The Buckley Program hosted Professor Matthew Kroenig and Dr. Jeffrey Lewis on February 3rd, 2022 for a Firing Line Debate on US Nuclear Strategy. Matthew Kroenig is a Professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. A 2019 study in Perspectives on Politics ranked him as one of the top 25 most-cited political scientists of his generation. Professor Kroenig has served in several positions in the U.S. Department of Defense and the intelligence community in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, including in the Strategy, Middle East, and Nuclear and Missile Defense offices in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the CIA’s Strategic Assessments Group. From 2017-2021, he was a Special Government Employee (SGE) and Senior Policy Adviser to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capability. The following interview was conducted on February 3rd via Zoom.
In your most recent book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry, you mention that autocracies are better at mass mobilization than liberal states. But you also show that during WWI and WWII, the US was able to mobilize faster than Russia and China. Would it be fair to say that, during times of great consensus, democracies can mobilize as fast as their autocratic counterparts?
Professor Matthew Kroenig
In this era of great power competition, there are many people who are worried. They see China and Russia as centralized powers that can mass resources and can move quickly and make big, bold decisions. They see the United States as gridlocked, fragmented, polarized — that we can’t get things done. But I think that our system is better on the whole. When society does sharply disagree on something, like when 50% of the public really does not want something to happen, it’s probably a good time to pause and not to try to push through some big, bold proposal that not everyone agrees with. On the other hand, when the country is unified, then our system makes it easy to get things done. So, in short, yes, I think when there is a major threat, if there’s consensus, our system can mobilize and get things done.
Some scholars have argued that the Cold War was responsible for positive social change domestically. Segregation was a point of international hypocrisy, and some argue that the Cold War helped lead to desegregation. Do you think that the US can or will learn anything from great power competition with China?
While the United States has its flaws, the country that has the real human rights concerns and internal problems is China. They’re currently engaging in a genocide. Russia engages in gross human rights violations with Putin shooting enemies in the back. Those are the countries and societies that human rights advocates should be most concerned about. But when it comes to the United States, competition can make us better and it has made us better, historically, as you pointed out. In this era of competition, if you look at the Biden administration’s interim national security guidance, they had three paragraphs on China. The first one was about strengthening the United States at home. If we’re not strong at home, we can’t be strong abroad. So, strengthening our democracy, improving race relations, infrastructure, technology investments, science, and education are going to be required to compete. So, yes, this tense national security environment will allow us to improve. Now, people don’t always think of him as a great defender of democracy, but Machiavelli, the great Italian political theorist, made the same point in his book the Discourses on Livy. He argued that domestic clashes within the Roman Republic led to greater power abroad and ultimately greater freedoms at home.
I have a question about your another one of your books, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy. It seems that your premise is that getting hit by 100,000 nuclear warheads is worse than being struck by 10,000. While I agree with you that this difference will be accounted for within democracies because of the audience cost, I am not convinced this is the case for autocracies. If the interests of an autocrat lie in regime survival and personal survival, and if there are a certain number of nuclear weapons that would guarantee the end of his regime and end his life, is it not the case that anything past that point is overkill?
Deterrence is about getting in the mind of the adversary. You want to hold at risk and threaten things the adversary cares about, not necessarily the things that you care about. It’s probably true that autocracies care less about their people than democracies do. I think that’s why the United States uses a counterforce nuclear strategy. It’s not about killing innocent civilians — it’s about holding at risk military forces and the ability to command and control those military forces. We do this for several reasons. For moral reasons, we’re not trying to kill a large number of civilians. For strategic reasons, we do this to limit damage to ourselves, but also – to the point of your question –that’s what dictators care about. The most effective deterrent is to put their ability to command their forces and even their own lives at risk.
In your recent book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry, you argue that our democratic institutions attract human capital. In World War II the US attracted great German thinkers and during the Cold War we attracted great Russian thinkers. In the early 2000s, about 90% of overseas Chinese remained in America after studying here. Now that number is around 10-20%. Do you think that the Trump administration’s Department of Justice’s espionage crackdown was counterproductive? Should we be more or less welcoming of Chinese students?
I’m not an immigration expert but having done this study of democracies versus autocracies over 2500 years, this is a remarkable advantage democracies possess over and over again. The best and the brightest from around the world want to come to these free societies and they want to flee autocracies. We saw this as far back as Ancient Athens, a place where people from all over the Mediterranean came, and we see it with the US today. It’s a great American strength and we don’t want to lose it. With regard to China, there are a few factors at play. One is that some Chinese see more opportunity in China than they did 20 years ago due to China’s economic growth. There’s also pressure from the Party. China has a civil-military fusion model. Essentially, they require all Chinese people living overseas to bring technology back to China to share with the PLA. There’s pressure on them to get degrees and come back and they’re worried about what may happen to them or their families if they don’t. This means that for US immigration policy, there is a balancing act. If China is sending students here to engage in intellectual property theft, to become trained as artificial intelligence experts with the goal of going back to help the Chinese People’s Liberation Army build drones to kill Americans, we clearly don’t want to be abetting that. On the other hand, if we can attract talented Chinese to come here, become citizens, and contribute to the dynamism of America’s economy and society, we should. We certainly don’t want to cut off skilled immigration which is one of the greatest sources of our strength.
Clay Skaggs is the Engagement Director for the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale. He is a sophomore in Branford College studying History and East Asian Studies. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.