeSantis and Trump are with strategic reality, and where the voters are, far away from that traditional blob, that traditional foreign policy establishment. You have other candidates, like former ambassador and governor Nikki Haley, who are clearly running in that lane. Of course, President Trump was the first not to just talk about China, but really do something about it. Governor DeSantis has been very clear on the primacy of the China threat. I think that that’s very telling.

FS: Is there a difference between them?

EC: I’m not going to characterise their positions. You can go ask them. What I will say is, if you look at what they’ve said, for instance in response to the Tucker Carlson questionnaire, I think they’re both focused on China and they’re both concerned about overexposure in the Ukraine context.

I think that the strategy that I’m advocating for is the natural one for a future Republican administration, hopefully one that would win in 2024. Bear this in mind: the next presidential term is going to include the year 2027. So if you are the president, then you are going to really face the issue: am I going to be the first president to lose a major-power war? The United States withdrew from Vietnam or withdrew from Afghanistan, but we have never lost a major-power war. That is going to be a very sobering bucket of cold water to pour on the presidential administration as they transition, or if it’s a continuation of this administration or another Democrat.

In that context, you need to be super-real, super-practical, because you can’t do the walk and chew gum. But you also can’t take the Rand Paul approach, because then China’s going to take over Asia. That’s clearly going to be bad. So my argument is not going to catch fire in the US Senate necessarily. But what you are going to see is, I think, a future administration saying:  “We’re living in a really tough world and we can’t afford the old shibboleths, the old religion.”

FS: Would you work for either Trump or DeSantis?

EC: At the end of the day, anybody who’s working in a presidential administration is a servant of the people, but, of course, is working as staff to the person who has been elected. But if somebody wanted to put something like the approach that I’m advocating for, I would be honoured to work for them. If they’re not, then I think it’s pretty clear, I’m probably not the right guy.

John McCain used to say that we were living in the most dangerous time, and that was in 2006. And I used to think to myself, actually, that’s probably about the safest time we’ve had since before World War One. I think today is genuinely a really, really dangerous time. Look at what Xi Jinping was caught saying to Vladimir Putin on video: that changes are coming which have not been seen in 100 years. I don’t question this man’s resolve, his seriousness, his ruthless brutality. And I think that’s the kind of attitude that we need to take — obviously not the same attitude or same approach — but that level of sobriety and seriousness is what we need as we move further into this century.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.