2034 – A Politics for the People conversation with Authors Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

On Thursday, August 12th, people from across the country joined Politics for the People host Cathy Stewart for a conversation with Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, authors of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.

You can watch the full video below:

Cathy kicks off the discussion with a question for Admiral Stavridis about the book’s origins:

Let me kick us off with a question for you, Admiral, about the origins of 2034. How did the collaboration with Elliot come about and why did you decide to tackle the fault lines in US-China foreign policy through a novel?”

Admiral Stavridis points to his love of literature and it’s potential to deter future conflict for an answer:

Yeah, I get the question a lot. You know, ‘You’ve written nine books of non-fiction. Why all of a sudden have you decided you’re a novelist?’…I’m an aficionado of cold war literature…because I felt if we could imagine how terrible a war would have been between the US and the Soviet Union, we had a better chance of avoiding it – it kind of acted in a deterrent kind of way. So reflecting on that, Cathy, it occurred to me that there’s really no comparative body of literature about how terrible a war between the US and China would be. And unfortunately, I think we are clearly finding our way in at least a cold war with China…”

To expand more on the origins of the authors’ collaboration, Elliot steps in:

…we share an editor at Penguin Press, a fellow named Scott Moyers, and so Scott came to me with this idea that the Admiral had had. And I don’t think he understood that the two of us had known each other for the better part of a decade and were already friends. When Jim was Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, He invited me to serve as the writer in residence for a semester…And so we started talking about this project – very quickly, we realized that, you know, we were aligned in what we wanted this book to be…It’s a lean book and, and it’s focused on a few principle characters…”

Cathy’s next question touches on the subject of independents, both in 2034 and 2021:

One thing I was struck by in the book that I wanted to ask you both about is the president is a woman and an independent, and I wanted to ask you why those choices, and also to comment on a growing trend…the trend towards independence among our veterans. Right now, 45% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans are identifying as independents. Why do you think that is and why the choice to have the president be both a woman and an independent?”

Admiral Stavridis offers his experience with the shift in people’s views of the two party system and his feelings on what that means for the future:

The choice of a woman was not even really a choice. I think I’d be shocked if we don’t have a woman president by 2034, the more carefully thought through choice was to make her an independent. And I, I had that idea from the very beginning, it aligned with Elliot’s views of things. I have two daughters in their late twenties, early thirties, millennials. They look at both political parties and they just shake their heads…We didn’t start out with Republicans and Democrats. We started with Federalists, wigs, independence. You know, it was a hodgepodge of political parties, took us almost a hundred years to really firmly solidify the grip that these two parties, in my view, unfortunately have on the political systems. And as a result, it’s going to take a while to undo that grip efforts like those represented by this group, I think are extremely important. So making her an independent was a foreshadowing of something I firmly believe will unfold probably by mid-century or so – we’re going to find our way to thinking very differently about a political process that I think most on this call would agree is almost irretrievably broken.”

Elliot offers his own experience with partisanship in the military:

…the observation that an increasing number of military veterans identify as independents, to me, that is not surprising. Politics is culture and in the military, you’re reared in, I would say a different – if even a subculture of American society and it is a culture that is very intentionally nonpolitical in that individuals are welcome to have their politics – and of course do have their politics as they should – but are taught that politics and partisanship are not first and foremost in the pursuit of the collective good necessarily, and that we suspend those beliefs to work towards a higher purpose. So I think after whether it’s four years or 40 years of inhabiting that culture, it then becomes very intuitive to take that way being that way of citizenship and have it extended to you in in civilian life. So to me, it’s no surprise that you see a high a high correlation between independence and veterans existence.”

And finally, Stewart asks:

What do you hope that readers will take away from 2034?”

Admiral Stavridis opens up with his hopes for the readers’ impressions of the book:

…my hope is that people will say, ‘This is a cautionary tale. This is what we don’t want to happen.’ And then they will begin to think more seriously about ‘How do we avoid it?’ How do we reverse engineer ourselves back from the calamitous year we described in 2034 and avoid sleepwalking, stumbling into a war with China?…The other echo you ought to get in this book is 1914, The Guns of August – Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial treatment of how Europe, which had all these intertwined economies, royal families related by blood, and yet they managed to stumble into [an] apocalyptic war that killed 20 million people…The world really spins on this axis, so we don’t want this. So how do we avoid it? And we don’t have time to unpackage all that, but I’ll simply say we need a strategy. We need a strategy for interacting in dealing with China. That is not premised on military dominance – cause that’s not gonna work. Nor is it premised on economic imperialism – that’s not gonna work. It’s not going to be strictly premised on waving our hands and saying ‘We’re just better because we’re Democrats and libertarians, and we have freedom in our society.’ That’s not gonna work. We need a clever nuanced strategy to face up to China. If we don’t, I fear we’re going to stumble right in the direction of 2034.”

Elliot then adds that he hopes the readers take the experiences of the characters in the book with them:

I would only add that as a novelist, I hope you walk away caring about these five characters and you feel like you spend a bunch of time with them and you know them – this story ends differently for each of them, some better, some worse. So I hope you remember what happens to them…And then I would only add to that as a reader, you’re walking, you’re taking that journey with them, and this kind of goes to your, your comment before Cathy about veterans and political independence. There’s something that that’s really struck me many years ago was when I first went to war when I went to Iraq, and I remember we flew over there. I led a platoon of about 45 Marines…there are a number of a handful of Marines who had never been on an airplane before. So their first airplane ride in my platoon was to go to Iraq. But then there were many more, obviously, who’d never left the country before. And so if you’ve never left the country before, and your first experience with foreign countries is a war in Iraq, I think for many veterans it’s a jarring experience, but in some ways, something good that comes out of that is it’s a very stark reminder that the nice life we enjoy in America, despite our dysfunction, needs to be earned. And 2034 is creating an alternate reality that’s very frightening, but there are many realities of how countries behave and reform that are there, you know, right outside of our borders, if we allow ourselves to get too dysfunctional. And so, again, for veterans, I think we often understand this intuitively because we’ve had these very formative experiences of going and trying to do something good in those countries, even when it doesn’t work out perfectly. And so I think, you know, if you’re going to read the book 2034, whether you’ve traveled all over the world or you’ve never left the United States before, I hope it gives you a glimpse into an alternate reality that we should be doing everything we can to avoid – and is avoidable.”

Cathy then opens up the discussion to Q&A questions from participants – the first of which comes from Dennis Flaherty in Arizona.

Gentlemen, it’s my honor, as an air force retiree, to be able to participate in this discussion. My question is, what should our response be when so-called ransomware attacks are suspected of being the camel’s nose, probing our cyber defenses?”

Admiral Stavridis takes the lead on this answer, saying:

…First of all, there is a national level response to not just ransomware, but these probes that are coming at us and therefore the National Security Agency, US Cyber Command and other government entities have a very strong responsibility to do everything they can to attribute these attacks. Secondly, when they can be successfully attributed, we need to begin by publicizing where they’re coming from. So most recently we’ve seen a spate of these coming from Russia, typically from criminal gangs that are operating with at a minimum, the acquiescence of the Putin government, probably with their encouragement. So we need to identify them. Number three, we need to respond nationally…Without getting into classification, I’ll simply say the US government has the ability to respond the trickier part of this…And your question implies it correctly is whether or not we then ought to have a kind of reckoning with the government. I’ll close on this by saying private companies have a responsibility here as well to protect themselves, to ensure they’re using good cyber hygiene to take advantage of firms that can provide tools to the individual companies because the threat surface is so vast here that the us government isn’t going to be able to prevent every attack. That ought to be private, public cooperation, both sides have to work together on that.”

The next question comes from Bob Perls in New Mexico.

As a former US diplomat, I agree that we’ve seen the state department’s influence reduced over the years. I’d love to hear the two authors’ thoughts about whether you think the balance between defense and Department of State needs to be better aligned – more in balance in the future – to avoid a 2034 scenario, or do you think it’s much more complex than that? What are your takes about the influence of state versus the Pentagon?”

Elliot leads the discussion, tapping into his military experience to address the question:

I would say in my experience representing and serving in the US military overseas, very often on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, young, on the ground troops were being asked to shoulder civic responsibilities at the local level that typically, one would imagine, would be handled by civilian agencies. And in many regards, you would see infantry men or special operations doing an admirable job starting a waterworks program or managing a road construction program. But these are not necessarily the things that they signed up – the missions they signed up to perform. So there was a lot of sort of ad hoc work going on. Now, the question then begins, do we need to make our state department more robust and give it kind of more granular tactical development capabilities? And I think there certainly is room for that, and I think there is definitely a downside in having the first and most forward facing portion of US engagement, in many places, be our military. I think anywhere we can have the face of America not necessarily be our military is probably a good thing because it is a less intimidating face.”

Admiral Stavridis concurs and adds his own remarks:

Could not agree more…Let me quote, Bob Gates, secretary of defense, former director of the CIA, one of my life mentors. Bob Gates was fond of pointing out that we have more people in military bands than we do foreign service officers. What’s wrong with that picture in my view? Quite a bit. Or my, my friend and contemporary general, later secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, who often said, ‘Look, if you don’t spend the money on diplomacy and development, you’re going to end up buying me more ammunition.’ And so here, I like to use the analogy that we’re all kind of familiar with, which is medicine, between soft power and hard power. So hard power, the use of the military instrument, is like at the end game in medicine – it’s when you have let things go, or you’ve been struck by a terrible disease and you have to undergo a difficult operation. The road to recovery is long. The chances of success are uneven. You really don’t want to be in that world. Over here, soft power, which is diplomacy and development…This is preventative care. This is taking a baby aspirin every day. This is taking a walk every day…It doesn’t cost very much. It’s not very painful to do it. It’s actually quite enjoyable and it is so effective. So cost-effective. So the point here Bob is yes, I would say take some resources…take it out of the hard power side of the equation and get it over here on the very soft power, highly cost-effective side of the equation. And as you deeply appreciate, it’s not just diplomacy it’s development to different things. Let me close by saying, I don’t want to imply that you don’t need hard power…You’re going to need hard power at times. But that long game combines them both – hard power and soft power together. That’s smart power as some have called it. I’m a strong proponent of finding that balance. We don’t have it right at the moment.”

Tiani Coleman from New Hampshire asks:

My question is related to this idea that I, as an individual who’s not involved in national security, all I can really think of that I can do, and that we can do, is to try to be better peacemakers in our own lives…try to be the kind of people who always want to bring about a peaceful solution in our own lives to try to create a culture of peace. But as your book suggests, things can turn south very quickly and we don’t have time to slowly create a better culture of peace. We have to know what we can do immediately. So I’m wondering, what can be done immediately to…try to avert this type of disaster? And in asking that question, I’d just like to point out Sarah Hunt, for example – she was actually portrayed as a very likable character of high integrity in my view, although she was also at the center of this and…made decisions that apparently caused a lot of this, some of them without her really even realizing what she was doing…what else would you have someone like her do differently?”

Admiral Stavridis gives the first answer to her question:

First of all, I resonate to your point that there’s a long game being played here of developing a culture that’s smart enough to avoid war. And that’s important both here in the United States, in China, in Russia, all around the world. And obviously we’re still falling into wars and there are conflicts all around, but compared to the 20th century, the 21st century is unfolding in, in my view, a somewhat better way then it did a hundred years ago when the world, literally, found itself sleepwalking into a war. So yes, there’s a cultural component to this, I would say…The immediate thing you can be doing is voting for candidates who make sense to you…I think the ballot box is a very strong place that all of us can register a desire for the kind of leadership that we want and need in the country.”

He then develops on his answer in regards to the choices Sarah Hunt makes in the book:

In terms of Sarah Hunt, yeah, she makes several crucial mistakes in the beginning of the book and later on. And so does Sandy Choudhry, the national security advisor in Washington DC. And the reason is because they’re human and humans make mistakes and mistakes lead to miscalculations from the other side…But that spark, that miscalculation, that human mistake, can we avoid those? I think we can help avoid those by how we train, in this military context that we’re discussing, how we train our military, how we train our diplomats, how we train Americans who go abroad in the service of the nation – their training, their experiences have to include mechanisms that help them avoid the mistakes that Sarah Hunt tragically makes, particularly in the opening pages of the novel.”

Carl Farmer from Rhode Island asks:

I was finishing up reading Thucydides and Herodotus, who are meant to be the beginning of history or the beginning of historical recounting. And it seems in that war, which was the Peloponnesian and Persian war between Greece and Persia, basically one good guy beats up the other good guy, and then eventually becomes very powerful. But then they fail later from rotting from within, which is, I think, a point of your, your book and so forth. I wish I knew exactly how we could make this better, other than all the things that are believing in like independent voting and things like that. The other thing is my granddaughter’s reading 1984 this summer for her summer read. And it’s 50 years on for your book. So two questions, how do we keep ourselves so that we don’t fall into that age old trap? And the other thing is, was this a bit of an homage to Orwell?”

Elliot tackles the answers to these questions, stating:

…When we began working on this book…the date wasn’t 2034, and the more drafts we did actually, we were – I think we began somewhere in the 2050’s – and the more we kind of played out the scenarios, the day kind of kept coming closer and closer…And it seemed to make sense, ‘Well, what year in the 2030s will we pick?’ ‘Well, let’s pick 2034, there’s nice echoes, nice sort of apocalyptic echoes there from 1984.’ And that seemed appropriate.”

He continues:

…With regards to your reading of the Thucydides…I think that one of the interesting things that comes with studying, thinking and writing about war is as much as things change, nothing changes. And it’s this age old human enterprise that we do generation to generation. So if you want to understand humanity, in some ways you can understand us through the ways we keep engaging this enterprise excessively over, over the millennia. And when it comes to Thucydides, there’s obviously this idea of the Thucydides trap, which many of you may be familiar with, which is this pattern of what occurs when a rising power challenges and established power…And so when you come into 2034, that is sort of the construct we’ve put into the book. Established power, The United States, is challenged by rising power, China…neither of them wins…You see, there’s a third party who is really the beneficiary of this conflict…oftentimes, it’s not very good to be the one who starts a war, but you always want to be the one who finishes the war…”

The next question comes from Independent Voting’s President Jackie Salit in New York:

The issue of US China relations – it seems to me it’s becoming more and more of a political football in the country. And I wonder if you could both speak to what it is you think that the American people most misunderstand about China?”

Admiral Stavridis is the first to answer, outlining American’s attitude of dismissal towards China:

I think the American people underestimate China. I think they have this sense that China for the last several hundred years has really not been a significant international actor…And that would be a mistake for any number of reasons that are becoming increasingly obvious…I think Americans tend to underestimate – not be aware of – those collective things and kind of have a feeling that, ‘What’s the big deal with China?’ Watch out. And I don’t say that in the sense of, I’m worried that China’s going to overtake us in zoom by us on the world stage. I don’t see that happening, but I think if we consistently underestimate China, they will, over time, become a much more capable actor who can shape the international environment in ways that are not to our advantage.”

Elliot joins the conversation, taking a look at the other side of the issue:

On the flip side of that coin, I think there is a strain in American culture right now, too, that is also quick to look at China, particularly with regards to the coronavirus and our two nations respective responses, as being sort of 20 feet tall. China is not 20 feet tall…And so much of that sort of broader framing is again, this sort of question of what are the most effective means of government and the most effective means of unlocking collective human potential? Is it through directing it in an authoritarian way, or is it through creating a system that allows individuals to flourish and focuses on the individuals?…And it seems as though, you know, we’re entering into that type of a conflict, not necessarily a military conflict, but a real conflict of thinking and conflict of ideas again. And I think, once again, the United States will be on the vanguard of trying to prove that a liberal world order is the one we should all be embracing.”

Admiral Stavridis jumps in to add one final thought:

…Can our ideas compete – democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, gender equality, racial equality? Look, we execute them imperfectly. They’re the right values, can they compete on the international stage? And you know, people sometimes say to me, ‘You know, Admiral you’re right, it’s a war of ideas.’ No, it’s a marketplace of ideas. We’ve got to compete. We’ve got to recognize that China is very capably creating a narrative that says ‘A much better system for your country is a streamlined system of governance with the power of capitalism harnessed to it. Look at how America is falling apart because Republicans and Democrats can’t get together and solve problems.’ …That’s the narrative they’re putting out. We better have the counter narrative…We’ve got to construct the arguments to compete because it is not self-evident around the world that we’re the right answer anymore.”

The next question comes from Reed Flory, who asks:

What, optimally, should our future military look like?”

Admiral Stavridis responds:

We should invest more in cyber, both defensive and offensive. We should invest more in hypersonic cruise missiles…We should invest more in unmanned vehicles from space to the bottom of the ocean, because unmanned vehicles are not tethered to human endurance…We need more maritime platforms because that’s where these conflicts going forward, I think are going to be centered. And I would argue we need more special operations, more elite human teams to operate all of those systems…You’re not going, just get rid of all the aircraft carriers, get rid of every tank, get rid of third-generation fighter pilots. You’re going to still need some of those systems, but we ought to be spending more on the systems that I outlined a moment ago.”

Elliot brings the conversation back to the previous topic of history, adding:

We talked a little bit about history, and one of the themes in the book I hope comes across is it’s not just enough to have the latest and best technology, you gotta have the right technology…we, the United States, need to be very careful as we invest in our legacy platforms…that we’re not investing in the wrong technology.”

Our final question is from Harry Kresky in New York, who directs his question to Admiral Stavridis:

It’s not every day that an Admiral writes a book about history, future, politics. What kind of pushback, if any, have you gotten, Admiral?”

Admiral Stavridis acknowledges the feedback he’s received, responding:

I’ve gotten positive feedback from a wide variety of folks. I asked my team to look for other admirals who’ve written novels, and there are a handful, and most of them are historical fiction. I think I’m the first Admiral to write a book about future fiction. So we’ll put that one in the record book, but at least so far.”

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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