23 November 2020

Historian, Strategist, Reservist, Think-Tanker: Interdisciplinary Revelations from The Charles Edel Bookshelf

Historian, professor, policy expert, think tanker, naval reservist… my former Naval War College colleague Dr. Charles Edel has compiled an impressive range of professional experiences and has far-reaching insights to show for it. Charlie has policy experience, academic training, and wide-ranging experience in and knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region. He has worked on, written about, and taught America’s Asia strategy for over a decade.

As an undergrad at Amherst, I enjoyed double-majoring in political science and history, and have subsequently wished for more interdisciplinary efforts informing current policies—history has so much to teach us beyond the details of specific happenings, inherently interesting though they may be. For all these reasons, I’ve greatly valued the chance to learn from Charlie, and I want to make it as convenient as possible for you to do so as well!

Dr. Charles Edel is Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and non-resident Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Previously, he was Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, and served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff from 2015–17. In that role, he advised Secretary of State John Kerry on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Edel has served in the U.S. Navy Reserves since 2014.

Edel worked at Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies as a Henry Luce Scholar and was also awarded the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship. He is the co-author of The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019) and author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (2014).

In addition to his scholarly publications, Edel’s writings have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York TimesForeign AffairsForeign PolicyThe American Interest, and various other outlets. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Yale University, and received a B.A. in Classics from Yale College.

Areas of expertise

  • American history
  • U.S. politics and elections
  • U.S. foreign policy, defense, and strategy
  • U.S. grand strategy
  • Asian geopolitics
  • U.S. strategy in Asia
  • U.S.-Asia relations


Charles Edel and Siddharth Mohandas, Enhancing Forward Defense: The Role of Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 15 October 2020).

USSC senior fellow Charles Edel and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Siddharth Mohandas write that even though U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific are essential to meeting the challenge of a rising, assertive China, U.S. defense policy has not adapted to the reality of a changed strategic environment or the evolving needs and defense priorities of key allies. In the article, published by CNAS, Edel and Mohandas argue that the new National Defense Strategy presents an opportunity for the next secretary of defense to do three things to remedy this.

The Bottom Line

Even though U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific are essential to meeting the challenge of a rising, assertive China, U.S. defense policy has not adapted to the reality of a changed strategic environment or the evolving needs and defense priorities of key allies.

The new National Defense Strategy (NDS) presents an opportunity for the next secretary of defense to do three things to remedy this:

  • Work with allies and partners to pursue more potent and sustainable defense capabilities.
  • Seek a more geographically distributed, networked, and federated force posture.
  • Marshal and organize the existing efforts of America’s allies and partners to effectively meet the unique challenges posed by China.


As strategic competition with China moves to the forefront of national security policy, an effective next NDS requires a clear plan for marshaling and organizing the efforts of U.S. allies and partners in new ways. The scale of the challenge China poses—its burgeoning defense budget, investments in high-technology warfare, ability to operate close to its own shores, effective deployment of gray zone tactics, and use of economic coercion, among other things—means that success will require a broad coalition. Traditional allies and new partners will need to work together innovatively with the United States to oppose illegitimate Chinese behavior and expansionism.

Alliance management is difficult in the best of times. However, today the U.S.-constructed security architecture in Asia faces unprecedented challenges, which include questions about U.S. reliability, pressure from a rising China, the impact of COVID-19, and allies’ potentially more independent defense strategies. These multiply the complexity of the task for U.S. defense planners. At a time when increasing regional risks necessitate more allied coordination and synchronization of effort, the United States needs to develop a more effective framework through which to lead and empower its allies and partners. … … …


Charles Edel, “Lessons from ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ for Today,” Made by History Perspective, Washington Post, 15 August 2020.

The war in the Pacific holds the keys to addressing our problems today.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to American forces in World War II. According to the novelist James Michener in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tales of the South Pacific, “the intensity, the inevitability, the grindingness of [The Pacific War] were too great for any one man to comprehend. It changed lives in every country in the world.” But even as the requirements of a world war have faded from contemporary memory, Michener’s novel is just as relevant for a country grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and the push for racial justice. It shows how mass mobilization, national sacrifice and international cooperation were required to defeat a deadly enemy and offers a powerful statement about an imperfect nation, split between its uplifting democratic principles and its deep racial prejudices.

Michener began writing what would be become “Tales of the South Pacific” in a Quonset hut, nestled next to a primitive airstrip in New Caledonia. Writing in his free time from his duties in the U.S. Navy, he attempted to “to report the South Pacific as it actually was,” noting that “nothing in the manuscript is entirely fictitious.” He had a lot of material to draw on. Vanuatu became one of the largest U.S. bases in the South Pacific, and Michener’s official duties took him throughout the islands on inspection tours, supply runs and dispatch deliveries.

This travel gave Michener firsthand access to the devastation wrought by the Japanese, the heroism of the residents of the region and the great campaigns of the Americans. He became so well acquainted with the history and culture of the area and personally involved with so many of the Navy’s operations, that the Navy asked him to write the history of the war in the Pacific.

Those nonfiction efforts helped fuel his literary endeavor. His intent was to tell it like it was from his perspective as a White American fighting in the Pacific. …

To defeat Japan, America needed to project power all the way across the Pacific Ocean. Fighting across this vast expanse was a staggering undertaking. For the war effort, American industry, converted almost overnight from civilian to wartime production, produced 1,556 naval ships, 5,777 merchant vessels, 8,410 jeeps, 299,293 airplanes, 2,383,311 trucks, 6.5 million rifles and 40 billion bullets between 1940 and 1945. In the Pacific, America had to traverse more than 7,000 miles of vast ocean and, as it did so, it built 111 major airstrips and 441 piers, tanks for the storage of 100 million gallons of gasoline and housing for 1.5 million men. All told, several million Americans served in the Pacific Theater, and more than 100,000 were killed in action.

In the end, it was mass mobilization and national sacrifice that made it possible to defeat a deadly and global challenge. …

That victory also depended on international alliances. While the Pacific War is frequently remembered as a solo American act, Michener’s novel is as a reminder that Australians, New Zealanders, Brits and Pacific Islanders fought and died alongside their American allies. America won the war in the Pacific and it did so not on its own but as part of a coalition that sacrificed, strove and achieved together in a spirit of collective resolve. … … …


Zack Cooper and Charles Edel, “Australia Is Having A Strategic Revolution, And It’s All About China,” Commentary, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, 22 July 2020.

At the beginning of July, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that “our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War.” He wrote that in the introduction to his government’s “Defence Strategic Update” and “Force Structure Plan,” which many are hailing as a fundamental shift in Australia’s strategic approach.

Australian defense planning might seem remote, but the shift could alter the basic security dynamic in the Indo-Pacific region—and correspondingly, the U.S. approach to competition in this region. The questions now is whether Washington will notice the significant change in its most trusted Pacific ally’s posture, whether it will choose to cooperate with Canberra’s efforts to pull off its new strategy, and whether it will treat this as a useful model for other allies and partners.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update is a revision of Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper. The quick revision signifies that Australian leaders believe their security environment has rapidly deteriorated. Although the documents seldom call out Beijing specifically, the cause of the erosion is hardly a mystery. The strategic update notes: “Military modernisation in the Indo-Pacific has accelerated faster than envisaged.” Asian defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has actually decreased over the last five years. Only in China has there been a serious increase in overall defense spending.

It is not only China’s military capabilities, which it has been building for decades, that have caused anxiety. Rather, it is their increasingly aggressive use that has caused a growing sense of alarm. In just the last few months, Beijing has asserted control over Hong Kong, intruded into Taiwan’s airspace, trained guns on the Philippine Navy, harassed Malaysian vessels, sunk a Vietnamese fishing ship, rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel, reignited a deadly border conflict with India, and conducted cyberattacks and economic coercion against Australia.

It was against this backdrop that Morrison took the stage late last month to argue that Australians cannot afford to ignore what is occurring around, and to, them. At a time when governments have pumped massive resources into economic stabilization efforts, calling for more defense spending presents a challenging case. Yet given China’s aggression around its periphery, Morrison argued that investing in defense is both necessary and stabilizing.

The Australian government has therefore promised additional investment into defense, greater capability to deter hostile states, and more focus on Australia’s immediate region. Morrison laid out 270 billion Australian dollars ($190 billion) in defense spending over the next 10 years, a commitment that will grow defense spending to 2 percent of Australia’s GDP by 2020-2021.

This announcement promises to reorient Australia’s strategy around enhanced deterrent capabilities, particularly longer-range striking capabilities. This approach also acknowledges increasing risks—that might result in Australia having to go to war and fight on its own for a prolonged period (hence, a call for stockpiling more fuel and munitions). Other key initiatives include enhancing cybersecurity and space capabilities, fielding underwater surveillance systems, growing the military’s size, and boosting capabilities to counter hybrid warfare that combines political and military forms of coercion. … … …


Charles Edel and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “The 5 Ways U.S.-China Competition Is Hardening,” Foreign Policy, 18 May 2020.

The pandemic has accelerated preexisting tensions—and there’s no slowdown in sight.

Dr. Charles Edel has co-authored an article in Foreign Policy with Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper discussing the five key ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated preexisting tensions between the United States and China. This article discusses the related military competition, economic decoupling, and technology to the future order and information competition…

That U.S.-China relations have plummeted over the course of the pandemic is no secret. An internal Chinese government think tank report, which leaked this week, even warned China’s top leaders that there was increasing risk of the U.S.-China relationship sliding into conflict.

But why exactly is U.S.-China competition hardening at this moment? After all, foreign-policy analysts often argue that despite their tensions, Washington and Beijing should still be able to cooperate on global issues where their interests align, such as pandemics and climate change. The COVID-19 crisis has ravaged both countries; that it should cause their strained relationship to spiral further was not a foregone conclusion.

Of course, before the coronavirus pandemic, experts in the United States and China appeared to be converging around the idea that the other would be its primary political competitor for decades to come. Major international shocks can break prior trends of this sort, changing the course of events. But they can also intensify forces already in motion—and that is precisely what has been happening in at least five areas in which competition was already substantial, with few countervailing and stabilizing forces in sight. … … …


Charles Edel and James Carouso, “Australia Not As Vulnerable to Beijing’s Trade Threats As It Appears,” Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 2020.

If Australian-Chinese relations weren’t already rocky enough, Beijing just gave Canberra 10 days to explain why China shouldn’t impose tariffs of up to 80 per cent on Australian barley exports.

China claims that Australian farmers receive government subsidies, thereby unfairly competing against Chinese barley producers and running afoul of WTO agreements. This is notwithstanding the fact that Chinese agriculture is among the most subsidised in the world, and Australian the least. It is questionable timing, given the recent threats of economic retaliation from the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

Since 32.6 per cent of Australian exports go to China, Beijing has the ability to act on these threats. But Australia is not as vulnerable to this coercion as it appears.

Trade theory supports the logic of the bilateral trade relationship. Australia produces the iron ore, coal, gas, wheat and other raw materials that China relies on to remain the world’s factory and feed its 1.3 billion people. But at the same time, it would be difficult for China to source alternatives for many of these commodities. New iron or coal mines are not opened quickly, and Chinese investors have an enormous financial stake in Australian production facilities.

Furthermore, many of these commodities are traded in open markets and are purchased under long-term contracts by customers who appreciate Australia’s reliability. Recall that in November 2018, China made identical threats against Australian barley in the wake of Australia’s Pacific Step-Up Policy before backing off.

In his comments last month, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, notably did not mention commodities in his threat about Chinese consumers potentially boycotting Australian goods. Nor did he threaten a government-led boycott of Australian goods and services as this would have violated the trade agreements between the two countries. Instead, he simply stated that the “Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now,” and suggested that Chinese tourists and Chinese students “may have second thoughts” about travelling to “such a country that is not so friendly to China.” These threats, of course, were in response to Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia is not alone in having its exports threatened by the Chinese government. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Norway and others have all had their trade with China disrupted after making political decisions that angered Beijing. Late last year, China’s ambassador to Denmark threatened a free trade agreement with the Faroe Islands if the Danish outpost refused to sign a 5G contract with Huawei. In Germany, China’s ambassador stated that if Germany decided “to exclude Huawei, this will have consequences. You sell a million cars per year in China. We may also declare them unsafe.” And earlier this year, the Chinese embassy in Prague warned the Czech President’s office of retaliation against Czech companies if a senior lawmaker visited Taiwan, writing that “Czech companies who have economic interests in China will have to pay.”

These threats — veiled or otherwise — are not usually acted upon by China. But Philippine bananas and tourism, Norwegian salmon, Australian wine, and a host of Korean and Japanese products have all been targeted.

As a matter of good business practice, non-commodity companies with a high reliance on China must take seriously the possibility of these threats being implemented. And with both of the major Australian political parties taking an increasingly similar approach to the bilateral relationship with China, companies should recognise that Canberra’s actions to protect the sovereignty of Australia will continue to produce irritants for Beijing.

The answer for the private sector is obvious, even if it is challenging. Greater diversification of export markets will lessen the coercive power Beijing — or, any other country — can exert on Australia, and reduce risks for Australian businesses. … … …


Charles Edel, “Democracies Need Alliances to Secure Vital Supply Chains,” The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 6 May 2020.

For the past 30 years, geoeconomics has trumped geopolitics. The relative stability of international relations, driven by the absence of great-power rivalry and ideological competition, created an environment conducive to global economic growth. Opening markets and lowering barriers to investment and trade across borders seemed to be in everyone’s interests.

In such a benign geopolitical atmosphere, consensus emerged on the best way to do business. Supply chains stretched across the world, and companies in developed countries found it cheaper to source the components of manufactured goods in China. Globalisation allowed for ‘just in time’ delivery, with companies keeping inventories low and precisely calculating supply and demand.

However, the broad acceptance of this model obscured the increased risk to and potential loss in resilience of supply chains.

The onset of COVID-19 and the glaring vulnerabilities the pandemic has revealed in national capabilities have made clear that the current international economic model is insufficient to meet the threats nations face in an era of hardening international geopolitical competition.

Before the pandemic, there was increasing talk in Canberra, Washington and elsewhere about the need to diversify supply chains, build better economic resilience among democratic nations, and tighten coordination among allies to enable them to resist China’s state-led economic and political coercion.

This discussion had only recently begun gaining steam, but it has now burst into public view because the debate is no longer theoretical. Developed countries like Australia and the United States now realise that they are dependent on China not just for education and tourism dollars, but also for the production of essential items such as healthcare equipment and pharmaceuticals.

The national security community’s long-held concern about overdependence on Chinese supply chains and production is now shared more broadly than ever. … … …


Abraham DenmarkCharles Edel, and Siddharth Mohandas, “Same As It Ever Was: China’s Pandemic Opportunism On Its Periphery,” War on the Rocks, 16 April 2020.

While Washington and Beijing’s overheated rhetoric and mutual recriminations amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are grabbing headlines, equally important is what has been playing out across China’s eastern and southern peripheries over the past several weeks. At a moment when the Chinese Communist Party has been touting the generosity of its approach to COVID-19, there has been a marked increase in the number of incidents between China and its neighbors. Beijing has used its naval and paramilitary forces as well as its increasingly sophisticated information operations to ratchet up tensions, probe responses, and see how much it can get away with.

This raises the question of what exactly China is up to. Has Beijing truly embraced a new approach of cooperation with its neighbors? Is it trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 mess to assert its interests more aggressively? Or is this simply an extension — albeit an opportunistic one — of its pre-pandemic strategy?

The novel coronavirus pandemic has not curtailed geopolitics — in fact, it seems to be intensifying preexisting tensions. Understanding if and how China’s foreign policy has shifted is critical for assessing what is happening along China’s periphery and what Beijing might do next. Answering these questions is necessary for the United States and its allies to fashion a proper response. This, in turn, demands understanding what Beijing was doing before the crisis and thinking through what might actually signal a significant shift toward a more confrontational foreign policy. … … …


Charles Edel, “A Wartime Footing,” The American Interest, 6 April 2020.

America’s experience in WWII can and should inform our response to the coronavirus.

Shortages of critical medical supplies and hoarding of toilet paper, small businesses forced to close their doors, and unemployment skyrocketing. We are in a time of profound uncertainty and collectively feeling deep anxiety about our ability to meet the challenges we face.

In the midst of this, we are witnessing a highly mixed reaction from governments around the world. Some leaders seem to have lived up to the moment—issuing sober calls for calm, informing their citizens about the nature of the threat, and laying out a clear path. Others seem to be passive observers, merely reacting to unfolding events—garbled in their public statements, hesitant to take decisive actions, and unclear of what to do. And another set of leaders have performed abysmally—refusing to take responsibility, blaming others, and failing to calm an anxious public.

But for all the variety in national responses, one constant has been the call for a wartime footing. The French President Emmanuel Macron last week announced that “nous sommes en guerre”—we are at war. Virtually every country in the world has now issued a version of that declaration. Such calls historically have been meant to mobilize society and empower governments to do things that in ordinary times would be inconceivable. They are also meant to remind citizens that no matter how grave today’s challenges seem, there is a precedent for how democratic societies have weathered storms in the past.

Controlling the spread of the coronavirus is not the same as fighting a world war or contending with an economic depression. Nevertheless, there are lessons from America’s past that can frame how we think about this seemingly unprecedented challenge. The analogy is of course imperfect. We are not facing the outbreak of foreign hostilities and our economic fundamentals are sound. But as our national conversation turns toward mobilizing the full resources of the state, our shared history can help guide what we ask of ourselves, and what we demand of our governments. … … …


Charles Edel, “Four Theories of Modern China,” The American Interest 15.3 (21 November 2019).

What really drives China today—is it Xi Jinping himself, the Belt & Road Initiative, old habits of statecraft, or the regime’s authoritarian nature? Four recent books help us sort through the morass.

Dr. Charles Edel surveys four recent works examining the role, ambitions and trajectory of modern China. He finds that although Elizabeth Economy, Nadège Rolland, Sulmaan Wasif Khan, and Ma Jian all apply different lenses to China, there are common themes of shifting Chinese aspirations, expanding confidence on the international stage, and the increasing centrality of the CCP that permeate them all.

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

Elizabeth C. Economy

Oxford University Press, 2018, 360 pp., $27.95

China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative

Nadège Rolland

The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017, 208 pp., $34.95

Haunted by Chaos: Chinese Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping

Sulmaan Wasif Khan

Harvard University Press, 2018, 336 pp., $35.00

China Dream

Ma Jian

Chatto & Windus, 2018, 208 pp., $19.09

“There is no easy way to understand China,” the preeminent China historian Jonathan Spence wrote in 1990. Opening his comprehensive work, The Search for Modern China, Spence observed that “for a long time China was a completely unknown quantity to those living in the West.” That had changed, he suggested, but there were still enough questions to “keep us in a state of bewilderment as to China’s real nature.”

Thirty years later, the United States finds itself in the midst of a generational debate on China. Sitting at the heart of that debate are the same fundamental issues about China’s nature and direction that Spence raised three decades ago.

Seeking to answer these questions, three recent works of non-fiction and, surprisingly, one novel stand out in their ability to interpret modern China. Ranging in topic from Xi Jinping’s effect on Chinese society, to an examination of the Belt and Road Initiative, to an analysis of changes in Chinese grand strategy over the past hundred years, to the psychological effects of living under an increasingly authoritarian regime, these books were written by leading thinkers with deep knowledge of and experience in dealing with China. And while their focus and approaches vary considerably, they all seek to explain the nature of the modern Chinese state. … … …


Charles Edel, “A Narrow Path for Asia’s Middle Powers,” The Australian Financial Review, 8 November 2019.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Scylla was a deadly beast who lived on one side of a narrow channel of water. On the other side dwelt the sea monster Charybdis. The two were equally dangerous, and sailing too close to either meant destruction and probably death. For Odysseus, steering safely though the middle passage required navigational skill and extreme caution.

At this week’s East Asia Summit in Bangkok, the resonance of the ancient Greek metaphor is obvious. Can the region’s middle powers – Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and others – navigate between two equally dangerous monsters, the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America?

In the past, common wisdom held that safety was found in not choosing one side or the other, and that all great powers were equally dangerous. Yet it is increasingly clear that those assumptions no longer hold. Several factors suggest that while many of these nations may continue to hedge in public, they may need to make other choices in private.

However much these countries worry about America, and especially the White House’s erraticism, the more pressing question is how to deal with a rising and increasingly assertive China. Fears of American abandonment and inattention have long pervaded Asian capitals and will continue regardless of America’s actions, because Washington is so often focused on events elsewhere in the world. But there is no escaping Beijing.

Moreover, the increasingly assertive turn in Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping has blurred the distinction between countries on the front line and those less affected. Japan has seen continuous pressure exerted by Chinese maritime forces to alter maritime boundaries. Australia has been on the receiving end of a widespread campaign of political interference run by Beijing’s United Front Work Department intended to shape and condition its sovereign political decisions.

South Korea was punished by a slowdown in Chinese tourism and the ejection of South Korean businesses from China after Seoul installed a missile defence system of which Beijing disapproved. The Philippines, which attempted to check Beijing’s ambiguous and expansive claims in the South China Sea by submitting the dispute to an international court of arbitration, has been subjected to an ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation of its fishing fleets by China’s maritime militia and coast guard. Vietnam, which has challenged incursions into its territorial waters, has been on the receiving end of cyber attacks.

This partial list only underscores the larger point that as Beijing’s power has grown, so too has its ability to affect more countries in more ways. … … …


Charles Edel, “How Should Universities Respond to China’s Growing Presence on Their Campuses?A ChinaFile Conversation, 4 November 2019.

Over the last several months, opponents of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have clashed with protest supporters at universities across the world. In Australia and New Zealand, pro-Beijing students have occasionally shoveddoxed, and threatened peaceful protesters. In some cases, these activities seem to have been directed by Chinese embassies and consulates, while others appear to have been spontaneous actions, undertaken by students from mainland China.

Meanwhile, in mid-October, the London School of Economics suspended a plan to launch a China program funded by Eric X. Li, a Shanghai businessman known for his pro-Chinese Communist Party views. In Belgium, the former head of a Confucius Institute was recently accused of spying and banned from entering Europe’s 26-country Schengen area.

Such events have prompted larger concerns that as China’s power grows, so too has its ability to shape, suppress, and censor speech around the world. This has raised alarm at the prospect that various forms of pressure emanating from China’s government could erode the foundations of liberal education and democratic debate.

How should universities encourage respectful dialogue on contentious issues involving China, while at the same time fostering an environment free of intimidation, harassment, and violence? And how should university administrators and governments involve themselves in this process? … … …


Charles Edel, “Democracy is Fighting for its Life,” Foreign Policy, 10 September 2019.

Around the world, political freedom isn’t just slipping away—it’s getting dragged down by fervent enemies.

It is common today to speak of a crisis of democracy, but such language underrates the challenge at hand. American democracy faces not one, but three distinct and connected crises. There is an ongoing assault on democratic norms and values, which has led to the coarsening of the U.S. social fabric and the erosion of unspoken, but vitally important, norms that provide the guardrails of self-government. There is a sense of displacement, dislocation, and despair among large numbers of Americans who feel that the democratic system has grown increasingly unresponsive to their needs and that government is less willing to advocate for their interests. Finally, there is an onslaught by authoritarian powers in Beijing and Moscow, which are using new forms of technology to reach into democratic societies, exacerbate internal tensions, and carve out illiberal spheres of influences.

Failing to see that these crises are connected diminishes Americans’ ability to understand the full scope of the challenge. Alternatively, concentrating on only the part of the challenge most affecting their own interests gives them at best a partial understanding of what is occurring and hampers our ability to address these connected challenges. To begin to tackle these challenges requires first a sufficiently broad, and accurate, diagnosis of what exactly is afflicting, and what is attacking, democracy.

Larry Diamond’s new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, attempts to do just that. Diamond, perhaps the world’s leading authority on democracy, is ideally suited for such a task. Equally adept—and prominent—in academia, the think tank world, and policy circles, Diamond is a professor at Stanford University, the author or editor of dozens of books on democracy, and the founder of the Journal of Democracy. He has written about democracy in the developing world, the impact of social media on democracy, and, most recently, co-chaired an authoritative study on the role of Beijing’s expanding influence operations inside the United States. Diamond’s entire career has been centered on studying, advocating for, and improving democracy. In the field of democracy studies, Diamond has long been a leading authority, and what he has to say matters.

“Late in a lifetime spent studying and promoting democracy,” Diamond writes, “I would like to be able to say that things are heading in the right direction. They are not.” … … …


Charles Edel, “How the Declaration of Independence Became a Beacon to the World,” Washington Post, 3 July 2019.

The Declaration’s international reach.

“The truths of the Declaration of Independence are not limited by time or place,” John Quincy Adams wrote in 1839. “They belong to the nature of man in every age and every clime. They may be subdued, but they can never be suppressed. They are truths at Constantinople and Pekin, at London and Paris, at Charleston and at Philadelphia.” To Adams, the document showed that America was an idea and an ideology as much as it was a place.

The original writers of the Declaration intended to produce a document to reassure Americans of the justness of their cause, and to appeal to potential supporters abroad. But over time, the Declaration of Independence took on a much greater meaning. It was used as an announcement of a new nation’s founding, as a diplomatic appeal for recognition, as a statement of political philosophy and as a call to defend liberty at home and abroad.

Today, as our democracy comes under pressure at home and from hostile actors abroad, the Declaration is as relevant as ever. Not because our times mirror those of 1776 but because they are another step in the continuing evolution of the Declaration’s meaning, both within the United States and across the world. … … …


Charles Edel and John Lee, “Avoiding the China Trap: How Australia and the U.S. Can Remain Close Despite the Threat,” The Conversation, 19 June 2019.

Ask nearly any politician in Canberra or Washington and they will tell you Australia and the United States have a long and storied history as close allies.

The two nations have fought side-by-side in every major conflict for the past 100 years and remained treaty allies since 1951. On the economic front, the United States is simultaneously the largest foreign investor into Australia and the largest destination of Australia’s foreign investment.

Australian and US cultures are complementary, and as two democratic nations, their values – shared commitment to the rule of law, religious liberty, free speech and debate – provide the foundation for their prosperity and security.

But while the two nations have been close for so many decades, there exists a growing set of frustrations between Canberra and Washington. The source of these frustrations? China.

For it to continue to succeed and remain relevant, the US-Australia alliance needs a plan to navigate the challenges ahead. Such a plan requires analysing Chinese objectives and the emerging American and Australian responses. … … …


John Lee and Charles Edel, “Negotiating a Tricky Diplomatic Tightrope,” The Weekend Australian, 15 June 2019.

More than half the Australians surveyed in a Pew Research Centre poll of global attitudes and trends last year expressed increased concern over China’s growing power and influence. This is hardly surprising given China’s recent efforts to interfere in and influence Australian institutions and civil society, cyber attacks against Australian political and academic targets, and diplomatic and economic threats against Australia over issues such as Huawei.

As Australia seeks to address and manage these challenges, it has naturally looked to its largest foreign investor and closest historical ally, the US. In a region where the Chinese military budget comprises about two-thirds of all military spending in Asia, the US provides a necessary and critical balance in the region. The US also works closely with its allies and partners in the region through a series of treaty agreements and security partnerships. Among those is the Australian-American alliance, commonly referred to as ANZUS, widely recognised as one of the most robust and important bilateral strategic relationships in the region. … … …


Charles Edel and John Lee, The Future of the U.S.-Australia Alliance in an Era of Great Power Competition (Sydney, Australia: United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, 13 June 2019).

The comprehensive challenge China poses to the United States might be the only issue that brings bipartisan consensus to Washington these days. There is a growing appetite to challenge China’s unfair trading policies, military buildup, worsening human rights record, coercive economic practices, and drive to dominate the key technologies and industries of the future.1 Regardless of any trade deal that the Donald Trump administration might strike with Beijing, and irrespective of who the next US president is, the American response to a more externally aggressive and internally repressive China is likely to endure and become sharper, broader and deeper.

The future of the US-Australia alliance must evolve with this reality in mind. Both countries are committed to a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Following nearly 70 years of a formal treaty relationship, the two countries are well-suited to working together on security and defence matters in support of that vision. But as a more comprehensive and assertive US strategy emerges, cooperating in other areas might become more challenging if Australian and US interests are, or are perceived to be, less well aligned.

Failure to understand and address key differences in interests and viewpoints between allies will significantly dilute the effectiveness of cooperation between the two countries. Disagreement between close allies is normal, but without bilateral responses based on honest discussion, alliance management can easily devolve into papering over differences and a seeking of the lowest common denominator — which is simply insufficient in an era of great power competition.

Navigating an increasingly complex geopolitical environment demands clarifying expectations on both sides and pushing the conversation in Australia and the United States beyond a celebration of ‘mateship’.2 The two allies need to have an honest appraisal of areas of convergence, and more importantly, areas of divergence. Greater attention to, and debate about, these areas of potential divergence should not be avoided, but rather embraced when determining independent and joint courses of action for Washington and Canberra.

For it to continue to succeed and remain relevant, the US-Australia alliance demands a realistic roadmap for the challenges ahead. Such a roadmap requires an analysis of Chinese objectives and the emerging American and Australian responses. … … …


Charles Edel and Hal Brands,  “The Real Origins of the U.S.-China Cold War,” Foreign Policy, 2 June 2019.

The only way to win the next superpower showdown is to understand what exactly caused it.

How should Washington deal with an authoritarian regime that is expanding its influence abroad and repressing its citizens at home? That is the question the United States faces today in dealing with Xi Jinping’s China. But it is not a new challenge. After World War II, the United States faced another authoritarian state intent on expanding its borders, intimidating its neighbors, undermining democratic institutions, exporting its authoritarian model, and stealing U.S. technology and know-how. The result, after a period of initial debate and uncertainty in U.S. policy, was the Cold War: a 40-year competition over power, influence, and the contours of global order.

As tensions between Beijing and Washington harden, there is a growing fear that China and the United States are entering a new cold war—another multi-decade struggle to shape the international system. There is also a growing debate about who or what is responsible for the deterioration in the relationship. Is it the vaulting ambition and personalistic rule of Xi Jinping? The nature of Communist rule in China? The tragic qualities of international relations? America’s own behavior and global ambitions?

Differing diagnoses lead to different prescriptions. If U.S. actions have caused the downturn, Washington should henceforth avoid actions likely to antagonize Beijing. If Xi is to blame for putting the United States and China on a collision course, perhaps America should focus on either waiting him out or enabling those around him. Alternatively, if confrontation is an inescapable byproduct of the authoritarian rule of China’s Communist Party or of the tensions that inevitably emerge between great powers in a competitive international system, then the United States should accept that rivalry is unavoidable and adopt a more concentrated and coordinated strategy of counter-pressure.

In parsing these different possibilities, it can be helpful to go back to debates about the origins of the first Cold War. Historical scholarship on the breakdown of U.S.-Soviet relations after World War II addresses such questions as which side was most responsible, whether confrontation between Moscow and Washington was inevitable, the role of ideology and perception, and the significance of individual leaders in bringing on what U.S. President John F. Kennedy would call the “long twilight struggle.” These debates also provide a useful framework for thinking about how the United States and China got to the present impasse, and where Washington should go from here. … … …


Charles Edel, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Chinese Expansion in Southeast Asia,” War on the Rocks, 9 May 2019.

Beijing’s geopolitical moves continue to obfuscate its larger designs, surprise observers, and render the United States and its allies reactive. The prospect of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia offers a case in point.

This issue — seemingly obscure and inconsequential to many observers — made the news in late 2018 when American Vice President Mike Pence raised it in a letter to Cambodia’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Hun Sen. Subsequently, Hun Sen dismissed media reports that China sought a naval base in Cambodia as “fake news.” In repeated denials, he proclaimed that Cambodia’s constitution prohibits any foreign country from setting up military bases within the country’s sovereign territory.

And yet, questions remain. Recent commercial satellite imagery shows that Union Development Group, a Chinese-owned construction firm, has been rushing to complete a runway in Cambodia’s remote Koh Kong province on the southwestern coast. It appears long enough to support military aircraft and matches the length of the runways built on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to support military reconnaissance, fighter and bomber aircraft. Moreover, given the amount of political and economic support Hun Sen has received from Beijing, his independence seems increasingly doubtful.

However, these accusations and denials prevent a meaningful discussion of what the establishment of such a base would mean and what an appropriate response to such an eventuality would look like. They also obscure the question of why Beijing would seek to build a military base in Cambodia.

For Beijing, the strategic dividends of acquiring a military base in southeast Asia are numerous: a more favorable operational environment in the waters ringing southeast Asia, a military perimeter ringing and potentially enclosing mainland southeast Asia, and potentially easier and less restricted access to the Indian Ocean. These benefits are not all of equal value to Chinese strategists, nor does China need any of them immediately. But the logic of Chinese expansion suggests that sooner or later, Beijing will need such a military outpost in southeast Asia, and Hun Sen’s Cambodia presents especially fertile geographic and political soil.

While Hun Sen currently denies that he would allow the rotational presence of the Chinese military or a more permanent Chinese military base on Cambodian territory, strategy often deals in the realm of the possible. Proactively dealing with this challenge requires understanding the Chinese template for developing military bases, thinking through the strategic effects of such a base in Cambodia, and developing options to forestall such a development. … … …


Charles Edel, “If the United States and China Make a Trade Deal, Then What?” ChinaFile Conversation, 30 April 2019.

It is possible that some sort of a trade deal between Washington and Beijing will be announced shortly. There are a number of problems that an agreement could resolve, and the broad outlines of a deal remain the same as when Trump and Xi Jinping last met in December 2018. But regardless of the outcome, tensions between China and the United States are unlikely to abate. The fundamentally divergent and perhaps irreconcilable objectives of Washington and Beijing mean that any deal will be temporary at most and partial at best.

Competition in multiple critical sectors, antithetical political systems, and changed political dynamics suggest that competition is likely to get sharper, broader, and deeper. In Washington, there is an increasing, and bipartisan, concern over China’s unfair trading practices, military buildup, and abysmal human rights record. All of these pose a direct challenge to America’s core national interests. Meanwhile, although there is an emerging American—and increasingly international—consensus on the challenges posed by China, there is not yet an agreement on the nature of the challenges, nor the appropriate response.

On the economic front, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, and massive industrial subsidies, along with China’s bid to outpace U.S. efforts in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics, threaten to undercut not just the country’s technological edge, but its prosperity and security. The aggressive use of the Chinese military and Chinese non-state actors against America and American allies threaten Washington’s traditional security partners. On human rights, the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression at home—seen most clearly in the forced detention, torture, and re-education of as many as 1-2 million Muslim Uighurs in internment camps in western China—and the export of its surveillance systems abroad are not only an affront to American sensibilities, but to human dignity. This is in addition to Beijing’s attempts to interfere, shape, and silence public debate in the United States and among its allies, which strike at the heart of the principles of democratic society.

There is now a bipartisan chorus in the United States calling for a fundamental restructuring of the U.S.-China relationship, even if there is not yet agreement on how best to do so. Unhelpfully, conversations continue to run in separate channels. The business, labor, financial, civil society, technological, diplomatic, and security communities might now share concerns about China, but they have divergent objectives, differing points of pressure, and varying pain thresholds.

While a potential trade deal would be a start towards recalibrating the relationship, a much broader strategic reset is also necessary. But a new strategy towards China will not take shape until Washington can address questions beyond economics and trade. Political leaders must better explain why America is competing with China, in which domains, with what resources, and for how long the country is willing to sustain such a competition. Competition can be used as a spur to shore up American strengths. But doing so will take sustained popular support that will only come when the public understands the stakes. … … …


Charles Edel, “NATO Points the Way for the Pacific,” The Australian, 9 April 2019.

Europe might seem far away, but its strategic predicament offers important lessons for Australia.

Addressing a joint session of the US congress last week commemorating NATO’s 70th anniversary, secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said that since its founding in 1949, “every congress, every American president, your men and women in uniform, and the people of the United States, have been staunch supporters … the backbone of our alliance.”

Many will consider this an implicit rebuke of US President Donald Trump, who has taken aim at the transatlantic alliance, berating NATO allies for not contributing enough for their own defence and questioning the benefits to the US from its commitment to Europe.

But equally significant are other arguments Stoltenberg contradicted: that a less engaged America would somehow produce more stability and prosperity around the world and that NATO was no longer able to address the challenges of the 21st century. This discussion is relevant not only for Europe but also for Asia in general, and Australia specifically.

The first argument makes a seemingly compelling, but ultimately facile, case. The less the US does, so the argument goes, the more others must pull their own weight. Its appeal is clear: it promises Americans that their sons and daughters can step back from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Americans will pay fewer costs in lives and dollars, leading to a more secure, prosperous and powerful US.

The second commonly voiced critique is that America’s alliances might have been useful during the Cold War, but are a product of that era, unfit for the dynamism of this century. This line of thinking holds that the purpose of alliances such as NATO collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1991.

Stoltenberg challenged both of these arguments. On the first, he cited the 1930s, when the failure to stand up for nations facing external aggression, the failure to prevent rampant protectionism and to defend democratic values produced a leadership vacuum and invited chaos and war.

A main goal of postwar US foreign policy has been to prevent Asia, the Middle East or Europe from being dominated by a single power. Without the US’s balancing role, there’s little to suggest that China, Russia, or Iran would restrain themselves.

In fact, the opposite is much more likely to occur and democratic states would find themselves more exposed and less secure.

Although stationing US troops and hardware overseas does carry an associated cost, it has allowed the US to project power and stability around the world. By taking on the security concerns of US allies, America has blunted aggression and traditional regional rivalries, and has kept nuclear proliferation in check. These certainly help American allies, but they benefit the US just as much.

The second point — that alliances such as NATO have outlived their purpose — also has less substance than critics might think. NATO adapted after the Cold War, fighting to end ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, combating terrorism in the Middle East and helping to spread democracy, peace, and prosperity to central and eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain came down.

In any case, NATO has been adapting by readjusting itself for the challenges it faces, such as enabling intelligence sharing on terrorist threats. And the traditional raison d’etat for NATO has not gone away. In fact, NATO is more critical than ever in dealing with a more assertive Russia, which is annexing territory by force, carrying out chemical attacks in Europe, and interfering in democratic political systems of member states. NATO is also beginning to take on the myriad security, economic, and political threats posed by China.

The Pacific has no NATO, but that doesn’t render those arguments irrelevant. Alliances matter just as much in this region as they do in Europe. Australia does not have an institutionalised collective security arrangement in Asia like Europe does with NATO. This is a strong argument for Australia doing more to engage, facilitate, and entrench a US presence and role in the region rather than less, never forgetting there is no balance in the region without the US.

It’s precisely why China’s strategy is to dilute and weaken alliances with the US. A balance of power in Asia is dependent on Australia and other nations hosting a US military presence. Without that, the geographical distances are too great for the US to remain a balancing power.

The relatively benign security and economic conditions of the post-Cold War era have given way to an era of great power competition as China and Russia lead the charge to undermine large parts of the rules-based order. This competition is likely to increase as these authoritarian powers use new forms of technology to reach into democratic societies, exacerbate internal tensions and carve out regional spheres of influences. America and Australia must ensure that their alliance is ready to face this challenge.

It is here that Stoltenberg’s defence of NATO is the most instructive. It should serve as a stark reminder that Australian and US democratic values are under assault today, that defence of both nations’ interests requires adapting the alliance to deal with these challenges, that such an update cannot be based on sentimentality, and that regional stability, economic openness, the advance of democratic ideals and institutions, and the protection of concepts like self-determination, non-aggression and freedom of navigation requires more — not less — engagement between Canberra and Washington.


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, “The End of Great Power Peace,The National Interest, 6 March 2019.

There is growing cooperation among the countries that are challenging the regional pillars of the U.S.-led order.

As recently as 2010, Barack Obama could observe a strategic landscape where the “major powers are at peace.” Yet if great-power war has not returned, the era of deep great-power peace is over. Relations between the world’s strongest states are increasingly defined by undisguised rivalry and even conflict; there is ever-sharper jostling for power and ever-greater contestation of global norms and principles. From East Asia to the Middle East to Eastern Europe, authoritarian actors are testing the vulnerable peripheries of American power and seeking to restore their own privileged spheres of regional dominance. In doing so, they are putting the system under pressure on all key geographical fronts at once.

China is leading the way. Although Beijing has been a leading beneficiary of a liberal economic order that has allowed it to amass great prosperity, Chinese leaders nonetheless always regarded American primacy as something to be endured for a time rather than suffered forever. America’s preeminent position in the Asia-Pacific represents an affront to the pride and sense of historical destiny of a country that still considers itself “the Middle Kingdom.” And as Aaron Friedberg notes, China’s authoritarian leaders have long seen a dominant, democratic America as “the most serious external threat” to their domestic authority and geopolitical security. As China’s power has increased, Beijing has strived to establish mastery in the Asia- Pacific. A Chinese admiral articulated this ambition in 2007, telling an American counterpart that the two powers should split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, made the same point in 2010. In a modern-day echo of the Melian Dialogue’s “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must,” he lectured the nations of Southeast Asia that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace; People’s Republic of China (PRC) media organs warn U.S. allies that they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino- American war unless they distance themselves from Washington. China has simultaneously attacked the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies—island-building in the South China Sea, for instance—that are designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic pressure, Beijing has also divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), through which Washington has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. All the while, China has been steadily building formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and thereby give Beijing a free hand. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts will only grow longer.

The counterparts to these activities are initiatives meant to bring the neighbors into line. China has islands as staging points to project military power. Military and paramilitary forces have harassed, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to India; China has consistently exerted pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those who don’t, and to advance geo-economic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP), designed to bring the region closer into its orbit. Strikingly, China has also abandoned its long-professed principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic politics, extending the reach of Chinese propaganda and using investment and even bribery to coopt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier killer” missiles.

By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing is seeking to erect a Sino-centric regional order—a new Chinese tribute system for the twenty-first century. It is trying to reorder its external environment to its own liking, a profoundly normal rising-power behavior that only seems odd or surprising against the abnormal backdrop of the post–Cold War era. It is using the wealth and power the U.S.-led international order helped it develop to mount the most formidable challenge that order has faced in decades. And it is doing so in full cognizance that this implies progressively more acute rivalry with Washington. … … …


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, “How Woodrow Wilson Lost the Peace,” The American Interest, 30 January 2019.

One hundred years later, the Versailles settlement stands as the foremost example of world leaders drawing all the wrong lessons from tragedy.

In every age, some of the world’s leading thinkers have argued that the trajectory of humanity is a steady, even inevitable, advance toward ever-greater prosperity, peace, and moral enlightenment. In reality, the undeniable progress that humanity has made over the millennia has frequently been disrupted, even reversed, by catastrophe and collapse. In our competitive and anarchic world, the relationships between states and peoples have repeatedly been punctured by horrific breakdowns of peace and security. Societies are upended and even destroyed; human suffering unfolds on an epic scale; the world’s most advanced nations descend into depravity; the accumulated achievements of generations crumble amid shocking violence. From the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century B.C.E. to the world wars of the 20th century, the history of international affairs has often seemed a monument to tragedy.

If tragedy is a curse for those who endure it, it can be a blessing for those who draw strength and wisdom from it. The memory of tragedy has often impelled the building of international orders that have succeeded—if only for a time—in holding the forces of upheaval at bay. In the wake of great geopolitical crackups like the Thirty Years’ War and the wars of the French Revolution, leading statesmen have found the foresight to create new systems of rules to regulate the relationships between states, and—just as critically—to erect the stable balances of power that sustain them. Driven by painful experience, they have accepted the geopolitical hardships necessary to avoid the far greater costs of a return to upheaval. Many of the great diplomatic achievements of the modern era—the Peace of Westphalia, the Concert of Europe, and others—have rested on such an understanding. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the basic ethos: “Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.”

There is, however, another kind of response to tragedy. If knowledge of tragedy can have an invigorating effect on those willing to fully profit from its lessons, it can also be enervating, even crippling to effective statecraft. After all, great efforts and prolonged exertions can ultimately lead to exhaustion and cause nations to flinch from the necessary application of power. Too much experience with a tragic world can tempt leaders and citizens to seek refuge in withdrawal, appeasement, or utopianism. Such human impulses are understandable enough after a period of trauma. Yet when they morph into an unwillingness to defend an existing order under assault, the results can themselves be tragic. … … …


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft & the Preservation of World Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, January 2019).

The ancient Greeks hard‑wired a tragic sensibility into their culture. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, they sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage—to spur citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate. Today, after more than seventy years of great‑power peace and a quarter‑century of unrivaled global leadership, Americans have lost their sense of tragedy. They have forgotten that the descent into violence and war has been all too common throughout human history. This amnesia has become most pronounced just as Americans and the global order they created are coming under graver threat than at any time in decades.

In a forceful argument that brims with historical sensibility and policy insights, two distinguished historians argue that a tragic sensibility is necessary if America and its allies are to address the dangers that menace the international order today. Tragedy may be commonplace, Brands and Edel argue, but it is not inevitable—so long as we regain an appreciation of the world’s tragic nature before it is too late. … … …


Charles Edel and Bruce Wolpe, “Will the U.S. Senate Confirm a New U.S. Ambassador to Australia This Week?” Explainer, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, 31 December 2018.

The US Senate has two more sittings this week: on New Year’s Eve (US time) and on Wednesday, January 2, which is the last sitting day of the 115th Congress

In those sessions, the Senate will discuss the current partial shutdown of the US government and will process bills sent over from the House of Representatives and other legislative matters.

The Senate also has before it the nomination of Arthur Culvahouse, Jr. (or AB Culvahouse) to be the new US Ambassador to Australia. On December 13, Culvahouse was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his nomination sent to the full Senate for approval. It now sits on what is known as the Executive Calendar, and is therefore eligible to be called up for a vote.

Although the Senate has met several times since December 13, no action has been taken on the Culvahouse nomination.

Any pending business not completed by the time the Senate adjourns on January 2 will be terminated; there is no carryover to the new Congress that begins Thursday, January 3.

It is customary on the Senate’s last sitting days for baskets of cleared, noncontroversial nominations – with the specific agreed nominees worked out by the Senate’s leaders – to be processed by unanimous consent.

“If the work has been done by the Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, together with the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so that the Culvahouse nomination is given priority now as the Senate concludes its business, there is a good chance we will have a new US Ambassador to Australia confirmed by Wednesday,” said Visiting Fellow Bruce Wolpe.

“However, if the Senate fails to act, the whole process will have to begin again in the new Congress that convenes Thursday: Culvahouse nominated again by the president to the Senate, and new hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and ultimately a vote on the Senate floor at some point later this year.”

Senior Fellow Charles Edel said Culvahouse’s background, knowledge of government, and broad bipartisan appeal make him a superb candidate and one likely to hit the ground running.

“As someone with extensive experience in both the private sector and in national security, he should be able to help advance Australian-American cooperation across both the economic and security sectors,” Edel said.

“During a government shutdown, ambassadorial nominations are probably not the highest priority of the US Congress. At a functional level, the alliance continues to work just fine, but the sooner this happens the better — especially at a time when there are so many important issues of collective concern that our two countries face as allies.”


Charles Edel, “How Democracies Slide into Authoritarianism,” Washington Post, 7 December 2018.

In “The Captive Mind,” Czeslaw Milosz documented the collusion that accompanies democracy’s collapse.

Some were recalcitrant; some tried not to show how much his favor meant to them; some were openly servile. In a short time, he was surrounded by a court of yes-men who frowned when he frowned or guffawed loudly whenever he deigned to tell a joke.”

Frustrated with the inability of the West to understand why so many Eastern European intellectuals actively collaborated with their country’s autocratic regimes, and darkly amused by the attraction of many Western elites to autocratic governments, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz penned these words in 1951 in his most well-known work, “The Captive Mind.”

Milosz would later become a U.S. citizen, working as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. But it was this early work that would gain him lasting literary and political relevance.

The book was written shortly after Milosz walked away from his diplomatic post as a cultural attache for the communist government of Poland and defected to the West. It was his attempt to explain why individuals moved along the path from resistance to surrender, submission and ultimately advocacy of a system of government they had detested. Written to explain what intellectual life was like behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Milosz’s work is freshly relevant today.

Part political philosophy, part literary criticism and part a personal memoir, “The Captive Mind” sought to “create afresh the stages by which the mind gives way to compulsion from without, and to trace the road along which men in people’s democracies are led to orthodoxy.” The people’s democracies to which he was referring, though, were anything but democratic. They were the communist states of eastern and central Europe where Moscow crushed freedom and individualism. It was able to do so because it had collaborators who would carry its message, cheer its arrival, accept its largesse and attempt to impose its strictures. … … …


Charles Edel, “Trump’s Trade Truce is Not the End of this War,” Australian Financial Review, 2 December 2018.

Talks between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires concluded on Saturday night with applause, but no joint statement.

Chinese state television announced that there would be no new tariffs, that negotiations between the two sides would continue, and offered some vague promises on market access. The White House separately released a statement that it would leave existing tariffs in place on $US200 billion ($A273 billion) worth of Chinese goods, but hold off on hiking tariff rates from 10 to 25 per cent and also refrain from placing tariffs on an additional $US267 billion worth of goods imported from China through March 1. The White House also announced that China agreed to purchase an unspecified, but “very substantial” amount of American products. Boarding Air Force One, a White House official commented that talks had gone “very well.”

While this might be welcome news in the short-term for jittery markets, is important not to overreact to news of continued negotiations, nor mistake this for an end to the trade war.

The deal between China and the United States appears to be a temporary accommodation, rather than an agreement to address fundamental differences.

But regardless of this deal, because friction on core issues of trade and industrial policy will persist between China and most of the advanced economies of the world, it is likely that competition will intensify. This is because the deal is unlikely to resolve any underlying causes. Persistent intellectual property theft, lack of market access, forced technology transfer for foreign firms wanting to work in China, massive subsidies to Beijing’s state-owned enterprises are all likely to remain irritants in the larger relationship.

Moreover, Beijing’s “China 2025,” industrial plan to attempt to dominate the core components of a future economy, while also increasing Chinese acquisitions of US and western firms, will continue to raise concerns that foreign companies will be unable to operate in China, or forced to do business in China under increasingly disadvantageous terms. In this context, an agreement to continue talking is unlikely to moderate an emerging consensus that Beijing is more interested in making rhetorical concessions than in actually adjusting any of its actions.

At its core, the issue is one of fundamentally misaligned objectives. Earlier this week Ely Ratner, a high-ranking official in the Obama administration, wrote that “on most issues of consequence, there is simply no overlap between Xi’s vision for China’s rise and what the United States considers an acceptable future for Asia and the world beyond”. Which is all to say that the underlying dynamics and incentives on both sides will continue the two countries towards economic competition. Trump might have delayed a further escalation of tariffs, but that is more a tactical move meant to reassure American markets, consumers and farmers. Moreover, while tariffs are the most visible tool that Washington has used in its attempt to force Beijing to alter its economic policies, they are not the only means available to the White House, as its use of espionage indictments, financial penalties and tightening of investment scrutiny demonstrate. This is likely to accelerate. … … …


Charles Edel and Siddharth Mohandas, “Not Quite China’s Century? An Early Appraisal,” The National Interest, 20 November 2018.

Beijing is fumbling its rise, but there’s no guarantee it will last.

As part of a broader assessment of the state of Sino-American competition in Asia, we examined the economic and diplomatic balance of power in Asia in a previous article. Here, we look at how both states are faring across the military and ideological realms and conclude with some thoughts about how the United States and its allies can move forward.

Military Balance

As China’s economic and political capabilities have grown, so too has its military. China’s decades-long military modernization and build-up have achieved impressive results. Beijing currently boasts the world’s second-largest defense budget, the world’s largest conventional missile force, and the largest navy and coast guard. It also has a maritime militia that is integrated into China’s military command structure and advances Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas. These advances have not just been quantitative, but qualitative as well. According to open-source Pentagon assessments, the PLA has invested billions of dollars in new capabilities, including artificial intelligence, hypersonic technology, and offensive cyber capabilities. China has also increased its presence and power projection capabilities by continuing to build infrastructure in the South China Sea, and by working to acquire a network of ports throughout the Indian Ocean region and further afield.

(This is the second article of a two-part series, the first one can be read here.) … … …


Charles Edel and Siddharth Mohandas, “The Chinese Century? An Early Appraisal,” The National Interest, 14 November 2018.

Hint: it’s not all going as Beijing wants. This is part one of a two-part series.

The reviews are in. At the midpoint of the Trump administration, analysts from a range of political persuasions are lamenting the erosion of U.S. power in Asia and the way in which China has been able to fill the void. Concerns have only grown with President Donald Trump’s decision to skip the two major summit meetings of Asian leaders—the East Asia Summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, both of which are taking place this week. Some have noted that Trump is “making China great again” by walking away from America’s historic commitments to upholding regional order and promoting free trade. Others have said that the president’s willingness to question and even undermine traditional alliances opens a door that China is eagerly walking through. If the history of this century is to be written in Asia, it appears that the United States is leaving the field and China is on its way to victory.

(This is the first article of a two-part series, the second one can be read here.)

These expressions of concern are certainly understandable. The United States has been the dominant economic, military, and diplomatic power in Asia for seven decades. That predominance helped build a regional order that allowed Asian countries to rebuild after the devastation of war and, in particular, enabled the rise of China. Now, precisely at the moment that China appears to have entered a new, more assertive phase, Donald Trump seems to be systematically dismantling the pillars of American power in Asia. He questions the value of longstanding U.S. alliances in the region, wants to remove America’s forward military presence in Asia, and has walked away from the commitment to free trade that made the United States the indispensable market for Asia. It’s enough to give anyone pause about the future of America in Asia.

The problem with much of the analysis is that, while it quite correctly points out the weaknesses of the current U.S. approach, it tends to assume that China will seamlessly fill the void created by American missteps. China has clearly set about energetically seeking to enhance its position in Asia, but the task has not been easy. China has shown imagination and ambition in its approach to foreign policy, but it has also overreached, provoking a backlash in local communities and governments, and prompting intense efforts at balancing by regional competitors. When one looks at specific Chinese policy objectives, the record of outcomes is decidedly mixed. An analysis that counts only American weaknesses and Chinese strengths will lead to flawed conclusions. A better, more honest, and realistic accounting must take into account the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Only by doing this can the United States and its allies understand what options they have going forward.

There are many key questions to consider. How much progress has China made in supplanting America in Asia? How does that manifest in areas of power and influence? Have Chinese-led economic arrangements overshadowed U.S.-led ones? Has China been able to weaken U.S. alliances? Has Sino-centric multilateralism started to edge out U.S.-led institutions? The answer that emerges is that China has been pushing on several critical fronts, but that its successes—even granting that a decades-long process of competition is still at a very early stage—have been partial, reversible, and characterized by strong countervailing reactions.

Arriving at such a judgment, however, demands assessing the state of Sino-American competition across multiple sectors, including trade and economics, diplomacy and alliances, the military balance, and ideological competition. While that is not a comprehensive list, it should provide a useful starting place for a more comprehensive assessment of how the United States and China are doing in Asia.

In this article, we look at the first two and, in a subsequent piece, we discuss the latter two. The results are clear: Despite considerable uncertainty about U.S. intentions and staying power, the region has sought to balance against China and to maintain alternatives to Sino-centric arrangements. If the United States were to regain its focus and leverage its longstanding strengths, the galvanizing effect on trends already at play in the region would be profound. … … …


Charles Edel, “How to Counter China’s Influence in the South Pacific,” Foreign Affairs, 13 November 2018.

The U.S. and Its Allies Need to Coordinate Their Efforts

In the U.S. National Defense Strategy published in January 2018, Washington announced the return of great power competition, branded China a “strategic competitor,” and called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Despite these rhetorical developments, however, there remain lingering questions surrounding the Trump administration’s episodic engagement with the region, its failure to coordinate with allies on major issues, and inadequate resourcing for initiatives outside the military realm.

These concerns will be on the mind of many of the national leaders gathering in Singapore for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits, and then in Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), this week. Conspicuously absent from the gatherings is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has chosen instead to send Vice President Mike Pence. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting a meeting with the leaders of the Pacific island states in Papua New Guinea ahead of the APEC meeting.

Despite Trump’s absence, however, the United States and key regional allies are finally sharpening their focus on strategic competition with China for influence in the South Pacific. Across the island states of the South Pacific, Washington is working closely with Canberra, Tokyo, and Wellington and expending significant resources. Absent further coordination and resource commitment, however, the initial efforts of this emerging strategy are unlikely to help the region or offset the more troubling aspects of Beijing’s growing presence.


The island states of the South Pacific occupy only a small amount of territory in a vast ocean, and yet they are strategically vital to the United States and its regional allies—particularly Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. All of these countries have an interest in ensuring that commercial and military access across the Pacific remains free and unimpeded; denying a potentially hostile power the ability to project power against them; and expanding democratic institutions and liberal norms.

Over the past several years, Beijing has stepped up its activity across the Pacific, increasing its aid and investments. Pacific Island nations are undoubtedly tempted by Beijing’s deep pockets and willingness to commit to major development projects with few conditions. Of course, investments that meet local needs and support local growth should be welcomed. But in far too many instances in the South Pacific and elsewhere, Chinese investment is troublingly opaque, undermines national sovereignty, and privileges resource extraction over benefit to local communities. Furthermore, especially in the South Pacific, Chinese investment has often brought with it environmental degradation, corruption and crime, and increased strain on natural resources, including fisheries. … … …


Charles Edel, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” Book Review Roundtable: Reflections on Melvyn Leffler’s Long Career, Texas National Security Review, 6 September 2018.

There are few things as beautiful and as patriotic as summer evenings in the South Bronx. During the 7th inning stretch at Yankee Stadium each night, the announcer asks the crowd to stand and honor those servicemembers stationed at home and around the world, “defending our freedom and our way of life.” While it is usually a unifying moment, it’s also a confusing one. For it is unclear exactly what this phrase means. Why has America’s defense taken different shapes at different particular moments? Why have American leaders sometimes argued that the country’s national security requires deep engagement and sometimes that it demands restraint? What defines and drives American national security policy — domestic circumstances? External realities? The views of individual policymakers?

Melvyn Leffler addresses these questions in Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015. In so doing, he puts his finger on something elusive, evolving, contentious, and of the highest consequence for explaining American foreign relations.1 The book is a collection of eleven essays, drawn from throughout his five-decade career, which explore some of the pivotal moments of the American century. The essays cover a range of topics, showing the evolving set of questions that have driven Leffler’s research, and demonstrating a variety of concepts and methodological approaches.

Leffler’s most famous book, the prize-winning A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (1992), was a field-defining work that analyzed how and why the postwar policymakers acted as they did. It is a work that examines how threat perceptions, political economy, and the demands of military power intersected, clashed, and ultimately led to the formation of U.S. national security policy. Filled with empathy for the difficult decisions faced by those policymakers, steeped in archival research, and judicious in its insights and judgments, Leffler’s work stands alone in exploring the origins of the American-led order after World War II.

The dominant discussions in foreign policy today are about the strength, durability, and resilience of that order. Leffler’s collection of essays is a timely reminder of the original foundation of that order, the issues it was intended to address, and the evolution of those issues over time. While the individual essays focus on different aspects of American foreign policy, what makes Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism such a rewarding book is that, taken together, it can be read in at least three different ways. … … …


Charles Edel and Dougal Robinson, “Reading the Tea Leaves in Canberra,” The American Interest, 29 August 2018.

Political chaos in Australia masks growing political cohesion on national security issues—and a hardening line on China.

The constant eruption of news out of Washington has forced some commentators into the awkward position of arguing that American policy can best be understood by ignoring what the President says, and instead focusing on what the Administration does. Whether or not that is true, a similar dynamic is now playing out in the capital of one of America’s closest allies.

On Friday, Malcolm Turnbull was replaced as Prime Minister of Australia by his Treasurer, Scott Morrison, after an extraordinary week of bitter infighting in the center-right Liberal Party. Amidst the government’s chaos and disunity, the odds have significantly increased that the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will lead his center-left Labor Party to victory in an election by May of next year.

From Washington, last week’s events might just look like another round of blood-sport in a parliament beset by repeated political coups. After all, every Australian Prime Minister in the last decade has been removed from national leadership midway through their three-year term, by their own party: Julia Gillard knocked off Prime Minister Rudd in 2010, who then reclaimed the leadership in 2013, before losing the general election to conservative Tony Abbott, who governed for only two years before he was challenged and defeated by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, who last week lost the confidence of his party and was replaced by Scott Morrison.

The recent political chaos, however, masks growing political cohesion on Australia’s China debate across the two major parties. For different reasons and with different political pressures, both the current government (a coalition led by the right-of-center Liberal Party) and the opposition (Labor) are converging on a similar set of national security decisions, even if the language they use to describe these decisions is vastly different. More importantly, the old contours of Australia’s national security debates are changing. … … …


Charles Edel, “The China Challenge,” The American Interest, 24 August 2018.

There is a growing consensus among Western governments about the risks posed by China’s security, industrial, and commercial policies.

Beijing is sending a trade delegation to Washington for talks aimed at resolving the trade war, but this is unlikely to resolve the changing political risk factors at stake for companies doing business with China. Understandably, most analysis has focused on the dynamics of the ever-escalating trade war between the United States and China. This obscures the potentially more important dynamic of the growing consensus among Western governments of risks posed by China’s security, industrial and commercial policies. And it obstructs the increasing willingness of these governments to intervene in market activity for reasons of national security.

Given Trump’s erraticism and transactional approach to foreign policy, it is important not to mistake the general trend of a hardening trade relationship with China across the West. A desire to put more pressure on China is not simply a Trump phenomenon. Indeed, it’s one of the few areas where there’s bipartisan agreement in the United States and among its traditional allies Japan, Canada, and Europe right now.

When Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, recently appeared next to Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden to announce an easing of their incipient trade spat, the media coverage almost missed their statement pledging to work together “to address unfair trading practices, including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, industrial subsidies, distortions created by state-owned enterprises, and overcapacity.” Even without mentioning China by name, the point was obvious and represented a growing consensus among many nations that China’s unfair practices are putting the rest of the world at a disadvantage.

Despite China’s courting of the European Union, Europeans leaders have expressed significant skepticism about Chinese commitments, increasingly viewing Chinese investments in Eastern and Central Europe as Trojan horses. In fact, they have started restricting Chinese investments into their economies and have been at pains to point out that Europe shares Washington’s core concerns about Chinese industrial and commercial policies. And it is not just Western countries expressing concern over the nature and intent of Chinese investment of strategic national assets. Across Southeast Asia, wariness is growing over the dangers of unsustainable Chinese investment, lack of transparency and accountability, and projects that erode the foundations of national sovereignty. This has given rise to fears that China is, in the words of Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, coercing smaller nations into “unequal treaties.”

With constant news coverage of the escalating trade war between the United States and China, the story that is being overlooked is the growing consensus among Western nations that a response to China’s industrial and trade policies is necessary. While this gradual shift in policies reflects broader concerns that Chinese economic liberalization has stalled for the foreseeable future, there are three specific concerns that help explain why this is occurring now. … … …


Charles Edel, “Cambodia’s Troubling Tilt Toward China—And What It Means for Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, 17 August 2018.

Then Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed a landslide victory in the country’s July 29 elections, most international observers quickly denounced the results as rigged. Given that the election has helped consolidate Hun Sen’s 33-year, increasingly authoritarian hold on power, these accusations are troubling. Even more troubling, however, may be Hun Sen’s recent tilt toward China and the increasing local and regional benefits Beijing is receiving from its relationship with Cambodia.

For myriad reasons, Washington has long considered Cambodia a strategic lost cause. Yet the country’s Chinese turn should serve as a warning of what China’s growing economic presence, especially in authoritarian countries, will mean for Southeast Asia and Eurasia more broadly. To respond effectively, the United States and its allies need to look at Cambodia with fresh eyes as both a national security challenge and opportunity. Although Hun Sen has tightened his grip on the country and pushed it closer to Beijing, there actually exists widespread, if quiet, anger among ordinary citizens at their government’s subservience to China.


Over the past two decades, China has worked diligently to cultivate ties to Cambodia’s strongman. Beijing has continued to back Hun Sen as he has dissolved Cambodia’s main opposition party, thrown its leader in jail, manipulated social media to boost his perceived popularity, and presided over the hollowing out of the country’s two largest independent newspapers. When a crackdown on political opposition started last November, China came to the government’s defense. After meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in late March, Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page that “Chinese leaders would like to support and wish Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] to win the election and lead Cambodia’s destiny to make it become more developed in the future.” And in the run-up to July’s elections, China’s ambassador to Cambodia attended a ruling party election rally in Phnom Penh. … … …


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, “The True Danger to America’s Democracy,” The National Interest, 3 July 2018.

The founders worried that political disunity at home would allow hostile foreign governments to exacerbate domestic cleavages, sow strife, and undermine America’s sovereignty.

John Adams predicted that July 2 would become a celebrated American holiday. Sensing the coming of a momentous vote on the Declaration of Independence, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” He believed that the date “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Adams got the date wrong—the actual signing of the Declaration took place on July 4—but he got the spirit right. Independence Day has since been treated as a celebration of America’s independence from Great Britain.

For all of Adams’ enthusiasm, however, his letter obscures the fact that America’s founders were, for the most part, a tragically-minded group. Those “present at the creation” of the United States were certainly driven by the audacious belief, as Thomas Paine wrote, that they had the chance “to begin the world over again.” Yet throughout the early years of the American republic, they also drew motivation from the tragic histories of the republics of antiquity. For the founders, those histories showcased the difficulties of maintaining liberal, self-governing polities in a hostile world, and they suggested that a proper appreciation of tragedy was essential to avoid a premature end to the American experiment.

In particular, the Federalist essays—collectively, the single most cogent defense of the constitutional order designed in Philadelphia in 1787—were littered with cautionary references to the ancient world. For John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, the fall of Athens and other republics of old provided vivid illustrations of the need for small polities to join together in the face of external threat. States “seduced by a too great fondness for peace to decline hazarding their tranquility and present safety for the sake of neighbors” would pursue the illusion of individual safety over collective security, Jay wrote. In a world dominated by hostile autocracies, however, those states would be rewarded not with safety but with isolation, weakness and existential peril. Larger nations would prey on the weak and divided American states, coercing them with superior military power or corrupting them through subtler means. … … …


Charles Edel, “The Future of the U.S.-Australia Alliance,” The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 3 July 2018.

Some have argued that the US–Australia alliance exists simply out of inertia or, worse yet, sentimentality. Shared sacrifice and longstanding habits of cooperation may play a role, but they’re not the basis upon which sovereign states determine their national interests.

The value of the alliance is its preservation of something that may seem intangible, and yet nevertheless is essential to the security, prosperity and values of both of our nations: support for a rules-based order. Without a doubt that sounds abstract, and can present a challenge to its defenders. But a rules-based order means that it is not simple raw power that determines outcomes.

Rules as the basis for order, backed by the power of the US and its partners to promote the rules, have delivered tangible benefits that bear repeating: preventing a great-power war; promoting an open and prosperous global economy; advancing democracy and human rights; and fighting to protect a system where rules are respected, territorial integrity preserved, and political independence maintained. These goals can only be achieved with strong alliances.

Given the intensifying challenges that various authoritarian regimes are putting on the international order created by America and its friends, and the shocks generated by Donald Trump, it will take working in concert with other like-minded states to defend and renew the rules and behaviours that will ensure our future prosperity and security.

I would suggest three specific ideas for refocusing the alliance. This will require reorienting the alliance’s geographic focus while broadening its scope beyond security, and expanding the joint efforts globally.

Geographically, a shift in focus to Asia is overdue. China’s rise to power is upending decades of relative stability in the region. While China’s rise has been beneficial in many ways, Beijing’s increasingly assertive military operations, use of various forms of economic coercion and attempts to intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs—and the challenges to the rules-based order that propelled China’s rise in the first place—have heightened regional concerns.

There’s much that Australia and America, in partnership and focused on the Asia–Pacific, can do to help stabilise the region. In the Pacific part of the Asia–Pacific, both countries can increase their efforts to promote sustainable development in the Pacific island states.

In the Indian Ocean part of the Indo-Pacific, there’s more they can do to partner with and encourage a rising India. And, perhaps most acutely in Southeast Asia—a region likely to become one of the world’s largest drivers of growth over the next several decades—there’s much that can be done to facilitate growth, promote sustainable development, and shore up sovereignty. Aligning Australian and American strategies in these sub-regions will likely amplify the individual efforts of each country. … … …


Charles Edel, “The Writer Who Warned against Rising Authoritarianism—And His Advice on Resisting It,” The Washington Post, 25 May 2018. 

A decades-old book offers guidance to open societies under attack.

“The authoritarian will in general select those who obey, who believe, who respond to his influence. But in doing so, he is bound to select mediocrities. For he excludes those who revolt, who doubt, who dare to resist his influence.” These words appeared in “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Karl Popper’s 1945 attack on authoritarianism and defense of liberal democracy, one of the most influential works of the 20th century. Reading the book today is a vital reminder of how proponents of free and open societies can arm themselves, intellectually and spiritually, for the battle against repressive states seeking to strengthen authoritarianism and weaken democracy.

Popper began his book at a time when democratic leaders failed to stand up to rising authoritarian states. An Austrian philosopher who fled the Nazis for New Zealand, Popper decided to write the book in March 1938, on the day he “received news of the invasion of Austria” — the absorption of Austria by Hitler’s Germany. Concerned by the rise of both fascism and communism, Popper argued that history was a long-term battle between proponents of open dynamic societies and authoritarians who benefited from closed societies. He warned that the enemies of open societies were powerful and numerous, and cautioned that liberal democracies were rare, fragile and required extreme vigilance to maintain.

His message is once again relevant. Around the world, strongmen have staged a comeback. Hungary, Turkey and Venezuela continue their slide into authoritarian rule. Democratic norms have eroded in the Philippines and Poland. Myanmar, which had slowly began opening its system, has now executed an ethnic cleansing and jailed journalists covering it. Right-wing populists have gained traction throughout Western Europe. … … … 


Charles Edel, “Pompeo and the State of State,” United States Studies Centre Brief, University of Sydney, 24 April 2018.

Shortly after becoming the US Secretary of State in 1818, John Quincy Adams surveyed the State Department and declared “all in disorder and confusion”. Two hundred years later, Mike Pompeo will confront a similar prospect. Following a favourable recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo’s confirmation as America’s chief diplomat now looks even more certain when the full Senate decides on his nomination. If he does get confirmed, he will inherit a State Department that has seen calls for drastic cuts to its budget, a mass-exodus of career diplomats, vacancies in virtually all of its senior positions, and widespread reports of plunging morale.

He will also take office at a time when multiple events are coming to a head: the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal, a possible presidential summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and a potential trade war with China.

Pompeo’s appointment would have several significant implications for US foreign policy. As his secret trip to North Korea demonstrated, Trump clearly trusts him. Because of his relationship with the president, Pompeo stands a good chance of elevating the role of diplomacy and significantly boosting morale at the State Department. And due to their public alignment on key policy issues and Trump’s apparent trust of Pompeo, his confirmation as Secretary of State would further embolden the more hawkish elements within the administration, but also could potentially temper some of the president’s more impulsive actions. … … …


Charles Edel, “Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s Trusted Choice for Secretary of State, Is One Step Closer to Confirmation,” ABC News (Australia), 23 April 2018.

A last-minute reversal by Republican Senator Rand Paul overnight has seen CIA Director Mike Pompeo avoid a historic rebuke by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee — where a nominee for secretary of state has never received a negative recommendation.

Mr Pompeo’s confirmation as America’s top diplomat now looks even more certain when the full Senate decides on his nomination in the coming days.

If he does get confirmed, Mr Pompeo will inherit a State Department that has seen calls for drastic cuts to its budget, a mass exodus of career diplomats, vacancies in virtually all of its senior positions and widespread reports of plunging morale.

He will also take office at a time when multiple events are coming to a head: the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal, a possible presidential summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and a potential trade war with China. … … …


Charles Edel, “Small Dots, Large Strategic Areas: U.S. Interests in the South Pacific,” The Lowy Interpreter, 3 April 2018.

The U.S. would be wise to further invest in ensuring that the Pacific nations retain their independence, freedom, and sovereignty.

The United States used to think regularly about the islands of the South Pacific. On her tour of the region in 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt had a message for Americans troops stretched out across the Pacific Islands. “Every day”, she told them, Franklin Roosevelt “goes down to the map room in the White House and notes on the maps where you are and what you are doing”.

The previous year, FDR had pointed to the hundreds of islands in the South Pacific that “appear only as small dots on most maps”. But, lest anyone misjudge their importance, he declared that “they cover a large strategic area”.

Studying the geography of the South Pacific was a strategic necessity for fighting and winning the Second World War, but that was by no means the first or the last time American strategy focused on the region. As early as 1825, US president John Quincy Adams demanded a larger navy to ensure the “flourishing of commerce and fishery extending to the islands of the Pacific”. And as recently as 2012, secretary of state Hillary Clinton affirmed that America knew the Pacific Islands were “strategically and economically vital and becoming more so”.

The region remains strategically vital to the US for two key reasons. First, it is in US interests to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon that could threaten America and its allies; and second, the US wants to maintain the free flow of goods and ideas to Asia.

The Trump administration put a new spin on this old concept with its call for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and broadened the strategic geography of the Western Pacific to extend into the Indian Ocean region. As both Michael Auslin and Rory Medcalf have been pointing out for the better part of a decade, the shift to focusing on the broader Indo-Pacific is long overdue, although it does risk privileging the “Indo” over the Pacific in American strategic thinking.

Given the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape – or, more accurately, seascape – of the South Pacific, the region poses several strategic challenges to the US and its allies. As Australian National University’s Joanne Wallis has argued, over the past several years the South Pacific has seen the creation of alternative regional institutions, increasing Chinese investment and strategic focus, diminished New Zealand and Australian influence, and US strategic neglect.

As a result, while new sources of funding and development in the Pacific Islands have become available with less conditions, there has been environmental degradation, greater corruption and crime, and pressure on the long-term sustainability of natural resources, including fisheries. While none of these challenges is new, the increased number of external actors in the region has exacerbated them.

Moreover, fewer strings attached hardly ever means no strings attached. Indebted Pacific Islands need look no further than Sri Lanka, which recently had to hand over its deep-water port at Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease in exchange for urgently needed debt relief. This practice, dubbed “debt-trap diplomacy”, is a concern for smaller nations for whom the price of economic engagement is fast becoming political compliance. And, in the case of indebted littoral states with deep-water ports, such political compliance can have clear security implications.

From a military standpoint, no less from a commercial and diplomatic one, US presence in Asia is predicated on unfettered access. The US Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson has pointed out that as that access becomes more contested by China’s militarisation of outposts in the South China Sea and China’s development of long-range precision strike weapons, the strategic importance of American bases in the Pacific will grow. … … …


Charles Edel, “The Geostrategic Challenge—and Opportunity—of the South Pacific,” War on the Rocks, 4 April 2018.

… … … From a military standpoint, no less from a commercial and diplomatic one, U.S. presence in Asia is predicated on unfettered access. The Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson has pointed out that as that access becomes more contested by China’s militarization of outposts in the South China Sea and development of long-range precision strike weapons, the strategic importance of American bases in the Pacific will grow.

Currently, the three Pacific Island nations of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau are joined with the United States in Compacts of Free Association. This allows the United States to reject the strategic use of, or access to, compact states in exchange for political rights, development funding, and defense by the United States.

But America’s special economic and political relationship with these sovereign states has recently come under stress. Were it to change, and China step into that vacuum, American bases in Guam and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands could come under threat, and unimpeded sea lines of communication to American allies in Asia would become vulnerable to disruption.

Australia and New Zealand have recently announced a renewed focus on the Pacific Islands. As Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos have previously pointed out, shifts within the regional order make it less clear that the Pacific Islands will be such ready partners if the terms of engagement are framed wholly in terms of strategic competition.

For the United States, increasing aid and investment in the region, working to combat the effects of climate change, growing the capacity of the islands to police their waters and combat illegal fishing, strengthening anti-corruption norms, and ensuring that it expeditiously delivers funding to the compact states can all play a part here. But perhaps the biggest strategic challenge is one of time and attention paid to an important region that often slips under Washington’s radar.

Yale historian Paul Kennedy is best known for his famous 1987 work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But it is his first book, The Samoan Tangle, which explicitly deals with this region, that might be the most prescient. “Why,” Kennedy asked, “was so much written and debated about a small island group in the Pacific?” His answer, in large part, was overlapping interests – economic, strategic, and cultural – between the countries jostling for power in the South Pacific.

The South Pacific has once again become a region of great strategic competition and one worthy of much more attention. The United States would be wise to further invest in ensuring that the Pacific nations retain their independence, freedom, and sovereignty, not only for the sake of U.S. interests but also for the benefit of the citizens of those countries.


Charles Edel, “Why is Political Courage So Rare?The Washington Post, 12 March 2018.

The obstacles preventing politicians from taking a stand.

“Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before,” Sen. John F. Kennedy wrote in 1956, five years before he became president. These words came from his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “Profiles in Courage,” a biographical portrait of eight senators who took principled and unpopular stands that put them at odds with their parties and constituents but that they felt were morally necessary for themselves and for the country.

While written more than 60 years ago, Kennedy’s book offers a useful guide for understanding why so few members of the current president’s party seem to be holding him to account. Kennedy observed that the wish to be liked by colleagues, the pressures to act with party loyalty, the impulse to reflect the preferences of the majority of their constituents and the desire to secure reelection combine to make true political courage extremely rare. Taking unpopular stands jeopardizes all of these.

But it was also Kennedy’s belief that there are things more important than reelection and more significant than popularity. At the top of his list stood the preservation of democratic principles and institutions, a willingness to defend them and a readiness to make sacrifices on their behalf. … … …


Charles Edel, “Is that a Tweet or Foreign Policy?ABC News (Australia), 26 February 2018.

Malcolm Turnbull’s trip to Washington has been newsworthy precisely because it has been so un-newsworthy.

Which is simply to say that given Trump’s penchant for unpredictable speech and behaviour, the fact that the meeting between these two leaders went off without a hitch seems like an accomplishment in its own right.

With previous US administrations this would not even have been a question due to the resilience and importance of the broad and deep relationship between the two nations.

However, with an American president whose foreign policy can be difficult to discern and whose moods are erratic, this has not been a given and will continue to be a challenge for officials in Canberra.

More important, and less often discussed however, are the broader implications of dealing with such unpredictability. … … …


Charles Edel, “Is American Policy toward China Due for a ‘Reckoning’?ChinaFile Conversation, 15 February 2018.

In a February 13 Foreign Affairs essay, former diplomats Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner argue that United States policy toward China, in administrations of both parties, has relied in the past on a mistaken confidence in America’s ability to “mold China to the United States’ liking.” They call for a new U.S. approach to China, one which faces the degree to which China’s actions have diverged from U.S. expectations, discards the notion that economic liberalization would lead China to political openness, and acknowledges China’s failure to acquiesce to an American-led security order. Is Campell and Ratner’s characterization of the shortcomings in the U.S. approach persuasive? What should a newly clear-eyed U.S. policy entail? —The Editors

Comments: Charles Edel

Ely Ratner and Kurt Campbell have sounded a clarion call to rethink the assumptions that have driven America’s China policy for last 40 years. America’s longstanding policy has been to engage, integrate, and bind China into the existing liberal order. In “The China Reckoning,” they ask whether we have reached the outer limits of that policy.

Their answer is yes. Partially, this is due to China itself. China is very big and very old, and the course of events in China are often determined by its own internal dynamics. As the great China historian Jonathan Spence wrote, “China had her own policies, and the proven power with which to advance them.” But no matter the benefits that it has generated, U.S. policy has not produced the China, the region, or the international system American policymakers had hoped for. What has emerged is a richer, more powerful, more repressive China that is expanding its political influence around the world and attempting to impose a regional version of what has been the Chinese domestic contract; stability, growth, and acquiescence.

These are not earth-shaking pronouncements, but rather reflections of reality. If there’s an emerging consensus that it’s high time for an overhaul of America’s China policy, there’s less agreement on what that might be. In that spirit, I’d like to comment on two particular points critical to any new policy discussion.

First, Campbell and Ratner call for engaging in a competitive strategy that is not necessarily, or even solely, confrontational. They also call for a shift in Washington’s efforts away from transforming China and towards focusing on the enduring strengths of America and its allies and partners. Those two are related and have practical implications in terms of U.S. and partner prioritization, timing, geography, and resource allocation.

Equally important is implementation: how to get this down from the 30,000 foot realm of strategy and into the arena of practical application. Both Campbell and Ratner have extensive experience at the highest level of American statecraft and have written on the necessary bureaucratic and political elements required of such a multifaceted strategy. If the debate has shifted from why a new approach is needed, the next line of effort needs to focus on what that new approach should be, and how it will be put into effect.

Elements of a new approach are now discernible, but a comprehensive strategy has not yet formed. Such an approach is not without risk, but ultimately far less risky than submitting to a China-dominated Asia-Pacific in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes, and China becomes further emboldened.

A clear-eyed policy would entail a multilateral and sustained endeavor to apply counter-pressure against Beijing’s efforts to create its own sphere of influence. Such a strategy of counter-pressure is more likely to stabilize the region, helping to provide the continued basis for the sustained economic growth that has transformed the entire region.


Charles Edel, “Limiting Chinese Aggression: A Strategy of Counter-Pressure,” The American Interest 13.5 (February 2018).

Five strategic fallacies are causing us to overlook a range of options for deterring Beijing.

For the United States and its allies and partners, China is the common thread linking most of today’s challenges to the rules-based international order in what used to be called the “free world.” This is true whether the challenge is cyber security, maritime security, or the commons of space. China is implicated for intervening in other countries’ domestic politics and for not intervening enough into the affairs of at least one state—North Korea. China spurns international economic protocols concerning intellectual property rights and labor and environmental standards, and has attempted to expand its political influence through a mixture of economic threats and incentives. Its government lacks respect for a rules-based order and for international law as a whole on the grounds that it was not present at the creation of a Western-inflected set of arrangements. The sum is that in multiple locations and domains, China is exerting considerable pressure on commonly held values, practices, and interests in the international system.

The United States has neither the desire nor the ability to contain China, given the open system it has supported and the deeply intertwined natures of their two economies. What it does have is a deep, abiding, and persistent interest in ensuring that Asia remains as open, rules-based, liberal, and democratic as possible. And yet, instead of discussing how the United States and its allies can achieve an open, rules-based, liberal, and maximally democratic Asia, the mainstream debate over U.S.-China policy is framed around a false dichotomy premised on the assumption that China and the United States are “destined for war,” and that the rest of the world must make a “China choice.”[1] This “debate” assumes on both sides that China’s desire to dominate the Asia-Pacific region is inevitable, treats the future of the region as a matter of binary decisions, and encourages the false belief that China cannot be deterred. The only decision left in such a framing is whether to accommodate the supposedly inevitable or to court disaster by opposing it.

For the past several decades, U.S. policy has focused on reducing tensions and narrowing areas of disagreement. According to this logic, maintaining bilateral Sino-American stability would aid China’s integration into the global economy, promote liberal democratic values, and elicit greater Chinese collaboration on common global challenges. Such well-intentioned impulses were not entirely misguided, were appropriate responses at the time, and yielded some important results in areas ranging from curbing nuclear proliferation to combatting terrorism to addressing climate change. But, by privileging cooperation and stability above all else, they also ceded the strategic initiative to Beijing. And in doing so, it has allowed Beijing to engage in “probes,” seeing which activities elicit responses, and which are only met with some combination of consternation, anguish, and ultimately resignation. Because these probes are specifically designed not to cross the threshold of military intervention, many have not been met with counter-pressure, enabling China to gradually erode the existing order.

This has been as unfortunate as it has been unnecessary, because a range of potentially effective options are being overlooked. With the release of the U.S. National Security Strategy in December 2017, and the National Defense Strategy in January 2018, the Trump Administration did brand China (and Russia) as long-term strategic competitors. While this does bring the challenge into sharper focus, the Administration has not yet articulated the details of how it plans to counter China’s efforts. Furthermore, in the broader public debate, there remain a number of key misconceptions and misunderstandings that continue to limit the range of options being discussed.

Within the NSS and the NDS, elements of a new, more synoptic approach are now discernible, but a comprehensive strategy based on them has not formed. Such an approach is not without risk, but it is less risky than continuing on the current glidepath, which is likely to result in a China-dominated Asia-Pacific. The sum of such actions would amount to a multilateral and sustained—though not overly or even necessarily aggressive—endeavor to apply counter-pressure against Beijing’s efforts to create its own sphere of influence. Ultimately, a strategy of counter-pressure is more likely to stabilize the region than destabilize it, helping to provide the continued basis for the sustained economic growth that has transformed the region, including China.

To grasp that future, five strategic fallacies currently distorting the public debate need correcting. The first strategic fallacy is that America is at some point likely to pack up and go home. While America’s regional allies have long expressed a fear of abandonment, and while the current unpredictable nature of Trump’s White House likely exacerbates such concerns, a brief familiarization with American history should underscore just how unlikely this outcome is. Second is the problem of linear extrapolation, which assumes that China’s rise and America’s decline—relative to each other and to the other countries in the region—will continue unabated. A third strategic fallacy of the current debate is that it reduces the challenge to one that is bilateral in nature. Doing so ignores both the interests and the capabilities of allies and partners, while stripping them of any independent agency. A fourth fallacy paints policy choices as black or white, appeasement or war, ignoring the reality that there are about a million shades of gray in between, and that it is far more likely that this competition will be waged in this gray zone between peace and war over the next several decades. Finally, because the United States and its allies have not figured out the formula for deterring the Chinese at an acceptable price, some have assumed that China is incapable of being deterred and is, sooner or later, bound to dominate the region. But imagining a future of inevitable, and undesirable, outcomes assumes that China is undeterrable, rather than undeterred thus far.

While arguing assumptions might seem like an academic exercise, it has real policy implications and points the way toward a completely different set of policy outcomes. If America and other like-minded nations get their multilateral and sustained strategy right, Asia’s future isn’t locked into any particular outcome. Rather than imagining a future of undesirable outcomes, a counter-pressure strategy offers a future in which all the nations of the Asia-Pacific region can collectively envision and shape their common destiny. … … …


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, “The Disharmony of the Spheres,” Commentary (January 2018).

The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking

Taking the stage at Westminster College in March 1946, Winston Churchill told his audience he “felt bound to portray the shadow which…falls upon the world.” The former British prime minister famously declared that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” He went on to explain that “Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia all…lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.” Though the Westminster address is best remembered for the phrase “iron curtain,” the way it called attention to an emerging Soviet sphere of influence is far more relevant to today’s world.

A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.

Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.

To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.

But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.

In an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.

The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.

America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.

If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.

Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism. … … …


Charles Edel, “China’s Influence Game Down Under,” The American Interest, 13 November 2017.

… … … Over the past several months, the Australian media and government have sought to analyze Chinese influence across Australian society. The resulting reports, which began appearing in print and on television in early June, revealed that Beijing was monitoring and directing Chinese student groups in Australia, had threatened Australian-based Chinese dissidents and their families, was attempting to silence academic discourse in Australia deemed offensive to China, and was seeking control of all Chinese-language media in Australia. This came on the heels of revelations that individuals in Australia with links to the Chinese Communist Party had made major political donations to Australian politicians. The sum of these actions has prompted an intensifying debate among Australia’s national security community and politicians.

The Australian intelligence services have long known about the risks posed by Chinese influence, but the matter is now attracting significant public scrutiny. In late May, Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO (the Australian equivalent of the FBI), warned Parliament that foreign influence efforts in Australia were occurring at an “unprecedented scale.” The implications to Australian democracy, he noted, were potentially extreme, as such interference “has the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests.” And while Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not cite China by name in early June, he amplified this concern by noting that Australian “interests are also directly threatened by attempts by foreign states to compromise the integrity of our democratic institutions and processes.” Discussing Russian influence operations and cyber disinformation campaigns in the American election, and noting that similar threats could compromise the integrity of Australia’s “democratic institutions and processes,” Turnbull called for a revamping of the legal framework governing political donations and disclosures.

Unlike America, which requires individuals acting on behalf of foreign governments to register their activities, and which theoretically bans political campaign contributions from foreign sources, Australian law has no such provisions. As revealed in an Australian television investigative special this summer, this loophole allowed for several prominent Australian-Chinese businessmen with ties to the Chinese government to make substantial contributions to Australian politicians. In some instances, these appeared tied to a quid pro quo of support for Chinese government positions. Prompted by growing concerns of Chinese influence in its electoral system, the Australian government is now drafting legislation in an effort to address these gaps. Expected in early 2018, the new laws are likely to tighten campaign finance rules, require the registration of foreign agents, further define espionage, and provide a more effective legal framework to combat foreign interference.

On Australian campuses, too, a vigorous debate has been occurring over the nature of Chinese influence. Journalists have reported instances of Chinese agents monitoring Chinese students in Australia and threatening their families in China when they voice opinions contrary to Beijing’s. In Sydney and elsewhere, an uptick in protesters disrupting lecturers deemed offensive to Chinese sensibilities is a sign of the times; and concern is growing that universities, eager for donations, investments, and fees generated from foreign students paying significantly higher tuition, might not defend their institutional values as forcefully as they otherwise might. Australian politicians now acknowledge that this type of activity poses a threat to free and open societies, since free speech serves as the basis of liberal education, and is more broadly the cornerstone of democratic debate.

In early October, the Secretary of Australia’s Foreign Ministry spoke bluntly of “untoward influence and interference” at Australian universities. Speaking at the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute, a Chinese-government-funded academic institution, Frances Adamson, who formerly served as Australia’s Ambassador to China, warned, “The silencing of anyone in our society — from students to lecturers to politicians — is an affront to our values.” Julie Bishop, Australia’s Foreign Minister, echoed this point recently, stating that Australia will not tolerate “freedom of speech curbed in any way involving foreign students or foreign academics.” Penny Wong, the Labor shadow Foreign Minister, made a similar point declaring that “we would not want any group to seek to silence another in the contest of … ideas.”

Along similar lines, Australia’s Chinese-language media now largely speaks with one voice. A major report in 2016 documented that the Chinese Communist Party exerts significant influence over Chinese-language media in Australia. The report cautioned that “the notion that the Chinese-language media in Australia has been ‘taken over’,” was too simplistic. However, leading Australian Sinologist John Fitzgerald has noted that the “extensive reach of the Chinese party-state silences and intimidates alternative voices and commentaries” in Australia. Attempting to govern the debate in Australia among the Chinese-speaking community, Beijing also appears to be trying to control the flow of advertising dollars to independent Chinese-language newspapers.

Although some of these issues resonate in the Australian business community, the debate there has been quieter. China may be a near-peer economic competitor of the United States, but it looms much larger for the smaller, export- and capital-dependent Australian economy. The relative size of U.S. and Australian trade flows with China bears the point out. About 31 percent of Australian exports go to China, which is by far Australia’s largest export market, whereas China is the United States’ third largest export market, and the destination for 8 percent of U.S. exports. The common narrative in Australia is that it got through the financial crisis of 2008 without a recession because of Australia’s close trade relationship with China. This narrative is only partially correct, since Australia’s massive exports to China rest in no small part on the industrial and technical capacity built up by decades of foreign investment, especially from the United States, whose investments in the country are more than five times greater than China’s. But even with this important qualification, the different sizes of the U.S. and Australian economies and the relative share of each country’s exports to China shape very different mindsets among the business communities in the two countries. … … …


Charles Edel, “Presidential Power: Doing the Impossible,” The American Interest, 26 October 2017.

Jeremi Suri’s The Impossible Presidency grounds contemporary debates about the presidency in a historical understanding of the office—and shows why its recent occupants don’t measure up. 

The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office

Jeremi Suri

Basic Books, 2017, 368pp., $32

Shortly after murdering King Duncan in his bed, Shakespeare’s Macbeth declares, “Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!’” This line, taken from the Bard’s consummate study of power, served as the opening epigraph of Clinton Rossiter’s 1956 work, The American Presidency. The line lends itself to multiple interpretations. In one reading of Macbeth, the protagonist, guilty of debasing himself in his headlong pursuit of the crown, will forever be haunted by Duncan’s ghost. In another version, Macbeth, suddenly realizing the maelstrom he has just plunged himself into, understands that governing has no end and permits no rest. According to the historian Jeremi Suri, author of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, this is a good depiction, minus the killing, of the modern presidency.

Today, it is hard to escape Donald Trump, and the profound questions his presidency has raised over America’s future. Focusing too intently on the current moment, however, obscures how we arrived at this particular juncture. Drawing back and charting the evolution of the presidency, Suri’s survey grounds contemporary political debates about the enablers and constraints on presidential power in a historical understanding of the office and its most notable occupants.

As the subtitle of his book suggests, the story of the American presidency is one of rise and fall, and Suri organizes the book around those two opposed concepts. The book is not comprehensive but impressionistic, with the first half of the book covering the presidencies of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But following FDR, who “broke the mold,” according to Suri, the office devolved into a perpetual state of crisis management. Examining the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Clinton and Obama, Suri concludes that the post-war presidency has failed. Bound to overpromise and underperform, overwhelmed by time-management challenges and institutional constraints, and predisposed to have the immediate crowd out the important, the modern President is incapable of focusing on the things that matter. … … …


Charles Edel, “Trump Goes to New York,” Newsletter 45, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, 13 September 2017.

This past December, President-elect Trump tweeted that “the United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” While it is unclear if his opinion has changed, President Trump heads to New York this weekend to attend the 72nd annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Like his predecessor, Trump, accompanied by his secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations, will speak at the United Nations and meet with a number of foreign leaders. That much is par for the course. But observers will be closely watching other dynamics, both internally within the administration and externally between Trump and his foreign counterparts.

It’s been tradition for the American president to use this venue to speak to issues of global concern, before participating in several high visibility meetings with counterparts and engage in the diplomatic equivalent of speed-dating. While Trump plans to follow some of these established precedents, in a break from tradition, the president is staying more than an hour away at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, and requiring foreign counterparts to travel there to meet with him.

Of far greater importance to those in attendance will be what Trump says in his remarks on Monday, September 19. … … … 


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, “The Gathering Storm vs. The Crisis of Confidence,” Foreign Policy, 14 July 2017.

Are we entering a redux of the dangerous 1930s or the geopolitical malaise of the 1970s?

Are we living through an era that resembles the 1930s, when authoritarian leaders were on the march, democratic leaders failed to stand up to them, the international system buckled, and the world was dragged into war? Or are we living through something more like the late 1970s, when America, recovering from its long engagement in a losing war and pulling itself out of a prolonged economic slump, began to take the course corrections that allowed it to embark on a period of national recovery and reassert its international ascendancy? People naturally try to wrap their heads around unfamiliar and challenging situations by comparing them to what has come before. And so since Donald Trump’s election, Americans have been searching for the best historical analogy to help them understand what is happening to the global order.

The problem with historical analogies, however, is that they often obscure as much as they clarify. Our present era is not precisely “like” anything that came before it. And so fixating on a single analogy or comparison often causes us to exaggerate the broad similarities between yesterday and today while overlooking the myriad differences. The philosopher George Santayana famously proclaimed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But, in fact, those who rely too heavily on any particular historical precedent are likely to misunderstand the present.

The historian Ernest May and the political scientist Richard Neustadt, both of whom also served as special advisors to multiple administrations, offered a better way. In their classic book, Thinking in Time, they argued that the only way of making analogies useful — rather than dangerous — was to pit them against one another. Specifically, they called for policymakers to examine multiple historical cases when searching for comparisons to the present. Such an approach, they argued, would push decision-makers to think critically about their favored analogies, grapple with differences as well as similarities, and gain a fuller and suppler understanding of the present. A comparative model, they suggested, can help us think more rigorously about the real nature of the age.

In this spirit, it is useful to compare the present to both of the two prior eras that have often been invoked by commentators seeking to make sense of the Trump era and the broader state of the world: the 1930s and the 1970s. Those who argue that we are reliving the 1930s believe that the international scene resembles a gathering storm, as authoritarians advance, democracies retreat, and the system slides quickly toward catastrophe. A somewhat more optimistic analogy, however, holds that the present situation is more like the 1970s — another period in which U.S. leadership and the international order were sharply tested. In this comparison, the United States is again in a funk, with wavering enthusiasm for internationalism at home and major geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges abroad. But, despite such worrying developments, long-range trends are on America’s side, and U.S. power and activism will rebound, just as they did during the late 1970s and 1980s. … … …


Hal Brands and Charles Edel, “The End of History Is the Birth of Tragedy,” Foreign Policy, 29 May 2017.

Americans have forgotten that historic tragedies on a global scale are real. They’ll soon get a reminder.

The ancient Greeks took tragedy seriously. At the very height of Athenian power in the 5th century B.C., in fact, citizens of the world’s first democracy gathered annually to experience tragedy. Great theatrical productions were staged, presented to the entire community, and financed by the public treasury. While the dialogue and plot lines varied, the form, and the lesson, remained consistent. Prominent individuals fell from great heights due to their own errors, ignorance, and hubris. The injunction was clear: The destiny of society was in the hands of fallible men, and even in its hour of triumph that society was always perched on the abyss of catastrophic failure.

This tragic sensibility was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote that tragedies produce feelings of pity and horror and foster a cathartic effect. The catharsis was key, intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage and to encourage both citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate. … … … 


Mira Rapp-Hooper and Charles Edel, “Adrift in the South China Sea: The High Cost of Stopping Freedom of Navigation Operations,” Foreign Affairs, 18 May 2017.

On May 10, seven Republican and Democratic senators sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump urging his administration to resume the United States’ freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the South China Sea. The timing of the bipartisan letter was striking. Senior lawmakers chose a moment when Washington was consumed by a number of political crises, including the ouster of former FBI Director James Comey, to press their case about naval operations thousands of miles away.

They had good reason to do so. The Trump administration has not yet carried out any FONOPs in the South China Sea, giving up one of the essential tools the United States can use to protest China’s expansive territorial claims there. By failing to send U.S. ships and planes past Chinese outposts in the waterway, Washington has neglected to remind Beijing that it does not regard China’s position there as legal or legitimate.

It is possible that U.S. officials have scaled back their focus on the South China Sea as part of a broader gambit to gain China’s favor, perhaps hoping to secure Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea and concessions on trade. Such a transaction, however, would undermine the United States’ position in Asia. And even if that is not the Trump administration’s reasoning, pausing the FONOPs will still have serious costs. … … …


Charles Edel and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “Trump’s Bad Deal with China,” Politico Magazine, 4 April 2017.

One of Donald Trump’s winning themes on the campaign trail was the notion that nobody was better suited to getting a better deal from China than the man who literally wrote a book on how to win at the negotiating table—his 1987 business memoir, “The Art of the Deal.” But from what we’re seeing so far, any Trump wins will be no more than tactical, while the Chinese are more likely to succeed over the long term.

Trump will meet this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, the sprawling Florida resort he’s branded the “Southern White House.” In comments and tweets ahead of the summit, the U.S. president has signaled it will be a “very difficult” meeting because he will go after China’s aggressive trade policies and seek to hold Beijing to account for failing to crack down on North Korea. Over the coming months, Trump may be about to learn some harsh lessons in foreign policy deal making.

James Baker, one of the most effective secretaries of state in U.S. history, had a famous mantra: “Prior preparation prevents poor performance.” From all evidence, however, the Trump administration seems woefully unready to handle a summit of this magnitude. The United States and China are the two most powerful countries in the world. Their relationship is layered and complex, and there’s no sign the president is approaching this task with the seriousness and sophistication it requires. … … …

Perhaps more significant, the summit has the potential to cement the impression that America’s Asian strategy is built around a great-power arrangement between the United States and China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, unfortunately, sent that message during his recent trip to the region, when his adoption of longtime Chinese talking points caused great concern among America’s Asian allies. Returning to the same script in Florida would raise deeper questions about the Trump team’s basic intentions. …

Tillerson’s forays into China diplomacy have been just as puzzling. During his trip to Beijing in March, the secretary’s prepared remarks parroted diplomatic language that is often used by the Chinese to describe the bilateral relationship. Tillerson’s talk of “mutual interests” and “win-win” cooperation was lifted almost verbatim from remarks Xi gave in 2013, and raised suspicions among American China experts. The language itself is quite anodyne, but has come to imply a form of great power condominium, or a “G2,” whereby the United States and China strike bargains with one another without the participation or buy-in of other regional powers. If implemented, it would be a stark departure from long-standing U.S. strategy for the region, which seeks to embed China within Asia as opposed to defining our Asia policy within the contours of relations with Beijing. A G2 approach would be deeply troubling to U.S. allies, as it creates the impression of deferring their interests to Beijing’s. And it would actually weaken our leverage over China, as it has the potential to decrease the regional pressure on Beijing during a crisis. … … …


Charles Edel, “Asia’s Game of Thrones: The Pacific Power,” The American Interest 12.6 (April 2017).

Michael Green’s By More Than Providence is an insightful study—combining theory, history, and experience—of American grand strategy in Asia. It’s also a practical guide for extending American influence and power in the region.

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783

Michael J. Green

Columbia University Press, 2017, 762 pp., $45

Standing in front of the Australian Parliament in November 2011, President Obama announced his signature foreign policy initiative, the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. There he stated that “our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

While President Obama invoked America’s history in the region to justify this position, it is highly unlikely that he—or anyone else for that matter—had Chester A. Arthur in mind. But it was the 21st President who declared in his 1881 Address to Congress that the United States would be the “chief Pacific power.”

Similarly, when President Trump recently climbed aboard the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, he promised that the Navy was “going to soon be the largest it’s been.” He too invoked history to make his point, claiming that “our Navy is the smallest it’s been since World War I.” While Trump’s thinking was rooted in history, there is no evidence to support—or even suspect—that he was thinking about Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward. But Trump’s calls for an expanded navy that can potentially be used to check aggressive Chinese actions in the South and East China Seas has the same motivation as Seward’s 1853 demand that the U.S. Navy must “multiply your ships and send them forth to the East.”

From the earliest days of the republic to its current travails, America has had an abiding fascination with, deep commercial ties to, and grave security concerns about Asia. And in the long sweep of our historical ties to this important region, a persistent underlying logic has sustained U.S. engagement. That logic has demanded access to the East for American commerce and ideas, and the prevention of threats flowing from the west to American shores. In so doing, that logic has set the course of American grand strategy toward the region, as Michael Green argues in his authoritative, incisive, and instructive new book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783.

In the preface to his substantial tome that sweeps across the entirety of American history, weighing in at 548 dense pages of text and another 138 pages of notes, Green describes why he undertook such a daunting task.1 After spending more than five years at the highest level of American statecraft, serving as George W. Bush’s Senior Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, he became convinced about just how much history informs policy, and how greater historical understanding can produce better American strategy. But Green could find no comprehensive study detailing American statecraft toward Asia.

To his surprise, Green found that “this same gap in knowledge” existed among his colleagues in government. They were certainly enormously practical and knowledgeable about many issues, ranging from the current state of North Korea’s ballistic missile development to the state of ethnic tensions in Burma’s Rakhine state to the always-evolving leadership dynamics in Beijing. But when he pressed them about why we define American interests in the region as we do, or what accounts for the various successes and failures of past policies, he often received blank stares. This is hardly surprising, for the interagency process prioritizes actionable recommendations and brevity for policymakers, whose most precious commodities are time and attention. In practice, this means that at the highest levels there is an abundance of practical knowledge but little time or attention given to how policies and ideas have played out through the years. As Green puts it, for all the extraordinary work it does, even “the intelligence community does not analyze the roots of American strategy or policy.” Yet he knew from experience that the best work produced by he and his staff not only analyzed the prospective choices facing the President but also set them in broad context, defined the evolution of the policy issue and the national interest at stake, and discussed the trade-offs any particular option would incur. Such analysis demanded an understanding that only informed historical knowledge could offer.

Returning to academia from the White House—the commute wasn’t far for Green, who teaches at Georgetown University and holds the Japan chair at Washington DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies—he decided to teach a course covering the history of American strategy in Asia. However, his initial impressions when working on the NSC were confirmed: Nothing in the academic literature adequately and comprehensively addressed the subject. So Green decided to fill the gap himself.

In so doing, Green has helped explain America’s remarkable, and remarkably perplexing, grand strategy in Asia. To baffled observers of America’s inconsistent, dramatic, and continuously surprising engagement with the world, the best explanation can be found in Otto von Bismarck pithy, and perhaps apocryphal, remark that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” The American Interest’s own Walter Russell Mead, of course, played on that sentiment in his landmark 2001 work, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, arguing that American foreign policy success can best be understood as the creative synthesis of the clash between several distinct and competing schools of thought. In By More Than Providence, Green engages both Mead’s analysis and Bismarck’s observation by characterizing America’s emergence “as the preeminent power in the Pacific not by providence alone, but through effective (if not always efficient) application of military, diplomatic, economic, and ideational tools of national power to the problems of Asia.” … … …


Charles Edel Review of Michael Auslin’s The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic RegionNaval War College Review 70.3 (Summer 2017): 153–55.

The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region, by Michael R. Auslin. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2017. 304 pages. $30.

The signature foreign policy move, and greatest strategic insight, of Barack Obama’s presidency was “the pivot”— later renamed “the rebalance”—to the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama’s initiative grew out of his conviction that Asia had become the most important region in terms of economic dynamism, explosive demographic growth, and growing military tensions. And if one broadens the geography and semantics to include India—yielding the “Indo-Pacific”—this makes utter sense, since the region claims 60 percent of the world’s population, nearly 40 percent of total global economic output, some of the fastest-growing and most capable militaries, and three nuclear states. No surprise, then, that the Obama White House argued in a November 2015 fact sheet that this region “is increasingly the world’s political and economic center of gravity.” Or, as top Asia expert and diplomat Kurt M. Campbell astutely wrote in The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, “[T]he lion’s share of the history of the twenty-first century will be written in Asia” (pp. 1, 344).

While the Obama administration made a compelling case for the logic of pivoting to Asia—that is, elevating the time, attention, and resources given to the region relative to other parts of the world—the results were uneven. Washington reinvigorated its diplomacy in the region, strengthened commitments with U.S. treaty allies, forged relationships with new partners such as Burma, began shifting military assets to the region, and negotiated a far-reaching trade deal intended to deepen economic integration. But it also failed to ratify that trade deal, suffered significant political setbacks with treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines, was unable to counter Pyongyang’s rush toward acquiring nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States, and did little to restrain Chinese maritime assertiveness and economic and political coercion in the region.

How then should one understand and evaluate the myriad factors contributing to Asia’s future? And are the risks to the continued growth and stability of the region now eclipsing the region’s promise? These are the questions that Michael Auslin, scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute, asks in his judicious, sobering, and compelling new book The End of the Asian Century. Auslin argues that Asia’s future is significantly less assured than is commonly held. As a longtime scholar of, frequent traveler to, and trenchant observer on the geopolitics of Asia, he is positioned well to make such a case. This book is far from a polemic; in fact, Auslin approaches these questions as a skeptic, describing how he in fact originally held the opposite belief—that the twenty-first century inevitably looked to be an Asian century. Yet through repeated trips to the region and multiple meetings with senior policy makers, businessmen, and military officers, he became convinced that risk rather than opportunity was the most salient feature of the Asian political, economic, and military landscape. He argues that U.S. policy makers have been overly optimistic about opportunities in the region and insufficiently attentive to risks, thereby warping U.S. perception of regional trends and causing the United States to pursue misguided policies.

This book is Auslin’s attempt to introduce a framework to assess risks in Asia properly, across five major categories. These include threats to Asia’s growth from the end of its economic miracle and the failure to implement structural macroeconomic reforms; demographic pressures that will place increasing strain on rapidly modernizing and urbanizing political and economic systems; unfinished political revolutions that will address these large-scale economic and social dislocations; long-term historical antagonism among various Asian states, the lack of effective regional political community among them, and the dearth of effective institutions to mitigate crises; and, most alarming, the growth of power politics and the increasing potential for war. The book’s organization follows these categories, with chapters mapping risk in each thematic domain. A final chapter both summarizes and concludes with a series of policy recommendations.

Auslin posits that as risk increases, prudent investors take out more insurance. This advice is as relevant to nations as to individual investors, and applies across all the categories of risk contained in the earlier sections of the book. In the security realm, he argues for a concentric triangular approach, with an inner core of states—Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore—working closely with an outer core of the region’s liberal-democratic heavyweights, Australia, India, and Japan, to counter an increasingly aggressive China. Economically, he advocates for structural reforms within Asian nations and trade liberalization among them. To alleviate political instability, he pushes a realistic democracy-promotion program. To avoid isolating China, he promotes an agenda for enhancing contact with ordinary Chinese citizens. Linking all these recommendations is a belief that long-term stability in Asia is most likely to flow from increased liberalization and democratization, and that the United States should have an indispensable role as partner and catalyst in that process. Absent American involvement, investment, and leadership, short- and long-term instability are likely to rise.

Auslin issues the caveat that his book is not intended as a comprehensive guide to all the countries in the region or all the issues affecting them. And yet in just 222 pages his book manages to serve not only as an excellent introduction to the region but as an incisive guide to understanding the contemporary risks roiling the most consequential region of the world. Extremely useful for national security professionals, investors, and interested observers alike, this book moves beyond headline news to analysis and advice in navigating the region’s shifting geopolitical, demographic, and economic landscape. Some will find his recommendations too aggressive, although his policy prescriptions explore both costs and benefits. Others perhaps will allege that Auslin is too bearish, too gloomy on what many are expecting to be the dawn of the Asian century. But, given the acceleration of tensions in Asia, the demise of trade liberalization, the erosion of democracy and advance of autocratic rulers, and the doubts the Trump administration has cast on its commitment to alliances, we may find that he was in fact too sanguine.


Charles Edel, Author Response in “Roundtable Review of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic,” H-Diplo 17.13 (8 February 2016).

… … … As several of the reviewers observe, the book does indeed attempt to link Adams’s and the nation’s rise to power. That makes it something less, and hopefully something more, than a typical biography. Each chapter is intended to highlight a critical period in Adams’s life, while also exploring different facets of his grand strategy. The study of grand strategy constitutes a growing and exciting field of scholarship that is necessarily interdisciplinary. As Barlow suggests, the study of grand strategy in the early Republic is not a new field, even if the terminology is. Indeed, such thinking preoccupies much of the writing of the first generation of American statesmen and can be seen in the geopolitical analysis that runs throughout the Federalist Papers.

Present at the creation, John Quincy Adams absorbed President George Washington’s injunction to avoid European conflicts, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s belief in the economic foundations of state power, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s desire for continental expansion, and his father President John Adams’s belief in the necessity of a strong and energetic national government. Adams was a product of these traditions, but also an innovator who attempted to synthesize them in a new way. As Nichols notes, the current revival of interest in grand strategy is almost wholly contemporary in nature, and where the concept has credence, it is almost wholly in the realm of foreign policy. I employed a more catholic approach, and attempted to bridge several different historical fields—foreign policy, domestic politics, political economy—and disciplines—history, international relations, and security studies.

As I note in the introduction, grand strategy is meant to provide the intellectual architecture for deciding what goals a country should seek, and a plan for how it should go about doing so. Lacking vision, grand strategy becomes a series of ad hoc responses to disparate event. Without execution, grand strategy becomes an exercise in simply naming objectives. At its best, grand strategy involves both defining and prioritizing the ends and ensuring optimal use of the available means.

But, as Center notes in an especially perceptive observation, the “mark of a grand strategist is not simply to have everything going according to one’s plan but to have the vision and dexterity to focus on enduring principles even as circumstances shift exposing new policy options.”  A sufficiently flexible grand strategy allows for adaptation. Changing circumstances require changing priorities, because dogmatically following a script without paying attention to shifts in one’s surroundings will not yield successful results. Mike Tyson said it best: “Everybody has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”[13] Good grand strategy means good reassessments, because while strategy is about how to achieve desired ends, it is also about adjusting the ends so that realistic ways can be found to achieve them. Adams captured this best, though perhaps not quite as eloquently as Tyson when he remarked that, “I did not recollect any change of policy; but observed there had been a great change of circumstances.”[14]

Center calls attention to Adams’s command of context in a number of ways. He notes that regardless of the logical consistency of a particular vision, individuals are limited by their positions when they attempt to execute a strategy. Hence what Adams was able to accomplish as a diplomat abroad advising the Secretary of State and President, is quite different from what he was able to do as Secretary of State himself. Similarly, when serving as President and attempting to conciliate various national constituencies, his range was both broader and his role more circumscribed than it would be when he was a regional congressman purposefully inflaming public opinion.

Given Adams’s ability to read his environment, why, Center wonders, did such discernment seemingly abandon Adams as President?  Faced with opposition, why did Adams retreat into depression and distraction rather than size up his opponents and formulate a plan of attack?  This is a problem that has long intrigued scholars, with historians finding his presidential years so anomalous that Adams’s life is generally divided into a before-and-after. I think there are several explanations for this puzzling, and utterly depressing, period of Adams’s life. First, such despondency was not out of character. As a young man, struggling with the burden of familial expectations, Adams fell into the first of several deep depressions.[15]  The black dog that haunted him in the presidency was not anomalous in this regard, but rather a return of an old and quite unwelcome acquaintance.

Additionally, it is worth noting that during his presidency, Adams attacked before he retreated. Despite sounding a cautious, and conservative note, in his Inaugural Address, the breadth and sweep of Adams’s first Annual Message to Congress made it quite possibly the most ambitious vision of the Executive branch, and really of the Federal Government, until perhaps that of Franklin D. Roosevelt more than a century later. Despite his cabinet’s strong objections that the speech was overly bold and politically unpalatable, President Adams ignored appeals towards moderation. He informed his cabinet that he was thinking about “a longer range than a simple session of Congress. The plant may come late, though the seed be sown early.”[16]  While it is tempting to attribute such thinking toward a long-range view, such an explanation does not fully explain why the normally cautious Adams seemingly threw caution to the wind in this instance.

A better explanation for Adams’s boldness, and his subsequent depression, comes from the suspect manner in which he won the 1824 presidential election. As his opponents coalesced into a unified opposition party, Adams was caught on the horns of a dilemma. If he did nothing, he would almost certainly guarantee victory for his opponent. But if he engaged in the type of political maneuvering he had undertaken to win the presidency in the first place, he would both betray his own ideals and furnish his adversaries with evidence to support their accusations of his corruption. Faced with such a choice, Adams chose the former, realizing that it almost certainly meant political defeat.

Center poses one final, and especially provocative question, asking whether Adams’s anti-interventionist stance of the 1820s represents a durable lesson for policymakers, or whether it was merely a rational assessment of American capabilities at the time. In fact, Adams himself would be the first to argue that changing circumstances and contexts necessarily mean changing policies. In multiple instances, Adams declared that precedent should not become a policy straight-jacket; the nation needed to keep in mind the changing nature of American power and the shifting international environment. What made sense when the nation was a small power on the edge of the world, might not make as much sense to a nation that was substantially larger and more secure. Adams was never shy about promoting American values, nor using military power when doing so would advance American interests. He was, however, keenly aware of the relationship between America’s capabilities and its ambitious aims. … … …


Charles Edel, Review of Jeremi Suri and Robert Hutching’s Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful DiplomacyPassport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review 47.1 (April 2016): 36–37.

Robert Hutchings and Jeremi Suri’s edited volume Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy makes the case for why diplomacy is so important. As the title suggests, it highlights diplomatic successes, but it also examines the conditions under which diplomacy can succeed and focuses on particular instances in which it broke through stasis and stalemate with a vision of a different future. In addition, Suri and Hutchings consider why diplomacy is very nearly a lost art, given short shrift in study and in practice; and they offer a plan for how to recover it and elevate it to a place of prominence both in the academy and in American statecraft. Their book is a self-consciously audacious endeavor. As they write in the introduction, their goal is nothing less than the reinvention of diplomacy.

Suri, a scholar, and Hutchings, a practitioner, are an ideal pair to undertake this endeavor. Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and is one of the leading experts on American foreign policy and international history. Hutchings currently teaches national security at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also served as dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs from 2010 to 2015. His diplomatic career included service as director for European affairs at the National Security Council, special advisor to the secretary of state with the rank of ambassador, and chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council. He and Suri jointly wrote the introduction and conclusion to this volume, which is shaped by their academic and real-world expertise.

Suri and Hutchings believe that in theory and in practice, contemporary diplomacy is a marginalized field. They argue that American foreign policy suffers from a Cold War legacy that privileges reflexive militarization over creative diplomacy. Further, they contend that this warping of the traditional tools of statecraft has coincided with, and perhaps been the cause of, a decline in the practice of diplomacy. Finally, they argue that the lack of robust, useful, and practical scholarship on diplomacy— particularly cases of successful diplomacy—contributes to the diminished focus on diplomacy in both the academy and in the real world of statecraft. Diplomacy is of singular importance, they conclude, but diplomats today need more and better training. The need to reinvent diplomacy by first reinventing diplomatic training is one of the major themes of this book. Unlike economists, lawyers, military officers, and even academics, diplomats do not have to master an agreed-upon body of work prior to becoming diplomatic practitioners. As Suri and Hutchings observe, diplomatic training, even in formalized and accredited MA programs, is inconsistent. … … …


Charles N. Edel, Author Response in Roundtable Review on Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review 46.3 (January 2016): 18–20.

… … … What makes responding to these generous reviews so interesting, and so challenging, is that each reviewer focuses on different questions, themes, and historical periods for comment. Since my book attempts to bridge several different fields—historical biography, foreign policy, and grand strategy—I chose to focus by necessity and design on episodes of great strategic consequence, inevitably giving less emphasis to other areas and subjects that were equally fascinating. Therefore I would like to respond to several points these reviewers highlight in order both to explain my editorial choices and to engage some of the larger conceptual points that are raised.

As William Inboden and Andrew Preston note, the study of grand strategy is an exciting and rapidly growing field of scholarship, even if it is hardly a new subject. In fact it is one of the oldest fields of study, as it is effectively the study of statecraft at the broadest level. And as Inboden writes, at least part of what makes grand strategy such a dynamic field is that nearly every aspect of it—its definition, its utility, its feasibility, and its very existence—is debated among historians, political scientists, and policymakers.1

Tocqueville once observed that “an abstract word is like a box with a false bottom; you can put in any ideas you please, and take them out again without anyone being the wiser.”2 For that very reason, definitions are important, especially with a contested term. I attempt to trace the evolution of the term grand strategy from its origins in the sphere of military endeavor into the larger and more complicated world of statecraft. The definition I have found most helpful is John Lewis Gaddis’s; he describes grand strategy as a comprehensive and integrated plan of action based on the calculated relationship of means to large ends.3

But Daniel Hulsebosch correctly points out that grand strategy is something more than an efficient plan on a large scale. As I argue in the introduction of my book, useful employment of the term requires both the conceptualization of those large ends and optimal use of the means available to achieve them. Conception and execution are equally important here, and any examination of grand strategy must focus on both. Bereft of vision, grand strategy becomes merely a list of accomplishments and failures without regard to how goals were chosen, prioritized, and sequenced. Without execution, grand strategy merely traces the evolution of ideas with little regard to their impact on events. Successful grand strategy requires vision and dexterity, with objectives reevaluated as circumstances change.

Perhaps the best depiction of this balancing act and of the confusion that the term grand strategy engenders comes from Michael Morgan’s review of James Wilson’s The Triumph of Improvisation in these pages. Morgan explains that strategy can be understood as either a computer program or a compass. “If strategy is a computer program,” he writes, “it should tell a leader exactly what to do in any given situation and provide an answer for every question. It must set everything out in advance and allow nothing to chance…. If strategy is a compass, however, it only needs to point in the right direction.”4 The latter demands decisions of leaders but attempts to locate the logic of those decisions in a larger framework.

So how then to proceed methodologically? The question is especially germane if one makes the argument, as I do, that Adams’s grand strategy is an implicit one whose shape emerges not in a single document, but cumulatively and comprehensively across his entire career. The word implicit is key here, because it is not as if John Quincy Adams ever sat down and recorded his worldview and grand strategy in a summary form. Rather, it is only in reading his immense documentary record that a consistent conception of his objectives emerges.

Moving beyond the vision, which is after all only the first step for a strategist, I then examine how Adams executed the vision: how he identified threats to those interests and formulated responses in light of those threats. Executing a vision means not only doing what one would want, but also having a realistic understanding of shifting circumstances. However intellectually and indeed emotionally unsatisfying it may be, effective execution also requires prioritization and choice and occasionally produces unwanted results. As the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin observed, if “the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.”5 To my mind, a proper assessment of Adams’s evolving strategy thus entails charting his consistencies and inconsistencies, his successes, internal tensions, failures, and the unintended consequences of his actions. I therefore proceed chronologically and focus on a number of episodes that are meant to highlight both the broad vision Adams developed and his ability—and, at times, inability—to translate that vision into policy.

Adams is of course well known for his role in devising the Monroe Doctrine. I was particularly gratified that Daniel Walker Howe highlights my efforts to explain that this famous policy statement was not simply a unilateral public pronouncement. Rather, it was part of Adams’s efforts to respond simultaneously to several concerns: Russia’s determination to suppress republican regimes, possible plans for a military intervention in South America by the Holy Alliance, and British offers to declare a bilateral security agreement with America in the Western Hemisphere. Adams’s private diplomatic response to the Russians was issued in conjunction with the public presidential address that has come to be remembered as the Monroe Doctrine; together the two were meant to be, in Adams’s words, “parts of a combined system of policy and adapted to each other.”6 In fact, it was his private response to the Russians that he considered “the most important paper that ever went from my hands.”

The letter to the Russians laid out several points, but most interesting, in my view, was Adams’s suggestion that the United States could work with authoritarian states but would also seek to contain the growth of authoritarian regimes within the Western Hemisphere. As I suggest, the Monroe Doctrine and the letter to the Russians should be read in tandem; the latter as a fuller exposition of the broad principles espoused in the former. The Monroe Doctrine is usually seen as a unilateral pronouncement of American power, but what the cabinet meetings and official state correspondence reveal is something quite different. Under Adams’s guidance the Monroe Doctrine was less a projection of power and more a statement of principles, an announcement about expectations of future growth, and perhaps most important, a declaration about simultaneously limiting activity abroad and expanding American interests.

Howe also notes that I show Adams focusing initially on efforts to protect American interests and, as his career progressed, shifting toward promoting the national interest in positive ways. This is true in terms of both his foreign and domestic policies, although I would add that both of these impulses were present from the start for Adams. Adams’s grand strategy was aimed at both reducing security risks to the republic and vindicating republicanism as the form of government best suited to promoting human progress and liberty. He believed that each objective was an end unto itself but that these two great goals supported each other. Without security, the nascent republican principles and institutions would not survive in a world dominated by militarized empires. Without a moral component, America could not offer the world anything better than the monarchies of the old world could.

Adams’s movement on these issues is best understood as a product of circumstance and sequencing. He had a clear sense of the stages of development a rising power must go through—securing the nation against foreign attacks; strengthening its ability to defend itself; developing its resources and capacities; and gradually aligning its ideals to its actions. But he also recognized that certain events demanded immediate responses, while others could be put on the back burner. Distinguishing among these allowed Adams not only to prioritize but also to act on events in the proper order.

Finally, Howe underscores that Adams struggled to define the extent to which morality should guide policymakers. The question of whether nations should be guided by the same principles as private morality, or if the dictates of the national interest required a separate set of rules, ceaselessly troubled Adams. While he preferred that the nation act in a moral fashion, he admitted that the principles of private morality did not always serve the national interest best. Additionally, Adams often thought that moral behavior meant one thing inside the law-based realm of the United States, but another in the anarchic international world. For the realist, this view appears to provide evidence that Adams was cold-eyed and dispassionate about the country’s interest. But Adams is a much more complex figure than that particular view suggests. For it was also his belief that it was the unique duty of the American statesman to guide the nation to power while keeping it on a course towards justice. Throughout his career, Adams argued that changed circumstances—and particularly a change in capabilities—altered what was possible. As American resources grew and the nation became more capable of influencing the rest of the world, the limits of his vision become harder to discern, but they certainly seem less a product of restraint than of ambition. On this point, Inboden raises two particularly insightful questions. First, drawing on his experience as both a scholar and a policymaker, he ponders the contemporary relevance of Adams’s career and asks if historical insights from that career could inform policymaking today. He focuses on Adams’s most famous phrase—“America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”—and suggests that Adams should “not be crudely misappropriated by today’s proponents of the foreign policy variously called isolationism, non-interventionism, or restraint.” I am in complete agreement with him here. Adams himself would be the first to concur that changing circumstances and contexts must mean changing policies. In multiple instances, he declared that precedent should not become a policy straightjacket; the nation needed to keep in mind the changing nature of American power and the shifting international environment. What made sense when the nation was a small power on the edge of the world might not make as much sense to the nation’s ambitions when it became larger and more secure.

Inboden also suggests that I could have undertaken a fuller exploration of Adams’s spiritual life and theological convictions. While I do discuss John and Abigail’s belief that their children’s education should revolve around history, Christian ethics, and civic virtues, and I examine the general Adams creed that the personal morality of Christianity and the public virtues of civic duty were meant to be mutually reinforcing, more on this subject would have been a worthy addition to the book.

I do devote some time to analyzing the religious aspects of Adams’s views on slavery. During his post-presidential career, Adams held that abolishing slavery was a Christian duty that would bring the country closer to fulfilling its religious mission. He saw a reflection of Christianity’s most basic and important beliefs in the principles set out in the Declaration of Independence, and he believed that what was unique about America was that it had, for the first time in human history, institutionalized the gospel truth of the equality of man as a government’s first principle. America was founded, he thought, on an appeal to certain universal human rights that superseded all human law, and its morality came not from its actions, but from its realization of Christianity’s humane and just principles. What gave the American sense of mission such moral weight was its conversion of these universal rights to political principles.

Except, of course, when it didn’t. From the outset, many believed that slavery would eventually wither, if not disappear, as the country grew. And if it did not disappear, many thought it would at least be geographically circumscribed. But with the advent of the cotton gin and the westward expansion of the country, the institution of slavery, instead of withering, became much more deeply interwoven into the nation’s fabric. For Adams, the United States of the 1840s, with its aggressive pursuit of new territory and concomitant expansion of slavery, was a perversion of the nation whose mission was supposed to be the expansion of the realm of liberty. The transformed, debauched country was now a “colonizing, slave-tainted monarchy…[that] extinguished freedom.”7 It was to remedy this outrage that Adams turned on slavery with increasing ferocity during his congressional career.

The irony here, as Preston points out, is that Adams did more than most to create the conditions that allowed for slavery’s expansion. It is tragic that Adams’s early efforts to ensure America’s hegemony on the North American continent also ensured the extension of slavery into new lands. Preston finds it surprising that, as adept a grand strategist as Adams was, he could not find a better solution to the dilemma posed by slavery and expansion than civil war. Adams himself acknowledged that he was unable to solve the problem as early as the Missouri Crisis of 1819– 20, when he wrote that he believed that the abolition of slavery was possible but that it would come only through “a reorganization of the Union” that would follow the country’s dissolution.8 It is a fair critique of the portrayal of Adams as a grand strategist that it was only when Adams saw that expansion of federal territory and power meant the growth rather than the dilution of the South’s political clout that he reassessed his and the country’s priorities. Increasingly, the most important challenge the nation faced was how to rid itself of slavery now that it was sufficiently powerful to avoid being cannibalized by outside powers.

On this final point, Preston suggests that Adams’s exaggeration of an external security threat may have been to blame for the debacle that followed. “Perhaps the nation builder of the 1820s,” he writes, “paved the way for the nation destroyers of the 1860s.” While I think that Preston underrates the multiple ideological, military, and commercial threats posed to the United States in the post-Ghent years by looking retrospectively at the dominant position the United States occupied in the Western Hemisphere, he correctly observes that Adams believed that the country—if it misplayed its hand, if it overextended its capacities, if it dissipated its energy with unnecessary wars of choice, or if its own internal problems led to fracture—posed as great a threat to its future as any foreign power did.

In his perceptive review, Hulsebosch raises two related points about the danger the nation posed to itself. First, he probes the relationship between national politics and grand strategy. He also questions to what extent law might have a role in grand strategy and whether or not Adams’s highhanded use of it in the 1820s set the nation on a dangerous course in the 1840s. On the former point, Hulsebosch suggests that “unless grand strategy can capture the political, the history of grand strategy might not be able to reveal the designs in which nation builders labor.” I wholeheartedly agree. Adams’s evolving politics are a central theme of my book, as are the larger debates on foreign policy, political economy, slavery, and expansion. Grand strategy does indeed involve the conceptualization of ends as well as the tactical employment of means. But because grand strategy requires constant rebalancing act between means and ends, the reformulation, reassessment, and reconceptualization of those ends is a necessary part of it. John Quincy Adams regularly reassessed the strategic environment of the republic, judging which objectives most critically required action at any given moment and which means were best suited for those ends. One need only look at his anti-slavery statements of the 1830s and 1840s to understand just how much he had recalibrated the country’s most pressing needs. But equally important here is the ability to tell which means to employ and when. Hulsebosch asks whether there is a place in grand strategy for law. Adams’s career suggests that there is. He spent much of his post-presidential life developing various legal arguments attacking slavery. In this effort, he wielded the law as a weapon to advance a particular objective, much as he had done in defending Jackson’s invasion of Florida. From our vantage point, using the law to attack slavery seems more righteous than using it to justify dubious land grabs. But in both cases, the law became a useful and effective tool to promote a particular policy.

Hulsebosch suggests that the very legal arguments that Adams used in defense of America’s expansionist extension into Florida were ones he would later oppose when the United States incited a war with Mexico for similar purposes. Here he is on firm ground, as Adams himself bemoaned the policies of President Polk and must have found it particularly galling that Polk claimed he was simply acting in line with the Monroe Doctrine.

As Preston underscores in his comments, grand strategy does not need to be worked out in advance or executed flawlessly. Such a standard is neither realistic nor useful. Arguing that Adams consistently pursued a grand strategy for himself and for the nation does not mean that he had all the issues fully worked out from the start. Nor does it mean that his ideas remained static. Nor does it even mean that he had to be wholly successful (surely he was not in his lifetime) for his strategy to be judged a success. If Adams excelled in articulating what was in the nation’s interests, he had more trouble translating his vision into policy. But even brilliant strategic minds cannot always rise above their times. It would take an enormously bloody civil war to enable a much more nimble politician to institutionalize Adams’s vision for the nation in concrete policy terms.


  1. For a particularly good discussion of the parameters and polarizing nature of this debate, see the H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable, Volume VII, no. 2 (2014) on Hal Brands’s excellent What Good is Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush at https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/ discussions/48938/issf-roundtable-7-2-what-good-grand-strategy-power-and-purpose.
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York, 2004), 553.
  3. John Lewis Gaddis, “What is Grand Strategy?” Karl Von Der Heyden Distinguished Lecture, Duke University, February 26, 2009, at http://tiss-nc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/KEYNOTE.Gaddis50thAniv2009.pdf.
  4. Michael Cotey Morgan, Passport 45, no. 2 (September 2014): 40. 5. Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, ed. Henry Hardy and Roger Housheer (London, 1997), 239. 6. John Quincy Adams, Diary 34, November 28, 1823, 179 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005), at http:// www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/. 7. Ibid., Diary 44, June 10, 1844, 352. 8. Ibid., Diary 31, March 3, 1820, 275.


Charles N. Edel, Review of David Waldstreicher, ed., A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams; Presidential Studies Quarterly 45.2 (June 2015): 417–19.

A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams

Edited by David Waldstreicher

Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 584 pages

When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote The Cycles of American History he noted that there was an ebb and flow to American history, characterized by “cyclical rhythms that characterize American politics.” This is as true for presidential legacies as it is for contemporary politics. In Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, David Waldstreicher, who serves as both editor of and essayist in this extremely useful volume, notes that “we may be seeing the emergence of a cycle of American memory: when Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson are down, the Adamses are up.”(1) Ever since David McCullough published his best-selling and Pulitzer Prize winning biography John Adams in 2001, and HBO produced a popular series based on McCullough’s biography in 2008, both Adamses have been on something of a hot streak.

But, as Waldstriecher points out, that hot streak will eventually fade. The reasons for this are both contextual and historical. American history, politics, culture, and historical writing all seem to bounce between opposing poles. Americans are both advocates and opponents of a strong central government. They are alternatively attracted to and repulsed by foreign revolutions. And they both celebrate the common man’s wisdom and praise the talents of what Jefferson and Adams referred to as the “natural Aristocracy,” and later generations would come to call the meritocratic and technocratic elites. These alternating impulses are also true of American historians who are hardly immune to larger societal trends much as they might profess otherwise. Jefferson / Jackson and Adams seem to represent these opposed and often conflicting impulses. When one trend is in favor, one figure is held in higher esteem. And when one set of larger cultural assumptions gives way to another, the other figure immediately becomes more popular and relevant.

There is another, much more personal reason that helps explain why Americans and American historians seem alternatively delighted and repulsed by the Adamses. Both John and John Quincy were smart, knew it, wanted their colleagues and posterity to know it, and, as might be expected, were somewhat obnoxious about it. So, it comes as no great surprise that the Adamses have been both praised and maligned, and seen as out of touch with American democracy while being deemed essential to it.

John Adams drove the move for independence at the second Continental Congress, secured the American Revolution by guaranteeing its financial underwriting abroad, was the driving force behind the creation of the United States Navy, and single-handedly wrote Massachusetts’s constitution—the model for nearly every state Constitution and for the United States Constitution. His son did almost as well. John Quincy Adams was the architect of the Monroe Doctrine, expanded the nation’s border to the Pacific ocean, offered one of the most progressive visions of government in American history, and in the final stage of his career lead the charge against slavery.

But despite their numerous achievements, and despite the millions of words written by and about them, but John and John Quincy Adams remain something of an enigma. Waldstreicher captures this tension in his brief introductory essay, “The Adams Paradox” perfectly. There are of course numerous questions that make study of either of these two towering figures profitable, but tension—paradox even—does sit at the heart of both Adamses. For John Adams, the central question remains how a figure so central to the declaring and achieving of independence, so quickly became seen as a figure out of touch with emerging American norms. For John Quincy, traditionally his life has been split into two parts: pre-congressional and post. But, the question of continuity has not been as adequately addressed. And, the discontinuity, has not been as fruitful—why did he succeed so wildly in some areas, and fail so miserably in others?

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to American History series is meant to introduce readers to historiographic debates surrounding a given topic. Beginning in 2011, Wiley-Blackwell began publishing volumes on various presidents. This is the eleventh instillation in the series and it is, for the most part, a very useful introduction to the second and sixth presidents and their families. Twenty-seven scholars authored twenty-five different articles for this volume. The companion divides neatly into three different sections. The first deals with the first generation of Adamses, John and Abigail, and the second with their eldest son John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine. A final section looks at the images and legacies of the Adams, as judged against Thomas Jefferson, on the screen, and in American memory. Within each section, the chapters are meant to proceed chronologically, with additional essays highlighting key episodes and themes in their lives and careers. This means that there are essays that explore the parts of both Adamses’ careers that can be neatly divided chronologically—their educations, influences, politics, diplomacy, presidencies, and post-presidencies for John Quincy—and those that are better suited for thematic treatment—including John Adams’s views on religion and feminism, John Quincy’s on slavery, cosmopolitanism, and rhetoric, and both of their relationships with their spouses.

As this list suggests, a lot more is covered than just their respective presidencies. Reading these essays collectively, the larger political and cultural movements in which they lived, a sense of their intellectual influences and rivals, and, ultimately their legacy in American history and political thought emerges. As Waldstreicher writes in introduction, these essays are not meant to provide a definitive appraisal of either Adams, but rather to introduce both general and specialized reader alike to the evolving historiography of and scholarship on the Adamses. They are meant to introduce the reader “to what people have been writing and saying about the Adamses for more than two hundred years, not least the prolific, diary-keeping, history-writing Adamses themselves.”(2) … …

Overall, this is a fine collection of essays on the Adamses, and an excellent introduction to one of the most admired, despised, honored, and disrespected families in American history.


Charles Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, October 2014).

“America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”―John Quincy Adams’s famous words are often quoted to justify noninterference in other nations’ affairs. Yet when he spoke them, Adams was not advocating neutrality or passivity but rather outlining a national policy that balanced democratic idealism with a pragmatic understanding of the young republic’s capabilities and limitations. America’s rise from a confederation of revolutionary colonies to a world power is often treated as inevitable, but Charles N. Edel’s provocative biography of Adams argues that he served as the central architect of a grand strategy that shaped America’s rise. Adams’s particular combination of ideas and policies made him a critical link between the founding generation and the Civil War–era nation of Lincoln.

Examining Adams’s service as senator, diplomat, secretary of state, president, and congressman, Edel’s study of this extraordinary figure reveals a brilliant but stubborn man who was both visionary prophet and hard-nosed politician. Adams’s ambitions on behalf of America’s interests, combined with a shrewd understanding of how to counter the threats arrayed against them, allowed him to craft a multitiered policy to insulate the nation from European quarrels, expand U.S. territory, harness natural resources, develop domestic infrastructure, education, and commerce, and transform the United States into a model of progress and liberty respected throughout the world.

While Adams did not live to see all of his strategy fulfilled, his vision shaped the nation’s agenda for decades afterward and continues to resonate as America pursues its place in the twenty-first-century world. … … …


Charles N. Edel, Review of Emile Simpson’s War from the Ground Up: Twenty First Century Combat as Politics; Orbis 58.4 (Fall 2014): 1–4.

Consider the case of an American or British platoon in Afghanistan which has been ordered to clear out entrenched insurgents in a small village in the heart of the Afghan poppy-growing region. The platoon airlifts in, lands without incident, and begins moving towards its initial objective. Insurgents—we’ll call them Taliban, whether or not that’s an appropriate designator—begin firing on the soldiers. The platoon repulses the fire, resulting in casualties on both sides that are caught on film (or rather smart phone) by the insurgents. At this point, the platoon’s full resources are brought to bear—helicopters lay down covering fire, A- 10s buzz the insurgents, snipers shoot from the ground. Eventually, after several days, the platoon clears the area. They hold the position for several weeks until they are recalled back to a nearby base. The insurgents, most of whom are unemployed Afghans, return to the village. The local inhabitants observe these comings and goings, and the ebbs and flows of battle, with a mixture of indifference, irritation, approval, and frustration.

How do we understand this event? Who won? And does the word “winning” even hold conceptual value in such an incident? These are some of the questions that Emile Simpson asks in his insightful, challenging, and utterly absorbing book, War From the Ground Up: Twenty First Century Combat as Politics. Simpson served as an infantry officer in the British Army from 2006 to 2012 and completed three tours in southern Afghanistan, as well as in Brunei, Nepal, and the Falkland Islands. Oxford educated and the child of Cambridge academics, Simpson’s short, but extremely dense book is a showcase of theoretical abstractions constantly tethered to the ground truths of a soldier.

The result is a work that seeks to explain the nature of modern warfare. Or as Simpson more modestly puts it, to apply Carl von Clausewitz’s insights to a contemporary context.

Ambitious a goal as this is, it is not unwarranted. Clausewitz, an intellectual and a soldier, wrote On War at a time of profound disruption. The French Revolution had unleashed tectonic shifts in society that would change how warfare could be fought and what it was capable of accomplishing. Napoleon defeated the Prussians, and indeed most of Continental Europe, because he understood these changes and harnessed them to his purposes. Conversely, Clausewitz’s Prussians failed because they did not understand the transformation that war had undergone, instead choosing to frame and fight the conflict in outmoded terms. Simpson believes that globalization and the information revolution are creating another seismic shift in human society comparable to that of industrialization. These changes, he argues, are fundamentally altering the environment in which wars are fought. He asserts that the “extent and speed of inter-connectivity associated with contemporary globalization can unhinge classical strategy.” Lest the liberal Western powers today suffer the fate of Clausewitz’s Prussia, Simpson contends that they need to reconsider how they think about classical Clausewitzian strategy. … … …


Charles N. Edel, “Bombers’ Early Light,” Sunday Book Review, New York Times, 3 July 2014.

Review of A.J. Baime’s Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War

“England’s battles, it used to be said, were won on the playing fields of Eton,” the American labor leader Walter Reuther declared in 1940, but “America’s can be won on the assembly lines of Detroit.” Joseph Stalin agreed. Toasting President Roosevelt in 1943, he stated that “the most important things in this war are machines” and that the United States was “the country of machines.”

The war proved both men correct, and the numbers are staggering. American industry, converted almost overnight from civilian to wartime production, produced 1,556 naval ships; 5,777 merchant ships; 88,410 jeeps; 2,383,311 trucks; 6.5 million rifles and 40 billion bullets between 1940 and 1945. Perhaps most impressive were the 299,293 airplanes that rolled off the assembly lines. Whether the air war was ultimately decisive remains a matter of historical debate, but Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler all believed these planes were essential to victory because they could bring the fight to their opponents by destroying their industrial capabilities, pulverizing their military hardware and terrorizing their populations into submission.

In A. J. Baime’s fast-paced book, “The Arsenal of Democracy,” the Ford Motor Company and its production of the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber take center stage. To be sure, this was one of many planes produced for the war, and Ford was neither the only car company to manufacture planes nor the largest military contractor. But as Baime points out, “Americans believed that no single Detroit industrialist was contributing more to the war effort than Henry Ford.” … … …

Chares Edel, “John Quincy Adams and American Foreign Policy in a Revolutionary Era,” E-Note, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), 26 February 2013.

John Quincy Adams famously proclaimed “America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” in a speech that has been quoted ever since to justify noninterference by the United States in the affairs of other nations.[1] However Adams was not warning future presidents away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the messiness of foreign policy and the necessary trade-offs it demands.

There are three powerful lessons that President Obama might take from a careful look at Adams’ foreign policy. First, that embracing American power means being as conscious of its limits as of its reach. Second, that America should be very careful about involving itself in foreign revolutions. And, third, that America should advocate change, but not upheaval.

Adams argued that embracing American power meant being conscious of its limits as well as its reach. He knew that defining American power as limitless could paradoxically limit American power and therefore consistently worked to scale back overly broad U.S. commitments. This is particularly important today as the country weighs its commitments and force structure around the world. An America that is equally committed to projecting its power everywhere limits its ability to do so effectively and decisively. This principle is best expressed by Adams’s equal commitment to aggression and restraint in matters of foreign policy. During his tenure as Secretary of State, he worked to expand America’s territorial and commercial interests, while limiting its commitments abroad.

A quick reminder of what North America looked like when Adams became the Secretary of State. In a word: Hostile. In every direction, foreign powers bordered the United States. To the north, the British controlled Canada and, in the wake of the War of 1812, had engaged in a naval buildup on the Great Lakes. Spain’s gradual loss of power, both in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere, led to even greater challenges as Spain held the key to determining the western border of the United States. While America had paid France for the Louisiana territory in 1803, the Spanish had disputed its extent and boundaries ever since. In Florida, the Spanish Governor could not control his own territory—leaving it open to pirates, runaway slaves, and the increasingly hostile Creek Indians. Even further south, revolutions in Spain’s former colonies raised the prospect of Spanish or French intervention. As if this were not challenge enough, Russia was increasingly eyeing the Pacific Northwest.

Adams worked to establish a preponderance of power on the North American continent. As Adams attempted to expand U.S. borders, he worked to push Spanish, Russian, and British interests out of, or nearly out of, North America and project American power all the way to the Pacific. … … …

Charles Edel, Review for Roundtable 3-12 on Loch Johnson’s The Threat on the Horizon: An Inside Account of America’s Search for Security after the Cold War; H-Diplo, 23 April 2012.

By the mid-1990s, a series of scandals and disasters in the intelligence community were appearing in the headlines almost weekly. At the CIA, there were reports of widespread mismanagement, several hundred female officers had brought a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the Directorate of Operations, and Aldrich Ames appeared on the cover of Time Magazine after having been convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. The National Reconnaissance Office stood accused of purposefully misrepresenting its finances to Congress. On top of all of this, the intelligence community was being criticized for failing to predict not only the end of the Cold War, but also the political upheavals in Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia.

As a result, President Clinton stood up the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the US Intelligence Community. Its mandate, at least nominally, was to conduct an investigation into the capabilities of the intelligence community. But in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, it assumed a broader mission. As Les Aspin, the Committee’s first Chairman who died of a heart attack half way through the Commission’s work, asked, “what happens to the intelligence community now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet empire broken up?” (58). In this spirit, the Commission took on the larger task of examining the purpose of the intelligence community in the post-Cold War era.

Loch Johnson, a political scientist who has written more than a dozen works on intelligence and national security, and a former staff director of the House’s subcommittee on intelligence oversight, was asked by his former boss Aspin to serve as his assistant on the Commission. The Threat on the Horizon is the absorbing result of his tenure there and his reflections afterwards. Part memoir of his time on the Commission, part history of the evolution of the intelligence community in the 1990s, and part primer on how the intelligence cycle works, Johnson writes that he intended this book to be a “citizen’s report on what I found during this journey into the dark regions of America’s government” (xiv).

While occasionally getting bogged down in atmospheric details, Johnson provides an excellent description of how such a commission functions. He explains how it organizes itself, chooses its members, defines its mandate, figures out the substantive questions it needs to address, takes testimony from experts, identifies key issues and points of tension, drafts a report, and presents its findings. In addition, Johnson draws on his previous works to make this book serve as an excellent and (somewhat) succinct summary of the intelligence community’s membership, history, and impact.

In so doing, this book makes two contributions to the existing literature on intelligence—one stylistic and one substantive. Though his descriptions, Johnson brings to life the intelligence process of the 1990’s. While this is not James Bond, it is also not a list of bullet points about process. Instead, what emerges is a dynamic picture of issues and tensions within the bureaucracy and how official Washington gathers, analyzes, shares, and, too often, ignores intelligence. Johnson also gives a vivid account of how a National Intelligence Estimate is produced and what goes into the Presidential Daily Brief.

More substantively, Johnson’s account of the Commission’s meetings and testimony captures the state of intelligence at the end of the Cold War. Through anecdote and reconstructions of various intelligence experts’ testimony, taken from his own notes and from classified committee minutes, Johnson establishes the origins of several issues that would come to dominate the debates on intelligence reform in the 2000’s. … … …

Charles Edel, Review of Robert Kagan, Dangerous NationInternational Journal 62.2 (Spring 2007), 431–34.

DANGEROUS NATION America’s Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century Robert Kagan New York: Knopf, 2006.527 pp, US $30.00, CDN $40.00 cloth.

It’s an old saw that any argument worth making is worth overstating. John Quincy Adams, America’s most successful—and most cantankerous—secretary of state knew this. Attempting to persuade President Monroe of an iffy proposition, he reasoned, “if the question was dubious, it was better to err on the side of vigor than of weakness.”

Robert Kagan, of Of Paradise and Power fame, makes a vigorous argument in his new survey of American foreign policy. This book, the first part of a projected two-volume history of the United States’ place in the world, takes as its subject America’s rise to world power. It begins with the imperial contests of the 17th century and concludes in 1898—though 2008 is never very far over the horizon. The sheer sweep and ambition of the book, combined with Kagan’s extraordinary narrative skill, make it a pleasure to read. And for readers unfamiliar with America’s early history, Kagan performs a real service by reminding us that America is not, and was never, isolationist. It was deeply embedded into the international system in terms of trade and, most especially, geopolitics—after all, America’s founding document, the declaration of independence, was both a diplomatic project, meant to provide the legal basis for France to aid another sovereign state, as well as a universal declaration of human rights. But splendid isolation is just one of several American myths at which Kagan takes aim. Also in his crosshairs are Americans’ belief in their own unique virtue and, equally one-dimensional, America’s cynical critics’ belief in its base materialism. In short, this book offers something for everyone—or, stated in another way, just enough to tick off everyone. … … …

Charles Edel, Review of Gary Hart, The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in Twenty-First CenturyCambridge Review of International Affairs (March 2006): 191–92.

Pleading for a more principled US foreign policy in the spring of 2004, Gary Hart wrote, ‘we believe, above all else, in freedom … We believe that democracy is the best system to guarantee that freedom’ (36). Apparently, such pleas did not fall on deaf ears. In January of 2005, in his second inaugural address President George W Bush declared, ‘The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.’2

While Bush did not read Hart’s The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the Twenty-First Century, he might have done well to do so. Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado and presidential candidate, as well as a prolific author of more than a dozen books on US history and politics, is perhaps most importantly known as the co-Chair of the Commission on National Security/ 21st Century that correctly predicted massive terrorist attacks on US soil as early as 1998. In his latest book, which largely echoes and elaborates on the Commission’s report, Hart weighs in on America’s grand strategy by discussing America’s place in the world and offering a proscriptive course of action.

Articulating grand strategy is a favourite pastime of academics and kings and in its modern form dates back to the early 19th century. Carl von Clausewitz, the godfather of grand strategy, wrote that tactics were about winning battles, strategy about winning campaigns and wars, and grand strategy about choosing which wars to fight. Dismayed by current alternatives, Hart offers his own grand strategy. … … …