Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, joined NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz to discuss his new book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, in a virtual NTI Seminar on June 8. Co-authored with Elliot Ackerman, 2034 describes how today’s political, economic, and technological conditions could erupt into the next world war. It has been said that Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even the COVID-19 pandemic were failures of imagination on the part of intelligence services and government officials. Today, imagination is a national security imperative, and 2034 is a cautionary tale of what could happen if our leaders do not anticipate future challenges.
In a discussion moderated by Page Stoutland, NTI’s vice president for Scientific and Technical Affairs, Admiral Stavridis laid out the current points of contention between the United States and China that, left unaddressed, could lead to full-scale conflict like the one depicted in 2034. From trade quarrels and ever-increasing military capabilities to China extending its geopolitical influence through its international trade-based Belt and Road Initiative, there is no lack of disagreements between the two countries. What happens in the book, Stavridis said, is not beyond the realm of possibility.
For the backdrop of the book’s opening scenario, Stavridis selected the South China Sea. Fictional Commodore Sarah Hunt leads a “freedom of navigation” patrol through what China considers its territorial waters and, due to miscalculations on both sides, the situation escalates into armed conflict between the United States and China. The ensuing catastrophe in which the two countries pay a staggering price gives insight into real steps the United States could take to prevent a fictional war from becoming a reality.
Avoiding the Thucydides Trap: recommendations for the current administration and beyond
Moniz asked Stavridis how the United States and China could avoid falling into what is known as the Thucydides Trap, or the historical tendency of established and rising powers to go to war with each other. Stavridis first cited the United States’ lack of an overall plan for responding to China as a growing economic and military competitor, and recommended the administration charge a group of top experts with coming up with one that addresses military, economic, diplomatic, and technological factors.
That plan cannot be successful if the United States executes it alone. Of note, in 2034, the United States goes to war without its allies with disastrous consequences, illustrating what could happen “if we do not tend the garden” of diplomacy with U.S. allies and partners, Stavridis said. On the eve of President Biden’s trip to Europe for G7, NATO, and EU summits, he recommended that Biden ask Europeans to “come with us to Asia. We need you if we’re going to face China effectively, particularly as China and Russia get closer and closer.”
Nuclear arms control and the dangers of tactical nuclear weapons
When asked about the relationship between nuclear weapons policy and China’s rise, Stavridis emphasized the centrality of arms control in avoiding nuclear catastrophe since the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he supported working with Russia to bring China into future negotiations. He expressed hope that Biden would discuss this with Putin at their upcoming summit in Geneva as it would benefit both countries.
Stavridis told the audience “you’ll have to read the book” to know whether nuclear weapons are used in 2034, but he fielded Moniz’s question about whether it would ever be sensible to use tactical nuclear weapons. Speaking from experience in the upper echelons of the American military establishment, Stavridis emphatically warned that any potential use of tactical nuclear weapons would be extremely likely to escalate further out of control. “I find it very difficult to see how we could use [a tactical nuclear weapon] and avoid the use of a strategic level one.”
Cyber competition and rules of the road
In addition to nuclear weapons, Stavridis described how the disruptive effects of cyberattacks over time, particularly with the advent of quantum computing, will “approach the impact level of nuclear detonations.” The world is familiar with nuclear capabilities, but with cyber there is still a lot of ambiguity – “we need to overcome that,” Stavridis said.
To date, the United States has not been interested in negotiating limits or rules for offensive cyber weapons, presumably because it has been in the lead thus far. Stavridis argued this was a misguided position, saying he believes “we should have started five years ago.” He recommended going to Brussels as soon as possible to develop a common negotiating position with the Europeans before entering into discussions with the Russians and the Chinese. He also noted the many rising regional powers at the forefront of such developments, citing Israel, India, and Estonia as leaders in their own right, and he acknowledged that permanent solutions will have to be broadly international in nature. To remain at the forefront of the technology race, he encouraged more federal investment in research and development, including the same kind of seed funding that private companies now benefit from after NASA sent astronauts to the moon, for example.
Stavridis highlighted his desire to create characters as the reason he wanted to write a novel. “Each of these characters steps up to tell his or her national story,” beginning with Sarah Hunt, a woman who represents the future of the American military as a former Navy SEAL and commodore of a group of destroyers, serving with a female U.S. president with no party affiliation as her commander-in-chief. Referring to the setting of the book in 2034, Stavridis said, “it would shock me if we don’t have a woman president by then.” To develop his characters, he drew on his experience as the captain of one of the very first U.S. warships with women sailors.
Overall, Stavridis explained, 2034 is not a story of good versus evil. Instead, “war is the villain,” and the story is engaging enough to have reached number six on the New York Times fiction bestsellers list. As he noted near the end of the event, “Let’s hope it stays on the fiction side of the list.”
2034: A Novel of the Next World War was published in March. More details about the book can be found here.
Watch the NTI seminar with Admiral Stavridis here.
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