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OPINION | FRANK E. LOCKWOOD: Imagining a conflict in the future

by Frank E. Lockwood | May 9, 2021 at 8:31 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Retired four-star Admiral James Stavridis doesn't spend his time fighting culture wars; he's more interested in averting Armageddon.

"2034," a book he co-authored with Elliot Ackerman, conjures up images of doomsday; it debuted at No. 6 on The New York Times best-seller list earlier this spring.

Subtitled "A Novel of the Next World War," it portrays the United States and China and a series of miscalculations that lead to global conflict 13 years from now.

In this particular genre, the body count is always high.

"For such a grim book, it was a lot of fun to write," Stavridis said.

A former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, the Florida native serves as chairman of the board of counselors at McLarty Associates, the international consulting firm chaired by Hope native Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty.

After writing nine non-fiction books, "I wanted to step out of the straitjacket of [non-fiction] and, if you will, splash a little more paint on the canvas. I wanted to use characters to tell a story and, above all, I wanted to create a fictional cautionary tale," he said.

The novel, McLarty said, is "timely and important, so hopefully it will catch the imagination of your readers. It's written in fiction but it, obviously, is grounded in reality," he said.

When the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the world's two superpowers, films such as "Dr. Strangelove" and books such as Tom Clancy's "Red Storm Rising" captured attention, Stavridis notes.

By imagining the horrors of nuclear annihilation, Cold War-era films and literature may have helped avert it, he suggests.

"I tried the idea of fiction because I think more people will read it; more people will think about it. I could have written a nonfiction policy kind of book. I don't think it would have gotten a broad readership," he said.

While Russia causes trouble in "2034," it's not freedom's primary foe.

The world has changed considerably since the breach of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, he notes.

"We are no longer the lone superpower in the world. Today, China has joined us on that stage. That doesn't mean that a war is inevitable, but history is not encouraging," he said.

Like U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the admiral has been sounding the alarm.

He would "entirely agree with the senator that China's rising military capability, their philosophical approach [and] their determination to dominate the international scene" point to potential trouble ahead. "It's still out there in the distance but it's getting closer as a concern and, indeed, a threat.

"This is the Looming Tower of our time, and therefore we have to have a response to it," he said, referencing the title of Lawrence Wright's best-seller about the rise of Al-Qaida prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The U.S. needs to prepare for what could be coming, he said.

The next war, he predicts, won't be just a "kinetic attack--rockets, bombs, troops, tanks"--it will be cyber as well. Cell phone networks, computer systems and power grids are all potential targets.

America, Stavridis said, can't afford to be complacent or to fall behind. Nor can it allow its international alliances to fray. China is attempting to claim the South China Sea as its own territorial waters, an area "the size of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea combined," he said.

It's a claim that must not go unchallenged, he said.

Beijing also has designs on Taiwan, "a vibrant democracy" and longtime U.S. ally, he said.

China's intellectual property theft and "industrial espionage" are also alarming, militarily as well as economically.

"If we don't wake up to the challenges that China is going to pose in the international system, it may become too late for us to regain our position," he said.

Historically, shifts in power can be perilous. "When two nations end up facing each other, particularly when one is an established power and the other is a rising power, it tends to lead to a global war.

"The last time that happened, just over 100 years ago, [it was] established power United Kingdom [and] rising power Kaiser's Germany," he said.

The carnage unleashed in 1914 didn't end with the armistice in 1918, he said. Starting with World War I, "we can draw a plumb line through the Great Depression, fascism and the Second World War; 80 million dead in the 20th century. We've got to avoid that.

"I would argue, and I think Senator Cotton would argue, the way to avoid it is by being strong and ensuring that our adversary, in this case China, decides that it doesn't make sense to take on the United States," he said.

Once an international pariah, China's Communist government was not initially recognized by the United States and its allies; they acknowledged Taiwan's leadership instead.

Beijing, which conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 1964, did not claim its seat in the United Nations until 1971; following President Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972, relations between the two countries improved.

The U.S. established full diplomatic relations with China in 1979 and normalized trade relationships in 2000.

Asked whether it was a mistake to give China most-favored-nation status, Stavridis says the answer is complicated.

"On the one hand, doing so allowed them to lift a billion people out of poverty. That's, broadly speaking, a good thing for humanity. On the other hand, I think they have abused that designation," in part by adopting unfair trade practices, he said.

Stavridis credits the Trump administration with recognizing the problem, but says its response was uneven.

"One moment there would be a very amicable dinner at Mar-a-Lago [with Chinese officials]. Very shortly afterward, there would be a sudden 40 percent imposition of tariffs across the board on China," he said. "There was no real coherency to the strategy."

"Senator Cotton has been banging the drum of 'Let's have a strategy,'" Stavridis said. That plan should be comprehensive, the admiral suggests.

"Let's have a military, a diplomatic, an educational, a cultural [and] a technology component to it. Let's recognize that if we can work together to create such a strategy ... we'll be much better served as a nation," he said.

Stavridis served in the U.S. Navy for more than three decades. For a time, he commanded a guided missile destroyer, the USS Barry, later leading a destroyer squadron and an aircraft carrier battle group. Before serving as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, he commanded the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees operations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

After leaving the military, he served five years as dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in suburban Boston, Mass.

These days he writes, works as an analyst for NBC News, and serves as an operating executive at The Carlyle Group, a global investment firm.

In his role at McLarty Associates, he works with former President Bill Clinton's first White House chief of staff.

"As we all know, Mack McLarty is skilled, smart, a Washington expert who also happens to be a heck of a nice person," he said. "I was honored when they asked me to be chairman of the board of counselors, and I've been part of the team there now for, I think, three years."

McLarty says Stavridis is a "warrior patriot" as well as a "statesman and scholar."

"He's just really so broad-gauged in his thinking and so skilled in his leadership and so masterful in his communication with both the written and spoken word. And this book encapsulates all of that," McLarty added.

Stavridis' opinions are valued by members of both parties. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had Stavridis vetted as a potential running mate during her 2016 presidential campaign. Following the election, Stavridis was summoned to Trump Tower in New York City to meet with the president-elect.

The admiral says he can work with both sides because certain things "transcend being Republicans or Democrats."

"I'm a political independent. I've never been a registered Republican nor a registered Democrat. As a military officer and as a retired senior military officer I've tried to stay in the middle," he said.

Unity, on some matters, is essential, he suggests.

"We ought to find ways, as we used to, to truly park our domestic arguments, as important as they are, at the water's edge," he said. "When we venture into the international world, we really need to do it together as Americans."

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