By now it has become obvious to most observers that the United States is undergoing a profound transition. Wherever one turns, monumental changes are underway, affecting both the domestic health of the republic and its economic and military relations with the rest of the world. In April, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations reflecting on the new spirit of the times. The world is turning multipolar, Lagarde stressed, and great changes are coming whether we want them or not. She concluded the speech by paraphrasing Hemingway: “Fragmentation can happen in two ways: gradually, and then suddenly.” Around the same time, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan delivered a speech criticizing “tax cutting and deregulation, privatization over public action, and trade liberalization as an end in itself.” He declared a “New Washington Consensus” that would, in effect, systematically overturn the neoliberal policy orthodoxies of the previous four decades.
Reflecting on the changes underway is a fully bipartisan pastime in an otherwise bitterly polarized America. Nobody seriously claims that the world is going to stay the same anymore. People just disagree on who will put his mark on the emerging order. This is a struggle with many participants, representing a bewildering variety of outlooks, all vying for the distant possibility of building a new hegemony.
One of the most articulate, energetic, and important figures trying to shape America’s future is Elbridge A. Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Colby’s stint at the Pentagon covered the first half of the Trump administration. Since departing from that role, he has been extremely busy. Among other things, he has co-founded the Marathon Initiative, a think tank that aims to help future US administrations chart a better course on China and great-power competition generally. He has also written a book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, which appeared in 2021.
The Strategy of Denial is Colby’s only book. This particular fact says a great deal about who Colby is and what it is he is trying to do. In the transnational world of think tanks, of well-paid fellows, of lavish dinners paid for by Saudi or Chinese money, of endless panel discussions in which nobody manages to say anything memorable, most of the books written aren’t meant to be read—but to win and maintain sinecures. The book itself is a formality. If naked, open bribery were more accepted in Western culture, many of these books would never be written. How many new books about Ronald Reagan does the Acela corridor need?
The Strategy of Denial isn’t a book of this kind. It is long, carefully written, and meticulously argued. Since writing it, Colby has given countless interviews, appeared on innumerable panels, and done everything else that could help convince Americans inside and outside government that a change of course is badly needed. In a world of increasingly detached elites uninterested in real debate or new ideas, and sometimes even openly taunting us with their obvious senility, Elbridge Colby is a welcome exception. He might be regarded as an American approximation of Sergei Witte, the tireless Russian reformer of the late Tsarist era. Like Witte, Colby is driven by a manic, seemingly boundless energy in his holy mission to put right all that is broken in the American regime. One doesn’t have to agree with Colby to recognize him as the most unflagging foreign-policy reformer in Washington today. To be sure, there isn’t very fierce competition for that honor right now, but that doesn’t detract from Colby’s significance.
Unfortunately, few of his critics bother to give his actual arguments the time of day. He has been called a warmonger and a neocon, and is regularly denounced as a mindless “China hawk” in the vein of John Bolton. Given that there are dozens of hours of long-form interviews with Colby, available on the internet free of charge, and that he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter, where he responds to and debates with all kinds of interlocutors with a rare level of openness and honesty, Elbridge Colby might actually be the one man in American public life who can’t be accused of trying to hide or distort his own views for political gain.
To make a good-faith attempt to summarize Colby’s views, one should begin by saying that he is, above all, a firm believer in the realist theory of international relations, and in realism in the broad vernacular sense as well. We can think whatever we want about this fact, but America is an empire, and with that comes a large number of pressures and obligations. To shrink from that reality is not noble—it is foolish and perhaps even suicidal. Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq earlier this year, Colby quoted Talleyrand: It was “worse than a crime: It was a blunder.” Like many other realist thinkers, such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, he regards the last several decades of idealist liberal foreign policy as one long chain of catastrophic blunders.
Following its Cold-War victory over the Soviet Union, the United States resembled France as it emerged from the great revolution and the bloody overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy: an aggressive, ideologically charged power, to which the old rules of give-and-take and strategic balance no longer applied. In no just universe could the old rules and laws written by princes and priests conspire to bind free men, the French revolutionaries boldly proclaimed. Or as Robespierre put it: “Any law which violates the inalienable rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical; it is not a law at all.” What’s more, they were willing to fight and give their lives to prove that they meant it.
Hence, if you were a ruler in another European country at the time when the revolutionary fires burned the brightest in Paris, you couldn’t safely make deals with these people. You couldn’t predict what they would do, and you couldn’t even really hope to understand how they thought. France, unshackled from the outdated mores of the ancien régime, recognized no limits as it pursued its mission: It would “save” the rest of the world, beginning with its immediate neighbors and hated rivals, and it would do so at bayonet-point if need be.
America thought and acted much the same way in the years after it ascended to unipolar hegemony. In his Second Inaugural, former President George W. Bush declared: “Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world … The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” One cluster bomb at a time, one billowing cloud of toxic white phosphorus after the next, the Serbs, the Iraqis, the Afghans, eventually even the Iranians and the North Koreans, would all be saved, integrated into the global order of free trade and universal rights.
The endpoint of all these dreams was predictable from the start. As the years went on, more and more old hands from the long Cold War began to perceive the disastrous path America was taking. Statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Chalmers Johnson, and George Kennan increasingly saw the dangers lurking just ahead and tried in their own way to sound the alarm. As the Bush administration’s designs in Iraq were becoming clear in late 2002, a nearly 100-year-old Kennan held a news conference in which he cautioned that “war seldom ever leads to good ends.” Brzezinski and Johnson offered similar warnings. They were, at best, politely ignored. For both revolutionary Paris and revolutionary Washington, the quest to liberate and uplift the rest of the world would eventually culminate in millions of deaths, civil war, chaos, famine, and the ruination of entire countries—including, finally, the revolutionary homeland.
To describe Elbridge Colby as a warmonger against that backdrop is grossly inaccurate. While there probably are many newly minted “China hawks” today who have never seen an American war they didn’t like, Colby is different. Like any realist, he knows that man has waged war since time immemorial. With this in mind, his goal is to grapple calmly with the question of when wars are necessary, why they are likely to happen, and what can be done to deter them or, if deterrence fails—to win them. He opposed the US invasion of Iraq, warning that the war would end in “quagmire, destabilization, and defeat.” The same fundamental worldview leads him to conclude that the United States should be prepared for war with China over Taiwan, as he argued last year in Foreign Affairs, “precisely to deter and thus avoid it.”
Colby doesn’t promise America a world without war. He does, however, argue forcefully for a world without limitless ideological war. He warns against framing conflict with China as a fundamental ideological conflict, on the grounds that “trying to change China’s ideology raises the stakes in a competition that already is going to be very dangerous and intense.” What must be avoided at all costs is an “existential cage match” with zero-sum stakes. Colby’s approach, it is reasonable to surmise, would result in a world with fewer wars than the world of “bringing the Serbs to heel” (as a 1999 cover of Time put it), of Operation Iraqi Freedom, of spreading the virtues and sublime joys of Burger King, twerking, and cyber feminism at gunpoint to the dustiest corners of the Hindu Kush. To paint the efforts of Colby and other realists to get America to step back from the brink as “warmongering” is absurd. Given the dismal reality of the last 30 years of American foreign policy, their attempt to change course is laudable.
Nonetheless, there is a tragedy at the heart of the American realist project, and no one in Washington illustrates that tragedy better than Elbridge Colby. The problem isn’t that realism is “wrong.” It is a framework better equipped to explain today’s world than liberal internationalism ever was or could hope to be. Rather, the tragedy of great-power realism is that its truths can only weaken America in the year 2023.
Indeed, beneath the surface, the dream of a world without war might actually turn out to be less unlikely than the dream of Elbridge Colby. Far from being mere idealism, a future without war can at least be credibly portrayed as a sort of brutal historical inevitability: Once the sun runs out of fuel and begins to swallow the earth, there will be no wars of any kind waged on our planet. The peace of the grave is the one true peace eternal. In the fullness of time, all things will be taken into its silent embrace. But no matter how many years it manages to persist, the world will never witness an America that thinks, lives, breathes, and wages war based on “realism.”
To understand the nature of this tragedy, it’s unnecessary to range much farther afield. No, here for once the real answers are right in front of us, hidden close to home. They are disguised in the words spoken by the realists themselves, and there is no better source to consult than the dean of contemporary foreign-policy realism, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer. Over his long and distinguished career, Mearsheimer has increasingly been invited to give talks to Chinese and other non-Western audiences. He often humorously comments on this, sharing anecdotes about telling his Chinese hosts that it felt good to be “finally home.” The joke is that Mearsheimer doesn’t speak Chinese, but the Chinese do speak his language—that is, they think about the world in realist terms. “America is not a realist nation” has been a recurring phrase of Mearsheimer’s over many years.
There are two levels on which the statement “America is not a realist nation” can be said to be true. The first level is descriptive. Plainly put, neither politicians, nor pundits, nor policy analysts have much good to say about realism, nor do ordinary Americans seem to find it compelling. After 9/11, almost everyone in the United States rallied to the idea of spreading liberty across the world, a kind of global American revolution. It was just as much a bottom-up as it was a top-down phenomenon. Two decades later, with the fruits of that revolution rotting on the vine, what now interests a significant and growing number of Americans—and what Donald Trump offered himself up as a conduit for—is still not realism. It is more accurately called restraint, or even isolationism. The grumbling of the American electorate and the earthquake that shook the GOP and brought Trump to power wasn’t a longing for more sound policy documents or another seminar on “American grand strategy.” It was a desire for the lies to stop, the forever wars to end, and for the burdens of empire to be lifted, or at least made lighter.
In other words, “America is not a realist nation” can simply be parsed as “America is a nation in which realist ideas are not currently popular.” This is a true statement, but it is not the only reading of those words. Realism is a theory about the behavior of states. Like all theories, it is an attempt at drawing a map, and a map can never be as large in scale or as detailed as the territory it represents. As such, realism must make many concessions to the sheer complexity of reality and the epistemological limits of human knowledge; it must reduce scale in order to increase readability. One such concession is that realist theory assumes countries to be “black boxes,” meaning, as Mearsheimer explains, that it “pays little attention to individuals or domestic political considerations such as ideology.” Realism cannot explain what goes on inside the box, but as long as you assume that countries are black boxes, the theory can do its work of providing you with both explanatory and predictive power.
However, you also have to assume that the black box works. But this isn’t always the case. The political status of the island of Taiwan today is the direct result of a “black box” called the Qing Empire, which one day simply decided to no longer work. Instead, it broke apart into a large number of fragments, catalyzing a brutal and decades-long series of large and small civil wars.
The life cycle of states, the human passions that sustain them or overthrow them—these things are all beyond the ken of the theory of realism, both by design and by practical necessity. The French Revolution, then, was the story of another black box we call the Bourbon monarchy that simply stopped working for 30 years. Once the Girondins took power, once the Great Terror and September Massacres consolidated the revolutionary grip on the warmaking powers of the state, the predictive and explanatory value of realism nosedived down to near zero. Roughly 200 years later, America’s own turn towards revolutionary fervor began the moment it was freed from the discipline that the existence of a real superpower rival, the Soviet Union, imposed on it.
The realists saw a country named “America”—a country with a tumultuous, millenarian history since the time before its official founding—and assumed it to be another black box, a power like any other. They then assumed the box called America would continue to work, as all boxes normally do. But the box named America refused to comply.
This brings us to the true and profound meaning of Mearsheimer's statement that “America is not a realist country.” This meaning is not merely descriptive, but genuinely metaphysical: America is a country that cannot run on, legitimate itself by, understand itself through, or inspire a sense of genuine national cohesion through realism.
The Soviet Bloc fell apart not because it was destroyed by overwhelming forces from outside, but because, by the end, nobody inside it believed in it or wanted to fight for it anymore. When the order came down to stop the protesters attempting to topple the Berlin Wall, the soldiers and functionaries shrugged and ignored the command. What was the point? As the USSR itself entered into its final spasms of dysfunction and collapse, there was no one left who had any real will to defend it. Thus it came to be that the black box once called the Soviet Union simply stopped working one day.
What, then, is to become of America? Colby’s The Strategy of Denial is instructive on this point, if not as intended. Few books on foreign policy are so well written and tightly argued. The chapters link up naturally and tightly, like interlocking scales in a suit of armor. But there is a chink in that impressive armor. At the beginning and end of the book, Colby explains the purpose of American strategy. It is here where things fall apart.
Colby points out that in a vibrant democracy, the question of a nation’s strategy can never be truly settled, but nonetheless “certain fundamental goals” can be agreed upon by Americans. Apart from preventing the United States from being militarily attacked by a hostile foreign power, American strategy should aim to sustain a free, autonomous, and vigorous democratic-republican political order, as well as economic flourishing and growth. In short, America has three “national objectives”: physical security, freedom, and prosperity.
Peace, freedom, prosperity. It is the shared belief in the future promise of these things, and in the already existing reality of these things, that gives America its cohesion. For the Soviet Union, comparably, it wasn’t prudent “national objectives” or smart moves by soldiers, administrators, and generals on some grand strategic chessboard that gave rise to faith in communism. Rather, it was faith in communism that provided the motivating force for those soldiers, administrators, and generals in the first place.
Realism can help us understand the interests of states, but states don’t run on realism. Realism isn’t what allows them to be born, to cohere, and to expand. Instead, states run on what we can call “magic,” and that magic can differ greatly from state to state and from time period to time period. The magic that the Bourbon monarchy ran on isn’t the magic of America or Tang dynasty China, but that is fine. The Bourbon magic sustained the Bourbons for hundreds of years, but once it ran out, it was impossible to bring it back. The Bourbons were reinstated as rulers of France by the force of foreign arms, but they could only manage to meekly hang on for 15 years before they were overthrown again. Louis Philippe, who succeeded them, didn’t do much better: 18 years after assuming a French throne much reduced in prestige and power, he, too, was overthrown.
As long as the French kings still had the mysterious magic that had conferred authority on them for hundreds of years, it was impossible to get rid of them. The moment they lost the magic, it proved impossible to keep them in power. When communism still had its magic, young Bolsheviks endured exile and persecution and death without so much as flinching. They sang songs praising their own martyrdom, they spat in the eyes of their executioners, and they thought nothing of hardening themselves to fight one of the most brutal and pitiless civil wars in modern history. Just 70 years later, that magic was gone. When the end came, the direct blood descendants of those fanatical Bolsheviks couldn’t rouse themselves from their stupor to defend their sinecures.
In order to justify why America needs to embrace his realism, Elbridge Colby has no choice but to invoke the most primal form of American magic, in the form of his “national objectives.” He has no choice because that magic is the only hope he has of ever explaining what the point of it all is. Sadly, the moment he tries to conjure that particularly American form of magic he has already denounced his own work, because the magic that has animated America for much of its existence is fundamentally at odds with any realist strategic assessments. John Mearsheimer is correct: America is not a realist country. This doesn’t just mean that realist ideas aren’t popular, but that realist ideas are deeply inimical to the very basic legitimacy that America needs to cohere as a state.
This isn’t an airy, abstract argument. The question of the magic that sustains regimes is in fact brutally practical. The guards at the Berlin Wall checkpoints really did ask themselves what the point of trying to stop protesters was, and when they couldn’t come up with a good answer, they simply gave up. In 2023, America’s model of a volunteer military is in rapid collapse. The Army missed its recruiting target by 25 percent last year, and a 2021 survey found a steep decline in active-duty members and veterans who would recommend enlisting to their children—a serious problem, since the armed services have long relied heavily upon military families to supply new recruits. Like the Berlin Wall guards, America’s sons and daughters are asking themselves what the point of it all is, and they can no longer come up with an answer.
Recently, Colby courted controversy on Twitter by endorsing Rep. Seth Moulton’s statement that “we should make it very clear to the Chinese, if you invade Taiwan, we will blow up” Taiwan Semiconductor, which supplies close to 60 percent of the world’s microchips. Again, people rushed to call Colby a bloodthirsty warmonger, a neocon, and a baby-eating imperialist. But such attacks were not only intellectually uncharitable, they also fail to appreciate both the greatness and the massive, inescapable tragedy inherent in what Colby is trying to achieve.
From Colby’s perspective, blowing up Taiwan’s semiconductor industry in order to prevent it from being used by the Chinese isn’t a “punishment” for the Taiwanese. The strategic principle at stake, as he has explained, is that “America and its allies can’t afford the PRC to have such dominance over global semiconductors.” The Taiwanese themselves, who don’t want to fall under Chinese control, should understand this better than anyone. On the grand chessboard, the sacrifice of a pawn may be necessary to forestall a much greater loss down the road for all who have an interest in forestalling Chinese hegemony. To denounce this position as bloodthirsty is to miss the point. But again, the American state doesn’t and won’t run on this sort of realism. It runs on its own—dying and sputtering—form of magic, and it will accept no other fuel source. To keep this faith alive, America must continue to regard itself as the altruistic defender and savior of the Taiwanese people against Chinese tyranny. This is the tragedy of Colby’s attempt to save America: The act of nakedly despoiling and impoverishing a country for long-term strategic advantage will merely further dim the few magical embers that still remain to be called upon.
American realists hope that their ideas can prompt a retrenchment back to solid terrain, like an army pulling back and giving up territory in order to shorten its front. But at the current juncture, the project of substituting American idealism with realism isn’t akin to amputating a leg to save the life of the patient: It is more like the administration of a lethal poison directly into the heart of the patient. The realists attack the liberal and neoconservative architects of America’s 30 years of failed wars and idealistic excess as lacking in understanding of the world, not grasping the magnitude of the irony at play. In reality, it is the realists who are naive about the way the world works.
America was built to be an altogether different kind of country from the old powers in Europe, or the brutal, despotic and cynical empires of the ancient world. It was to be “a republic, if you can keep it.” The magic that gave it form and has kept it going for 250 years didn’t envision, much less celebrate, the idea of 1,000 military bases on foreign soil, or massive permanent standing armies, or bombing factories 8,000 miles away. It wasn’t meant to include importing millions and millions of people each year in order to drive down wages and turn the entire country into a massive sweatshop. It didn’t involve “fortifying” elections, ever-expanding alphabet agencies illegally wiretapping US citizens, or 20,000 national guardsmen patrolling Washington, DC, with assault rifles and cordoning off the Capitol building. All of these things, and more, have come together to diminish American legitimacy. Pouring yet more poison down the ailing throat of the patient will not help, no matter how well-intentioned the hands holding the bottle may be.
It is likely that future historians will end up drawing lessons radically different from those espoused by realists today about the meaning of America’s self-destructive descent into ideological forever war. To those historians of the future, it may well be the neocons and the liberal interventionists who appear as America’s last generation of elites with a somewhat realistic grasp of the mess they found themselves in. To them, the era of liberal interventionism will likely seem to be the last real attempt to keep that faltering American magic going. Those of us who came of age around the time of the 9/11 attacks can attest to the fact that, at least for a time, they really did succeed. They revived the magic that kept society together, and answered a burning question: “What, exactly, is the point of all this?” But nothing lasts forever. Those who hope to supplant the neocons and liberal interventionists, to keep the empire alive by means of removing all sops to magic and superstition, are the most profoundly idealistic thinkers that America has yet to produce.
Realism is fundamentally true, but truth isn’t magic, and magic isn’t truth. The inability or unwillingness to grasp this is the curse that has bedeviled America’s most brilliant realist thinkers.
In a recent public talk, Mearsheimer was asked whether people in the White House pay much attention to his ideas. Mearsheimer jocularly responded that over roughly half a century, no person from the US government has ever asked him his opinion on anything. He didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by this fact.
Here we see the first side of the Janus face of American great-power realism: the face of the brilliant strategist who has long since made peace with the fact that the princes of the world will pay him no mind. Colby presents us with the second face. Unlike Mearsheimer, he works tirelessly to get the princes to listen before it is too late. His is the face of the selfless, brilliant, and energetic reformer, the Sergei Witte or the late Qing Westernizer—a man who, despite his efforts, will rarely be listened to, and who is cursed with only the power to speed up the death of the system he hopes to salvage.
Genuine tragedy is both deeply appealing and naturally repellent. For tragedy is the story of human greatness, human potential, and human brilliance, and how all those things come to naught in the end. Here, in the final twilight hours of both the American empire and the particular form of folk magic that so heroically built it and then kept it going, one can’t help but be dazzled by the tragedy of America’s most brilliant realist thinkers. For it is their fate to sparkle ever more brightly, when set against a backdrop of creeping dusk.