A Conversation With Ash Carter

Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Toru Hanai/Reuters
Ash Carter

Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Former U.S. Secretary of Defense; Author, Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Margaret Brennan

Moderator, Face the Nation, and Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent, CBS News

Secretary Carter discusses national security strategies in a rapidly changing world and his legacy as the twenty-fifth Secretary of Defense. 

BRENNAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Margaret Brennan of CBS News. Thank you for coming here for this working lunch at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And of course, you all know—this is why you are here—Mr. Ash Carter, former defense secretary. And we will have this conversation for about thirty minutes or so and then open it up to questions from all of you. So take your notes, keep thinking of questions, and I will come to you in a bit. I do want to tell you that during the Q&A portion later on—and I’ll remind you of this at the time—this will be on the record.

So, Secretary Carter, good to see you.

CARTER: Thank you, Margaret. Appreciate your doing this.

BRENNAN: Congratulations on the book.

CARTER: Thank you.

BRENNAN: I was saying when we were chatting backstage the last time I interviewed you we were on some kind of vessel off Estonia when you were carrying out some kind of military buildup to respond to Russia.

CARTER: Exactly. We were in Tallinn. It was an amphib.

BRENNAN: (Laughs.)

CARTER: And the—it was part of the—what I thought was sadly necessary after a quarter century of—you know, we didn’t have a war plan for Russia for a quarter century. It’s kind of interesting to reflect on. After all the war plans during the Cold War, what I started—that I worked on, conventional and nuclear, then at the end of the Soviet Union we didn’t do that anymore for about twenty-five years. And then it became apparent to me whatever, six years ago or so, that we needed a war plan. And that’s when we began positioning forces in different ways in Europe.

But the particular reason to go to Tallinn at that time—and you may remember this—was because that was going to be the location for a new cybersecurity center for NATO. And why Tallinn? Two reasons. One is it’s the epicenter of hybrid warfare, of the Russians sort of trying to blur the line between war and peace and do little green men and cyberattacks and so forth. So—

BRENNAN: This was right after Ukraine.

CARTER: Yes. So for—and the Estonians—for the Estonians, they knew what the playbook is for them in the Russian mind.

But the other thing is Estonia is more advanced than the United States in—because it leapt—it leapfrogged a technological era. I remember one of the guys I worked with who was in the Estonian government saying, you know, it was so strange, I was a student—I went as a student to the United States; you guys had these things called checkbooks. I had never seen a checkbook. (Laughter.) Because they went right from the ruble to electronic funds transfers, and he had never seen a checkbook before. So they’re actually a tiny little country, quite advanced.

So those were the two reasons why they were the cybersecurity center, and that was the reason I was there in that year. And a great bunch of Marines onboard an amphib vessel, which is a whole other story. What are they doing in Tallinn? But—

BRENNAN: Well, I want to get to all those themes, because you kind of knit nicely together some of the geopolitics, but some of the thinking as well about trying to modernize the U.S. military. But let’s talk a little bit about the book itself. You refer to it on the title Inside the Five-Sided Box of the Pentagon. And you say this isn’t a memoir—


BRENNAN: —it is a sort of user’s manual?

CARTER: Yeah. It’s a—user’s manual is exactly right. Executive guide.

BRENNAN: So who do you want to be using this user’s manual right now? Do you have suggested readers?

CARTER: I do. Well, I mean—

BRENNAN: Perhaps. (Laughter.)

CARTER: First of all, I hope it renews a reader’s—a general citizen’s appreciation for the wonderful institution that defends them and takes them inside—I don’t know if you all are like this, but I like to read nonfiction, and I like to read about a place I’ve never been or never will be, and that takes me there and tells me how it works. And if you’re curious about this thing across the river, and you want to know how fighter aircraft are bought or how troops are recruited or how $750 billion is spend or war plans are drawn up or wars are conducted, it’s that.

Now, the Washington audience will know at least parts of that already from your own experience, but probably not all of it. I just happen to have been in every corner of the place over the course of thirty-seven years. So there’s that.

For a CEO, it’s the largest organization in the world. So for anybody who runs something, maybe interested in how—what it feels like to run the largest place in the world. In fact, I like to say it’s larger than—you take Amazon, UPS, McDonald’s, Target, and GE combined. More R&D than Microsoft, Apple, and Google combined. As much real property—real property, if you put it all together, would be the state of Pennsylvania. So it is the largest enterprise on Earth. And getting your mind around the management of that, which I did as the CEO but also the COO and the—then the—with the weapons buyer, I just think anybody who has to run something—and we all do, even if it’s just ourselves—is—it’s a management guide for another manager.

And then I hope it’s an inspiration to younger people. I really care—a lot of people come to me now—and they come to you also, Margaret—and say, you know, I’m thinking about public service, but I don’t like everything I see and, you know, people screaming at each other, and so forth. And you know, it’s hard to counsel young people. But I’m a fervent believer in—you know, that there’s got to be another generation for all of us here who care about the country, care about the world, care about our values, and carry on this whole—this whole project. And what I tell them is it’s the only government we got. And when I joined in the 1980s I didn’t love everything that was happening either, but it’s the only government we got. You can’t go down the street and shop for another one. It’s it. So if you don’t like it, get in the game.

BRENNAN: So what happens—I mean, given the scope of what you just described—when you have the level of turnover at that top that we have seen over the past few months at the Pentagon, and when you don’t have someone who is confirmed by Congress in that role? What does that do to the executive?

CARTER: Well, it’s not—it’s not good, and here—I’ll give you—do it in a kind of good news, bad news way, Margaret.

The good news is the Department of Defense is, relatively speaking, a place with a very strong compass or a deep keel—remember, you got 2.8 million professionals there, essentially, civilian and military—and a place that responds very well to good order and discipline and will—so it’ll kind of hold together. That’s fine.

But no organization—and maybe even especially including the Department of Defense, because clarity and consistency and order are so important to it—can move forward without a leader. So what bothers me isn’t that the place is going to fall apart or they’re going to, you know, get in a position where we can’t win wars anymore or anything like that. But we’ve got to keep moving because it’s a competitive world out there—the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, the North Koreans, terrorists. And if you’re going to stay the best you have to have a really competitive streak. And you got to stay the best in people, and we’ve got labor markets now that are challenging for us. You got to stay the best in technology, and that kind—and only the secretary and the top leadership can move people forward. They’ll keep doing whatever they’re doing well, probably for a long time, although I hope it doesn’t take that long. But they’re not going to move forward. That’s where the problem comes.

BRENNAN: And not having someone who has the sort of ability to say I am Senate-confirmed, that I am here and I have the vision—


BRENNAN: —how much does that impact the building—

CARTER: Unfortunately, that’s kind of half the battle. The other half is going to be and the president listens to me.


CARTER: And that—I didn’t have to deal with that, and none of my predecessors in my observation did. I mean, when I first worked for Weinberger, for example, it was quite clear that President Reagan listened to Caspar Weinberger. That didn’t mean that Caspar Weinberger won all of the interagency battles and stuff like that, but he was always listened to and I always knew that my boss—and at that time he was my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss’ boss’ boss’ boss’ boss—but was plain as day that the president of the United States listened to head of the Department of Defense. And I—you know, same thing with Bush I, Dick Cheney; Bill Perry and Bill Clinton; on and on and on, through President Obama. And I—did I win everything with President Obama? Most of the time yes, but not every time. But I always got a shot. And he was a very, very respectful listener, in fact sometimes irritatingly so when he was listening to somebody else. (Laughter.) He’d say, OK, OK, Mr.—you know, you want him to say, they’ve had their turn, they’ve said their piece, you don’t have to—(laughter). But he was extremely polite about listening to people. And you know, it’s not clear that President Trump listens or is going to listen to his secretary of defense. That’s a bigger problem than just for the secretary of defense.

But one of the things—there’s a passage in the book where I talk about the question of whether you take a job when you’re offered a job. And a lot of peoples say, when the president of the United States calls you up the answer is only one answer. The answer is yes. I think that’s false. You have to think about it a little bit. You have to say to yourself: Can I help this person succeed? That’s what it’s all about. And of course, you have to be true to your values as well. Those are the two things you have to do. But I wouldn’t know how to help this president because he doesn’t seem to listen to his secretary of defense. So that’s going to be the other trick for somebody new. They may get Senate confirmed, and they may be able to hold the department together, and that’s a good thing. But somehow they have to establish a rapport with the president.

Otherwise, all the value of the Defense Department—and it’s a fantastic place. And it’s got a lot to say about the world, and a huge reservoir of expertise and knowledge. Not to be able to bring that to bear on the president of the United States, that would be really frustrating to me.

BRENNAN: And you don’t see the current national security advisor running regular consultations or meetings or some of the process that—

CARTER: I’m just the outside looking in, Margaret. But I think there’s a process, but it’s kind of not connected to the president, is what I infer from reading. But that’s, again, from the outside looking in. John Bolton, whom I’ve known through all those administrations, that he certainly knows how the NSC ran, for example, under Brent Scowcroft, who invented the current system—which is a great system. And so I would imagine he knows how to do those meetings. But he’s got the same problem the secretary of defense does, which is are you hitched to the man at the top or not? And I—it doesn’t seem to me he has—either is closely hitched to the—to the president. And that’s got to be frustrating also.

BRENNAN: So let’s talk a little bit about geopolitics. We started with Russia and the threats you were trying to position for at the time. Where are we now in terms of Russia as a strategic challenge to the United States?

CARTER: It’s a big problem.

BRENNAN: And do you feel like you left the U.S. in a position where it could actually push back?

CARTER: Yeah, I mean, it’s not—it’s not wonderful to be—to have war as your—the thing that you’re thinking about. But the reason you think about war is so that they know that if they start something with us, they’re going to lose and we’re going to win.

BRENNAN: And you’ve said Vladimir Putin was not adequately deterred, and continued not to be adequately deterred?

CARTER: Yeah, I mean, take a look—people say was—did we do enough after the 2016 election hacking, the Obama administration or the Trump administration? The answer’s plain and day no. And I said, if you want evidence of that, look at Vladimir Putin. Does this look like a man who has been chastised? I mean, the question answers itself. And he’s someone that I’ve known since 1993, when he used to take notes in the back of summits between Clinton and Yeltsin. So he’s been around a long time. And he is a considerable geostrategic thinker. I mean, Vladimir Putin, I can’t agree with everything he says, but he doesn’t make any—there’s no mystery about him. He speaks extremely well. He writes extremely well. He says exactly what he means. And people are always saying to me: What do you think Putin’s thinking? I say, I know exactly what Putin’s thinking. He just said what he’s thinking.

But one of the things he’s thinking is that he wants to screw my country. (Laughter.) And that’s the—you know, everything else—we could talk about Syria. We could talk about terrorism, we could talk about, you know, Eastern Europe, NATO enlargement, what everyone wants to talk about, and arms control, these are important things to talk. And I know how to talk to people you don’t get along with. You agree where you can. You agree to disagree where you can’t. And that’s, you know, that’s diplomatic life. That’s OK. But when one of the guys intentions is to thwart you, you know, then you kind of say to yourself: Well, what’s the middle ground between—sort of half-thwarting me? So that’s what makes it so difficult to deal with Vladimir—but he’s there. He’s not going anywhere for a while. And I think the Russians, and the Chinese are the same way, almost everybody, they do respond to pressure. He does respond to counterpressure. It’s a mistake to let him run wild.

BRENNAN: So when you hear now from the Trump administration that they’re interested in either exiting certain agreements, like the INF Treaty, which is about to happen, or reconsidering things like New START, the one that’s one warheads, and then maybe bringing the Chinese into three-party talks to come up with a new weapons deal, knitting together those two challengers to the United States, what do you think about that? I mean, is that just wishful thinking? Is that a feint, because it’ll never get done anyway?

CARTER: It’ll never get done anyway. So the second one is easier because there’s no logic to that at all. They’ll both—they both can play that, play us, in that game. And so why would you get in a room with two parties who are going to be very good at playing a democracy that is—I mean, is—now, at the same time, they’re not going to get along. This idea that the Russians and the Chinese are going to gang up on the Americans, I’ve always—I’ve never actually believed in that, because they don’t have any other interests. Russia’s going like this. China’s going like this. And they’re going to be at each other a little bit in the far east. And they have almost nothing in common, except that they both don’t like us. That’s the only thing. That’s not enough to—I think, to make a condominium out of.

With respect to the first thing, though, I think it’s more serious. We can’t afford to lose contact with the enemy, as the phrase goes—and not a literal enemy—but with Russia. I think it’s important to keep talking. It’s frustrating. And I’m a little worried there isn’t enough strategic—just because these things can think the wackiest things if you don’t stay in contact with them. They really—those of you who have seen Russians, and they’ve told you what their intelligence services have told them about what’s going on, it’s wild. And so it’s not safe to let that just run amok.

So you asked me about the INF Treaty. And I’m sorry if this is an unpopular point of view, because I know a lot of people would like to not see the INF Treaty go away, but my view always on the INF Treaty was, as secretary of defense, I don’t want it more than they do because I was always looking on the other side of the fence at short-range missiles, which we weren’t allowed to have, which I could think of lots of uses for in Europe and in Asia. And remember the Chinese are getting ready to fire them at us all the time. And we don’t have anything to fire back, because we’re in some deal with the Russians. And that doesn’t mean I’m for tearing it all up, and I don’t want to walk—but you can’t forget that they actually did violate it, number one. They don’t want it either, really.

And, but number two, I know what to do if I’m given that latitude. And I assume my successor’s successor will know what to do as well. And so from that point of view, from the military point of view not the political point of view, it’s not so bad. We could make good use of what we call conventional prompt strike.

BRENNAN: Mmm hmm. So you think this is designed to do away, potentially, with some of these arms control agreements, because you’re setting up an impossible round of three-way talks?

CARTER: Yeah, I guess I think so. I think it is something that sounds good and sounds wow that’s take the three—the three biggest power, get them all in the room. And so the gullible will bite on that hook. I don’t think there’s anything really there. But in the meantime, you do away with something that did take thirty-forty years to build. Just in general, I am—things take so long to make in the real world. And it’s so easy to take them apart that I—and I’m just conservative or anything by nature—I mean, naturally conservative by nature or anything, but I’m always suspicious when something that’s been around for a while is getting dismantled.

And that doesn’t mean I’m not ready to charge into the future. You know, I’m a scientist, I’m a technologist, the future, I’m all about that. It was very big for me in the Defense Department. But I didn’t take apart things readily. I’m happy to build new things. But taking part things is—unless you really, really have a replacement—not a phony replacement—that’s risky. And things take so long to build, you can do a lot of destruction in no time in Washington. And I’m a builder. I like builders. A lot of builders I see out here in the audience. It takes a lot of patience. And the people who take stuff apart are—you know, you can do that on the cheap. So I’m a little suspicious about that.

BRENNAN: Well, along those lines, the Iran nuclear deal. As you look at what’s happening right now with the potential unraveling of this international diplomatic agreement, when does the yellow—flashing yellow light turn red for you? What do you think is actually happening right now?

CARTER: On the nuclear front, I’m less concerned perhaps than people might think for the following reason: The JCPOA, and I’ll come back to that and sort of what it meant and didn’t mean from the start—

BRENNAN: The nuclear accord.

CARTER: The nuclear deal. But what it did, Margaret, as you well know, is it forced the Iranians in the early years, and they regret this now—(laughter)—before we could leave it, to destroy a lot of their stuff. They had to ruin their Arak Reactor and a bunch of—and we’re still kind of getting the benefits of that. So they’re putting their toe in the water now with the—this little bit of enrichment thing. But they’ve got a ways to go to get back to even where they were, let alone to getting forward to a bomb. So a little bit of room there.

BRENNAN: Still got a year, right, was the projection at the time of the accord, before they could actually have—

CARTER: Yeah, that was—that was under very—in a very determined circumstance, where they were starting with what they had then, which is not what they have now.

BRENNAN: So there’s more than a year out from actually being anywhere near a weapon?

CARTER: Yeah. It’s always hard to call this one-year thing, but the fact of the matter is that in the early years of the agreement they had to hobble themselves. And that’s nice that we’re now enjoying that fact. And that’s a good thing. Plus, they seem to be just putting their toe in the water, because they don’t want to get the Chinese, the Russians, and the Europeans on their backs. So we have that going for us.

What worries me in the U.S.-China thing is less that, and not that we’re going to go to war with one another, because our president says he doesn’t want war, and he’s said that consistently and repeatedly. Whatever anybody else has said in the government, he has said that. And the Iranians I don’t think are in any position to want war. You know, well, that area better than I do. So you may have a view on this too, Margaret. But I don’t think they’re in a position—they’re not—certainly not a position of military strength. But they’re not in a position of international or domestic political strength to take something like that on. So it’s not intentional war either.

What is the risk in the U.S.-Iranian situation today is something unintentional. We’re up against each other so close there in the—in the Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz. And there isn’t enough of an anchor to—if something flares up. Now, I happen to have been in office when ten U.S. sailors were detained by the Iranians. For reasons that happened to be us going into their territorial waters without navigating properly, to put it bluntly.

BRENNAN: And this was in the middle of the negotiations.

CARTER: In the middle. So there’s no better time in terms of—I mean, comparatively speaking. (Laughter.) You’re in the middle of a very visible negotiation. It’s not, like, a time where we’re trading insults, or not talking at all. And, you know, but it’s American hostages. So imagine what we’re doing in the Defense Department in the early—I see Peter Cook here, who remembers this very well. I mean, we’re spooling up really fast. I mean, self-defense is a big deal. Taking Americans—Iranians taking Americans, detaining Americans, wow. So, I mean, so the blood is getting up really fast. We’re spinning up really fast. And fortunately actually John Kerry could call somebody on a cellphone, at least get some adult leadership, and get this thing kind of settled down real quickly before we could get at each other.

That kind of thing, which is possible every day because, you know, OK, some sailor blundered, and we took his little boats into Iranian territorial waters. These things are possible, on our side or on the Iranian side. But, you know, there’s no counterweight now. Where’s that phone call going to come from? How’s that going to get resolved? And that’s an ugly baby within one day. Everybody remembers the Iranian hostage drama. And so, you know, that’s what bothers me, more than intentional war or the nuclear thing right now. The thing I worry about more every day with the United States and Iran is that we—there’s a spark somewhere, and the grass is so dry.

BRENNAN: I want to ask you, China, North Korea as well. On North Korea, when you left the administration, did you feel it was just unfinished business? How frustrated where you of the capabilities Kim was left with?

CARTER: I’m—you got to be frustrated with the North Koreans, but I’m dealing with them since the early ’90s. And so I’m—the grandfather, the father, this guy, all progressively getting worse. (Laughter.) And—

BRENNAN: There had been attempts at diplomatic outreach by the Obama administration.

CARTER: There had been. And there had been little bits of progress here and there. 1994 there was some. 1998 there was some. 2006, after they exploded their first bomb, Condi Rice and Colin Powell gave it a try. And I have to say—and I was part of those, in the—in the past, particularly the first two, but also the third one as well, the six-party talks. The Obama administration didn’t try, basically. I think President Obama, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but my inference was that he just—he didn’t think it would go anywhere. And what he did, which I was grateful for, was back me up, and my immediate predecessor, so, if you don’t have talks, all you have—not all you have, but what you have to do is—I see Vince Brooks here—is deterrence and defense.

And so we did deterrence and defense. And deterrence means having forces, ours and ROK forces, that are so obviously capable of destroying the North Korean armed forces, and destroying the North Korean regime, that they can’t possibly imagine that they won’t lose a war if one starts. And defense is our missile defenses. You know, and that was controversial. When I was undersecretary, the weapon czar as it’s called, and was doing missile defenses in Alaska and California people were saying: Well, you’re going to anger the Russians, or they don’t work, and why are you doing this? And my standard answer, and I think it was the government’s standard answer at the time, was somebody—the North Koreans or the Iranians—is going to get there someday, on the path they’re on. And I don’t want to be defenseless when that happens. And so we did build and deploy. And so we’re not defenseless. But, anyway, deterrence and defense. We didn’t talk to them.

I don’t object to talking to them now. I can’t tell you I exactly get what’s going on. The—all the presidents that I observed deal with North Korea, starting with Bush one, refused to meet with the North Korean leader unless and until an agreement was all sewn up because they knew that to meet—for an American leader to meet with a North Korean leader was a gift to the North Koreans. I mean, they craved that. And if you’re in a negotiation with someone you don’t give anything for free. That’s—

BRENNAN: But the administration would argue, all the past attempts had failed. So why not try something totally—

CARTER: But that doesn’t mean you give away something. This is a tactical point. You don’t give away something for free. You don’t give away something somebody else values for free. So it’s just not—I mean, to me, it’s just not negotiating to give away something for free. It’s OK if you want to have a meeting, if you want to have a range—I mean, with the North Koreans everything is a—everything is a transaction. And Koreans in general are like that. And so you—so I’m all for dealing with them. And you say, you do this, and I’ll do that, and then if that works out I’ll do this, and you’ll do that. And that’s how everything has to progress.

BRENNAN: Is containment—

CARTER: But I wouldn’t give them a meeting, myself. I wouldn’t advise the president to give them a meeting. I might advise him to trade a meeting, but not give a meeting.

BRENNAN: Right. Is containment ultimately where this ends up? Not a North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, but just putting some constraints on—

CARTER: It’ll be a heavy lift. And that’s not the path we seem to be on. We say we’re on it, but you don’t see that track being laid down. If that is possible, you got to do something different from what we’re doing. I’m not sure it is possible. And the more they get dug into being treated like it’s a fait accompli, the harder it would be to dislodge them. So in 2006, OK, it’s 2019 now, thirteen years ago they exploded their first bomb. That’s a lot of cement around the ankles for these guys.

And then on top of that they’re getting meetings and they’re—and people are talking about kind of lesser things, like family meetings and returning remains and so forth which are important, but which are a far cry from denuclearizing, or even test moratoria, and so forth. Which are useful, but that’s not denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. And, Margaret, you know, and the people in this room know, that’s not a new pledge either. The North Koreans promised that to George Bush one in 1992. So we didn’t get a new promise. They’ve had that promise. They’ve just never lived up to the promise.

BRENNAN: I want to go to questions in the audience, but before we do that you hear a lot about questions regarding Chinese telecom firms, particularly Huawei.

CARTER: Huawei.

BRENNAN: And the level of access that they should have to this market and, in exchange, also American businesses doing—conducting business with those firms. Should American companies be allowed to do business with Huawei?

CARTER: Sometimes now.

BRENNAN: Given that you could make the argument they are complicit in the surveillance?

CARTER: Right. That’s exactly the reason. And I don’t want to sound harsh about it, but China hasn’t worked out the way we hoped in the 1990s. And the economists—I came to that conclusion about the year 2000. I’ve dealt with the PLA for a quarter century, many of you have as well. And, you know, in the 1990s it was possible to hope that China would become—would grow—become a big France. And you couldn’t believe that by 2000, and you certainly can’t believe it by now. Now, I don’t think that you—that doesn’t mean we’re going to have World War III with them or a cold war with them.

But you have to ask yourself, what does that mean, that China is what China is? And particularly in the economic and technological area, Margaret, I don’t think the economists have given us a playbook for that. And so you see in the—for example, the tariff negotiations, a—if you like, that’s a start. It’s a—it’s a groping towards that playbook. But I don’t think anybody can believe tariffs is the whole of the playbook. It’s, like, a chapter of the playbook or something. It’s not the entirely of the playbook.

BRENNAN: But blacklisting Huawei is something you do support?

CARTER: Yes. There are various shades and so forth of that. And you can’t do everything. Like, their handsets, as against their installed 5G equipment. Huawei’s a big thing; does lots of things. So I don’t think—yeah, I’m in favor of—we got to stick up for ourselves. China is a Communist dictatorship. And I’m not out to change them. But when they come to the business scene, they bring a combination of political, military and economic tools that societies like ours don’t possess. And we need to protect our companies and protect our friends and allies against what is inherently an uneven playing field.

And so I think our companies reasonably expect our government to do that for them, and not to say that we have two playbooks. We have a Cold War playbook, which is CFIUS and export controls and all that, which it was for a Communist dictatorship that we didn’t trade with. So that doesn’t work. Or, free trade, big France. Neither of those is right. We need a playbook for this situation. And you see that being acted out in this Huawei, in this question of whether students were paid for by the U.S. government who are Chinese and then go back to China, is that an OK thing or not? These are real questions. And I’ve said, I have some frustration with the international economic thinking. I’m not an economist. I’m not going to say I would do better all by myself. But my disappointment is very real in that area.

BRENNAN: Plenty more to ask you, but I want to open it up to questions from the audience—excuse me—from the members here today. And just to remind you, you are on the record. So we do have microphones on the sides of the room if you want to raise your hand. When you take the microphone, please say your name and your affiliation. And one question please, and a question not a speech. (Laughter.) Here in front.

Q: John Holden with McLarty Associates.

Following on the 5G issue, should the United States as a matter of priority develop 6G and leapfrog this technology? If it’s going to be the backbone of the next industrial revolution?

CARTER: Well, in general, the answer to that question, John, is yes, we should be—we should be looking to leapfrog. You got to be a little careful with—5G has become this big God. And I was around when cellular was first invented and remember when we walked around in the nuclear command and control area with this huge thing. There was a tiny, in capability, compared to the thing that pocket now. We would carry them around like this. So it’s come a long way. And cellular was a hard thing to put together. But, you know, 5G isn’t magic.

It’s like—it’s 4G only sort of smaller. A little bit takes care of the latency business, increases the bandwidth. It’s not, like, the end of the world. And you’ve got to do a lot of installation of this stuff, because they’ve got to be much closer together. And so they are going to be hassles with buildings and walls, which are—because this doesn’t bend around curves nearly—because it’s higher frequency. So 5G isn’t, like, hugely wonderful. And I don’t even know what 6G, what people mean by 6G. At some point you got to get on a wireline or get really close to a transceiver if you’re going to get, like, super wide bandwidth.

So this is kind of a big engineering deployment project. It’s not wildly sophisticated. I don’t think it’s going to transformative for the experience people have. But it’s a step up better, but it requires a whole hell of a lot of leasing of antenna space on buildings and that kind of thing. And on the whole, I would rather have all that work done and all that infrastructure bought from an American company or a company I trust more than Huawei. That’s fine.

But, John, your general question about leapfrogging gets me to another point, if I may just take the time, Margaret, to make, which is I’ve been talking about things like Huawei, which is a defensive play, with respect to China. We need an offense. You can’t just play defense. You got to have an offense. Which means we have to be better, and I think that’s what’s underlying John’s question here. So if you’re worried about Chinese and AI, let’s beat them in AI, rather than hobble them in AI, which we probably don’t know how to do. So there’s no—it’s the old Sputnik thing. There’s no substitute for just being better and getting there faster, and so forth. And we shouldn’t take sight of all—take our eyes off of that at the same time we’re trying to not be unfairly beaten where a Communist dictatorship has tools that we don’t.

BRENNAN: OK. I’ll come back to you here. Can we try this side of the room, here? Cynthia?

Q: Cynthia Roberts. I’m a CFR fellow at the Joint Staff this year.

So—and my question is just my question, not theirs. (Laughter.) So given what you’ve said about Putin and Russia, and given that you’ve also said that it’s a sobering fact in your view that the problem of nuclear Armageddon is less pressing than, perhaps, Russia using limited strike to end a fait accompli, where they try to push us out and NATO out of Europe in terms of defending an ally or a partner. So my question is about the responses that you favor, and would they be—you talked about missiles, you talked about missile defense, and you’ve talked about nuclear weapons. So would you prefer conventional missiles? And then would our European allies accept those as a post-INF? Would you prefer a kind of low-yield nuclear option? And finally, on the missile defense, we told the Russians and Putin for years that we wanted missile defense not against Russia, but against, you know, an Iran threat, or something like Iran. Would we now change our mind and say, too bad, this is your problem, or not? Thank you.

CARTER: OK. All good question. You got a bunch of things embedded in there. But first of all, before we get to all the new little gizmos and so forth at the end of your question, most of it is to—most of my answer to what do we do about Russia, there are a few factors to it, but we got to be a little careful what we say here. One is, it’s a big country. I wouldn’t like to be defending that country. And so part of my answer to Vladimir Putin is, you know, you may think that your—the war’s here, but, pal, I’m global. So you show up in Tallinn, I’ll show up in Vladivostok, so to speak. And so I’d—that’s part—I could say more than that, but part of my answer.

Another part of my answer is, you know, we got to play this hybrid game better, and call it—

BRENNAN: The little green men?

CARTER: Yes, little green men, or the goosing around with cyber and pretending it’s not an attack. To me, an attack is an attack. So a lot of my answer doesn’t get to—but you asked about a number of things.

INF missiles, yeah, I mean, as I said, I’m kind of—they have their attractions to a secretary of defense. And, you know, we gave them up, and we thought we got a deal once upon a time. If I’m not going to have that constraint anymore, I certainly know what to do with it. And Russia’s part of that. I think it’s a little more useful with respect to China, if I may say so.

Mini-nukes is a big debate going on now. The only thing I’ll say about that is—I mean, is a couple things. First, no nuclear weapon is really small. And the—but the second is, I mean, nobody can want to use more yield than they have to. But to the—I think what bothers people most is the idea that somehow this makes more use—weapons more doable or usable. I don’t find that plausible. I don’t think grown-up, responsible people who are—think about nuclear weapons or, God forbid, would ever use nuclear weapons would—that that would be a major—and they’d say, well, it’s just, you know, a few kilotons. It’s not five hundred kilotons. I don’t think that would really swing it.

So a lot of these things are exotic. And people are looking for some silver bullet. So, if only we can violate the INF Treaty, we’ll be able to take care of the Russians, or we’ll goose around with the nuclear weapons, we’ll take care of the Russians. I think it’s—I think it’s more comprehensive than that. And there are other ingredients to the wartime approach to—and, again, remember, I don’t want a war with Russia. I’m only saying that makes them convinced in detail that they will lose. And by the way, missile defenses? Forget it, with respect to Russia. They got too much stuff. I mean, we can hold our own with the North Koreans for a number of years, at least. But the Russians just have too much stuff. But, again, they come at you again, and again, and again complaining about missile defense.

And I’ve been having these conversations—Senator Warner’s here. He’s been having these conversations too for thirty-forty years. (Laughs.) And you go, you know, if I knew how to defend myself from you, I would. But I don’t. We haven’t known how to do that since Star Wars or any of these other things. And it’s not that we haven’t tried. They have too much stuff.

BRENNAN: Kimberly Dozier, here.

Q: Thank you. Kim Dozier, Daily Beast.

Continuing on the theme of alliances, has the transactional nature of this administration so far caused any sort of damage that can’t be spooled back, something permanent that a future Democrat or Republican alliance-minded organization couldn’t fix? I mean, you do have Ambassador Bolton, who is fairly pro-NATO in there now.

CARTER: Yeah. Well, I mean, let’s start—let’s back up some. Why do we have alliances and partnerships anyway? These aren’t favors we do for foreigners. This is a force multiplier for us. And people who reflect our values and our interests enough that they might flight alongside of us. And having somebody fight alongside of you is better than doing it for yourself. And you can’t do that transactionally. It’s like a family or something. There are transactions—or a marriage. There are transactions within a marriage, but there has to be an underlying relationship as well, particularly among democracies.

And you ask, after you’ve called into question an alliance how easy is it to get it back onto solid ground? I think what’s going to make that tricky, where we have done that, is these are democracies. So you’re not dealing just with the leader. And the thing about a democracy is once you’ve ticked its people off, or they have felt disrespected, no leader they elect can ever lead them in the right direction, even if it is the right direction, because they can’t get away with it because the people don’t want it. So if you’re dealing with Vladimir Putin you can take him this way, and that that way, and he’d never mind his people, and Xi Jinping. But if you’re trying to deal with a Theresa May or whatever, she can’t zig and zag like that, because she’s got an opinion of her own to pay attention to.

So it is a relationship with another people if it’s a democracy. And that inevitably makes it something you can’t dial up and down and do in a transactional way. People want to feel connected. And, you know, look, I believe in the values thing. I believe in the values of the enlightenment. And I don’t have—the Chinese are fine with me. But I’m not Chinese. And the enlightenment and our values are about, you know, what they call the dignity of man, but would now be the dignity of humankind, and was at least in theory—I know sometimes we can be very American and so forth—but universal. And it was about human rights and human—and that’s kind of where I am as a person.

And China’s ideology is about being Chinese, which is fine if you’re Chinese. But since I’m not, it’s not, you know, hugely attractive. And so you look at the globe, and you say: Where are there people who kind of share our values? It’s more than just interests and history and so forth. It’s kind of values as well. And that—it matters to me. And it’s worth having a relationship with people who share your values in international life, even as it is in ordinary human life.

BRENNAN: But you wouldn’t go as far as, say, Joe Biden, who worried out loud the other day about NATO not surviving a second term of the Trump presidency.

CARTER: I didn’t hear—I didn’t hear him say that. I didn’t hear him say—

BRENNAN: It was in a CNN interview.

CARTER: OK. I’m sorry. It shows you how little I have to do with—maybe Senator Warner heard.

Q: You found out just as I did. (Laughter.)

CARTER: I don’t believe that, if he did say that, only because I think it is a relationship. I think there is a more ballast in this system than people know—I just think people have sense. And they know that we and the United Kingdom are friends and are going to be friends a long time. When I worked for Weinberger a long time ago—and this was a secret then—but we helped—we were helping the Brits in the Falklands. And there was no reason for that in the sense that we didn’t have any stake the Falklands. We did it because we were friends with Great Britain which, by the way, we used to be an enemy of. I mean, you don’t have to go back to the revolution. (Laughter.) No, were in enemy in between World War I and World War II, in the sense of if you read the newspapers.

And we only became big pals in World War II. But pals we are. And so we helped them out when they were in a rough spot. And, you know, that’s a perfectly valid thing to do. And these countries are going to look at the globe, just like we look at the globe, and say: Where are some people we can get along with? And there aren’t a whole lot of them. And the Europeans are one of the. And the Canadians—not the only ones. We have the Japanese, and the Australians, and South Korea, and there are lots of people. These are people who are friends for a reason.

BRENNAN: OK. On this side of the room. Gentleman there. I can’t see you nametag, but if you could introduce yourself.

Q: Greg Thielmann. I’m a board member of the Arms Control Association.

You said that you could think of a lot of uses of conventionally armed INF missiles. Since the INF Treaty had no limits on air-launched and sea-launched INF-range missiles, could you elaborate a little bit on the uses—or the need for having land-based systems, particularly considering the fact that can you also imagine a lot of countries that would welcome U.S. INF-range missiles to be hosted on their territory?

CARTER: No, I don’t want to elaborate too much. (Laughs.) But you’re right. We were allowed to do some things. But you know, if you go around the—let’s say, the Asia Pacific. And you want to be able to get somewhere quickly, and land-to-land. There are some attractive circumstances for the United States. It’s not going to—it’s not transformative, otherwise we may have gotten out of the INF Treaty earlier. I’m just saying if you release me from the constraints, it’s not like I don’t have anything—I can’t think of anything to do.

BRENNAN: OK. Around this side of the room. Senator, yeah.

Q: Ash, nice to see you again. We go way back.

CARTER: Nice to see you, Senator.

Q: By the way, what sort of bills are you taking to maintain the shape you’re in? (Laughter.)

CARTER: I was going to ask you. (Laughter.)

Q: No. I periodically go back to primarily Quantico, Virginia, because my modest military career there started end of World War II. And they were so proud, the guys who were there. They walked me to the barracks. They looked the same. Their rucksacks were all packed, rifles slung. The M1’s gone, another rifle now. And they’re ready to go. They’re so proud that they could respond within three hours, be ready for a forward deployment. That’s not the war, Ash, that worries me. It’s the cybersecurity war. How do we know when we’re in one of those things? What shape is it going to take? And how well prepared are we from that youngster down there in the Marine Corps, that second lieutenant that’s ready to go? And what’s his role, if any?

CARTER: Good. Well, you’re so right. I’ll tell you, to me what it looks like is—a cybersecurity attack looks like an attack to Ash Carter. I get this question all the time. I don’t care whether it’s cyber or not. If you attack my people, you attack my country, that’s an attack.

BRENNAN: Is that taking out a power grid? Or is that hacking emails?

CARTER: Yeah. Well, for example, a power grid is destructive and threatening to my people. So yes.

BRENNAN: Hacking the DNC?

CARTER: There, you know, you’re more in a difficult territory. It is an attack. But it’s not like an all-out military attack. But it is an attack. You have to say, that is aggression in my country. What am I going to do to punish and push back? So the first thing is an attack is an attack. Should—are the Marines part of a possible response to that? Yeah, because I wouldn’t necessarily respond to a cyberattack with a cyber response . Why should I? When people flew airplanes into our buildings we didn’t fly airplanes in their buildings. So you do something to me and my people and I’m going to do whatever I damn well want, and that seems efficacious. And that might be the United States Marine Corps. It might not be a cyber response. So it does need to be gradated depending on whether it’s the DNC or an infrastructure attack. So, you know, proportionality and discrimination are still important in cyber. But you don’t have to do cyber for cyber. You need to be call—you need to be able to call something for what it is, and not get befuddled by the fact that they happen to be using, you know, bits to do it.

BRENNAN: Did you recognize the hacking of the DNC as an attack at that time?

CARTER: I did. I mean, it’s an aggressive—overly aggressive act against our political system. And by the way, by a guy who lives in a glass house, who’s throwing domestic political stones. So two can play that game.

BRENNAN: But do you know it instantaneously? Because there’s the argument, oh, it takes time, you have to investigate it, you may not know.

CARTER: No, I wouldn’t say that. Remember, we—I wouldn’t say I did. And it’s not because I’m—remember, the—we weren’t really part of that in the normal course of things. That was more a law enforcement at domestic thing. And I see the judge here. And quite appropriately, the Department of Defense is not normally—so I probably can’t tell you everything that was going on, or that we knew was going on, simply because I’m the—I was the secretary of defense. And it would not be normal if Jim Comey or John Brennan, one of those people was here they could probably tell you more.

And actually, by the way, if I may say so, there’s a good side to that, which is we—President Obama was always very careful, and everybody in my observation, all the years I’ve been associated with defense—has always been very careful to keep the Defense Department out of politics. And so it was considered a, oh, we shouldn’t invite those guys for a conversation about what we’re going to do about the election hack. Because obviously that’s a political conversation. We’re in the middle of an election campaign. So how you deal with it could be—could affect or could be seen to be—to affect the outcome of the election itself. And so if you’re in a position of responsibility, you have to ask yourself: Is it appropriate for me to do something?

I’m sure there were conversations like that going on. But we weren’t—Joe Dunford and I weren’t part of them, because we wouldn’t normally be invited to that. And that’s OK with me. But in the intelligence briefing sense I knew what the Russians were doing. It didn’t surprise me at all, and I didn’t require a whole lot of convincing. And it was irrefutable by the time, you know, fall came. I don’t see how you could possibly think that they weren’t doing it and weren’t doing it deliberately.

BRENNAN: Here, in the aisle, the gentleman midway through, in the blue shirt.

Q: Jeremy Young. I’m a journalist with Al Jazeera.

Following up on your comment about keeping the Department of Defense out of politics, I was wondering if you could share with us your thoughts on President Trump’s Fourth of July Salute to America event on the Mall. What was your thoughts and takeaways on it?

CARTER: Well, I guess I’m going to answer to say I prefer to call it a Fourth of July celebration and not belonging to anybody. In general, you know, the troops are supposed to be training for war. And that’s what they should be doing. And you know, every holiday has its purpose. We have Veterans Day, Memorial Day, which are particularly important to us in the Department of Defense. And they’re the days that we particularly honor our institution. There are inauguration days, when we honor presidents. There are Fourth of Julys, where we’re honoring the principles that created the nation in which we live. So different holidays have different purposes. But I think one way of answering your question is the troops are supposed to be training for war. That’s what we need them to be doing, first and foremost, whatever else they’re doing.

BRENNAN: So I imagine you don’t like the border deployments either.

CARTER: I don’t like?

BRENNAN: The U.S. border deployments.

CARTER: No. I mean, they’re not trained for that. They are not authorized for that. We have tens of thousands of people in our Customs and Border Patrol. You know, we have forces that do that, that are trained to do that. Remember, our guys aren’t trained to do that. And they’re trained for war, which is what we want them to be trained. They’re not trained to do that. And they’re also not authorized to do it. In other words, they don’t have the law enforcement abilities. So they’re not the right force to be using there. We have the right force. If it needs to be bigger, let’s make it bigger. But our guys are not trained to do that, and they’re not authorized to do that.

BRENNAN: On this side? The gentleman with the glasses in the back there, in the middle.

Q: Thanks for this opportunity. My name is Pu Wan (ph) from China’s Xinhua News Agency.

So there was an article on Washington Post last week which was signed by a hundred U.S. scholars disagreeing with current administration’s China policy and arguing that China is not an enemy of United States. So what’s your point of this article? And do you see China as an enemy of the United States? And do you endorse the Trump administration’s China policy, especially in the security realm? Thank you.

CARTER: OK. So you’ve got a China is an enemy, do I endorse the Trump policy, and do I endorse the letter? First of all, to me, the question is China an enemy—China is a competitor, a geostrategic opponent. Enemy is—boils the thing down—I don’t want to be an enemy of China. I think I know who would win a war with China. But no one in their right mind can possibly—that is us—can want to have a war with China. I think to the expression of the scholars. I read that. Respectfully read it. And it has some good points in there. In general, I don’t buy the American creation story of the U.S.-China competition.

There’s one version of that which is actually by a very good friend of mine and wonderful colleague who wrote a really interesting book about—called Thucydides Trap, Graham Allison. But remember, Thucydides formulation was that war was caused by the rise of one power and the fear that caused in the other. That was Thucydides famous historical judgement. I don’t think that quite works in this case. I don’t see the United States fear as contributing to—by the way, don’t forget, in the case of the Peloponnesian War, despite the trap of Thucydides, they did go to war. And you know who won? The U.S. side. So the historical analysis doesn’t get you where you want it to go, if that—if these letter writers are in that camp. So I don’t—I don’t think we’re causing things. At the same time, I don’t put the whole thing on China as well.

With respect to the Trump administration’s policy, which is your other—your other question—I don’t know exactly what it is, because it has—(laughter)—the trade—well, I just mean that it has the trade dimension, which I’ve talked to, where it seems to me we have tariffs, which I get. I understand that. And that is a tools. But it’s a—it seems to me one instrument and not an orchestra. I don’t chalk that all up to the Trump administration, because I don’t think, as I said, that we have—we’ve gotten from our economic—international economic policymakers a full playbook. And I think there are other pieces. There would be a piece that dealt with the Huawei dilemma. There would be—you know, there would be other things that tariffs in it.

I think you do—to the extent it is reflective of this country coming to the view that we need to have a more intentional politico-economic policy with respect to China, I think that is necessary, and inevitable, and actually long overdue. But I still think the—I see us still scratching for a playbook, which is intrinsically hard in a country like ours because we can’t just decide this is the playbook, like you can do in China. If Xi Jinping says that’s the playbook, that’s the playbook. It’s not going to be that easy the way we run our country.

BRENNAN: Well, I see all these hands. And I know I have more questions. But I do have to keep us to time. Have to get us wrapped up by 1:30.


BRENNAN: So I want to thank all of you members for coming today, and for Secretary Carter, for your time and your conversation.

CARTER: Thank you. (Applause.)


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