The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict


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"Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict"
by Elbridge Colby
Yale University Press/September 2021

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

Wondering what a Republican administration’s foreign policy would look like should they take the White House in 2024? Read Elbridge Colby’s The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict that has just been re-issued in paperback. 

Colby is one of those scions of American families who successfully combine business, politics and public service. Their contribution to public life is the better because of their practical experience.

This is the great strength of the American thinking community, a main pool of talent for new administrations and as congressional staffers. These scholar-practitioners not only generate public policy ideas, but they are then called on to implement them and so learn how government really works. After service for the four-year life of an administration or two-year congressional session they become lobbyists, or go into business or return to think tankery, enriched by their political experience. Many return to a future administration.

After working in the think tank and intelligence communities, Elbridge Colby served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and force development in the Trump administration. He was a key player in the drafting of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), the first time the Pentagon identified a rising China as the organizing focus of U.S. defence policy.

At 11 pages, the NDS was also a model of clarity and concision. Under direction from secretary Jim Mattis, it avoided the Christmas-tree syndrome, wherein every interest, real and remote, adds its own ornament to the document. This only serves to undermine policy direction and to confuse the public. Canadian policy drafters could usefully follow the Mattis model of developing a single, coherent framework.

Colby sets the table in his first chapter by describing the current balance of power. Recognizing that the “unipolar moment” of American preponderance is over, he acknowledges that American power buffeted it initially from becoming too painful from the results of its decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq. But now that geopolitics has returned to great-power competition, the U.S. must revise its calculations and prioritize based on the constraints of resources and political will.

Americans, Colby argues, must reconcile their international aspirations and temper their commitments with their ability and the public’s willingness to follow them through.

Colby starts with a regional ranking of American threats and interests:

  • Asia must be America’s most important region given its wealth – 40 per cent of global GDP – and power. Together, the Asian economies are already far larger than that of the U.S. and larger than those of Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and Oceania combined. Asia is also advancing both economically and technologically. China is the world’s other superpower with ambitions of hegemony over Eurasia and denying China that hegemony must be the driving force of American international policy.
  • Europe, with its democratic values, takes second priority, possessing nearly one-quarter of global GDP.
  • North America takes third place because it is the American homeland.
  • The Persian Gulf takes fourth place because it is home to 40 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves, even though Gulf State economies account for less than five per cent of global GDP.
  • At the bottom of his ranking is the rest of the world. As Colby writes, if Latin America were to be agglomerated, it would represent approximately one half of the total power of the U.S. Africa is the least developed part of the world with southern Africa representing three per cent of global GDP; Central Africa has mineral wealth but insufficient to contest U.S. core purposes.

Whether you agree with Colby’s assessment, the necessary critical thinking that goes into is kind of ranking is essential to the drafting of strategy. Too often, the temptation is to just make a list so as not to offend this or that interest. But policy development, like government, is ultimately about making choices and then allocating scarce resources accordingly. Strategy, Colby argues, must be simple, logical and coherent and matched to reality, rather than to the world as we want it to be.

A reality-based approach characterized American strategic thinking after the Second World War. Guided by this approach, Colby acknowledges that the “unipolar moment” is over. He warns that we now face a “new reality” in which Washington must accept that a war between great powers, “which once seemed a thing of the past ... now seems considerably more plausible.”

Given the changed geopolitical landscape – a rising China and revanchist Russia – for Colby the overriding question is what is the best defence strategy for Americans? He devotes most of his book to how to prevent China, the new rival and rising power, from establishing hegemony on the Eurasian landmass.

The U.S., argues Colby, must prepare for war with China. China’s core interests include absorbing Taiwan and the islands within the South China Sea’s nine-dash line. Its growing military power should also enable it to take Taiwan and Finlandize its neighbours, preferably using the carrots of the Belt and Road Initiative rather than the stick of Chinese military force.

Restoring military dominance over China is unfeasible given its size and capacity. For Colby, the U.S. and its allies must focus their deterrence on Taiwan, a vibrant democracy. To forestall Chinese aggression requires a “focused and sequential strategy.” This means assembling sufficient deterrent capacity through diplomacy and an “anti-hegemonic coalition.” For Colby, the coalition’s steel skeleton is a hub-and-spoke alliance of Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, bolstered by a broader array of security partners that must include India.

Formal or informal, permanent or transitory, alliances matter, says Colby, because the U.S. cannot do it on its own and defence of democracy and freedom must be collective.

This was the thinking behind NATO in 1949 and it still applies. As Mattis wrote in his resignation letter: “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.” That said, the allies, especially those in Europe, will have to do more in terms of their military contribution.

Regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress, the U.S.’s main focus is now China and the Indo-Pacific. But any strategy of denial must be realistic about what the U.S. military can and cannot do and he warns that trying to do it on the cheap won’t work.

How realistic is Colby’s strategy? Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promises to boost the percentage of its GDP devoted to defence. Australia’s Anthony Albanese promises more defence spending, including enlarging its major air and naval bases to welcome an expanded U.S. military presence, while continuing the move to introduce nuclear attack submarines into its fleet with the AUKUS (Australia-U.K.-U.S.) security pact.

Spurred by Chinese wolf warriors, Colby’s anti-hegemonic coalition is possible. Although most Asian nations want American security, they depend on China for their economic growth. They would prefer to stay out of the great-power alignments.

All of this has implications for Canada. The U.S. is our principal ally in defence of our homeland through NORAD and, through NATO, our trans-Atlantic security alliance. But Canada does not figure in Colby’s calculations. When I asked him why, he said it was because we lacked capacity. What little we do when it comes to defence, we do on the cheap. He saw no signs that we were going to change our approach beyond incrementalism, even in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Could Canada make a difference? Colby thought we could make a real contribution by taking on more of the security and defence of our shared Arctic, something successive U.S. administrations have encouraged. This means ships and submarines that can operate in the ice, aircraft capable of covering long distances and ports and air stations capable of operation in polar conditions. For now, we have a thread-bare Arctic framework (2019) while our Arctic Council partners all have developed strategies – Norway’s is a good model – and are devoting resources to their implementation. We can only hope that the to-be-refreshed Strong, Secure, Engaged  defence policy will have more content and resources.

The Trudeau government has been working on its Indo-Pacific strategy now for nearly seven years. The rest of our allies – the U.S., the U.K., European Union, Australia, New Zealand –  have all developed theirs.

In the new world order, hard power counts and this is measured by defence spending as a percentage of GDP. In 2014, NATO nations agreed to spend two per cent of GDP by 2024. At 1.27 per cent, Canada is well short of this goal (by comparison, the U.S. spends 3.47 per cent and the U.K. 2.12 per cent).

Delay-and-denial is not a strategy. It only reinforces the increasing view of the U.S. and our allies that while Canada is long on virtue-signalling, when it comes to geopolitics we are not a serious player. We may be liked but in the increasing discussions around hard power we aren’t seen as having much relevance. Left out of conversations and without a place at the table means that we must adapt to policies designed by others. This does not serve or advance Canadian interests.

Elbridge Colby’s Denial of Strategy is worth reading. He and those who think like him are likely to be members of any future Republican administration. We need to understand their thinking. Canadian policy-makers can also learn and benefit from his analytical discipline and  interests-based approach.


A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is Vice-President and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and hosts its regular Global Exchange podcast.  He is an Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. A member of the Department of National Defence’s Defence Advisory Board, Robertson is an honorary captain (Royal Canadian Navy) assigned to the Strategic Communications Directorate.  Robertson sits on the advisory councils of the Alphen Group, Johnson-Shoyama School of Public PolicyNorth American Research Partnership, the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa and the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. During his foreign service career, he served as first head of the Advocacy Secretariat and minister at the Canadian embassy in Washington, consul general in Los Angeles, as consul in Hong Kong, and in New York at the UN and Consulate General. A member of the teams that negotiated the Canada-U.S. FTA and then NAFTA, he is a member of the Deputy Minister of International Trade’s Trade Advisory Council and the North American Forum. He writes on foreign affairs for the Globe and Mail and he is a frequent contributor to other media. The Hill Times has named him as one of those who influence Canadian foreign policy.


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  • Cgai Staff
    published this page in Book Reviews 2022-09-20 16:42:19 -0400

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