“Overall, 2021 has been a difficult year for the Biden team” – Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.) (source: US Naval Institute)

Before the Holidays, Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.), one of my favorite authors, granted me an end of year interview about issues related to his amazing novel 2034 about a war between China and the United States. These geopolitical issues are unlikely to disappear from the radar in the coming months and years. The Admiral’s insights are therefore not only very informative, but also crucial to grasp the state of the world.

Admiral Stavridis, I’ve read and reviewed 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (Penguin Random House) with tremendous interest. Before we head into more serious stuff, a question burns my tongue. Since there are lots of mention of the delicious M&Ms throughout the novel, I was wondering if you are a fan of that candy yourself and if that’s the reason why it is mentioned in the book?

While I am not personally a fan of M&M candies, I have known many sea-going naval officers who are. I liked the idea of Lin Bao [one of the main characters of 2034] enjoying an American candy, essentially a nod to the duality of his upbringing.

Israel is central to our strategic approach of containing Iran.

In the book, there is a passage about the Golan Heights having been captured at the time the story unfolds. In my opinion, that stresses the precarious nature of Israel’s security. What would be your reading on the importance of Israel as a strategic ally of the West in the Middle East? Do you feel we take it too much for granted?

Israel is our most important ally and a fellow democracy in a vital region of the world. we recognize that in a myriad of supportive ways, including providing over $3 billion annually in military capability, more than to any other partner. They are central to our strategic approach of containing Iran, preventing the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and maintaining strong relationships in the Arab world.

I don’t see a strategy for dealing with the rise of China.

Overall, how would rate President Biden’s foreign policy – one year after taking office?

He has strengthened our relationships with key allies, especially in Europe and East Asia.  The return to the global climate process is absolutely necessary. I applaud the attempt to negotiate a new and more binding treaty with Iran to cap their nuclear intentions.  But the border situation is a disaster and there seems to be little focus on that important foreign policy challenge. Above all, I don’t see a strategy for dealing with the rise of China, the most important foreign policy concern. Overall, it (2021) has been a difficult year for the Biden team – despite their deep experience and bench strength – to get traction internationally given the twin overhangs of covid and the economy, plus the pending mid-term elections.

Cyber is the biggest overall vulnerability we face, and a key idea of 2034 was to illuminate that challenge.

In my opinion, the most important lesson to take from 2034 is the fact that we can’t be complacent about the development of military capabilities by the adversaries of the West, notably at the cyber level. Are we doing enough to keep safe against these threats or are we just whistling past a potential graveyard?

We are improving our vigilance and strengthening our cyber capabilities. The next logical step is creating a designated cyber force, much as we just stood up a us space force. Cyber is the biggest overall vulnerability we face, and a key idea of 2034 was to illuminate that challenge.

For the immediate future, I think China will want to avoid a confrontation with the United States.

The fate of Taiwan is naturally a dominant theme in the book. What’s your take on Beijing’s saber-rattling about the reunification of this island with the mainland through military means? Can Washington stop it from happening?

Taiwan is the reddest of red lines for Beijing, and they will never permit the island to become independent. The question is whether they will use military force to pull what they see as a “rogue province” to heel. For the immediate future, I think they will want to avoid a confrontation with the United States, which is drawing closer to Taiwan with exercises, high-level visits, training missions, and arms sales.

There’s a moment in 2034 where the alliance between Tehran and Moscow breaks up. I’ll let the readers discover for themselves about this scenario, but this is one of the most fascinating episodes in the book. Do you think the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran could unravel and under what circumstances?

All alliances can unravel, even very long-term ones. A British Foreign Secretary once said, nations do not have permanent alliances, only permanent interests. And given the autocratic nature of the three regimes, it is logical that they will be prone to pressures and strife.

What President Putin wants is a guarantee of a sphere of influence around his borders, which is unlikely.

One of the notions that made me smile in the book is the fact that, 13 years from now, Russian President Vladimir Putin still carries the gravitas of power in the hallways of the Kremlin. With the sound of combat boots still resonating in Ukraine, do you think Putin is a threat to the West or just an adept of realpolitik, who wants a seat at the Great Powers table for Russia?

He is not a serious threat to the West, which collectively outspends Russia by 10 to 1. But he does have thousands of nuclear weapons, ironclad control over his nation, and a determined nature. What he wants is a guarantee of a sphere of influence around his borders, which is unlikely. This is a potentially dangerous confrontation, with Ukraine becoming a proxy war.

I’d say the chances are low overall of a global conflict. But even a 5% chance is too high given the consequences.

I assume you don’t have a crystal ball, but I can’t avoid asking you the question. How likely is it that China and the United States will face themselves in a hot war in the foreseeable future?

I’d say the chances are low overall of a global conflict, as portrayed in 2034, which is not predictive fiction, but rather a cautionary tale. But even a 5% chance is too high given the consequences. Let us hope both sides will work to reduce the chances of an actual war, which would diminish both nations – the outcome described, of course, in 2034.

Final question for you, Sir. Can you share with us which books have you been reading during the Holidays?

The Ministry for the Future (Orbit) by Kim Stanley Robinson and All In (Penguin Random House) by Billie Jean King

Thank you so much for the generosity of your time, Admiral Stavridis. I can’t wait to dive into your new book.

_______________

Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.) last book, The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea is published by the US Naval Institute Press and his upcoming book, To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision will be published next May by Penguin Random House.

You won’t want to miss it! This is one of the most insightful and eloquent contemporary authors about military affairs and history.

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