Great Power Competition prevents Great Power Conflict

Great Power Competition prevents Great Power Conflict
(Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, May 30, 2021)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He joined CEPA in February 2018. A native of Quincy, Florida, General Hodges graduated from the United States Military Academy in May 1980 and was commissioned in the Infantry. After his first assignment as an Infantry Lieutenant in Garlstedt, Germany, he commanded Infantry units at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade levels in the 101st Airborne Division, including Command of the First Brigade Combat Team “Bastogne” of the 101st Airborne Division in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2003-2004).

His other operational assignments include Chief of Operations for Multi-National Corps-Iraq in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2005-2006) and Director of Operations, Regional Command South in Kandahar, Afghanistan (2009-2010). General Hodges has also served in a variety of Joint and Army Staff positions to include Tactics Instructor; Chief of Plans, 2nd Infantry Division in Korea; Aide-de-Camp to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Chief of Staff, XVIII Airborne Corps; Director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff; Chief of Legislative Liaison for the United States Army; and Commander, NATO Allied Land Command (İzmir, Turkey). His last military assignment was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe (Wiesbaden, Germany) from 2014 to 2017. He retired from the U.S. Army in January 2018.



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, your host. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, which he joined in February 2018 after retiring from thirty-seven years of military service. General Hodges graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1980 and was commissioned in the Infantry. After his first assignment as an Infantry Lieutenant in Germany, he commanded Infantry units at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade levels in the 101st Airborne Division, including Command of the First Brigade Combat Team “Bastogne” of the 101st Airborne Division in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2003-2004).

His other operational assignments include Chief of Operations for Multi-National Corps-Iraq, again in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, this time from 2005-2006, and Director of Operations, Regional Command South in Kandahar, Afghanistan (2009-2010). General Hodges has also served in a variety of Joint and Army Staff positions to include Tactics Instructor; Chief of Plans, 2nd Infantry Division in Korea; Aide-de-Camp to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Chief of Staff, XVIII Airborne Corps; Director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff; Chief of Legislative Liaison for the United States Army; and Commander, NATO Allied Land Command (İzmir, Turkey). His last military assignment was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017. General Hodges today is going to discuss with us the subject, “Great Power Competition prevents Great Power Conflict.” General, welcome to the program.

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

Bob, thank you very much for this privilege.

Pillars of National Power

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, that is a big bite in the topic. How does great power competition prevent great power conflict?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

I believe when you compete you have to think in terms of diplomacy, information, military, and economy, the four sort of basic pillars of national power. This is how we teach it in the War College, for example. You have to compete in all four domains, and when you do compete in those domains, you are conveying to adversaries and potential adversaries that a particular region matters, that it is important to us and we are going to be there. And I think that actually lowers the risk of a misunderstanding and miscalculation or conflict.

Failing to Compete with Russia

For example, in the Black Sea region we have not competed effectively there. We have not demonstrated to the Kremlin that the Black Sea is important to us, even though we have three NATO allies there on the Black Sea. And so because of that you now have Russian troops illegally occupying Crimea. They are killing Ukrainian soldiers every week in the Donbass despite a ceasefire.

You have Russian troops occupying twenty percent of Georgia since 2008. You have Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in Azerbaijan and you have Russian troops in Armenia. But because we never competed there, we did not invest in the economy of the South Caucasus, for example, we have a very fractious relationship with our NATO ally Turkey, and the Kremlin basically is able to use the Black Sea as their launching pad for all of their malign activity in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. So because we failed to compete, we are in that situation now and we are going to be put into a situation where we have to choose: do we allow the Kremlin to do what they are doing or do we push back?

Russia is still in Ukraine

Robert R. Reilly:

As you know, back in April Putin deployed up to one hundred thousand troops near the Ukrainian border with field hospitals, everything he would need for going into combat. Now, around that same time, the United States Navy had scheduled two destroyers going into the Black Sea. They canceled that deployment. What do you think the choreography of those actions taught Russia?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

So first of all, it is important for everybody to keep in mind that almost everything that Russia deployed there, in and around Ukraine, is still there. Minister Shoigu, the Defense Minister, said, ‘Okay, the exercise is over. Good job, guys. Everybody go back to barracks.’ Almost nothing left. But you could hear the sighs of relief in London, in Brussels, in Paris, and in Berlin, and even in Washington, [saying], ‘Okay, good, thank goodness the crisis is over.’ It is not, that is exactly what the Kremlin wants us to believe, but actually they did not go home.

Most of the equipment is still in place. All of the naval capability that they brought in there is still there. Half of the Black Sea is still shutdown. The Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait are still shutdown. And it is all there. And of course the Kremlin knows because they have not been stopped since 2008, we did not do anything after they invaded Georgia, we did not do anything after the Assad regime jumped all over Obama’s red lines, and the Assad regime is only in power because of the Kremlin, and we collectively have not done anything since their invasion of Ukraine in 2014. So they will not be stopped until they are stopped.

Right now we are in a pause. I think they are waiting for most of Europe to go on summer holiday, for the U.S. to lose interest as we frequently do very quickly, and I think we are going to see a resumption of activity in and around Ukraine in late August or September. So that is my biggest worry. So you asked what does the Kremlin learn from all of this is that bullies only respect strength and they despise weakness, and we have not yet figured out how to hold them accountable.

Robert R. Reilly:

General, two things strike me about these large deployments. As you know, it is not the first time that Putin has assembled military combat forces of this size, and due to the fact that Russia does this repeatedly, they can always say we are just doing routine exercises. But it habituates us to seeing forces of that size so close to the Ukraine border that should Putin at one point decide to really move militarily, we will be caught blind. We will not know that this time he is moving. And if he does move, no one knows the capabilities of U.S. military forces and generally NATO military forces in Europe better than you because of your long service there. How long would it take NATO to assemble a force significant enough to counter that move?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

Well, of course you touch on two or three critical points. First, you are correct that the Russians have demonstrated the ability to move a lot of stuff real far, real fast. And so key for deterrence is for us to demonstrate our ability to move as fast or faster than them to convey, and this is part of that competition, to convey that we are prepared, do not make a mistake or miscalculation. And right now we still have a lot of challenges with being able to move around Europe as fast or faster than Russian Federation forces.

Secondly, during this big exercise and deployments that they did a few weeks ago, of course they will have learned from how Ukrainian forces reacted, how we reacted, and so on. And third, of course their movement times now will be much quicker in the future because most of the heavy stuff is in place. As you know, the logistics is what takes a long time, moving ammunition, supplies, hospitals, as you mentioned, the maintenance infrastructure. Getting that set is what takes a long time. Bringing in paratroopers or infantry units or even tank units, you can do that pretty fast, so the stuff that takes a long time is actually already in place.

Now, your second point is a very good one. Part of this series of exercises does cause us to become numb to what they are doing and of course we have the Zapad exercise coming up in September. Zapad means west, so this is an exercise that happens every four years in the Western Military District. They have four major military districts. They just added a fifth for the Northern Fleet, which is the Arctic, but [there are] four geographic military districts and each year one of those is the centerpiece for their exercises. This year it happens to be the West, Zapad. And so when you think about [it], that is going to be another, massive exercise, and by the way, none of that is illegal.

The problem is that none of it is transparent. They routinely flaunt the agreements to which they are signatories about requirements to be transparent. If an exercise has over twelve thousand five hundred participants, you are supposed to notify Vienna, the OSCE, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, invite observers, all of these things. They never do that because they will frankly just be totally dishonest about numbers and what constitutes a particular exercise when in fact there are multiple things all going on at the same time, and so that is part of what we are dealing with.

And unfortunately, there are too many political leaders amongst many of our European allies, and frankly even in Washington, that are unwilling to hold the Kremlin accountable for this kind of stuff. And so therefore we continue to be surprised because we think like Westerners. And I hear people say, ‘Oh, there is no way the Russians would do that. Why would they do that?’ Well, they would not if they thought like we do.

Robert R. Reilly:

When you say hold them accountable, what do you mean?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

So first of all, you have to acknowledge the threat. I live here in Germany. I love being here in Germany. Germany is our most important ally, but Berlin is reluctant to do something like shut down the Nord Stream 2, for example, or do anything else that has severe economic pain for the Kremlin because German business is so important that business ties with Russia.

And France is just as bad in terms of willingness to call out the Kremlin for what it is doing. A good example was earlier this week when Belarus, President Lukashenko, basically hijacked this Ryanair flight that was flying from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania and on board, of course, was a pretty effective opposition journalist, Mr. Roman Protasevich. Lukashenko’s [security forces] knew that and so they created a scenario where the plane was forced to land in Minsk, and this young man and his girlfriend were pulled off of the plane and arrested.

Now, the fact is the whole reason for them bringing the plane down was a fairytale created by Belarus so they could get their hands on this young man. The EU reacted very quickly. I have never seen the EU react that fast. However, all of their condemnation, all of their anger was directed entirely at President Lukashenko and the regime in Belarus.

But as you and many of your listeners will know, the air defense system for Belarus is one hundred percent integrated into the Russian air defense network. There is no way they could have done this, have a Belarusian aircraft go up and force this Ryanair aircraft down without the Kremlin being aware and approving it, impossible. I am not saying the Kremlin orchestrated this, but there is no way it could have happened without the Kremlin allowing it to happen, and so the outcome now is, number one, journalists and opposition figures that might not be inside of Belarus have been told you are now vulnerable, that we may come get you wherever you are.

And number two, this will force Belarus to be even closer to the Kremlin, which is of course exactly what the Kremlin wants.

Robert R. Reilly:

Now, President Biden has said some tough things about Putin, calling him a killer, etc., and criticizing his aggressive actions. On the other hand, the United States has withdrawn the possibility of any sanctions against Nord Stream 2, which is greatly in the favor of Russia, and also President Biden has agreed to meet with President Putin. What do you think of those two things?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

So I am puzzled. I am a little bit disappointed, but I am puzzled. Of course, as an outside observer I do not have all of the conversations and the thinking so what I am going to say here is just my assessment and a little bit of speculation. I was greatly encouraged with the administration’s challenge to the Kremlin from the beginning, I mean even during the campaign candidate Biden and the Democrats had talked about how shameful it was that the previous administration had been so easy on Russia, easy on the Kremlin, so I am thinking, okay, we are going to hold the Kremlin accountable and we are going to bring along our European allies to do the same.

And in fact during his phone call with President Putin, President Biden told him that Ukrainian sovereignty is a priority for the United States. That is a serious policy statement. I was like, wow, I like that. Now, we do not have a strategy for the Black Sea region to underpin that, but at least that was an important policy statement. And then when he is asked the famous question of, “Is Putin a killer?,” because that was to compare him to President Trump’s response to a similar question, President Biden correctly says, “Yes, of course he is a killer.” So I am thinking, alright. And of course you remember how tough Secretary Blinken was on the Chinese when they met in Anchorage, so I was greatly encouraged from the beginning.

But then certain things started to happen.

You mentioned the two U.S. Navy ships that were headed to the Black Sea, but were stopped and they went to our base in Crete, instead of going up into the Black Sea. Now, I do not know all of the thinking and everything that went into that, but the way it looked, of course, to the whole world was the United States backed down based on a phone call or some agreement between the United States and Russia, which again reflects the fact that we do not have a strategy for the Black Sea region where we constantly would have U.S. ships in there within the constraints of the Montreux convention.

Then the next thing that happens of course is as you talked about the offer of a summit from the United States to Russia, and this is against the backdrop of Russia continuing to kill Ukrainian soldiers on the verge of – it looks like they were getting ready to invade Ukraine or certainly that was the perception, they continue to illegally occupy Crimea, and we offer a summit. And then a day before the meeting in Reykjavík between Secretary Blinken and Minister Lavrov, Minister Lavrov says, ‘The Arctic is all ours. This is our land.’

I mean what a slap in the face in a fairly weak or unremarkable response by the United States to that. And then, of course, the final sort of event in this string was the decision to waive the sanctions on Mr. Warnig and Nord Stream 2 AG, the umbrella company. It is basically a Russian company, but it is based in Germany.

All of those things together do not paint a good picture. And I was just in Prague earlier this week. They are very concerned in Eastern Europe and Central Europe that smaller companies are going to be chips in a summit between the Americans and the Russians, that they are going to be left hanging out, so they are understandably concerned.

Now, it could be that the President will be very, very tough on President Putin and they will come out of there maybe something like the famous summit between President Reagan and Gorbachev in Helsinki where they did not agree. You remember Reagan said, ‘No way, we are not going to do it.’ So who knows, maybe something like that will happen here. I do not know, but the fact is I have not seen any pain or promises of pain on the Kremlin inflicted and our allies in Central and Eastern Europe are worried. And I have not seen anything from Berlin, the most important allied capital in Europe. I have not seen any indication from them that they are going to return the goodwill of the administration by putting pressure on the Kremlin to live up to international law and international agreement.

Robert R. Reilly:

As you will recall, General, President Reagan made that famous remark fairly early in his administration when he called the Soviet Union, “the evil empire,” a remark he only said once, but it reverberated. The impression it made was long-lasting, particularly since under his leadership the United States engaged in a major military buildup, so he not only said the words, he got the hardware behind it, and with actions in Libya and elsewhere he showed he was willing to use it. So it is one thing to have military power, the other thing is for what are you going to use it. Of course, we did not, we turned back those two ships from the Black Sea – not use it necessarily militarily, but to send the kinds of messages you talked about.

What strikes me really particularly is I do not know whether President Putin has a grand strategy. I do know that he is particularly adept at taking advantage of targets of opportunity. If he sees a vacuum, poof he moves in. I do not know how good his military is, you would have a better appreciation for that, but he has shown his readiness to engage in limited military [conflict], and he has been tremendously successful in Syria.

President Obama told Assad, ‘time for you to go,’ and Putin’s response was, ‘No, it is not.’ And indeed, by intervening militarily there he saved Assad. So would you rather be an ally of Russia or of the United States? I mean here is a country with an economy the size of Italy, yet it is able to successfully undertake actions such as that that have big effects, and also, obviously, they are involved in Libya and other places. What were you facing as the American commander in Europe? How did you assess the quality of the Russian military after their major modernization effort and build-up? They seem to have some very impressive top of the line military equipment now and a willingness to use them.

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

Well, you make some excellent points, Bob. The modernization effort began in 2007, and since then they have improved capabilities in several areas. They have, of course, improved their air and missile defense, which has always been good. Layers of air defense is a trademark of Russian ground forces and today is no different, so around their frontier, their perimeter, as well as any forces that they might send out, there is always a significant amount of air defense that would make it very difficult for us, that you would have to eliminate that early on before we could take advantage of our own capabilities. They continue to develop long-range precision fires, hypersonic capability, I mean quite an array of serious weapons that could destroy the infrastructure that we need for rapid re-enforcement; airports, seaports, that sort of thing.

One of the areas where I have been particularly impressed is on their electronic warfare capability. They have always been good at it, but for the twenty years that we were focused on Iraq and Afghanistan where we were correctly focused on trying to break up terrorist networks, IED networks, so you are really going after cellphones and those kinds of things, the Russians were continuing modernization of high-end, very powerful electronic warfare capabilities that can jam networks, that can jam radio stations.

And they have a drone capability that is I think in many ways as good as ours. And from what we saw in Ukraine is how a Russian drone could detect communications or through visual and then connect Russian artillery rockets via the drone to strike that target very fast. So that is a serious capability that has implications for us. Now, I will say that the U.S. military and our allies are making the transition from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq to being able to survive in that kind of environment, so we are having to get back to that kind of capability, but that is a real significant capability the Russians have.

The quality of the manpower is still hard for me to judge. About half of the army is still conscripted, so they have got a core of professionals, but it is those same guys who get used everywhere, and of course they also rely on what we could call contractors, mercenaries, or the Wagner Group, that are for the most part former professional Russian soldiers. Now, the ability to move a lot of stuff real far, real fast impresses me, with their large aircraft, rail, but they have a different logistics challenge than we do. We have to move across multiple countries in Europe, across multiple national boundaries, different rail gages. And their movements are all inside Russia. And so frankly, they have a simpler logistics challenge than we do. That is just the way it is, so we have to compensate for that.

But I do want to disagree with one thing you said. It is an easy answer, who would you rather have as an ally, I mean Russia or the United States. Nobody is knocking on the door of the Kremlin, saying please let me back in. Countries are lined up in a queue, wanting to join NATO despite our challenges, despite the problems that are common to any coalition. I think right now Armenia is thinking, ‘What the heck, we have had Russian troops living here since the end of the Cold War and we got no help from them. We got killed by Azerbaijan during the recent conflict.’ So no great help from the Russians there.

I think the biggest advantage that we have in NATO, of course, is that you have got thirty populations, thirty economies, the combined capabilities of all thirty nations, plus partners like Sweden and Finland, for example, or Ukraine and Georgia, that if we are able to coordinate our efforts, if we are able to keep the team together, maintain a cohesion of the alliance, that is the last thing the Kremlin wants. So you mentioned their strategy at the beginning. Their strategy is to make sure that no country on their periphery is able to fully integrate to the West (I do not mean just NATO, I am talking about EU), or have successful economic development. And they use everything they can to expand cracks and seams in the cohesion of the alliance.

Robert R. Reilly:

So back in the Cold War days, we did not have to really puzzle too much over what was the ideology animating the Soviet Union. They were very forthright in teaching that ideology and we had access to it. And if you knew Marxism-Leninism and the history of Russia, you could figure it out. And it also made pretty clear what kind of public diplomacy you ought to engage in to counter that. When it comes to Russia, aside from what you just said of protecting the periphery of Russia, causing division in its potential enemies, do you sense some grand ideology that we understand well enough that we could come up with a coherent information strategy to counter it?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

What a great question. First of all, the ideology is what ever keeps President Putin in power and enriches his circle of friends. I mean that is the truth. And the work that he has done and his oligarchs and friends have done to ensure that there is no viable opposition of a legitimate sort or coming out of any of the institutions; I mean they really have locked down the infrastructure and the population in a very public way, you know the way Mr. Navalny was treated, for example, and other Russian opposition leaders. I mean clearly he is not trying to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He does not care about anybody shaking their fist in Brussels. That is the approach.

Now, I do believe that in his heart of hearts that he wants the idea of a great Russia, getting back to empire, so there is a nationalistic pride that drives part of what he does, but the majority of it is he is an autocrat, a total autocrat, and all of the tools of government are in his employ.

Now, I still believe that Russia a great country [with] incredible people, endless amounts of natural resources, and with the changing nature of the polar ice cap, in the month of February for the first time in history a ship sailed through the Arctic in the month of February, first time ever. Now, it had to follow an icebreaker. But the implications for this – and it is only going to get better in the coming years – [means there will be] more and more transit over the Arctic. And of course, for Russia this for them is an important part of their border region, not only because of the chance to control and influence and make money off of the transit, but anticipation of massive amounts of natural resources that will now be obtainable under the polar ice caps. So this is part of what they are doing.

But the population – I think we have to figure out a way to support them, to look for ways that not every Russian should be punished while we are trying to put the pressure on the Kremlin, but our problem is that we have to get our own house in order first. You know part of what I think made the United States such an effective great power in the post-war era up through certainly to the end of the twentieth century was the iconic United States. I mean what we represented. Nobody ever thought we were perfect, nobody.

And I can remember being stationed as a lieutenant in Germany and hundreds of thousands of protestors and so on, but still, even the biggest protestors all still went to school in the U.S., send their kids to schools in the U.S., [they enjoyed] the American pop culture. There was a high expectation of the United States in all of the things that matter, and I do not think people look at us that way anymore. Even though millions of people still risk their lives each year trying to get to the United States, I do not know that we are as admired and that makes it a little bit more difficult to compete in the information space. You know we have a better story to tell, but it is a little harder to tell it now.

Robert R. Reilly:

That is a very powerful point you have just made. I personally felt that lack in some of the public diplomacy work I did most recently back at the Voice of America for a short period of time. We are not putting out a coherent message. We seem to be pumping out a domestic agenda or confusion in our domestic agenda overseas, which can only confuse the audiences we are trying to reach about what we are representing, and it seems to me to reinforce a general perception, most certainly held in China, that the United States is a declining power.

Now, if I can bounce back just for a moment to the point that you made, that countries are lining up to become allies of the United States. And indeed, we have many allies, which leads to the question, are we not overextended given our capabilities? Just recently the only aircraft carrier we had in the Pacific or South China Seas had to withdraw to engage in operations assisting the withdrawal of our troops in Afghanistan. So there is no aircraft carrier in the western Pacific. That sends a little message too, does it not, that our capabilities fall far short of our commitments? Do you think that is true?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

Well, there is no doubt that we have more challenges and requirements than we have resources even with the biggest defense budget in history and all of that. The fact is we do not get to choose our threats. I mean they are out there. And the Chinese and Russians are certainly not inhibited by COVID. Those threats are still out there. The Iranians are continuing to improve their ability to make a nuclear weapon. All of this is continuing. So we have got to figure out how do you protect our interests, protect our populations, protect our friends given increased threats. And so I do think the administration is correct to emphasize the importance of the alliance, to emphasize the importance of allies, because we do not have the capacity to do anything by ourselves. So emphasis [should be] on Europe taking on more responsibility, being a real, strong European pillar, not a European pillow, being able to deter Russian aggression without a significant American presence.

Bob, I hope I am wrong but I really do believe we are going to be in a kinetic conflict in the Pacific in about the next five years, based on how the Chinese smashed Hong Kong, smashed democracy there, and we did not do anything and even UK did not really do anything about it, the well-known activities in the South China Sea, the increasingly aggressive language about Taiwan, and I think the Chinese do see us as a declining power and that we are stressed. Our great navy, I mean if you think we have ten aircraft carriers that really means you have five because they are not all ten underway all the time. That is not feasible. So all of a sudden five aircraft carriers for the world. It is not a lot and our air force [is] completely overstretched, the army [is] completely overstretched, but yet as is always the case with every administration you have got other competing demands, domestic requirements, get the economy going again, all of these things.

So in my view the answer is not bigger defense, it is making sure that what we have is delivering on full potential. But it is also about allies and I think this is the essential step for us, is shoring up our alliance and that includes the Pacific, by the way of course; India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, get Philippines back on board, Vietnam becoming increasingly important. I think this is the key for us.

Robert R. Reilly:

A number of strategic thinkers have pointed out that during the Cold War, starting with the Nixon administration, the United States undertook efforts to sort of pry China away from Russia so that Russia would be faced with a greater problem of what every nation’s nightmare is: a two-front war. And that at least in the short term proved to be a very successful policy. Today, it would seem to be tremendously in our interests to disengage Russia from any military condominium with China because such a condominium creates huge problems for us. From your deep experience in dealing with the Russian military and what ideas might be driving it, do you think there is any set of actions that could be undertaken that would achieve that end?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

Well, that is the big strategic question, is how closely are they or would they cooperate or collaborate. They will never be allies, I could see them coming to some agreements for convenience but I think China, when they look at the map, they see and they look at Russia, they think, okay, half of that is ours. That is Siberia. And I think they want to get that back one day. And of course they need the natural resources that Russia sits on top of, so in many ways I think they look at Russia as a gigantic gas station for them and then they think about for Chinese economy, ships going over the Arctic.

You know when you start talking about major trade, if you can shave off five, seven, ten days off of transit, I mean that is a lot of money and so you know the biggest embassy in Iceland is the Chinese embassy because they are anticipating that and they are trying to get a foothold in Greenland. So this is part of this competition as well. So I am not so sure that the Chinese and the Russians are in close collaboration. I would not doubt it, but I am not so sure. Now, I think more likely would be something of opportunity. If the United States was fixed in a kinetic conflict that the Kremlin might see opportunity in the Baltics, for example, or vice versa if the United States had to respond to something in Europe or in the Middle East more than what we are doing now, would China see opportunity in Taiwan.

I think that President Xi is on the clock. People talk about, oh, China thinks they have long term view, five year plan, fifty-year plan. President Xi, I think he is on a personal clock and that he wants his legacy to be that he got Taiwan back. And then when you look at the demographic of the Chinese population, they are not destined for greatness forever and so I think we have to compete.

You know part of the Chinese advantage in Europe is that we have failed to compete there, so I can understand why smaller Central and Eastern European countries and African countries welcome Chinese investment, because they need improved infrastructure, railroads, bridges, ports, highways, etc. and the Chinese say we can do that. Now, it is going to cost you and we are going to bring in Chinese labor, but because the West, including the United States, has not competed there in the past, now we are in a situation where you have China controlling extensive amounts of infrastructure in Europe that we would need in case of a conflict in Europe.

I am a little uneasy about that, but it does look like we are starting to pushback now. Recently there was a nuclear power plant in Romania that China was going to do. The United States now has that contract and we are doing the same thing in the Czech Republic and in Poland. This is what I mean about competition.

Robert R. Reilly:

Let us spend the rest of our time talking about that great power competition with China. I have asked some China experts why President Xi has not simply, quietly continued to develop China’s growing military capabilities, and waited for five years, a decade, after which it would be too late for the United States to do anything. And the response I have consistently gotten is, oh, he thinks it is already too late and that is why he is not shy about aggressively stating China’s strategic goals, that the century of humiliation is over, and that the Nine-Dash Line or most of the South China Sea is ours, and through our artificial islands (which we have militarized), we claim those waters as China’s waters now. So that is the assessment, [that] we have declined to such an extent that he is not deterred, and that would play right into your expectation that there will be a kinetic war with China over Taiwan within the next five years, so that is a pretty frightening prospect.

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

Yes, well, this famous Nine-Dash Line that you are talking about is an example of their total disregard for international law because they know that so many countries, including the United States, are hooked on the Chinese market, that we need that Chinese market for our own exports, and then of course, all of us, including the United States, import so much from China, including an awful lot of medicine, for example.

So this is going to take some really, really strong leadership in the United States, and with our European allies in particular, working with the European Union and with the UK to compete economically. I mean that means American consumers have to be willing to pay a little bit more if we are not going to purchase [and] import Chinese products, for example. Think of all of the stuff that we have in our homes that is imported from China, whether it is components or end items. That is going to be a significant ask of consumers, but there needs to be a strategy that lays out how we are going to use economic means to force China to be transparent, to have a level playing field, to allow businesses from the West to compete in China in a fair way, and I think that only happens through economic leverage. And that means [Berlin], Paris, London, Washington have all got to be working together.

Now, unfortunately, I think there are a lot of American businesses right now that have huge amounts of money going into China because it is obviously a very lucrative market. Beijing knows that, so this is going to be tough, tough decisions by any administration and the Congress on how we deal with that, this competition.

If we do not [make those decisions], then you end up being in a position where the Chinese know that the Americans and the Germans and the Brits do not want to risk all of those things, and so therefore they feel emboldened, they can go ahead and take Taiwan, and know that at least most of Europe and probably even the United States will be really, really angry, but we are not going to go cold turkey on Chinese imports.

Robert R. Reilly:

It is interesting that one area in which U.S. foreign policy has been consistent between administrations, that is the Trump administration and now the Biden administration, is exactly on China, that the tough talk from the Biden administration about China, about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other things is consistent. Now, I imagine you are encouraged by that. I certainly am [encouraged]. The question, though, arises: what are you going to do about it and what do you have to do it about with? In other words, do we have the military capabilities to deter their [aggression] any longer?

You mentioned the allies we need in Europe, and certainly we need allies in Asia, and again, what Japan seems to be doing, what Australia has undertaken is very encouraging. I mean these countries really have nowhere else to turn but to the United States, but we need convincing capabilities to convince them that if they step up to the plate, we will be able to back them when it gets kinetic, and the increased Chinese naval activities around the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by Japan and which we recognize as under Japan’s rule, the overt threats and overflights and violations of airspace, which seem to be a daily matter of Chinese aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace. It is getting very aggressive. I am sure they are engaging in this activity to persuade their adversaries, meaning obviously Japan, Taiwan, and the United States that they are ready to go and there is nothing we can do about it. What can we do about it?

Lt. Gen. (ret) Ben Hodges:

It is interesting to think about Chinese capability. For sure, they are modernizing, they are growing, they demonstrate what they have a lot. Their shipbuilding program is particularly impressive, but they have not fought a war since the seventies against Vietnam, and they did not do so well, actually. So it is one thing to have stuff and size, [but] how good is it, how well can they conduct operations? So I am sure that our great navy and air force, and intelligence capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region are paying close attention to that, doing assessments of that.

How much are pilots flying? You know, pilots have got to get a lot of hours it is not like you are just on a racetrack, you are flying at night, doing live fire training, all of these kinds of things. How much have the Chinese actually done in that regard? Probably pretty good, but we do not know.

I also have a sense that the military of China is looking for a fight. I think they feel like, hey, you know, we want to take on the U.S. And I base that on, you know, what is written in professional journals by retired admirals, for example, from the Chinese side, and then, of course, the language coming out of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Clearly, I think Beijing feels emboldened because they are so confident that based on our collective behavior in response to other crises, that we do not have the stomach to bite the bullet economically to inflict the punishment on Beijing economically to the level that needs to be done.

I mean they see how quickly we back down on so many different things, and I think that is why they feel emboldened, which is why, again, I support the administration’s approach in principle on allies, working closely with the European Union, working closely with India, UK, Australia, and Japan to help each other out to compete economically. Otherwise, the Chinese can always play us against each other. So, ultimately, when I talk about great power competition, we have to demonstrate that we can inflict economic pain on the Chinese in order to get back to where we all – I mean everybody can make money here. I mean there are plenty of trade opportunities for everybody, but we have got to work together on this.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, that was, of course, the mistaken idea that economic development in China and trade with China would modify or change the character of the regime, and clearly it has not, it has just given them the resources to pursue their great China dream, so that was a strategic mistake, a misunderstanding of major proportions shared, I should say, bipartisanly. Of course, the economic issues which you just mentioned are key.

Ben Hodges:

By the way, I believed it too. You are exactly right. I completely believed it. I was sure that at the end of the Cold War, Russia was going to love us. We had Russian troops with us in Bosnia. I was sure that, you know, once everybody in China was drinking Coke or Pepsi, and, you know, had KFC, that everything was going to be great, and you are right, it was a strategic miscalculation, certainly by me and plenty of others because we thought like Westerners, you know. We think what Putin does is like, well, he would never do that. Of course, he would not [do that] if he thought like we did, but he does not, and the same thing for the Chinese. They have a different approach.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I really do believe that the reason we did not have a war with the Soviet Union was because of the major military buildup and technological improvements that were undertaken in the Reagan Administration, that convinced the Soviet Union we know because we can actually read the Politburo minutes, that we have got to do something else because we are not going to be able to keep up, that is the Soviet Union thought. So, it strikes me that without a similar effort of a military buildup in regard to the Chinese threat, we are not going to have a military deterrent that deters. And I have not seen the details of the new six trillion-dollar Biden budget, but so far at the military budget at least if you factor in inflation, it is just treading water, there is no increase.

Ben Hodges:

I listened to what Secretary Austin and General Milley said this week in front of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. I mean we still have a massive budget. I think they are going through the right process. I mean this, as you know, this is hard to watch, the budget process, the sausage-making that goes on, and the tension between the Congress and within the Congress and the Department of Defense and the administration, but I have confidence that they are focusing on the things that are needed for the next five, ten, to fifteen years that we will need.

And the Chinese can see this. I mean there is no way they can keep up with the United States. I mean at the end of the day, Chinese technology cannot match United States’ technology and not just in terms of weapon systems, but overall. So, making sure that we are working with our allies, modernizing, retaining capabilities, that it is clear for the Chinese to see that they will not only if they attack but they fail, but it would be in such a painful way that they would never recover. I mean that is what deterrence is all about.

And I think once again, our great navy – you know I love our navy except that one day out of the year. One day out of the year I hate them, but other than that, I love our great navy. And the courage and the professionalism of ships, moving through the South China Sea, through the Taiwan Strait, enforcing freedom of navigation, is such an important part of what we do. The problem is that there are not enough ships behind them. We do not have enough to stay there to dominate, and that is why the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth, British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier, other allies, that is an important part of this.

Robert R. Reilly:

In terms of that naval power, can I ask you a question about the capabilities of the Chinese hypersonic missiles? I asked one retired admiral how worried about those he was, and he said it just means we have to move away further, we cannot get as close as we would because we know we are within the target range of those hypersonic missiles. And, of course, distance does mean something when you finally get into a kinetic exchange. In the long run, perhaps, I hope you are right that American technology will exceed Chinese technology, though just as the Russian, our Russians, are highly capable, intelligent people, so, for sure, are the Chinese. Can you give a brief assessment of what you think of their military capabilities should they choose in the very short future to go for Taiwan?

Ben Hodges:

Well, the big challenge for them with Taiwan, of course, is you have to get to the island, and it is a little bit more than crossing the English Channel, so I mean that is a significant undertaking. Now, I would expect if they ever made this terrible decision, and what I think would be a miscalculation that they could invade Taiwan successfully, of course, the first thing would not be landing craft hitting the beach. It would be a series of things going on in the weeks and months leading up to it on the island of infiltration, cyber, doing everything they can to disrupt the ability of Taiwan and the United States to defend there. So, this would be an extremely sophisticated [series of events].

Now, the Taiwanese are not just going to sit there and wait to get punched in the mouth, obviously, nor is the U.S., but I think what China has to worry about, and this is why initiative is one of the principles of war, how do we deter [without being] seen as provoking, but yet retain the initiative? And I think what started a few years ago is the correct approach, shoring up our alliances and partnerships with Japan, Australia, India, get the Philippines back on side, Vietnam. I mean there was a reason Secretary Mattis visited Vietnam a lot when he was our Defense Secretary.

Give the Chinese problems to worry about, not sit back and say, okay, we cannot get within 150 miles of the shore or inside the second island chain. That is not the calculation, the calculation is what are they having to worry about, not only if they did decide to attack Taiwan or decide to do something, and demonstrating that we are prepared to inflict significant pain on them.

You know they use their fishing fleet as an arm of the PLA, basically. I mean you remember the reports a few weeks ago of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels basically parked in and around some islands in the Philippines. I mean this this is the kind of stuff they do. They smash up Vietnamese fishing vessels and Philippine fishing vessels. This is where the world has got to hold them accountable for this kind of behavior and use economic tools to stop them.

And I would imagine – you know I am retired now, so I would not claim to have insider knowledge on a lot of technical things, but I am so confident that our planners are looking at all the different vulnerabilities that the Chinese have and that we know what those vulnerabilities are, and then we are prepared to exploit those if necessary. And they are not all military, they are in a variety of different areas.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, as you know, China is very good undertaking a whole of government approaches in their strategy, and Russia is pretty good at that too. We recently did a program with Roger Robinson, who was on President Reagan’s National Security Councils, and one of the primary architects of the economic policy that so weakened the Soviet Union. He was saying that we seem to have a blind spot in the United States over China’s exploitation of American capital markets. We are the largest capital market in the world, and if a nation cannot float issues in our market, they are severely hampered, but we have not undertaken to hamper China in that way. That is just one issue.

I mean these alliances, which you mentioned that are so key, should we be giving Taiwan a better grade of military equipment so that would certainly give China some more to think about? Well, Taiwan is not a third world country. They have got significant capability. I think, of course, the U.S. should continue to support them with the modernized capabilities that they do need, but the real key for Taiwan security is for it to be completely, totally clear in Beijing that the United States is not going to sit by and let them take Taiwan.

I mean the deterrent has to include very clear statements and commitment and, again, making it clear to Beijing that if you did make the terrible mistake of invading Taiwan, you are going to feel unbelievable pain, not just on the forces that you send towards Taiwan but everything else. Economically, you are going to be crippled. Financially, you are going to be crippled. You are going to be isolated by the rest, by Europe and by other countries in the Pacific. And the burden is on the United States to put the team together, to give our allies confidence that if they do participate in that, that we will not leave them exposed. Again, this is this competition, that nations have to make choices about can they count on the United States economically as well as militarily and diplomatically.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I agree with you. I think we would have to convincingly demonstrate that we have a whole-of-government approach that can achieve the very things you just laid out. I feel a great edginess now and I will not say you have contributed to that feeling of edginess, but I do believe because of the possibility of a tremendous miscalculation on the part of China or Russia because we have not made clear the very things you just spoke of, that we are in a pre-war situation.

Ben Hodges:

Well, you know I was asked a little while ago, a couple years ago, about war with China, and I was thinking maybe 10 years or so, and I based that not on any special intelligence but on kind of things I was seeing, but also I was thinking how long will it take us to develop the capabilities, make sure we have all the capabilities in place to effectively deter them, thinking back to the years between the First and Second World Wars when the United States, fortunately, through the conduct of especially our great navy, through the conduct of extensive wargaming, realized we have to have aircraft carriers. Of course, it took years to develop, not just the actual ships but the tactics, all the stuff that goes into naval aviation. And so, that is where I thought had they started in time, fortunately, to have enough capability to help us survive the opening disasters of the Second World War?

Now, as I have paid more and more attention to what is happening in the Indo-Pacific region, that is why I narrowed it down to five years, and as it turns out, Admiral Davidson, the outgoing Commander of Indo-Pacific Command, he said six years. And the guy that relieved him also said six years, and they certainly have access to much more insight and intelligence than I do, so I would defer to them. Either way, it is not far off. That does not mean it is inevitable, but if we act now, make sure we have the right capabilities, make sure we have the allies, and make sure we have developed the economic tools necessary to be able to inflict severe pain on China so that China does not make that terrible decision, then I think we do not have to have a conflict in six years.

Robert R. Reilly:

I am afraid we are out of time. General Hodges, I would like to thank you for this very frank assessment of great power competition and what the United States needs to do to compete. I want to thank everyone for watching and I encourage you to go to the Westminster Institute website to see the other videos and lectures that we provide on subjects such as Russia, China, the Middle East, and other things. Thank you for joining us today. I am Bob Reilly, your host.