America’s foreign policy needs to reorient. In my book The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, I lay out what this approach should be. It is a strategy designed to prevent any power from dominating one of the world’s critical regions, especially its most important—which is now Asia. The argument is that if Americans are to be genuinely secure, free, and prosperous, we cannot allow any state to become so predominant that it could control our economy and thus undermine our liberties. China’s dominance over Asia, and the global preeminence it would very likely produce, poses by far the most serious threat of this outcome. Consequently, our foreign policy—and, as a vital part of that, our defense strategy—must prioritize denying China’s achievement of hegemony over Asia.
Any serious strategy must reckon with the reality of the possibility of war. In light of this, military force plays a central role in the strategy of denial. In order to secure Americans’ interests in a more rivalrous world, it directs a readiness to fight wars—including very costly ones, even against a state as powerful as China—precisely in order to avoid them or make them as tolerable as possible, all in pursuit of a decent peace that allows for Americans’ flourishing. The strategy of denial is distinguished on two sides from competing visions of American foreign policy: from more expansive strategies designed to pacify or democratize the globe on the one hand, and from strategies that seek to withdraw from the broader world on the other.
What, though, is the moral basis for this strategy? This is a critical question, because a moral account is essential for a policy of such fundamental gravity. This is true in and of itself as well as instrumentally. Persons of good conscience should not give their assent to a policy that has no serious moral foundation. Moreover, a policy without a strong moral basis will not long survive; Americans will rightly demand a compelling moral explanation for their foreign policy, especially when it may involve life, death, and sacrifice on a grand scale.
Yet the strategy of denial may seem, at first glance, to be amoral—even immoral. It advocates preparing to fight a war with China, with the goal of a stable balance of power. It eschews making the spread of good government or the pursuit of humanitarian goals central to American foreign policy.
In truth, though, the strategy of denial does have a firm moral foundation. In particular, it fits within the classical moral tradition (although it may be compatible with other moral frameworks). The classical moral approach defines moral acts as those that are not in and of themselves evil and are rationally and proportionately correlated to a good end. This standard differentiates the classical moral approach from moral theories that are highly prescriptive and rule-bound, as well as from those that are focused entirely on the goodness of intentions. It also differs from theories such as utilitarianism, which is purely consequentialist. Though the strategy of denial is not necessarily the only moral foreign policy for America, it is a moral course for the United States to pursue.
The defining element of this classical moral approach, especially for politics, is its focus on the rational and proportionate pursuit of a good goal. This approach is ends-focused—to a point: Actions and policies are moral to the degree that they correlate with good ends, but actions that are in themselves evil are proscribed. The core idea is that moral behavior entails acting rationally and proportionately in pursuit of a good aim, while forswearing actions that are in themselves morally illicit. Through this lens, state action is moral if it advances rationally and proportionately toward the state’s good ends.
The nature of the state’s goal is thus of the essence. If a state’s aims are good and reasonable, pursuing them in a rational and proportionate way will also be good. Conversely, if a state’s goals are bad, its pursuit of them will be bad as well. By the same token, even if a state’s goals are good, if it pursues them in an irrational or disproportionate way, this pursuit will be bad.
On the one hand, this means that a state must be sufficiently ambitious in its goals. This is because government plays an essential role in the attainment of its citizenry’s vital collective goods, such as security, prosperity, and freedom, along with other goods necessary for human flourishing—the ultimate goal of politics in the classical tradition. Government must provide, or enable other institutions in society to provide, such goods, or its people will not attain them.
But this is not a license for a country to adopt a purely selfish view of national interest. A state’s goals should be bounded, because the classical moral tradition acknowledges a natural moral law, which, at its most basic, demands the recognition that others have moral goods and claims that must be respected. Accordingly, one state’s aims must not swallow up the valid interests of all others. A state must define its goals narrowly enough to respect the ability of others to pursue their own legitimate goods. Thus, a state must pursue even its good goals rationally and proportionately; it should not act without regard for others. The upshot is that moral state behavior is that which effectively but proportionately advances its people toward their good and reasonable common goals, without doing things that are in themselves evil.
This means, though, that moral state policy is tantamount—within reason—to effective state policy. As the purpose of policy is to achieve good goals, then a good policy is one that advances effectively toward them in a reasonable and appropriately bounded way. Thus the moral metric of state policy is actually closer to effectiveness than, for instance, intent, the loftiness of goals, or the nature of any particular action in isolation.
Perhaps the best term for this approach to political morality is stewardship. The good steward advances the rightful interests of those in his trust, but without doing evil. The good steward’s central duty is to judge rightly what is best for those in his care, and to take that course effectively. The moral worth of a steward, in other words, is measured not primarily by his intentions or by the nobility of his aspirations, but by his efficacy. It is thus an ethic of responsibility.
Of course, no one can predict the future consistently; thus, measuring morality only by results is an unreasonable standard. Rather, the appropriate measure of good stewardship is acting for the good of one’s beneficiaries on the basis of reasonably anticipatable consequences. In this conception, acting rightly is not simply the outcome of a lottery, where the vagaries of chance determine how good a steward’s behavior is. Rather, it is about how well, in light of ascertainable facts and dynamics, the steward promotes the interests of those entrusted to his care. By the same token, deliberately harming those entrusted to one’s care is not the only form of bad stewardship. Negligence—failing to act prudently and intelligently for their benefit—is another. In this model, even if a course of action or policy stems from the purest intentions, it is morally bad if it is negligent and does enough harm to those entrusted to the steward’s care.
Because of the importance of acting effectively, being realistic is not immoral. To the contrary, if even gloomy and pessimistic assessments are accurate and thus necessary for acting effectively in the world, then making and grappling with them is morally obligatory. This is especially so in the tough world of international politics. For those entrusted with the security, freedom, and prosperity of the citizenry, clearly seeing and understanding the world is not just prudent, but actually morally obligatory.
This leads to an essential deduction: A foreign policy that does not reckon with reality, however high-minded or pure in intent, is not moral. Indeed, carried far enough, a refusal to reckon with reality in foreign policy is immoral. Noble blindness or moral peacockery is not a virtue, but rather wrong: moralistic, not moral. By contrast, when used to pursue just ends justly, realism is moral. Consider the case of the high-minded pacifists of the 1930s in their debate against Winston Churchill. It was Churchill, who saw things clearly and argued forcefully for acting to avert disaster, whom we rightly see as the moral one—not the pacifists whose resistance to rearmament contributed to the catastrophes of World War II.
To be clear, this morality of stewardship does not in any way exclude or disfavor charity or altruism by a state. These are to be encouraged—but only so long as they do not materially detract from the pursuit of those core goods necessary for a society to flourish. A parent who leaves his children hungry and without care for a noble cause, but a cause that is not connected to core duties like defending his country, is not acting morally. Likewise, political leaders who neglect their obligations to their nation’s citizens in pursuit of ostensibly higher goals should be censured, not praised.
Clearly, then, this classical morality is inherently concerned with consequences. But, it must be stressed, it is distinct from thoroughgoing consequentialism. Consequentialism in its pure form is concerned only with outcomes. It proscribes no actions as evil in themselves, and endorses any course of action if it advances toward the desired goals. The classical moral approach, by contrast, rules out actions that are inherently evil, as well as those that are disproportionate to the good ends pursued.
The strategy of denial fits well within this classical moral approach, both in the ends it sets out and in how it pursues them. To begin with, the strategy adopts a reasonable and bounded definition of the good for the United States. As a republic, the American state has as its purpose to serve the good of its citizens, specifically their security, liberty, and prosperity. These goals are worthy, not pinched; it is reasonable for the American people—indeed, any people—to aspire to be physically secure, free, and able to benefit from the material productivity of the modern world. At the same time, these goals are restrained. They do not inherently involve the denial of anyone else’s attainment of those benefits. By the standard of classical morality, then, they constitute a good set of goals.
The strategy of denial is also rationally and proportionately correlated to the pursuit of these goals in light of a clear-eyed understanding of the realities of world politics. At the geopolitical level, the strategy is premised on the counsel that the United States cannot afford to allow any other state in the international system to accumulate too much power. This counsel is in turn predicated on the judgment that such a hegemonic state could and very likely would, given human nature and the dynamics of politics, exploit such power in ways that would lead to the diminution of Americans’ freedoms and prosperity. This is a rational and proportionate deduction. The concern that such a potent state, left unchecked, would abuse its power is not speculative. It is grounded in deeply rooted observations about human nature, and state behavior in particular. A state that grows too strong is likely to use its power to mistreat others. As one variant of a very old saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
This geopolitical component of the strategy of denial does not require a domineering America. It is not an argument for American hegemony or for the submission, exploitation, or destruction of other countries. Rather, it respects the due claims of other states. The aim of the strategy of denial is more restrained: that no one else should be allowed to attain dominance over Americans (and, as a corollary, over many other nations). To satisfy this aim, the strategy of denial seeks a balance of power: a state of affairs in which no state is strong enough to dominate too many others. In other words, the strategy of denial fits America’s ambition and the use of its power to the rational and proportionate means necessary to secure Americans’ security, freedom, and prosperity. This goal is limited, an attribute essential to its moral standing.
Equally, the strategy is rational in its identification of the primary dangers to these American interests. It is not motivated by unreasonable animus, overwrought fearfulness, or a lust for power. Instead, the criterion for identifying the state or states most dangerous to Americans is an objective, simple, and fair one: The most powerful states are the most dangerous. If they are left unchecked, history, human nature, and the evident advantages that accrue to dominance all indicate that such states will abuse such power. Accordingly, the strategy focuses on checking the most powerful state in the international system.
Viewed through standard metrics of state power, China is by far the strongest state in the world other than the United States. The strategy of denial accordingly identifies China as the gravest threat to America’s goals. This is not due to any hostility toward China or China’s people. Rather, it is because the most powerful state other than the United States is the People’s Republic of China, which, according to reasonable assessments, is very likely to become even stronger.
In order to prevent any such state—and thus especially China—from becoming too dominant, the strategy of denial calls for favorable balances of power in the world’s key regions, especially Asia, the world’s largest market area. Ensuring such a balance, however, requires coalitions of states, as none alone is strong and resolute enough to sustain it. Without enough states sticking together to counter Beijing’s aspirations to hegemony, China could overwhelm its opponents through a focused and sequential strategy, picking off weaker states and eventually dominating Asia, using a contemporary variant of the old “divide and conquer” approach. So the strategy calls for an anti-hegemonic coalition.
At the same time, this strategy of denial is not domineering or inherently expansive. It does not demand China’s capitulation or dismemberment, only its reasonable constraint. Moreover, it produces goods that are not solely for Americans’ benefit. A balance of power along these lines would benefit many countries—India, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, among others—that likewise do not wish to live under Chinese hegemony.
The strategy’s preference is to achieve and preserve such favorable balances of power through peaceful means. This is in Americans’ interests, given the costs and risks of a major war with China, and is the more moral approach, if feasible. In the classical moral tradition, wars may be justified, but only if they are necessary. Thus the strategy seeks to form and sustain a coalition to check Beijing’s ambitions without conflict, through the coalition’s cohesion and mutual reinforcement in the face of Chinese pressure.
But the strategy grapples with the reality that a peaceful outcome cannot be presumed. This is critical, because an aspiring hegemon like China may well have powerful incentives to use military force to achieve its domineering goals. Reckoning with this fact is not only prudent, but also, because prudent, morally necessary. Nor is it merely speculative. China is undertaking the world’s largest peacetime military buildup in decades, if not generations, and is increasingly shaping its military to project decisive armed force throughout Asia and beyond. In the meantime, Beijing’s statements and behavior increasingly evince hegemonic ambitions.
The truth is that such an enormously powerful military force, if put to resolute and effective use, cannot be dealt with absent sufficient military power on the part of the United States and its coalition partners. This assessment, too, is well grounded. It is clear from long human experience that an aggressive force that is not met with the prospect of an adequate counterforce is unlikely to be deterred, let alone defeated.
The strategy of denial therefore has a military component, which is essential to its efficacy. This military element is morally justified because it is necessary to prevent China from dominating Asia and this aim, in turn, is rationally correlated to America’s reasonable goals as a nation.
But in order to be moral, a military strategy requires more than a legitimate purpose. Military strategies that involve wanton brutality and destruction, even for a good end, are not moral. A moral military strategy must satisfy two additional criteria: It should conduce to peace, and, if war becomes necessary, it should enable the war to be fought in ways that are rationally and proportionately correlated with a good and reasonable objective. To use the classical moral tradition’s just war theory, wars must be just in both their purposes (ius ad bellum) and the means employed (ius in bello). The military component of the strategy of denial satisfies both of these criteria.
First, the military means are designed to achieve the nation’s goals without war. This may seem paradoxical since much of the focus of the strategy of denial is taken up with how to ready for war, and how to prevail in a war if it comes. But the elemental thrust of the argument is precisely to avoid a war by deterring China from initiating a conflict, under the logic of the old adage: If you want peace, prepare for war.
The strategy focuses on persuading China that aggression would not succeed or would not be worthwhile. Why wars happen is a matter of long debate. But history, logic, and human nature all suggest that a state is less likely to initiate a conflict if it judges it will lose, or at least be frustrated in pursuit of its goals. This is especially true of great powers on the rise. Such states may assess that military aggression will pay off—and not unreasonably. Aggressive wars have paid off for many states over the centuries. The best way to dissuade such states from embarking on aggression is to present them not merely with the thin deterrents of moral opprobrium and economic sanctions, but with the strong probability that they will face military resistance that will cause them to fail in attaining their aims. Looked at from this vantage, it is not only in America’s interest to prepare its military for war; it is morally just, if not indeed obligatory.
The corollary of this, then, is that failing to prepare for war is not a moral course. If strength—to be sure, constrained and defensive strength—is needed to dissuade Beijing from initiating conflict, then weakness will invite war and quite likely defeat. Thus weakness in this context is not just unwise but actually immoral. This conviction powers the urgency and fervor of my calls for a stronger U.S. military posture in and for the Western Pacific, where the situation is very grave. If our purposes in denying China’s hegemony of Asia are reasonable and just, and if we can reasonably anticipate that weakness with respect to this objective is more likely to invite not only war but also our defeat and thus the undermining of those goods, then it is a moral duty to strengthen our position, both to protect our rightful goods and to avoid war.
If war does break out, the strategy of denial’s military approach would be consistent with the classical moral approach, because the ends the strategy sets out to be pursued in the conflict would be reasonable and legitimate, and the means it recommends employing to pursue them would be proportionate and rational. The strategy’s guiding logic is that of Clausewitz: In a war “the political view [should be] the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in [their] conception.” That is to say, not just the purpose of fighting but also the way a war is fought should be determined by and proportioned to a legitimate aim.
In this spirit, the strategy of denial tightly connects its military approach to its overall political goals. The geopolitical goal of the strategy of denial is a sustainably favorable balance of power. To achieve that goal, those allied with the United States in the anti-hegemonic coalition must be defended against Chinese coercion. Otherwise they are likely to calculate that they must cut a deal with Beijing to avoid its targeted wrath. If too many states choose that path, the coalition will collapse, and China will dominate Asia. The strategy therefore calls for militarily defending U.S. allies in Asia against China to the degree needed for them to stay onside. The military means are consistent with the political aim, because they are designed to uphold the anti-hegemonic coalition and thus a favorable balance of power. And though this goal is difficult to attain against a state as powerful as China, it is restrained in its ambition and in what it demands of its opponent, and it can plausibly be met by American and allied armed forces in ways that keep a war limited.
This is important because just war theory requires that a war be proportionate not only in the aims a combatant seeks to attain but in the means it uses to pursue them. Consistent with this rule, the strategy is designed to employ violence for a specific goal and in ways that are rationally correlated to achieving it. The goal is to preserve or restore the functioning of the anti-hegemonic coalition, not to unleash unconstrained damage and destruction against China or to subjugate it. The strategy thus focuses on being able to defeat a Chinese invasion of an ally and on persuading China to agree to end the war on that basis, with the invasion defeated and the ally’s autonomy intact. The strategic goal set out for U.S. military forces is, by the standards of military strategies, relatively low: denial. It requires simply the defeat of China’s ability to seize and hold the key territory of an ally—a lower standard than, say, dominance or outright defeat of China.
Crucially, the strategy does not rely for its success on deliberately making the war more destructive. It does not rely on wanton violence to cow the opponent into a terrified submission. Rather, it focuses on keeping the burden of escalation on China, such that Beijing must be the one to face the choice between (at least partial) defeat and escalating the conflict. This approach is attractive from a strategic vantage, but it is also more moral than strategies that rely on deliberate escalation. A strategy that is less destructive and less painful to implement successfully is more likely to be effective and credible; it is also, generally speaking, more just. In line with this, the strategy of denial focuses on defeating Chinese aggression, and on reacting in rational fashion to any escalation by China.
This is, though, only how it is supposed to work. Actually making a strategy of denial effective against China in Asia will be exceptionally difficult. China is the most powerful state to emerge in the international system since the United States itself 150 years ago. Ensuring that China cannot establish hegemony over Asia—and, from there, a predominant position in the world—requires that we ruthlessly focus, and that we take controversial and aggressive steps to ready ourselves now in order to avoid worse outcomes later. The problem is that we have not been doing nearly enough of these things. On our current course, we are courting catastrophe.
At this point, if we wish to avoid war on terms that are good for Americans, we will need to refocus, sharply and quickly. This may feel belligerent or aggressive or too drastic. But feeling is not the right guide to what is wise or just. Avoiding a war with China on the terms of a decent peace—a balance of power under which all can thrive but none can dominate—is a righteous goal. It is therefore righteous to take the reasonable steps needed to achieve it, and wrong to prevent or inhibit us from taking them.
Elbridge Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. Previously he served as lead official in the development of the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy.