Statecraft for an age of blood and iron — The Strategy of Denial: American Defence in an Age of Great Power Conflict by Elbridge Colby review

This work not only spells out in careful exactitude what America’s choices are. More fundamentally, it turns to the most essential question: what is strategy and statecraft for?
Capitol Hill Building. Credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.
Capitol Hill Building. Credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.
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There are ever more ‘must read’ books on US foreign and defence policy, and the republic’s choice of strategies, whether ‘grand’ or military-strategic. In the two decades of this century, from the War on Terror to the Great Power Competition of today, worried citizens have a vast menu of blueprints, manifestoes and visionary tracts to select from. Many of these offerings are bad and grandiose. Dressed in the rhetorical clothing of ‘strategy’, on inspection they are a dog’s dinner. Often produced to a fanfare of elite endorsement and media celebration, they offer up little beyond lofty and incommensurate goals, noble statements with little thought about dilemmas or trade-offs, cost-free banality (‘restore alliances!’), all falling back on repetitious theological affirmations of establishment right-think. As the Marxist Perry Anderson once noted, they offer ‘fantastical’ constructions, ‘gigantic rearrangements of the chessboard of Eurasia’, ‘vast countries moved like so many castles or pawns across it.’ And ‘In the all but complete detachment from reality of so many of these it is difficult not to see a strain of unconscious desperation, as if the only way to restore American leadership to the plenitude of its merits and powers in this world, for however finite a span of time, is to imagine another one altogether.’

By contrast, Elbridge Colby, who served as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, has launched a much needed intervention with The Strategy of Denial. In brief, Strategy of Denial lays out a vision he works hard to make achievable, building in logical, deductive and tightly-reasoned form a means-ends logic for how to respond to the most fundamental fact of life in today’s international system. This is China’s precipitate rise and the relative power shift it has brought about. Washington and Beijing are now in a contest for primacy across the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ For Colby, the best strategy is a counter-hegemonic one, leading a coalition to create the ability to blunt China’s adventurism, hopefully to deter, if not, to frustrate it. A properly resourced strategy of denial, targeted primarily in the Indo-Pacific region, also would entail a fundamental revision of US grand strategy, reducing its commitments and burden-shifting in continental Europe and the Middle East.

Colby’s argument is lucid. Put simply, China is the largest, richest near-peer adversary the country has ever faced. Its sheer scale deserves a disciplined focus. Otherwise, the consequence of America holding on to an over-stretched global strategy could be the rise of what Beijing has declared and pursues, a ‘Sino-Centric’ form of hegemony and economic ascendancy in Asia that not only threatens US living standards, but stifles free expression. Beijing seeks not only prosperity but deference. Having prudently played for time, with its long-standing “hide and bide” strategy of growing without attracting counter-balancing, it now throws around its weight with the entitled impatience of a former colossus that believes, once again, its time has come. It does so partly by attempting to shift the military balance. Were it to predominate, this could make possible either economic closure or access on pain of self-censorship. American corporations have already shown a susceptibility to such dispensations.  

To declare an interest, Colby is a correspondent and sparring partner of mine. We both try to be political realists, that is, pessimists who see international politics primarily as the competition for security in a world of ultimate solitude, in which power and especially material power is the ultima ratio. I was first drawn to his world view by an under-celebrated article of his in Orbis in 2007, arguing for the restoration of deterrence to US statecraft, against the fashionable lurch of the time towards deterrence scepticism and the missionary alternatives of crusading military adventurism or less violent visions of transformational diplomacy. As then, so now, he is questioning a widespread orthodoxy, that US security even in a time of scarce resources is best served by a global, effectively sprawling posture.  

So, a disagreement followed by a criticism. First, the suggestion that the US must be prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan is flawed, though Colby makes the case powerfully. Despite Colby’s conscientious design of a denial strategy that heavily arms Taiwan and positions the US to intervene directly, if Beijing believes Taiwan is slipping irrevocably into a western orbit, no amount of denial or threat of escalation is likely to make it back off. In other words, there is a misplaced optimism here, treating Taiwan, a matter of singular and existential importance to China, as equivalent to other flashpoints and points of friction. A direct clash will be hard to limit or localise, and the resulting devastation to America’s forces and civilians would do more to threaten America’s position and credibility in Asia than the alternative, of acting as armourer and balancer. But Colby’s prescriptions for how Taiwan can best contribute to its own defence are well-conceived.

Secondly, Colby frames his strategy as serving a ‘counter-hegemonic’ purpose — to thwart Beijing’s bid for domination in the region. That’s reasonable. But  a superpower-led counter-hegemony is difficult to exercise without also striving for hegemony. In other words, Colby discretely plays down a hard truth, that the US is also laying claim to continued dominance in the region. He is arguing for regional primacy against the claims of global primacy. That isn’t to imply equivalence between Xi Jinping’s envisioned order and the American order we have known. But as the Solomon Islands can attest, there is still a jealous pursuit of a hierarchy here. It is one that was created in part through bloody means, as well as through invitation, and one which will continue to necessitate bribes and coercion, tempered hopefully with a sense of humane limits. In the spirit of realism, this should be said.   

And now to the strengths, which distinguish the book from many other tomes of the genre. This work not only spells out in careful exactitude what America’s choices are and what the strategy should be in an age of blood and iron. More fundamentally, it turns to the most essential question: what is strategy and statecraft for?

In the tradition of the Florentine diplomat and whisperer Niccolo Machiavelli, Colby does a difficult thing. He confronts the ruthlessness of power-politics in an anarchic world, while never losing sight of the republic’s purpose abroad, to acquire and husband power not for its own sake but to safeguard its liberty. This entails limitation and concentration of effort. It is a different, more watchful proposition from alternative, over-ideologised foreign policy moralities, seeking to construct a global struggle of democracy versus dictatorship, seeing the world as a set of dominoes, or aiming to drive evil from the earth. Denying Beijing hegemonic control over Asia is a different and more prudent proposition than trying to overthrow and destroy its regime, or straining to take the lead in containing Russia, Iran, North Korea and China all at once. In Colby’s words, it is all for a ‘decent peace.’ The best versions of realism seek above all to offer a theory of peace, as does Colby.

Colby’s argument has major implications for America’s allies beyond Asia. At the time of writing, Vladimir Putin’s brutal, inept lunge into Ukraine has added fresh salience to the question of burden-sharing among allies. The ongoing conflict on NATO’s borders has both demonstrated and reinforced the limits of Moscow’s power. It has demonstrated that, jolted by shocks, Europe has balancing power, both actual and latent. Yet paradoxically, US primacists use the same events to argue for increased commitment in Europe, and now probably in an enlarged NATO domain. This perverse development may delay a necessary reckoning, that the true choice is whether the US and Europe respond to the near-gravitational pull of Asia either in an orderly or chaotic way, at a tempo of their choosing or one triggered by events. In this sense, for the wider audience, Colby’s argument should be taken as a forewarning.

Above all, this is a book primarily written for Americans, both decision-makers and the populace, and America’s national interest. It pairs well with another finely focussed American work of this season, Rush Doshi’s deeply researched and penetrating study of the Chinese Communist Party’s grand strategic calculations, The Long Game. Given what’s at stake, Colby exhorts fellow citizens to a sense of limits, urging them to take up the intellectual and moral discipline to distinguish what is vital from what is desirable. Colby takes this stance in a country whose political class historically bucks against the suggestion of limits, and whose dominant political rhetoric since becoming a superpower has been universalist. In the words of the 9/11 Commission, ‘America’s homeland is the planet.’ In puncturing this tradition, Colby offers an American species of realism, the prudence that in the most successful moments tempers the spirit of heroism. To his credit, he has helped in a work of gravitas to keep that flame alive.  

The Strategy of Denial: American Defence in an Age of Great Power Conflict by Elrbidge Colby, YUP Yale, pp384, £30  

Patrick Porter

Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020).

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