Imagination and Avoiding War

AP/file — Sailors from the Chinese navy watch as the U.S.S. Blue Ridge arrives in Shanghai on May 6, 2016.
AP/file — Chinese sailors watch as the U.S.S. Blue Ridge arrives in Shanghai on May 6, 2016.

Elliot Ackerman and Adm. James Stavridis have powerful crystal balls, the result of their extensive lived experiences in the U.S. military, academia, politics, and publishing. Who better to construct a cautionary tale of cyberwar, miscalculation, and terror? Published earlier this month, their “2034: A Novel of the Next World War” is billed as “a chillingly authentic geopolitical thriller” — and it is. The White House, Pentagon, and myriad foreign-policy think tanks should take note.

By way of background, Admiral Stavridis is a retired four-star admiral who served as the supreme allied commander of NATO. Mr. Ackerman is a former White House fellow and Marine, who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which he received a Silver Star, Bronze Star for Valor, and Purple Heart.

Their friendship became close in 2017, when Mr. Ackerman spent a semester as a writer-in-residence while the admiral was dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Admiral Stavridis has written 10 books, primarily about leadership and naval history. Mr. Ackerman has published five novels and a memoir. Their shared editor suggested they collaborate on a piece of cautionary fiction that was originally the admiral’s idea. When they started, they told me, they had three major goals for their novel: that it be character-driven, that it not be a “huge door-stopper,” and that the themes cover both America’s place in the world and the rise of India and China.

Both men are wiry and intense. You can sense their intelligence shimmering, like heat rising in the distance. They both seem to think and talk in well-organized, numbered points. It takes a Google search to realize that they are of different generations. Mr. Ackerman is just 40 and the admiral turned 66 in February.

Imagining national defense strategies

Neither man believes that American exceptionalism is an outdated concept, but they concede that the United States is at an inflection point and needs to evolve to hold its place in the world. The major domestic and international challenge facing America, they say, is political gridlock, the result of marked polarization. Neither believes that the U.S. can or should be the world’s policeman.

Yes, China has been ascendant as a global force over the last half-century. But they point out that the U.S. retains major advantages: its geography, protected by two vast oceans and benign neighbors; significant energy resources that make the country currently the world’s largest oil producer; tremendous creativity and technological innovation in Silicon Valley; and 45 of the top 50 research universities, by their count. “People still want to immigrate to the U.S.,” Admiral Stavridis says. “No one is emigrating to China or Russia.”

If the authors had a piece of advice for the Pentagon and White House, they would urge more creative thinking about the future. They note that Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the current pandemic, and 20 years of war in Afghanistan have all been called “failures of imagination.”

“We don’t put enough weight on thinking creatively about the future,” the admiral says. “In the novel, we reverse-engineered a war with China — how we got into war and how you could back out.” The authors would urge the White House to do some version of the same: to imagine war-game scenarios in which China has control of cyberspace; military assets in outer space, including highly advanced satellites; and deep hypersonic cruise missiles.

Race, gender, and the glass cliff

Despite the novel’s focus on China, Admiral Stravidis predicts that in 300 years, historians will be writing about two topics: not the rise of China, but the rise of India and the increasingly powerful role of women.

Even so, one question that seemed to stump the authors was about the glass cliff — the phenomenon in which female leaders are promoted into senior roles when men have failed. The new leaders are then expected to save the day. In response, Admiral Stavridis acknowledges that the most resilient character in the book was indeed a woman, U.S. Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt.

The admiral also admits that “2034” did not explore domestic or military racial issues but says, “The greater theme is how aspects of our national character come together.” Mr. Ackerman adds that the U.S. is “not a blood and soil country. We are unified around ideals. Sometimes we reach those ideals and sometimes we don’t. By 2034, we’ll still be striving. In some years, we’ll be doing better than others.”

“It ought to be a wake-up call”

Their book made me recall speeches and discussions at various think tanks over the last decade or so. I specifically recall former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saying that his biggest fear was that overly tired American or Chinese sailors in the South China Sea might make a mistake and start a war. The premise of “2034” is based on just such a scenario. But the admiral says (somewhat huffily), “I don’t need Henry Kissinger. I was that exhausted sailor in the South China Sea!” And Mr. Ackerman adds that among his military colleagues, exhaustion is a result of “forever wars.” “The current officer class,” he says, “knows nothing but war.”

Regarding the book’s emphasis on cyberwar, I recalled hearing two analysts (one a former diplomat and one a retired computer hardware CEO) discount military cyberthreats and focus instead on corporate espionage by disgruntled employees as the source of most cyberthreats. The admiral disagrees. “All cyber reports will be darker in the future than they were five years ago,” he says, citing the recent SolarWinds hack — almost certainly by Russia — that affected software used by 400 of the Fortune 500 companies as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department. “It ought to be a wake-up call for everyone!”

The think-tank regular who did influence the admiral’s thinking is Harvard scholar Graham Allison, author of “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” The ancient Greek historian Thucydides explained that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Mr. Allison’s analysis is that in the past 500 years, there have been 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war. The question is whether China and the U.S. can avoid this fate.

This column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

Jacqueline Adams is an Emmy Award winning journalist. She is the co-author of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive.”