The Grand Strategy Summit: American Leadership in the 21st Century
A Nuclear Middle East: Preventing Proliferation
Jon Alterman, Morgan Ortagus, Elbridge Colby (moderator)
The Ritz Carlton, Washington, D.C.
November 11, 2022
Full Transcript Below:
Jim Byron: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I invite you to take your seats as we get ready for our fourth and final discussion.
The so-called third leg of the stool of the Nixon Grand Strategy attempted to tackle the tumultuous problems in the Middle East that were mounting in the early 1970s. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 provided an enormous strategic opportunity to weaken the global position of the Soviet Union while strengthening and saving Israel in the process. In its final months, the Nixon administration began the first Middle East peace process that would become the Camp David Accords under President Carter. More recently, the Abraham Accords continued to build on that work dramatically positioning former foes together against a rebellious Iran.
Here to talk the future of Western relations in the region, please welcome Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to joining CSIS, he served as a member of the policy planning staff at the State Department, among other distinguished roles. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the George Washington University. Morgan Ortagus is the former spokesperson for the United States Department of State in the Trump administration and served in both the Obama and Bush administrations as well. Elbridge Colby will moderate this discussion. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. From 2018 to 2019, he was the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security where he led the center’s work on defense issues and can boast of a strong background in the study and formulation of grand strategy. Would you please join me in welcoming our final panel?
Elbridge: Great. Well, thank you everyone for joining us for this, the concluding panel of the inaugural Nixon Grand Strategy Summit. And it’s great to be joined by my good friends Morgan Ortagus and Jon Alterman. You heard about their distinguished bios, and I couldn’t imagine a better duo to join us in a discussion about the Middle East.
I think the purpose of this summit, as I understand it, is to really kind of bring the Nixonian perspective, if you will, to the toughest problems the country is facing now, but also going forward, to kind of look forward over the longer term and not be kind of caught up in the specifics of the day to day, which has so often in the past happened in discussions about the Middle East, but really to think as President Nixon and many of his lieutenants like Henry Kissinger so famously did, think about the long term, the kind of tectonic shifts that are happening in the world and that will happen in the world, and to put America in the best position.
And I think we actually had a really spirited debate, for those of you who were here for the last panel, about what that might mean, about differences, about what the world might look like in terms of how powerful China is and Russia is, and so forth. And I think we wanna bring that kind of perspective here to the questions of the Middle East. And of course, just to briefly touch on it, I mean, President Nixon in some ways, I think you could say, and I defer to these greater experts on the Middle East. In some ways, you could say that some of President Nixon and his team’s most important and lasting accomplishments maybe were in the Middle East. Of course, we’ve talked…heard a lot about the opening to China, which was President Nixon’s own idea famously expressed in foreign affairs and how that helped really shift the Cold War, some of the strengthening sort of the defense posture in Europe starting after the war in Vietnam.
But I think if you looked at the situation, actually, for those of you who were able to see Dr. Kissinger’s remarks last night, I think he was pointing out that in 1969, the Middle East was a pretty grim place from the perspective of the United States. You had Nasser and a very radical Egypt that was tightly aligned, as I understand it, with the Soviet Union and, of course, with Syria as well. The collapse of the CENTO model that the Eisenhower administration, which President Nixon had served, as a kind of bulwark of the free world against the communist world. And by the end of the Nixon administration with things like the shift under Sadat by Egypt and the expulsions of the Soviets and so forth, there was really a new situation of a strengthened US-Israel relationship and Israeli defense posture following the Yom Kippur war, and so forth.
So, I think it’s a particularly apropos for us to be talking about that. And where I wanted to start out in this discussion with Jon and Morgan is to kind of get…let’s start from where I think President Nixon and his team probably would’ve started. If you look at their famous annual foreign policy reports, the President was to kind of look out over the long term and see where do things seem to be going, and particularly, where do things seem to be going in the kind of geopolitical and geo-economic sense. And I’d ask…I’ll start out with Jon cause he’s here, and then we’ll go to my friend, Morgan, who’s with us virtually. Jon, where do you think the Middle East is heading, let’s say over the next 10 or 15 years? What are the key geopolitical and geo-economic trends?
Jon: Thank you, Bridge, and thanks to Nixon Foundation for hosting me. The veterans in the room, thanks for your service. I think that the principal driver of change in the Middle East over the next 30 years is the energy transition, which is going to fundamentally change the political economy of the region. The Middle East has a combination of energy-exporting states and labor-exporting states, and the states that don’t export energy generally export labor to the states that do export energy. And the states that export energy give support to the governments of the states that don’t have energy. So, the entire region is tied to the production of energy, and the way energy is produced is going to change, and that’s going to affect everything. But before the amount of energy extracted from the region goes down, as we move off of hydrocarbons, the importance of the Middle East is going to go up partly because the cost of extraction of oil and gas in the Middle East is lowest in the world, partly because the carbon cost of extracting energy from the Middle East is the lowest in the world.
And so, what you’re going to have is you’re gonna have the world, on the one hand, moving away from oil and gas, but on the other hand, getting more focused on the Middle East. And that’s not just us. In fact, we’re largely self-sufficient in the production of hydrocarbons. But in terms of Europe, and especially in terms of our partners and allies in Asia, they are going to be completely reliant on the Middle East.
And as we think about our interests in Asia, something you’ve given a lot of thought to, I think we cannot help but recall the importance that Asia ascribes to access to the Middle East, the lack of Chinese domination in the Middle East, security reaching the sea lanes in the Middle East. I think that we are about to enter a moment over time, over a 10, 15-year timeframe when we will care more about the Middle East, but our allies and partners will care even more than we do. And I think there’s a danger in assuming that we’re sort of over it because I drive a Tesla, so we’re fine, I don’t care. That’s not the way the world’s gonna work. And I think we have to see it in the context that people in the Middle East know they’re looking at a cliff, a fiscal cliff. And I think things are gonna get a lot more sporting there, perhaps in the middle of this transition and perhaps afterward.
Elbridge: Great. Well, thank you, Jon. Morgan, let me ask you the same question. Maybe pivoting off some of the things that Jon is saying. What’s your take on where the Middle East is heading geopolitically in the next kind of decade or two?
Morgan: Yeah, I apologize. I had some problems, so I got kicked off. I’m back on. So, I missed what you said, Jon. I’m sure it was brilliant. I guess I see our engagement relationship with the Middle East a little bit different from him. First of all, a lot of the discussion that we have around our relationship with the Middle East and China’s relationship with the Middle East is largely focused on energy, oil. And when you look at what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to subsidize their own EV and autonomous vehicle manufacturers in China, you’re seeing American companies, American auto manufacturers are losing share in China on a weekly, on a monthly basis to where actually China is becoming less and less important to American auto manufacturers because the Chinese are, quite frankly, because they have subsidized their industry. They’re way ahead of us on EVs and autonomous vehicles for the population writ large.
So, what does that mean? I mean, most of the estimates that I’ve seen is around a 2025, 2030 timeframe which is peak gasoline needs for China. So, I see the relationship that China is pursuing with the Middle East to be, at least from an energy perspective, to be very short-term. Whereas, when I was in Saudi Arabia serving at the U.S. Embassy in 2010 and ’11, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the picture of FDR and King Abdulaziz, the founding king of Saudi Arabia as the current country as it stands together. So, we’ve had a long-term relationship that goes beyond energy with many countries in the Middle East. Any of us who worked in the Middle East from an intelligence or military perspective know how crucial those relationships were, the intelligence-sharing relationships on the war on terror.
So, there’s… Listen, I have nothing but criticism for the way the Biden administration has handled the Middle East writ large. And many of our friends and allies there, they’ve been, I guess, decent on Israel. But when you look at the totality of the relationship and just pointing out Saudi, cause it’s over 50% of the GDP and the GCC, this is a relationship that has been around, again, since the founding of Saudi Arabia, since FDR. And I think America will have a much more long-term and sustained relationship, whereas I see it to be a very short-term and transactional relationship that the Chinese Communist Party has with many countries in the Middle East.
Elbridge: Morgan, let me…because you’ve emphasized and Jon did as well. So, I think there’s a kind of a common assumption that the China relationship and you’ve been a real proponent and a vocal effective communicator and policy maker on this point that China’s, we gotta focus on China, we gotta deal with China. So, Jon, that’s gonna be true in the Middle East as well. Let me ask you first, Morgan, given kind of what you’re saying about how the Chinese are more active, given the long-term developments that you’re talking about, but the centrality of the China competition globally, how does America position itself in the Middle East vis-a-vis this China challenge that you’re just describing?
Morgan: I think the challenge is very similar to the challenge that we faced during the past 20 years on the war on terrorism, which is that we…all of our relationships around the world can’t just be transactional. And when they are transactional, when you sort of are prodding these countries to take sides, that’s not a place that they wanna be forced into. So, for example, there is absolutely both all politicians, Secretary of States from both sides of the aisle should press our friends and allies around the world on human rights issues, for example, if that is something that their country is not living up to. But I think especially after we saw the historic peace agreements…we started out with four in the Abraham Accords. If you add Morocco and Kosovo, you start to…you get five, yeah, if you have Morocco and Kosovo, and excuse me.
And so, these were the first peace deals that we saw in 26 years between Israel and Arab states. It was an in… I gotta tell you. And I traveled throughout the United States but especially throughout the Middle East, working with Jared Kushner and Mike Pompeo on the Abraham Accords, and there was more excitement, way more excitement in the Middle East than even America. We could barely get coverage in the U.S. on something that was incredibly groundbreaking that I thought I could potentially go my whole lifetime without seeing. And we got to those agreements, to those Abraham Accords because of shared values and interests. And it doesn’t mean that we didn’t press them on human rights. We certainly did.
But I think that there was a real opportunity that the Biden administration had to broaden Abraham Accords, maybe even to bring Saudi in. But they made Saudi Arabia a political weapon in a campaign, trashed them publicly to the degree to which there was just no way that they were ever going to find common ground. I mean, we said that we were gonna make someone who, by the way, when I was in Saudi, there were…everybody might remember, the printer bombs that were trying to be sent to a temple in Chicago. Well, it’s now public information, “The New York Times” and others have reported on it, that that intelligence was actually given to us from the Saudis.
So, that’s just one of many examples, again, of anyone who’s worked on the intelligence side knows that our relationship with these countries in the Middle East are not perfect, but they go beyond oil and energy, and when we define them as so, it turns into a short-term transactional relationship. And now we see it’s been reported that China, excuse me, that Xi Jinping will be in Saudi and likely and the GCC multiple meetings between these Arab states and the Chinese Communist Party. And all I see this administration doing is pushing many of our gulf allies into the arms of China. And so, I think our rhetoric has been incredibly shortsighted and counterproductive if we are having a battle of influence in the Middle East with the Chinese Communist Party.
Elbridge: Well, great. Well, Jon, let me turn it to you. I mean, I think you also were suggesting that China’s gonna be a big focus. How do you suggest dealing with the problem that you laid out and that you laid out in a piece for CSIS I think in September where you’re saying we’ve got this medium-term problem, but then you hear people talking about urgency, and earlier at the earlier panel, Mike Pillsburry and Patrick Cronan were agreeing there’s a near-term problem. The administration is focused on that, I don’t think enough, but how do we juggle the things that you’re describing?
Jon: Look, I think that there are near-term issues and there are longer-term issues. I think it would be lovely if we were driven to partnership with the Gulf States because we share values, but we don’t share values with the Gulf States. I think we just don’t. We share interests. We have interest in counterterrorism, counter-extremism. We increasingly have a shared perspective with the current Saudi leadership over support for radical Islamic ideology, because the current Saudi leadership has absolutely no patience for it. But the previous Saudi leadership had a lot of patience for it and felt that for a whole bunch of complicated internal reasons, they couldn’t address it.
And I think one of the things that Mohammed bin Salman has been doing is demonstrating that, in fact, Saudi Arabia can do things differently from the way it has. One of the ways they’re doing things differently is say, “We don’t have to be subservient to the United States. We don’t have to align with the United States.” And the Chinese are feeding this sense along with the Russians, frankly, that Middle Eastern states, in general, and certainly, Gulf States, need not align with the United States. They can be nonaligned, they could…because most of their markets actually are in Asia, and they should be independent. They shouldn’t take orders from the United States.
I was in Kuwait in September and talked about the fact that I thought it was a little bit surprising that given that in 1990, ’91 when an international border was violated, and the United States came to Kuwait’s Aad, Kuwaitis were happy about that. But in 2022, an international border is violated, Kuwaiti say, “You know what, that’s not our problem.” And the Kuwaitis looked at me and said, “But Ukraine is really far from us.” And I think that we have a presumption that we have been fighting for a rules-based international order, and that we have partners and allies… Kuwait’s a major non-NATO ally among others in the region, and we have a presumption that they’re gonna be with us in international forums to advance our understanding of world order.
And the reality in the Middle East today, and you see it in Egypt, you see it in the Gulf, you see it elsewhere, is countries say, “We don’t have to align with the United States. In fact, we shouldn’t align with the United States. We should look after our own interests, which are in bringing in the Russians, engaging with the Chinese.” And if you’ve seen Middle Eastern states not align with the United States over Russia with whom they have scant interests, how do you expect any Middle Eastern support of any kind if there’s a conflict with China, something you’ve thought a lot about, which is their number one trading partner across the board?
I think there is a reality, this is what I’m going to write this weekend. There’s a reality. We have a notion that there’s a pax Americana in the Middle East that we have advanced and defended and people care about. And the Middle East looks and says, “You guys haven’t created peace. Look at what you’ve done with the Palestinians. Look at what you did to Iraq. This is all self-serving hot air, and we will do exactly what we want to do and know more.” And I think on the policy side in the United States, people haven’t internalized that, they haven’t accepted it. There’s a sense that we share values and interests and look at our history and all the kinds of things that Morgan was talking about. And I think the reality is the region has moved on. The region doesn’t think it wants to work intimately with the United States. It wants the United States as an insurance policy, and it wants to engage and balance and do all sorts of creative things regardless of how it affects the United States. But the United States is the insurance policy if everything goes haywire, but you pay the premiums and you do whatever you want to do.
Elbridge: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, you said everybody talks about the rules-based international order. I think we are at the Nixon Foundation’s Grand Strategy Summit, and we had Henry Kissinger speak last night. So, I think it’s okay to be a little bit more clear-eyed than that might suggest. I mean, it was interesting. There was some video I was watching recently of President Nixon talking about the Iran situation. I think he was quite committed to the free world idea and so forth, but he had a very, of course, sort of clear-eyed realistic perspective about it. And I think let’s maybe sort of dive in. I mean, I think we’ve kind of touched on the problem here.
The fundamental problem, it seems to me at least, or one of them at least, which is the Middle East is in play. I mean, in the sense that one of the debates that was going on in the last panel if you didn’t see it, was how strong is China. And Garry Kasparov was saying, “Well, it’s overstated.” And Mary Kissel was more in that, I would say, side. And Niall Ferguson was saying, “Look, they pass us in PPP.” But I think everybody would agree that they’re very big power. Economically, they’ve got a lot of reach, increasingly militarily and so forth. So, and we’ve seen evidence over the last few years, of course, from Saudi Arabia, in part due to the things I think no doubt that Morgan’s putting her fingers on but also the structural issues and incentives. But also you’ve seen the evidence even with the Emirates who are a particularly close partner of the United States as far as I understand, flirting with the possibility of a Chinese military base. And that’s not the only place.
So, let me ask you, Morgan, what’s the strategy for how we negotiate? How do we compete for that influence? To use a term that my partner and great friend, West Mitchell, likes to use. I think Secretary Pompeo used it a lot. How do we compete for influence in these countries without, in a sense, getting caught in a situation where we’re doing more than we can sustain given how strong China is, given the persistence of the Europe threat in, excuse me, the Russia threat in Europe, and of course Iran and North Korea, and so forth? So, over to you.
Morgan: Yeah, I agree with a lot of what Jon said about where we are now and needing to be realistic about that. I just don’t think it has to be that way. And I think the lessons that we look at that we can apply to the Middle East could be applied to Latin America, Africa throughout the world. So, I know we’re talking a lot about the Middle East, but it doesn’t have to be exclusive to there. So, again, when I think about our relationship and engagement, I think about the fact that we still as, as we know, have troops in Saudi. We still have them in Bahrain and throughout the region. So, clearly, there has been a long-term commitment to American presence there.
Now, Bridge, like you, I think that I just talked about this, I’m in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m sorry that I could not be there in person. But I just had a discussion at Vanderbilt yesterday with the Finnish Ambassador. And we were talking about the what I sort of coined America has been stuck in this 1990s version of foreign policy where the wall has fallen. We won the Cold War. We are the global hegemon, and we can sort of do whatever we want in any theater. And that’s not reality anymore. I mean, Bridge, no one’s talked about this more prolifically than you about how we have to make real-world decisions and real-world tradeoffs. But I don’t think we have the luxury of seeding the Middle East and saying, “You know what? They’re probably not gonna take our side in some sort of competition with China.”
I mean, I am… What, Jon, for example, said about what the Middle East and especially the gulf countries may or may not do in some sort of, God forbid, fight with China. I have that same attitude towards most of the Europeans. I’m not sure. I mean, look at what Olaf Schultz is doing with the Chinese Communist Party and how German business has gone back intensely. I mean, I know the French and the Germans are having a fight over this right now, but I’m not convinced that the French and Germans will be with us in a way that we needed. We have, and the Biden administration obviously should have never, in my mind, failed completely at deterrents when it relates to Russia and Ukraine. However, they have done a good job since then of trying to get the allies on board, but we’re still at least double what the European commitment is to the war between Russia and Ukraine, and it’s on their continent.
So, I guess the point I was saying is I don’t disagree with Jon that there is sort of an ambivalence to take sides, but I just don’t think that we have the luxury of saying, “Oh, well, they’re not gonna take our side, and in fact, we’re going to have to compete in every theater.” I think it starts with the little things. So, it’s not the big things that lead to foreign policy successes, right? It’s not just because like Jared Kushner was good-looking that we got the Abraham Accords. It’s all of these small things that you do every day.
So, for example, I’m not seeing in little things like the readouts that you will see coming from ambassadors or from the Secretary of State when you’re looking at them from the Middle East. I’m not seeing the mention of China. I’m not seeing the mention of Huawei as an example, which we know is a strategic and a very real intelligence threat to the United States. I know, and when I went around the world of Pompeo, I was probably in 90% of his meetings. He was very good to me. I learned a great deal from him just from observing and sitting and being in those meetings. And so, there was not a meeting in the world anywhere that we went to where he didn’t bring up the threat of authoritarian 5G networks of Huawei and the economic and intelligence threat from the Chinese Communist party. It was brought up in every country that we went to. In fact, he was probably harder on our closest friends like Israel and the United Kingdom or others than even some of maybe our more distant friends.
So, for us, and again, this is just a minor example of what I think that we all can do, whether it’s a Democratic or a Republican administration. Every meeting that we went in, there was a focus. Huawei, China was a talking point. We also directed our diplomats everywhere in the world that China needed to be at the top of the list of their engagement if they were at the embassy. So, for the ambassador and her or his staff, we expected constant weekly, daily engagement. We did this on the policy side, we did this on the messaging side.
You just brought up Mary Kissel. Mary Kissel, one of my best friends, spent two years together traveling the world. And all she and I did every day was to think of ways no matter what… no matter if we were talking about Iran or if we were talking about the border in El Salvador and Northern Triangle countries, right? We were still having that discussion about China, having this discussion about Belt and Road, about Huawei. So for us, it was a real and present, and literally every day, it was a part of our conversation. That’s just one of many things. So, again, I guess, my thought is I don’t disagree with Jon about the state of where we’re in and that we know that many countries are ambivalent, but that means that we’re gonna have to put our diplomacy and our engagement in overdrive.
Another quick way and I don’t wanna take up all the time, so I know we have a lot of time to talk in, but just another quick thing where I think the Biden administration is really failing but there is still an opportunity is when you look at Africa, when you look at Latin America, they have been dying for energy investments to be able to explore and be able to exploit their own energy resources. But if it isn’t “climate-friendly,” if it doesn’t fit the climate agenda of the Biden administration, these infrastructure projects, these energy projects are not getting funded through the DFC the way that they were prioritized for us. So, who’s gonna fund them if we don’t? The Chinese Communist Party. So, we need to be a little bit more realistic, I think, about what our friends and allies need around the world, and especially, where there are opportunities for us to be helpful on the economic side and not commit more U.S. troops or equipment. That’s where I think we could focus.
Jon: So Morgan, if you talk to folks in foreign governments, and I’ve certainly spoken to a lot of people and a lot of governments in the Middle East, they don’t complain the U.S. isn’t raising China enough. China’s at the top of the U.S. agenda. But the reality, too, is that the U.S. is at the top of the China agenda and the Chinese come in and they say, “Here’s what we propose.” And if you go to the United States, it’s going to take this much time, and they’ll ask for these many sets of restrictions, and they’ll do that and they won’t do that. And the Chinese present themselves, they red team us, they put themselves in contrast to us. And it’s partly, you could argue it’s a misguided policy, but there are lots of policies that we pursue from administration to administration where we won’t do things with countries.
We have an arms sale process, which is long and convoluted. We have a tech transfer process which seeks to protect things. I mean, there are reasons we do things. And you can talk China, China, China as much as you want, countries on the receiving end are interested in what they can get. And the Chinese explicitly say, “This is what you can expect from the United States, and this is what we’ll do.” And as a former senior military official told me, “The Chinese solution oftentimes is an 80% solution at a 60% price.” Nobody thinks that China is the same as the United States. Nobody thinks that Chinese infrastructure is gonna last as long as US-built infrastructure, but you can actually get it. And that’s cause of our process. That’s not the Biden administration, that’s us as a government because of our processes, because of our concerns, because the Chinese have an interest and an ability to do things differently than we do, that I worry that if you make all of our foreign policy about China, the Chinese will beat us at our game because they don’t have the processes, and we’re not gonna change that way.
So, I think we have to make it about more than China. We have to make it about what’s your future look like, what’s an investment in your future look like. The Chinese, I guarantee you, care not at all about job creation, about this sort of educational investments, about the facilitation that the U.S. does in promoting trade. I mean, we have a different package, and I think we have to do a better job not of reminding people we’re in a global competition with China, cause China says, “Hey, no competition, but by the way, choose us.” Right?
China’s argument is you don’t have to choose. I think we’ve forgotten what our unique value proposition is. We don’t stress our unique value proposition. We don’t sharpen our unique value proposition. And that means the Chinese, at a lower cost and less friction, can certainly make inroads if not clean up. People still prefer the United States, but they don’t wanna be lashed to the United States. China argues you don’t have to be. And that’s the reality not only we are in, that’s the reality we will be in for many years to come.
Elbridge: Let me… so I’m taking the liberty of being a player-coach on this panel because we had…
Jon: The Michael Jordan of lost content.
Elbridge: That’s right. Michael Jordan, the baseball player. No. Because we had our fourth participant, and I want to give these guys a little bit of break, but I also can’t resist getting in. I’m gonna push back a little bit on what you said, Jon, and I’d like to hear your and Morgan’s…
Jon: They’re double-teaming me, see what’s happening?
Elbridge: I’m sure you’ll be able to balance us, but so what I would say to what you’re saying is I agree that China is not… I mean, I think your point that China is not making an ideological pitch is really right on. I think there’s a tendency in the Washington conversation and in the United States to sort of, frankly, project almost onto China, not project but to sort of mischaracterize China as being highly ideological. Like, they are a bunch of Maoist in 1958 going around with a non-aligned movement.
Now, Xi Jinping, from what I can tell, is a vowed Marxist-Leninist, but the Chinese approach is much more instrumental commercial. I mean, if you look at what they’re actually saying, it’s more like, we’ll follow the UN charter, we’ll respect your sovereignty, blah, blah, blah. Now, we don’t necessarily believe them, of course, and people shouldn’t believe them, but I think we should accurately understand what their message is if we’re gonna compete with it.
What I would say is, devil’s advocate but I believe it is, the kinds of things that you’re talking about countries signing onto, I’m less worried about including in the Middle East and the European theater. Because to me, and I look at this primarily through a kind of realistic lens, the big issue is Asia because as you indicated, that is where the market heft is going forward. It’s gonna be upwards of 50% of global GDP. The Middle East is around, I think 5% or 6% of global GDP. And if you’re correct about the energy transition, that’s gonna be less, I don’t know, but that stipulate.
So, but if China becomes dominant in Asia, it will inherently then have the ability to project dominant power in the Middle East militarily. But because the ultimate way to get someone to do something they don’t want is military. And I think it stands to reason, based on what you’re saying, that the Middle East is likely to bandwagon towards Beijing in that context. I mean, I don’t think the king of Saudi Arabia in 1943 or ’42 had the same values as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the left-wing Democrat at the time. Right? I mean, they made a calculation based on shared interests, right?
Jon: Saudi Arabia is sort of a socialist state inhabited by people who lean Republican. But that’s a whole different set of interests.
Elbridge: I stand corrected, but, okay, fair enough. In some ways, anyway, but we won’t go down that tangent. But I guess what I would say is that we’ve gotta get Asia right. And if we hold the defense line. So, you saying don’t make everything about China. In a way, I agree. I think in our minds everything should be about China, but what we say to…I actually don’t think it necessarily we need to globalize this competition as much because if we can hold the line at the first island chain, basically, militarily, China’s not gonna be able to project serious military power into the Middle East.
So, a lot of Middle East friends will say, a Middle East specialist friend will say, “Well, the Chinese are active in the Emirates, or they’re in Djibouti, and they could build a base in XYZ.” And I say to myself, “Well, it’s a little bit like what Churchill said about the German Navy. I think in the First World War, he said it was beyond the English channel. It was like a cut flower, beautiful but fated to die. Right?
Jon: So, I agree with most of what you said. But here’s, and…
Elbridge: The final point I would just say is it puts less pressure to me on the relationship with the Middle East. I could say, in this context, I could say, “Look, we need to take care of things in Asia.” But honestly, Saudi and the Emirates, if in Israel, if you…don’t go too far, don’t do things that are crazy, and don’t do things that stab us in the back or whatever. But if you wanna have some relations in commerce and so forth with China, go for it. We will, too. And then, we can look at the Middle East in different context, and I haven’t thought about that, but anyway.
Jon: Realistically, they’re our largest trading partner, too. I remember…
Elbridge: Right, Exactly.
Jon:… 10 years ago, people said, “China will never be a larger trading partner with the United States and Canada.” And you pick up your head and my God, they’re a larger trading partner in Canada. But here’s what I think we sort of systematically get wrong in a strategic sense. We can’t imagine any global power that doesn’t wanna follow our lead, doesn’t want to use our structures, doesn’t want to integrate military and economic power in the same way.
And I think the reality is the Chinese look at the U.S. experience, and they say, “That’s not for us. That’s not who we are. That’s not who we’ve ever been. We are interested in, I believe, we are interested in having most of our military footprint in Asia where we have been paid tribute for centuries, and for the rest of the world, if you think about sort of imperialism 1.0 being imperialism, imperialism 2.0 being the rules-based international order that the U.S. and Britain set up after World War II, I think the Chinese are interested in imperialism 3.0, which is kind of mercantilism 2.0 where you come in mostly economically. You don’t need to have the same military footprint at all. You don’t need the same diplomatic footprint. You make a lot of demands. But I think there’s this sense that what the U.S. does is find for a really wealthy country that wants to have equal spread over the world. But for a country like China, which still feels like it’s a developing country, they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the luxury…
Elbridge: At least at the World Bank, they like to call themselves a developing country, right? Not in Shanghai.
Jon: No, but I think they feel that what the U.S. does is a luxury that China doesn’t have. So, China will go and try to build global power without replicating this whole expensive…
Elbridge: Well, let me… Okay. And then, I wanna bring Morgan on this, but I’m just gonna respond to… I mean, I just don’t think that’s what’s happening. So, first of all, if you look at the China military power report the Pentagon put out last year, this was in an unclassified report put out by the Pentagon. They said that the Chinese are looking at basing in not only Cambodia and I believe Tajikistan, but also I believe Mozambique was in there. Of course, Jon Finer, the Deputy National Security Advisor flew to Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast of Africa to try to persuade them not to build…to not to allow a Chinese military base.
Elbridge: Djibouti, of course, is already there. So, I think…and the military they’re developing is a military that looks like ours. They are building aircraft carriers. And some people say, “Oh, they’re so stupid to build aircraft carriers.” And it’s like, “Well, I don’t think they’re stupid.” So, there’s something that they think.
And the second point is, and this has been interesting to watch, is you know, I think implicit in what you’re saying is that the Chinese have some theory or some strategy to translate all that economic voodoo, not voodoo, that economic leverage into something real. But actually what we’re seeing is I think they’re having real difficulty doing that, to create that mercantilism 2.0 that you’re talking about. I think that that would be their preference in some ways. But if you look at Belt and Road, A, they’re having different…they’re having reactions in countries that don’t…Kenya, Sri Lanka, that don’t wanna be under the Chinese thumb.
And by the way, their economic model, they seem to actually wanna make money outta Belt and Road, which is different than say the Soviets. So, that leads me to think that’s good news in the sense that I don’t…it’s one of the reasons why I’m more sanguine about their growing influence globally because I think they’re gonna find it very difficult to translate that economic leverage. And of course, our experience with sanctions and how little effect they can often have is illustrative here, but then it makes me worried because of the military they’re developing. But Morgan, I wanna bring you in cause we’ve been going back and forth here, but what’s your take?
Morgan: Oh, I don’t know. Ask me a more specific question.
Elbridge: I mean, what’s your feeling about…well, I mean, you’ve been thinking a lot about the economic influence piece of this, and you’ve had a lot of experience. What do you think about, am I being too sanguine about the dangers of Chinese economic influence? I mean, I’m just looking, say, at “The Wall Street Journal,” every week there seems to be an article where they’re coming up short on Belt and Road, or they’re having difficulty translating that influence. And you see the pupils of how China’s regarded around the world. And they’re, I mean, for all of our faults here, they are really in the basement. So, am I being too sanguine about the dangers of Chinese influence in the Middle East in this respect?
Morgan: No, I think you bring up a really interesting point. I think that there is a big difference on how both China and Russia are viewed globally versus how they view themselves internally. And I bring them both up because, I mean, it was, again, just having a discussion at Vanderbilt on this, we really got into the weeds on just how close the Putin-Xi Jinping relationship is and remained, right, even after Russia has quite embarrassed themselves militarily over the last, what, how long, how many months? Seven, nine months now. They have, internally, still, there’s a lot of bravado, and I think there’s a lot of feelings within China, within their government, and amongst their people in the same for Russia as well. There’s the feeling that the authoritarian model is on the rise, that America and the West is on the decline.
I thought, I guess maybe I sort of mistakenly thought that that would’ve changed with Russia, because again, I feel like the West were looking and thinking you’re losing thousands of troops. Your military looks like a joke. You’ve embarrassed yourself in Ukraine, but Putin really is not paying a political price yet at home at all. So, I bring that up because as we go around theater after theater, whether it’s the Middle East or Latin America, I think that we have to start thinking about not only Chinese influence, but in places like the Middle East where Russia has influence. They have clearly sort of I think sort of taken that number two position to China as long as they will be partners and as long as they won’t interfere with Russian territory or sovereignty.
So, I guess the point that I’m…the long-winded point that I’m trying to make is I don’t disagree with you, Bridge, about how the world is viewing China’s ability to have economic leverage through Belt and Road. At the same time though, I do think that that conflicts internally with how their government and how their people feel about their prospects. There’s still a ton of bravado. They look at our political system. They think it’s in shambles, they think it’s a mess. I don’t think they just sort of realize that we just…we’re like a family that puts our dirty laundry out for the world to see every day. They have a quite similar scope of problems. They’re just maybe they don’t…take a reality television view to their politics the way we do.
So, I agree with you. I think that the sanguine approach is right, but I still think that it’s going to…maybe the sanguine assessment of how the world is viewing their economic leverage is right. But I do think, again, there’s a ton of belief, there’s a ton of bravado at home. In fact, I would say that many times the average Chinese citizen believes a lot more in their leadership than, quite, than sadly than many Americans do of our own at the moment.
Jon: But when the Middle East looks at the United States, they think about U.S. performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’re not very impressed. And I think from a Chinese perspective, China looks at the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s exactly the way not to run a foreign policy, to pour money after money after money into trying to make somebody something they’re not. That’s crazy. And so, I think in many ways it sort of reinforces this sense that pax Americana not only is over, it never really was. The U.S. isn’t really essential the way it was. And we’re going to engage differently with other countries in the world, and the United States can go suck eggs.
Elbridge: Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean, it’s this kind of competing for, and I mean, it really does. This came up in the last panel, but the point on which I agreed with Ferguson is that there is a resonance to the ’70s, I think, today in the sense that similar situation where the U.S. being…
Jon: Hope we’re not Britain withdrawing east of Suez. That didn’t go so well.
Elbridge: Well, that’s what I fear. I mean, that’s what I fear as I’ve said a few times before, but in the sense that in the wake of the Second World War, the United States was half of global GDP mostly because the rest of the world had destroyed itself. And for the 10, 20 years after that, we were pretty unquestionably in the lead until Vietnam and ultimately stagflation and all these economic problems. But this was sort of the reality that like, “Wow, actually, we can’t just assume that we’re the sort of global hegemon.” I think, as Morgan put it, is exactly right.
And I mean I’ll just…and then I wanna shift to something related, but some are different. I just, personally, I think, in a lot of ways, the problems of how to deal with the Middle East and Europe. I mean, as somebody who’s kind of obsessed, I would say, with the China problem, which I think we should all be, but really trying to obsess and bring the focus to the China problem, particularly in Asia and get that right, because I think we can…if we can get that right, we’ll be in a much better position. To quote Churchill, again, “If you get things right in the decisive theater, you can put everything else right afterwards.”
But I think that, in a way, the challenge of strategy in the Middle East and Europe is actually harder because, in Asia, in a sense, at least from my point of view, it’s almost like geometric. It’s like Japan’s on our side, Australia’s on our side. We gotta get the military perimeter right? And we should just allocate the resources and political capital necessary to solve the problem. And if that takes more resources, you pull it and you take it, or you spend more and you take it. Or if you even need to make an ask and you need to ask somebody else to support you, you do it. But then the Middle East and Europe remain really important. But that’s where that power scarcity is felt. And then, how do you negotiate that? I think going forward, just in the sort of the spirit of a grand strategy summit, that I think is a real [inaudible 00:46:17], because I think you’re right, and I think, Morgan, I think, has said similarly.
We can’t just, like, wish the problems away. We can’t just ignore the problems, but we also have to do it in a way that kind of builds in that sense that this is like, we here working on the Middle East or we here working on Europe or Latin America, we can’t expect to call forth and get…pull the line and have gold coins come out and solve our problem. That’s not the spirit, but in a sense that gives more scope, in my view, for creative strategic thinking. And in the way that, in my own view is that the idea of the regional sheriff and empowering the Guam Doctrine that go back to the Nixon administration and truly empowering allies and looking to bolster them and their capabilities is a source of inspiration. Of course, that had downsides.
Jon: It didn’t work so well with Iran.
Elbridge: Exactly. So there you go. And so, that leads me, so, okay getting a little bit more topical in the day-to-day. Obviously, there have been these protests in Iran. It looks like the attempt to resuscitate the JCPOA is not likely to go through. What do you guys…maybe I’ll start with you, Morgan. Where do you think this is going and what should our policy be that’s consistent with what we’ve been talking about, that over the next, well, really, hopefully indefinitely, but certainly over the next 10 years, manages this problem or possibly solves it. Although, the skeptic in me is skeptical of that. But how should we go about this, especially given that the deal doesn’t look likely they come through the protests, etc.
Morgan: Yeah, so I think there’s a short-term and a long-term discussion on Iran. The problem for the Biden administration for the short term, Bridge, is I don’t think that they had a plan for Iran other than going back into the JCPOA. Remember, whenever Secretary Blinken testified before the Senate in his confirmation hearing, he said not only would they go back into the JCPOA, but they would negotiate a longer and stronger deal that, I think, presumably, was going to include things like ballistic missile production, support for terrorism, maybe even human rights. And obviously, not only do we get longer and stronger, we actually ended up before this has been sort of shelved with the deal that would I think conceivably lose three-fourths of the Senate if it was actually put before the Senate because it was the opposite of longer and stronger. It was weak and pathetic.
And so, we can argue all day, and I’ve done this for many years, actually arguing about the Trump administration position as it relates to withdrawing from the JCPOA and our max economic pressure campaign, whether that was the right smart strategy at the time. Happy to debate that, just did that for an hour the other day with the European podcast. But if we look at the Biden administration, the only plan that they had was to give back into this deal. The Ayatollah and his henchman clearly have had no interest in getting back and that they played them for 18 months before these protests started. And so, there really is…I don’t see any strategy, what they’re gonna do for the next two years.
Finally, begrudgingly and incredibly late to the game, they’ve put out incredibly supportive statements for the people in Iran, for these women who are, by the way, just some of the bravest women in the world, and especially, if anything should inspire us, it’s the young women, the teenage girls in Iran, which have shown more bravery and courage than many people that I work with and deal with. So, they basically have been shamed finally, and to shelving this really weak, empathetic deal that they were negotiating, and mostly, by the way, from their own party. I mean, I was…the conversations that I was in with many democratic senators and house members, it was clear that this was not something they were going to be able to support.
So, where does the Biden administration go from here? I mean, I don’t think that they wanna listen to me probably about Iran policy given my position on max pressure. But I think that that is the only alternative. If the diplomatic solution failed, which I think it’s failed. And by the way, how could it not? How could you even try to go back into it in this point after what we’ve seen the regime do to their own people? I mean, how in the world could you financially empower the very oppressors of the women and of the teenagers that we’re supposed to be standing up for and standing with? Secretary Blinken again said in this confirmation hearing and in his first few speech as a Secretary of State that he was going to lead with human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy. And as it relates to Iran, they’ve done anything but that. It has not been a smart record.
So, I think diplomacy has failed for many reasons, right? Maybe the Trump administration, maybe we put up too many barriers to where they couldn’t get to their goal. That’s fine. Happy to debate that. It’s also failed because the people of Iran have rejected this negotiation, have rejected this deal. So, I don’t see any room or any space for them to go back into it. It would be a political disaster in the United States, and it would be a disaster for the people of Iran who are clearly rejecting this regime. So, the only thing that we can do, I think, is to go back to some version of max pressure. They probably don’t wanna call it that cause that was a Trump administration name. Fine, call it something else. But you have to get to a place of leverage with the regime, and the Biden administration has zero leverage with the regime right now.
Jon: No, I mean, the question is not how do you fix Iran? I think the Trump administration made a fundamental mistake in that it thought it could fix Iran. It was gonna put on maximum pressures, withdraw from the JCPOA, and it was gonna solve the problem. And I think the consequence is that we are trying to manage Iranian malfeasance and regional aggression and developments, missile programs, and all the other things without having other countries in the world on board, without having multilateral sanctions that can drive Iranian behavior, without having visibility into the Iranian nuclear program through the IAEA inspections.
It is, I think, deeply mistaken and perhaps dishonest to argue that the Biden administration thought that the JCPOA was going to fix Iran. The question is, do you want a diplomatic tool alongside with the intelligence tools, alongside the military tools, alongside all the other tools you need to deal with the regime that as long as it’s there is going to be a threat to American interests and the interests of American partners and allies in the region. That’s not because the Biden administration likes the Iranian regime or Rob Malley likes talking to Iranians. It’s because if you’re going to deal with a government like Iran, you need to build as many tools as you can and build as much support as you can because our record of changing governments and putting something better in their place is pretty checkered. And that’s part of the reason why they have the current regime in Iran now. Not the whole reason, but part of the reason after 1953.
In terms of supporting the protests, the clear issue with Iran and it’s not just because as say, Iran in 1953, we helped overthrow Mosaddegh, but there is a sort of xenophobic history in Iran about foreigners trying to foment revolution. And in my experience, I know very few instances when foreign governments can appear more patriotic than even the repressive governments governing states. There’s something about the sense that foreigners are trying to undermine us. Nobody wants to be undermined by a foreign power. Nobody wants a foreign power to insert some group of people from your country into power.
And I think the Biden administration actually has been walking a reasonable line to criticize the Iranian government for its abuses, but to be careful not to speak for the protestors, not to advocate for the protestors, because from the protester’s point of view, that undermines their standing with other Iranians. Look, I don’t want this government in Iran to last any longer than it has to, but I’m also realistic that I think our ability to dictate who the government of Iran is low. And I think we need as many tools as we can, arrayed as strongly as we can to deal with a whole range of absolutely heinous behaviors that this government engages in. Not because I like it, but because it’s only arraying all those tools that’ll help us manage it.
Elbridge: So, well, let me put a little bit of a fine point on this question kind of look looking forward I saw my friend, Sean Duran, is in the audience and wrote a piece for the national interest, I think the magazine of the Center for the National Interest, which is affiliated with President Nixon. He pointed out that the chances of an Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months or maybe year or so is pretty high. And I think…
Jon: I’ll take that bet.
Elbridge: You think it’s not gonna happen?
Jon: I think it’s very low.
Elbridge: Okay. All right. Could you elaborate? And what’s involved in that assessment?
Jon: I think several things. First, Benjamin Netanyahu as a politician is very cautious. He just is. That’s his history. He speaks aggressively, but he’s very deliberate about what he does. You can argue it goes to his military. You can argue for any number of reasons. I think, A, he’s a lot more cautious than people assume him to be. And B, it’s unclear what Israel could actually do. It’s unclear what the response would be. And Hezbollah, with Iranian support, with Syrian support, has arrayed an incredible arsenal in Lebanon that certainly could overwhelm Israeli defenses. I think that there will be a sort tit for tat probably in Lebanon, to some degree in Syria, where there are Iranian troops. But I just have a very, very hard time imagining that soon-to-be Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to risk a reign of missiles from Lebanon for something that actually might not or is unlikely to decisively change the…
Elbridge: But you’re assuming there isn’t like a breakout. I mean, let’s assume that the deal does not…there’s no deal, and you’re assuming that there’s no Iranian breakout or perception of that.
Jon: Even if there’s an Iranian breakout. I think the Israelis feel they have other tools. The Israelis, you know, if there’s an Iranian breakout, the first thing the Israelis would worry about is why weren’t they able to prevent it? And they’re concerned about the intelligence failure, which I think would make them less likely to try to attack because they wouldn’t be sure they were getting what they need to get. The Israeli military has a realist approach to Iran and feels it has the upper hand. It’s the Israeli political class that feels that Iran is one of the few unifying issues in Israeli politics. They can’t agree on economics, they don’t agree on the role of religion. They certainly don’t agree on the Palestinians. They have all kinds of disagreements that split the Israeli public every which way. But Iran is a unifying issue. And I think the political class has tried to bring people together around it. I think the people in the defense ministry, the Mossad elsewhere in the Israeli security community is pretty clear-eyed and doesn’t feel they face the same urgent kind of threat.
Morgan: Oh, I’m not in the mind of the Israelis and what they will or won’t do. I do know as it relates to military action and Iran, of course, I do know that it is an existential threat for them. It threatens their very existence and way of life. The regime in Tehran makes that very clear. So, I would expect Israel’s leaders to behave the way anybody would if another regime threatened their very existence and threaten their entire nation. And I know if there was an existential threat to the United States that was close to us, that could…that threatened to wipe us off the map daily, I know that I would move heaven and earth to make sure that that didn’t happen, and I expect Israeli leaders to do so as well.
So, I mean, listen, going back to the discussion on the JCPOA and fixing Iran, that’s not a conversation that any of us ever had because we withdrew from the JCPOA, the constant conversation. What we’re all alluding to here was were we trying regime change for regime change. And it it’s always sort of a laughable discussion for me to have for the Trump administration. A president that campaigned by beating up the Republican party and the last Republican president about his invasion in Iraq and what happened there. So, there was never any discussions that I was privy to and a part of, and if I wasn’t talking, China with Secretary Pompeo, I was certainly talking Iran with him and Brian Hook on a daily basis. And the conversation was never about fixing a regime or choosing who would lead Iran. That’s for the Iranian people to decide. But the conversation and the debates and the policy, what we were geared toward was two things, was protecting our friend and ally in the state of Israel, and of course, our friends in the Gulf who were also had feelings of existential threats and protecting the United States.
So, we looked at very simply, how do we stop, for example, their support for terrorism around the region? Well, one of the ways you do this, and I worked many years at the U.S. Treasury as a intel analyst and was President Obama’s attache in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and the treasury. So, this is not rocket science. If you want people to stop funding terrorism and stop funding the weaponry and the militias, you name it, you dry up the source of funding for doing so. Which Brian Hook could go into much more detail of how we did that, especially even Hezbollah, we saw massive decreases in their revenues. And the regime had to make tough choices. They could of course still fund these things, but they were going to do it at the expense of other things like say, public health or infrastructure, for example, in Iran.
So, you know, we were looking at what levers do we have to curb their malign behavior. Again, let’s not forget, this is a regime that has been certified by multiple Republican and Democratic administrations. This is not a political assessment, but this is a regime that’s a world-leading state sponsor of terrorism and had no intention of curbing said terrorism or curbing ballistic missile production by being in a deal with us. And we just saw no benefit to giving them billions of dollars in sanctions relief to be able to, as we all saw, right? We could go example after example of how they continued their support for terrorism around the region after the JCPOA. And in fact, they just had more resources to do so.
We also, you know, if the deal had truly stopped them from getting a nuclear weapon, great, that would’ve been a great thing. But we know it didn’t. We know what the sunset provisions, all it did was kick the can down the road for someone else to deal with it. I will definitely see the point that it delayed them getting a nuclear weapon, but it did not prevent them for getting one, and we have to be clear-eyed about that. So, you have a deal that didn’t prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, just kicked the can down the road for someone else to deal with it. And then you had a deal that gave the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars to continue to build ballistic missiles and continue to foment terrorism and continue to threaten the existence of the state of Israel. That’s not a winning deal for us. So, I wanna reiterate that it was very much not about fixing Iran, but instead about finding the levers and the mechanisms that we could to try and stop their behavior.
I would also say, there’s always a lot of talk about that we did this without the support of allies and friends. And that’s just wrong. We did it. We, of course, it was very public when we withdrew from the JCPOA, the E3 and the Europeans were not happy with us over this, but there’s a lot more people in the region that are affected by the Iranian regime than just the Europeans. We all know quite well the people in the region like the Saudis and the Israelis and the other Gulf Arab states were deeply unsettled and unhappy about the JCPOA. You had a deal that was negotiated the first time and the second time without anybody at the table who’s actually a neighbor of Iran and who actually is affected by their behavior.
There’s almost nothing like more imperialistic than that to have a bunch of Americans and Europeans, of course, with the Chinese and the Russians, but have all of these powers sitting at the table negotiating a deal without having the Israelis or the Gulf Arab states having any real or meaningful buy-in. So, to say that we withdrew from the deal without supportive friends and allies. Sure, I’ll give you the Europeans weren’t happy about that. We all know it. They complained about it to this day. But we certainly had support in the region from people who are directly affected by the Iranian regime.
Elbridge: Well, very…
Jon: We can go on, you know.
Elbridge: Yeah, I know, eloquently stated.
Morgan: Keep them coming.
Elbridge: I think we’re…our task was to be forward-looking. That was, I think the audience has seen the finest presentation of the views on the perspective. What I’ll maybe kind of, sort of moderator prerogative on this point is, I mean, I think this question of, in light of the desire to focus on China, which I think is pretty widely shared, the possibility of an Iranian breakout if there’s no deal, if it can’t just be eliminated, if there’s not a change in the government, etc., and the consequences geopolitically and militarily in the region is a tough riddle, right? I mean, if…
Jon: And the other piece, and I think it’s a really important piece, the Chinese delight in U.S. tensions with Iran, right? I mean, to the extent that the the US confrontation with Iran, certainly during the Trump administration split the U.S. from its allies, drew military attention toward the Gulf and away from the Western Pacific. The U.S. sanctions made Iran a great place for investment cause there wasn’t competition. I mean, I think the Chinese delighted in the Trump administration’s tensions with Iran because as far as China was concerned, those advanced China’s interests.
Elbridge: Well, I think what you’re seeing now, I mean, is, and just kind of looking at closing the conversation in the coming minutes, but I think what you’re seeing now is the Iranian supplying of the Russians with the drones. I mean, my own view is that we… whether we like it or not, and I don’t think we’re seeing a sharp block divide between in the world. It’s kind of permeable and sort of fuzzy. But the North Koreans apparently sending artillery shells to the Russians as well. It seems like there’s greater investment in Iran by China, presumably, they’re, and obviously, the oil purchases that you mentioned from the Russians, we are seeing a sort of, again, block is sort of too…is too sharp I think from what we’re gonna see kind of people playing footsy, if you will, across the divide.
Jon: But I mean, the Indians do too. I mean, the Indians do too. And I think that’s, you know, [inaudible 01:07:45] geopolitically.
Elbridge: Well, the Saudis are a good example. I mean, people are. And then, I mean, I think the Indians are a good example, Jon, of what you’re talking about, which is like, well, that’s far from me. And the Indians also like to point out that we complain to them about the Russians, but we enabled the rise of China, which they’ve actually fought a border war within the last couple of years, a small border war, but the possibility of more. So, I think that’s sort of… I mean, my sense is that we’re moving into this, especially as Chinese economic heft and as countries see the shadow of potential sanctions coming out of not only the Iran experience but also the Russia experience and sanctions make sense.
But people look at Central Bank reserves being frozen, and you’re wondering if you’re gonna get on the wrong side of the Americans or others in our sort of sphere, if you will, and you start to say, “Well, maybe I’ll take some inefficiencies to have…to be able to do more with the Chinese. And I think the Saudis were potentially talking about doing some oil deals denominated in yuan. I don’t know how that panned out, but I would expect to see more of that. And so I think that’s sort of…
Jon: I think they have not, but the Egyptians issued a bond denominated in yuan.
Elbridge: Yeah. And that’s actually, I mean, the Egyptians, in a way, are…that actually surprises me more given the treatment in the sense that, I mean, I would say pretty, pretty unsuccessful policy on the Saudis over the last year and a half. I would expect to see more of them, but maybe their relationship was closer.
Last, maybe like last kind of quick sort of topic that I’d like is, I mean, I think Turkey is a country that is kind of a swing and has significance on both sides. Any sort of thoughts before we close on how to handle Turks? Maybe, Morgan, I’ll start with you. I mean, given Iran seems to be moving all over the place, and it’s a complicated one, but it seems to kind of capture the difficulties of dealing with the region.
Morgan: Oh you gave me a hard one, Bridge.
Morgan: I mean, obviously, you’re…
Jon: Morgan, can I save you?
Morgan: Yeah, please. I don’t know how to deal with it.
Jon: So, Turkey is, in many ways, an obvious partner of the United States in this. Turkey is really upset about…it’s one of the only Muslim countries, Muslim-majority countries that’s upset about China’s treatment of the [inaudible 01:10:07] Xinjing.
Morgan: That’s true.
Jon: Right? And most Middle Eastern states certainly have gotten the Chinese message, “Don’t talk about Xi Jin,” and they don’t talk about Xi Jin, and the Turks don’t shut up about Xi Jin. There is, Turkey is a member of NATO, right? I mean, this should be sort of Turkey all in our court. And yet, Turkey sees interest in not total multipolarity, but opening to Chinese commercial deals, interested in engaging in Central Asia, working with Chinese capital. I mean, there is this sense that even many of our closest partners who have issues with China are interested in seeing, can we fashion a relationship?
Because China is perceived as a fast-growing economy, a successful society, a successful model. And the question, I mean, maybe it’s a question for you. So, much of our analysis of China is based on the last 20 years, what should we be thinking about for the next 20 years? They bungled horribly. Their population is starting to decline. Their economic growth is flattening. I mean, are we making a fundamental mistake in not appreciating that we’re talking all about where the Middle East will be in 20 years, but where’s China gonna be in 20 years? And what does that mean strategically for us and our global interests?
Elbridge: Well, that will be a fantastic question to address in next year’s Grand Strategy Summit. I think it’ll still be current. I will gladly address it then, but I will just say you may be right, but I think it’s imprudent to count on our primary rival falling apart as it turned out, the Soviet Union did. Although, in some sense, it’s persisted in a weaker state as Putin’s Russia. But I think it’s also…a lot of it is relative in terms of, yes, the Chinese faced demographic challenges, but so did Japan and Taiwan and South Korea and many European countries and parts of the United States and so forth. So, I think just given the scale and the incentives I see for Chinese expansionism and aggressiveness, and frankly, Xi Jinping’s behavior and the kind of people he surrounded himself with, I don’t think we should count them out.
And also, maybe a little bit of my own experience growing up and spending some time in Hong Kong and so forth, there’s this sort of the Chinese for frankly a couple hundred years, I mean, this is, I think, their own account. They kind of lost the thread. But it’s fundamentally a very commercial culture. It’s a very sophisticated culture for many centuries. It could plausibly claim to be the center of world civilization, and they’re kind of back in the game. And I don’t expect that to go away even if they hit, I mean, if you look at the growth of the United States over the 19th and early 20th century, huge economic depressions. And I mean, it’s not one-to-one, but I think we would be…I think we should prepare for the downside that they will continue growing, at least from a security point of view, continue growing.
But with that, thank you all of those who stuck with us for the last panel of the afternoon, and I hope you’ll join me in thanking Jon and Morgan for their really great and insightful comments as well.
Jim Byron: Thank you, Bridge, Jon, Morgan. And ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us at the inaugural Grand Strategy Summit. And we will see you back here in Washington, DC next year where we pick up on exactly that topic. Thank you. And also, stay tuned for our strategy summary document, which will be out in a few days, recapping everything and really taking a look at some of the main points, hopefully for use by policymakers and those in academia and at think tanks. So, thank you for your support, and we’ll see you back here next year.
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About the Grand Strategy Summit:
Fifty years after President Nixon’s historic diplomatic trips to China and the Soviet Union, great power competition has returned. To address America’s challenges on the world stage —only days after the hotly anticipated Midterm Election results— the Richard Nixon Foundation convened its inaugural Grand Strategy Summit: American Leadership in the 21st Century on November 10 and 11, 2022 at The Ritz Carlton, Washington D.C.
The Grand Strategy Summit is dedicated to establishing a consistent approach to a national (as opposed to a partisan) foreign policy, a long-term strategic direction for American statecraft —what President Nixon called “the long view.”
Considering the election results and the balance of power in Washington, summit participants discussed the pursuit of policies in America’s national interest, including how to manage the relationship with China as a major power in the 21st century, weigh the impact of ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine, and project Western influence in the Middle East.