Is Elbridge Colby’s Realism Really Realistic?

June 21, 2024

Elbridge Colby – tipped by some as a candidate for high office in a future Trump administration – is perhaps the most self-professed realist in American foreign policy circles today. In a frank exchange with former Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon, and former First Sea Lord and Security Minister Admiral Lord West, at Policy Exchange earlier this week, he revealed in no uncertain terms what a realist American foreign policy should look like: “the optimal manifestation of America First”. But what does this mean?

For Colby, faced with the rising threat of China and a “world of bad choices”, America has only one “realist” option: to focus on containing Beijing, seemingly at the expense of American allies around the world, especially in Europe. The ‘arsenal of democracy’ should get busy elsewhere, and allies must step up in their own back yard.

Colby is, by implication, dismissive of the UK’s new Indo-Pacific Tilt strategy of 2021 – foreshadowed by Policy Exchange’s A Very British Tilt commission, which was chaired by former Canadian Prime Minister Rt Hon Stephen Harper.

The power of realism lies in its simplicity. In the words of John Mearsheimer, a Colby fan and one of the theory’s main proponents, it is meant to be a “powerful flashlight” onto the true nature of the world around. In this world, states are locked in never-ending competition, ideals are a distraction, and there is only the cold reality of interests and threats. Trade-offs are necessary too, even at the expense of your closest friends. Coated in this hard logic, Colby’s conclusion is that “the U.S. will have to prioritise China and Asia over Europe… the primacy of Asia and the rise of a superpower China compel it”.

In isolation, his diagnosis is hard to dispute. China is the principal threat to American pre-eminence. Beijing must first achieve Asian hegemony, which hinges on control of the ‘first island chain’ – an archipelago of islands that runs from Japan, past Taiwan, through to the southern perimeter of the South China Sea. Once it does, China will, per Colby, dominate the global economic centre of gravity. Then, it can decisively overturn American superiority. Hence, the goal must be containment, and expenditures besides this are a potentially fatal diversion of resources.

China would certainly pose a vast military challenge. Beijing has more than doubled its nuclear arsenal since 2020. Its naval fleet will outnumber that of the U.S. by over 100 ships by the end of 2025. Its official defence budget has risen seven percent year-on-year over the last decade. It is more than reasonable to presume that Beijing is preparing for a major war with the U.S. But is Colby prescribing the right medicine?

As the turn of phrase “world war” suggests, the essential fact of great power war is that it is global in scope. Threats cannot be neatly disaggregated because of the nature of alliances. Overwhelming China in the Indo-Pacific balance of military power means ignoring the other members of the “Axis of Upheaval” – Russia, Iran and North Korea  – all of which increasingly lend political and, more importantly, material support to one another, as they seek to undermine the U.S.-led security architecture in each of their respective regions. There is seldom a luxury of choosing what matters, where, and when. Even George Kennan, widely seen as the progenitor of the focused containment concept Colby espouses, referred to “shifting geographical and political points” in his famed Long Telegram of 1946.

Crucially, cooperation between the “Axis of Upheaval” is rapidly expanding. It has now reached the point that it affects regional balances of power. Already in 2015, Russian intervention in Syria tipped the scale in favour of Bashar al-Assad and Iran. Drones from Tehran and munitions from Pyongyang have pushed Ukrainian air defence to the brink. China keeps the Iranian and Russian economy afloat with hydrocarbon purchases. Just this week, Russia and North Korea unveiled a new strategic partnership – pledging military assistance to one another if under attack.

Clearly, each power is increasingly committed to one another’s efforts to weaken the world order, and backs a larger anti-Western vision. This means that the boundaries between conflictual theatres are disappearing. Eerily resembling the rising aggression and coordination of the Axis Powers from 1933 to 1939, the individual strength of the modern Axis contributes to its combined force.

Colby partially acknowledged this fact in the event, but reasoned that it amplifies, rather than diminishes, the case for American focus on the Indo-Pacific. A “real” realist would understand the relation between regional and global balances of power in what is now a conflict between systems, not nations. This fact was only recently reinforced when South Korea signalled it may send weapons to Ukraine in light of the new Russian-North Korean pact. In turn, Putin is today considering sending materiel to Pyongyang.

This also matters when strategising how to deter this multi-pronged assault. Quite as we do, the West’s enemies watch the news and draw conclusions about our competence, agility, and readiness for war. Colby instead pushes “differentiated credibility”, a euphemism for isolationism which reasons that the U.S. can deter China in the Indo-Pacific, even while Putin and Khamenei run amok in Europe and the Middle East. His advocacy of a slimmed down geographical focus on Beijing does not result in a sustained commitment to greater military spending – such as one would normally expect from a China hawk. Instead of following this line, Colby has questioned expanding the existing U.S. defence budget – even amidst the growing tremors of global conflict.

Indeed, Colby’s strategy, which might better be termed “selective deterrence”, has no historical precedent. Both the distant and more recent pasts suggest that the opposite is in fact the case. As Roosevelt wrote in 1941, “the hostilities in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia are all parts of a single world conflict”. In our own time, we can see the daisy chain of failures linking Syria, Crimea, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Yemen, and Israel: failures of “realism” that led the West’s enemies to draw conclusions about our lack of resolve and vision — and to begin systematically undermining our collective strength. The irony is that Colby’s preoccupation with containing China militarily in the Indo-Pacific gives a free pass to its destabilising activities elsewhere, as well as the wider means by which Beijing seeks to usurp American pre-eminence through a protracted systemic struggle.

Perhaps the greatest selling point of Colby’s vision is his call for allies to restore their self-sufficiency – something no rational European should dispute. Handle your own problems, he argues, so we can handle ours. Yet, Colby overeggs the point. At Policy Exchange, as in his book The Strategy of Denial, he argued that, as Europe can only make “marginal contributions” to the Indo-Pacific balance of power, it serves no purpose in Sino-American competition. Colby thus concludes that American commitments to Europe are unreciprocated.

Nor does his “America First” prospectus afford much optimism for Asian allies. During the event, Colby rather euphemistically signalled that – if appointed again – he would “overhaul” America’s military presence in South Korea, and revisit the commitment to selling Virginia-class attack submarines to Australia as part of AUKUS. There is a fine line between tough love and relationship damage, and Colby might just cross it.

The problem is that America may end up depending on its allies after all. Colby’s favoured analogy for Sino-American competition is to two heavyweight boxers, but a limited war over Taiwan—if there can be such a thing— will not deliver a first-round knockout. If China loses, further bruising rounds will ensue. Beijing will regroup militarily, or perhaps escalate dramatically. Other enemies of the American order will still be alive and well. If America loses, further Asian conflicts will ensue, and other regional orders will rapidly collapse. However round one ends, the likely outcome is a systemic conflict: a world war. The risk is that, having put all its eggs in one basket, America’s reservoir of strength is depleted.

In such a scenario, Europe and America’s other close partners would have a role to play, both in supporting America’s defence industrial base, and committing to sanctions on China—as former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen advocated in The Boiling Moat. Abandoning Europe today may leave it without the capacity – if not the appetite – to commit fully to a future “American” war with China.

Even realist theory can be detached from reality. The growing Chinese military threat in the Indo-Pacific is undeniable, as are the limits of American capacity. But this is just one aspect of a collapsing global order, which makes the problem global. If the U.S. wants to remain at the top, it needs a global vision of how to handle its challengers, and how to rally its friends. By shining the realist flashlight exclusively on just one of the hydra’s heads, Colby risks underestimating the rest of the monster.

Marcus Solarz Hendriks is Senior Research Fellow in the National Security Unit

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