Book Review- The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict

Author’s note: Although I am by no means the first to review Colby’s book, I have not glanced at any previous review to ensure that what follows represents my thoughts alone. Furthermore, although I look up to Colby as a mentor- he has been an invaluable asset to me- I have not spared in critiquing his work; I imagine he expects as much from me.

Most published books, especially academic ones, are directed toward a particular niche. Some are directed towards scholars, others practitioners. In The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, Elbridge Colby, the primary author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, has authored a book that not only benefits scholars and practitioners, but serves as an invaluable asset to students of international relations and strategy. It is this facet of Colby’s book that I wish to highlight. 

As a student studying international relations, I have been lectured about how American IR is drenched in white supremacy, how American IR scholars are blind to issues of race and countries in the developing world. It is wrong, I have apparently learned, to focus on the powerful, Western countries in the study of international relations, for doing so is to further “other” the developing world and non-whites. Against this backdrop, Colby offers a breath of fresh air. There is indeed, he argues, a hierarchy of importance when it comes to protecting American interests in the international system. At the very beginning of the book, Colby notes “the key regions of the world, ranked in geopolitical importance.” After listing those regions (Asia, Europe, North America, The Persian Gulf), Colby then acknowledges what we all know to be true: that “the rest of the world is considerably less important in terms of military-economic power.” And this is an invaluable lesson that students of international relations must internalize. For those of us seeking to ensure that the United States can prosper and flourish, we must recognize the need and importance of judgement calls in deciding where we focus the bulk of our attention. Rather than accept charges of racism and white supremacy, American students of international relations should point to Colby’s book as a reminder that ensuring America’s defense demands acknowledging the hierarchy of importance that exists in the international sphere. 

Another important aspect of Colby’s book that students (and scholars) will appreciate is his defense of realism. Strategic thinkers, especially the previous generation of strategists, have questioned whether the future of strategic thought would need to be tied down to classical realism. In a world where Marxian, Feminist and Critical modes of thought are pushing out the old guard, it is refreshing to read a book that cites with great affirmation Thucydides, Hobbes, Morgenthau and Keohane. When it comes to defending America and her interests in a world of great power competition, a Marxian view of history is unlikely to help. Recognizing the anarchic world, that states are the most important actors and that balances of power matter in key regions of the world, are lessons students of IR and strategy should be forever cognizant of. 

But perhaps the book’s greatest strength is that it answers the question that plagues students of strategy, namely, how does one do strategy? Budding strategists like myself would do well to follow in Colby’s footsteps. First, he shows that in order to do strategy, the strategist must have a broad grasp over history. Colby’s book recognizes a maxim that Colin S. Gray propagated- that nothing of real importance changes in the way the international system works and that modern history is not modern. Colby’s impressive knowledge of strategic history serves to underscore his appreciation that the past often serves as prologue. Although we live in a technically advanced world, we would be wrong to ignore bygone eras. Second, The Strategy of Denial offers us a glimpse into the mind of how a strategist thinks through a problem. Colby does this by exploring and critiquing the many possible choices that the US or China can make with regards to a particular issue. Instead of just preaching a conclusion, Colby shows us how he arrived at his desired policy choice. Students and practitioners alike would be wise to mimic Colby’s analytical approach in their own work. 

I would like to raise, however, two critical points; one a matter of disagreement, the other a more severe and substantial critique that perhaps borders on an indictment of Colby’s treatment of China. 

On the matter of disagreement- despite a generic title, Colby has written a book about China. In doing so, he has neglected Russia. Colby is frankly a bit too dismissive of the threat that Russia poses. Although he acknowledges that “Russia threatens Eastern Europe in ways that could jeopardize the effectiveness of NATO and stability in Europe,” he concludes that Russia is “not in the same category as a threat of regional hegemony.” And there, in a few sentences, is the gist of Colby’s attitude toward the Russian threat. Indeed, his larger analysis of Russia is only ancillary to his discussion of China where towards the end of the book, he discusses the issue of simultaneity. There too, he all too casually dismisses the threat that Russia poses. After reading Colby’s book, I could not help but be reminded of a comment that Michael O’Hanlon makes in his latest book The Art of War in an Age of Peace: “Many in American strategic circles consider China to be the growing threat and Russia the fading one. That is a strange way to view a nuclear superpower that spans eleven time zones and has a population of 140 million (even if shrinking) as well as world-class traditions in science and engineering- to say nothing of a geostrategic ax to grind.” Although O’Hanlon published his book before Colby’s, it reads as an eerily appropriate critique of The Strategy of Denial.  

But perhaps most concerning is Colby’s approach to China; it is remarkably rational. Colby seems to have applied the rational actor model to China and based his entire analysis surrounding Beijing’s best options on that model. But is China really rational? And this is the problem- Colby makes no mention of Chinese strategic culture and how that would affect China’s decision making. And yet, Chinese strategic culture has been well documented and studied, dating as far back as the nineties. And here is where something peculiar comes to the fore; despite its impressive grasp over strategic history, the book sorely lacks in Chinese strategic history. The book fails to mention the impact that Sun Tzu and his The Art of War have made on the Chinese leadership. Colby’s book desperately needs Thomas Mahnken’s study of Chinese strategic culture, but for some reason it is missing. Perhaps Colby rejects the notion of strategic culture? This is a perfectly acceptable position, however contrarian it may be. But he ought to tell us that he does and why. If, on the other hand, he does embrace strategic culture, this reader would never be the wiser. 

These critiques, however serious, are undoubtedly outweighed by the strengths of The Strategy of Denial. It is an answer to the prayers that many students, myself included, have asked about what strategy is and how we do it. Should luck have it that I one day get to write a course syllabus for strategic thought, I have no doubt that Elbridge Colby will be a name situated next to Lawrence Freedman, Bernard Brodie and Colin Gray. 

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