The United States needs a defense strategy “for an era fundamentally different” from the “unipolar moment” after the fall of the Soviet Union and from the Cold War period before it. Speaking to a Jewish Policy Center webinar on May 5, Elbridge Colby, co-founder and principal of the Marathon Initiative, listed China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and jihadi terrorism, stressed “there’s only so much power we have and money to smoother all the potential threats we face.”
A former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, Colby is author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, which the Wall Street Journal rated as one of its top 10 books for 2021. Strategy, he explained “is not a clever plan” but “more like a framework” to guide where the United States make national security commitments and investments and where it does not. U.S. national security includes the physical safety of American citizens, international free trade and reassuring and helping sustain allied nations, he said.
Colby believes Asia “is what Churchill would call the ‘decisive theater’” and that China, by far the most powerful country in the region, “is roughly comparable to ourselves.” He worries that Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused Washington to get “overly focused on Europe” when the first thing U.S. strategic planners need to do is “be able to win on Taiwan.”
Central and East Asia will soon eclipse Europe economically as they already have demographically, Colby pointed out. Denying Chinese regional hegemony—which its Communist Party leaders openly seek, perhaps as a foundation for global dominance—is the top American national security interest.
Since “we can’t do everything,” America will need a coalition to deny Chinese dominance through either Beijing’s “soft power”—ranging from cultural exchanges and economic aid to intimidation—or military strength. Casting U.S. deterrence against national security threats as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism would be a mistake, Colby said. America needs numerous allies and some, like Saudi Arabia which the Biden administration alienated early on, are hardly democratic.
Chinese pressure on Taiwan hasn’t seemed to work so far, he said, but if Beijing turns to military force, the self-governing island of 24 million people needs to be able to win. That means “defeating an invasion, sinking ships, shooting down aircraft and defeating forces that land … in a short time.”
Since resupplying Taiwan, far to the west of the United States in the Pacific Ocean, in wartime would be much more difficult than arming Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, a coalition of denial must be active beforehand. “If we’re 92 percent of the way there with Taiwan … we still lose.”
Russia’s failure to triumph so far in conventional war against Ukraine pales in comparison to Chinese capabilities, Colby said. China’s economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s and its industrial base is the world’s largest. Though he believes the U.S. military remains the best in the world, Colby noted Beijing has been increasing its military spending seven to 10 percent annually.
Colby said he takes Russia’s nuclear threats—and similar warnings from China—seriously. “In a world of nuclear weapons and superpowers … we have to thread the needle.” Asked about victory in Ukraine, he cautioned that “we’ll be lucky to get out [with a satisfactory] agreement and our heads still attached to our bodies.”