Grading the Game: An Interview with Dr. Kurt Campbell (Pt. 1)

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Andrew Schwartz: Welcome to the Asia Chessboard, the podcast that examines geopolitical dynamics in Asia and takes an inside look at the making of grand strategy. I'm Andrew Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ben Rimland: In this episode, Mike and Andrew sit down with Dr. Kurt Campbell, President and CEO of the Asia Group. Dr. Campbell is also the Cofounder of the Center for New American Security and former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Pacific Affairs. In part one of the two-part discussion, Mike, Kurt and Andrew give an inside look at the establishment of the Nye Initiative, which is a post-Cold War drive to restructure the US-Japan alliance for the present era. They also grade the Trump and Obama administration's records against combating strategic drift. Are there bright spots in contemporary US grand strategy in Asia, or have intra-administration divisions prevented the execution of successful grand strategy?

Andrew Schwartz: Kurt, welcome to the podcast. We've got you and Mike Green here. This is a variable grand strategist master session we've got going here. How did you first get into strategy, especially when it comes to Asia?

Kurt Campbell: Thanks, Andrew, and it's great to be with both you and Mike. Well, I studied political science and international relations in graduate school, although my geographic focus was more on Europe, the former Soviet Union, and I also looked at the role of ideology in the Third World, largely in Africa, so I was a latecomer, relatively, to Asia. I was actually White House Fellow for a couple of years in the Treasury Department and was heading back to teach at Harvard, and a colleague there who was serving at the defense department, his name was Joe Nye, out of the blue, literally, I was packing up boxes to move back to Cambridge, I was in Washington, D.C., said, "Would you like to come over to the Pentagon and help me with Asia policy?"

Kurt Campbell: And I hadn't really, I'd been in the Navy and I'd had a couple of weeks on duty in Yokosuka, but I had not had really any experience working on Asia and had ... I said , "Yes," and went over and I have to say from that moment, which was in 1995, I've been obsessed and focused and interested by Asia ever since. I think of myself as a relative newcomer, but it's now 25 years, but from that moment I think Asia has animated almost everything I've thought about and done.

Andrew Schwartz: All right, so I got to bring Mike in in a minute, but we're talking about Joe Nye, so we're talking about the Joe Nye, and this is before the Joe Nye becomes professor at Harvard himself?

Kurt Campbell: No, he was a longtime professor at Harvard, and he served as the Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs for about two years in the Pentagon.

Andrew Schwartz: Right, so had you known him at Harvard?

Kurt Campbell: Oh yes, he was pretty much my mentor, yeah.

Andrew Schwartz: He was your mentor at Harvard, and then he had convinced you to go to the Pentagon?

Kurt Campbell: Yeah, he had moved down there. I think he was looking to fill out his team. I think he got uniform advice not to hire me, but I went over...

Andrew Schwartz: Why was that?

Kurt Campbell: I had no Asia experience...

Andrew Schwartz: Sharp elbows at Harvard, was that what was going on?

Kurt Campbell: I was a little younger, probably a little too ambitious, a little bit on the make, and it's hard to do that job without very much experience. One of the things that happened almost immediately was that he was like, "We've got to bring on board and work with people who are the best," and we were fortunate to work with people like Ezra Vogel, but the person who was the most helpful, the most strategic, and the person who was most gracious in a bipartisan way was Mike Green, who I look back, I hadn't really worked with him or known him, but I traveled with him on a number of occasions to Japan and other parts of Asia. I still sometimes can reflect and remember actual phrases that Mike used to explain certain dynamics of Asia. They were that important, and I still remember them 25 years later.

Andrew Schwartz: So Mike, how did you all first connect?

Dr. Mike Green: I remember really well. This sounds like a dating game session, but I remember really well. Joe, I was...

Andrew Schwartz: These were good dates though.

Dr. Mike Green: Well, Kurt's a great date, but I'd lived in Japan for five years and had just finished my PHD, and I wrote on the US-Japan Alliance, which was, in the early '90s kind of thought of as an out of date, cold warrior thing to write about, but the Pentagon in those days was growing really worried about the state of our alliances. They were drifting as Yoichi Funabashi, the famous Japanese journalist, put it, so the Pentagon, actually, the action started at the National Intelligence Council, where Joe was the chief. This is the Clinton administration and, and Ezra Vogel, the storied Harvard Japan and China expert was head of Asia, National Intelligence officer, and they knew they were going over to the Pentagon. So, at the same time they were talking to Kurt, they grabbed me out of obscurity. I was teaching at SAIS as I finished my PHD to help out, and it was pretty listless at the Pentagon. The State Department had been pretty much ordered to focus on economic issues, so the old.

Andrew Schwartz: So, listless in terms of Asia policy or listless…

Dr. Mike Green: Yeah, just Asia policy.

Kurt Campbell: Andrew, the best way to think about it is this is this period immediately after the Cold War. A lot of questions about American purpose, and a sense that in the early period of the Clinton administration, the primary focus, remember the watchword was, "It's the economy, stupid," so a lot of focus on domestic politics, a lot of focus on unfair trade interactions, largely with Japan. And the sense that to the extent there was a strategic focus, it was mostly on three issues in Europe. The horrible war in Bosnia, NATO expansion, and the continuing dissolution of the former Soviet Union.

Dr. Mike Green: So, I got pulled into the Pentagon as basically a consultant, and Kurt's predecessor tried to get me fired because I was making noise about how our alliances were drifting because of everything Kurt's describing, the focus on Europe, we had big trade wars with Japan. Kurt's predecessor wanted me out, and instead Joe and I brought in Kurt as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, the top Asia guy. So Kurt and I first met in Joe Nye's office when Kurt was getting briefed up for his new job. I remember it really well because I started saying what I had been saying about how the alliance needed some serious shoring up, and Kurt just grabbed it and ran with it. It was very clear why Joe had hired him because he was going to get stuff done. It was an interesting time, Kurt, because it was really just Bill Perry, who I guess at that point was Secretary, you and Joe, but the rest of the Clinton administration thought this alliance stuff was old-think, right? You should tell us a bit about what it was like trying to, basically from within the Pentagon, get an entire administration focused on shoring up our alliances after the Cold War when a lot of people thought we didn't need them anymore in Asia.

Kurt Campbell: Yeah, look, it's nice for Mike to give credit to other people, but the truth is there was a cadre of people. I would say Mike was pretty much the leader, who were deeply enmeshed in academia, in Republican politics, who understood Capitol Hill that helped carry the message. So, when I look back at this period, it feels a little bit like a mirage. We were all younger. There was a tremendous sense of shared purpose.

Dr. Mike Green: Bipartisanship too.

Kurt Campbell: Yeah, bipartisanship. It was not as nasty. I was very much struck. I think the interesting thing about government, and this is something that people don't really understand, is that a lot of times where you can make the most progress is not on the issue of the day because the dominant issue of the day generally attracts a lot of attention, which often leads to fighting and infighting, and so sometimes it's good to take an issue that's perhaps of second-tier importance or at least it is thought of as second-tier importance. I think in retrospect it now looks quite important, and really set about trying to focus on it. I would say that we had a very clear agenda of what we wanted to accomplish with respect to a set of strategic purposes that the alliance would focus on, and it had important domestic undercurrents in Japan. But almost immediately when we started this process in 1995 there was a tragic, horrific rape of a young Japanese girl in Okinawa. That issue, that question of status of American forces in Okinawa, basically became intertwined with this larger effort, and it was impossible. At the same time that we were trying to sort of rebuild and re-gird the alliance with a new set of purposes, we also had to shore up enormous domestic concerns in Japan about the behavior and the activities.

Andrew Schwartz: You had major damage control.

Kurt Campbell: Yeah, and you start to realize that there are a lot of things that are hard to do in foreign policy, it's very hard to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, but one of the hardest things to do in a government is to manage the for deployment of forces in another democratic country. We're a democracy. Japan as a democracy, as is Korea. Putting forces in another country in which it's subject to debate and discussion is one of the most difficult things that you can do. I remember a conversation I had with Mike. We were talking about strategic dialogue, and for most people when they think of Asia, they think of the sort of the slightly outturned chairs of the strategic dialogues of China where Kissinger and Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai were reflecting on the state of the world. And you know, the French revolution, it's very sexy heady stuff. But for those of us who are more focused on the alliances, we ended up talking about where the palm trees are in Okinawa, whether they're in the flight path and stuff. So it's profoundly unsexy, but unbelievably important. Those details are what give purpose and essential buy-in to alliance politics.

Andrew Schwartz: So incredibly hard because of the sensitivities of our engagement in those countries. Correct.

Kurt Campbell: Yeah.

Dr. Mike Green: And because of the burden it places on the US military. So you know when Kurt was in that job, on the one hand he had Okinawans locally who resented some of the impositions, the noise and on the other side the US Marine Corps, which had to operate and maintain a high level of redness and that in that space is, you don't think of it as grand strategy, but in that space is how you maintain forward presence overseas, which is at the core of US grand strategy. George Schultz, who I think is my favorite Secretary of State on Asia in the 20th century maybe Kurt's too, said that really for him foreign policy was more like gardening. You tend the weeds, you don't see big results every day. You put in the time and you create something lasting and important with those small efforts, not the big Nixon goes to China, meets with Mao diplomacy, but the small tactical day by day pruning and weeding and planting and watering to build a more stable order because of your presence.

Kurt Campbell: Mike's got a great section around. I agree with him that I think Schultz was not only the best foreign secretary, Secretary of State for Asia, but I don't think he's gotten the credit deserves. But the section in his book that describes how he thought about Asia with was I think incredibly powerful...

Andrew Schwartz: Mike's book on grand strategy...

Kurt Campbell: Grand strategy in Asia. The best book on Grand Strategy in Asia yet written.

Dr. Mike Green: Actually I have an autographed copy sitting in my family room right now.

Kurt Campbell: Those are hard to come by now.

Dr. Mike Green: Can't find the book anywhere

Andrew Schwartz: Next to a book called hard power by Kurt Campbell.

Kurt Campbell: The other thing that's interesting and it's hard to explain in here but for the Japanese, these issues of Okinawa and repurposing the alliance were absolutely front and center and so they'd come to the United States for meetings often in the White House and the White House and other folks wouldn't even know anything about the specifics of Futenma base, that's a base in Okinawa and issues about relocations. So we had to make sure that no one said anything that veered from the script. And so, it was an incredibly interesting and challenging time for me. I remember we had a state dinner and Mike was nice, a deputy assistant secretary is a lowly position. But, but you know, you make the most of it and when you're, when you deploy, when you're out there, you can feel pretty good about the work you're doing and I remember I was invited to the state dinner was the only time I was invited and it was a Japan state dinner and the Japanese were kind of huddled by themselves in the corner cause they didn't know anyone at the senior levels in the Clinton administration. Then I came in and they thought, oh, Campbell's here. And I'm like, you guys get to get out more.

Dr. Mike Green: Right, right. I remember Kurt, when you came back into government in the Obama administration as the Assistant Secretary for East Asia Pacific at the State Department. When word came out, you were going to get that job, I happened to be in Jakarta and I was having dinner with a group of diplomats from our embassy, senior foreign service officers. One of who was going to go back into the bureau to work for you. And I remember she said, you know Kurt Campbell? I said, yeah. And she said, he's a strategy guy, isn't he? And it was not meant as a compliment. But moving from the Pentagon to the State Department, it must've been interesting. I think in the Nye Initiative, as it was called years in the mid-nineties, what really motivated Joe was maintaining the instruments of American power in a time of uncertainty. But by the time you went back in for President Obama and to work for Secretary Clinton, there was really a deteriorating balance of powers. A much more, the external challenges were a lot more serious. But within the State Department, a lot of foreign service officers see their job as maintaining. And Kurt was seen as a guy who wanted to go out and do things.

Kurt Campbell: Yeah, I agree with that. But I wonder if it goes further than that. It's remarkable how much time our military organizations and our policy apparat at the Pentagon think about strategy and how little frankly is thought really strategically at the State Department. And I think part of it is resources. Part of it is this sort of spirit of maintenance that might describes...

Dr. Mike Green: Which I should hasten to add is not a bad thing. Relationships are essential tools in foreign policy, but it's time intensive. And that's part of why the culture there is so focused on it.

Kurt Campbell: I agree with that, but I also think it goes beyond that. I was one of the, those people who I'd served in a lot of other capacities at the Treasury, at the White House, and at the Defense Department. I harbored almost all those negative views of the State Department. I never thought in a million years I would work there when I went toe to toe with them bureaucratically, always wanted to crush them, right? And then once I arrived and started working there, I realized how fundamentally I had misunderstood the institution and frankly, there's probably nowhere else I would work. I feel that strongly about that place.

Andrew Schwartz: Is that right?

Kurt Campbell: Yeah, but I would also say that they are a group of people that have traditionally not been led as well as they should be. They're incredibly loyal, incredibly hardworking. Andrew, you cannot believe how much they labor without very much support. Like if you're a military person, you can't walk down the street without someone saying thank you for your service. There was hardly a week that went by that I didn't get a letter from someone saying, this is going to shock you, but I had someone help me enormously get this visa or helped me. Like it's such low expectations for my team, but in the end they always outperformed.

Kurt Campbell: I found that almost all these guys, men and women rose to the challenge and when given the opportunity to do things, there was, there were a group of officers that were sensational. But I will say, I think there were certain aspects of the way I ran the bureau that were probably less popular. I've never really very much liked hierarchical organizations. I like flat organizations. I would often encourage young officers to talk. You would think that there would be more hierarchy in the Pentagon than the State Department, but that would not be the case. State Department is extremely hierarchical and so if you encourage young people to talk that gets people may be a little bit unhappy with you should go forward. But I thought at the time where we were at trying to figure out how to reposition the United States in Asia and what Mike says is absolutely true that one of the big debates right now, is how are we doing?

Kurt Campbell: I mean just generally speaking. And the differences in perspective on that question are really dramatic. I'm struck when I sit down with friends in the Trump administration, there is a general sense that the United States is surging and in a very good position in Asia. I would beg to differ. I think many of our traditional advantages have eroded and that our position in Asia is under a degree of stress that we have not faced, perhaps ever.

Andrew Schwartz: Let's talk about that. Why do you think that?

Kurt Campbell: Well, for a variety of reasons. First of all, we've been dramatically preoccupied on a different set of regional challenges in the Middle East and South Asia and I think it is undeniable. I think we gave it our all, but as we look back on it, we'd have to recognize that in terms of our investments, our return has been much, much less than we've hoped.

Andrew Schwartz: You're talking about our return in the Middle East.

Kurt Campbell: Yeah. I also think that if you think about the global system that we helped create in the post-Cold War world, it's an operating system that, freedom of navigation, alliances, sanctity of contracts. It's all kind of interestingly and importantly woven together and integrated. No region has benefited more from those interactions than Asia. But right now, you'd have to say that, that system that has been so very good to us, is being undermined subtly and directly by two nations. The first is China. China is seeking to take elements of that and kind of reshape it for its own purpose. But clearly sees itself as a dominant power and it's natural for dominant rising powers to want to have their own institutions, their own role, not just join. And so they are seeking to amend and adjust and in some cases undermine elements of this system that has been frankly very good to China and very good to Asia more generally.

Kurt Campbell: The other country that's going after this consensus is a bit of a surprise and that's the United States. So we are undermining, on a daily basis, support for trade, the role of human rights and democracy, the sense that allies are at the core of our foundational approach to Asia and a general care in terms of how we've engaged authoritarian leaders. And so across the board, many in Asia are extraordinarily wary and some cases disoriented by our approach and so that has hurt us in Asia, undeniably. And then last is I think you know we have over-focused on the military dimensions of competition in Asia when in fact the real issues Andrew and as Mike knows well, are really about comprehensive national power, they're about trade, technology, investment, ideas. And in those respects the United States has not been as effective late.

Dr. Mike Green: Kurt, let me put myself in the position of defending the Trump administration a little bit cause I actually basically agree with a lot of what you said, especially frankly the President's own positions on human rights, on allies, on trade, on institutions are damaging. Especially our closest friends are privately quite alarmed as we saw with the British ambassador’s leaked cable, very alarmed and that sometimes comes out. On the other hand, when you were working with Secretary Clinton to announce the pivot to Asia, later called the rebalance, the premise of that I think was balance of power. We needed to get back in the game to stop China doing what you described. But there were a lot of people in the Obama administration who did not like that. I don't think Secretary Kerry liked it. I'm not sure Susan Rice liked it. There was a lot of ambivalence or uncertainty within the administration about whether a balance of power strategy would work.

Dr. Mike Green: And the one thing you can say, I think about this administration, at least below the level of the president himself, is there is a pretty unified view across the administration that we are now in a real contest with China and that the balance of power strategies have to make sense. The President is undermining a lot of that. They're not staffing themselves well. There's an over reliance on military. There's a real lack of investment in institutions, both American institutions and international. But I feel like they kind of got the premise right. Is that fair or unfair? What do you think?

Kurt Campbell: It's a good approach Mike, but the only thing I would say is that, you often hear people say, well look, ignore what happens at the top. Look at what's sort of the accompanying music in the....

Dr. Mike Green: Like the Wizard of Oz, ignore the man behind the curtain.

Kurt Campbell: I tend to worry about that though over time, Mike, because fundamentally running a government in which, on a moment's notice, the leader or the President, through a tweet or a comment, can basically set back years, months of careful planning. And I think ultimately there has to be unity of purpose in government between the leader and the government as a whole and I think generally speaking, that's absent and it's missing. So I would accept and argue that what you're saying is largely true. And I think the issue of American position in Asia. It's not like this suddenly started degrading during the Trump administration.

Kurt Campbell: I would even take issue with my own approach. I think it was long on sort of public relations, diplomacy, but short on resources. I don't think there was a dramatic shift really fundamentally in the way the US government approached the challenges and opportunities in Asia. I would say I think we were still very much focused on the Middle East and South Asia and a lot of times it felt more rhetorical than real. I think the question of, what's the fundamental of the relationship between the United States and China? I would say that neither administrations have got it quite right. I think we were probably too much fundamentally on the side, let's work together as partners. And I think President Trump and his team are too much, we are only strategic competitors. When in reality it's going to be, like Goldilocks, somewhere in the middle. You know, our destiny is a form of enduring strategic competition, but at the same time, I think it is undeniable that there are areas where the United States and China have to work together, and we will.

Dr. Mike Green: It's Winston Churchill who was supposed to have said, although he didn't actually, you can count on the Americans do all the wrong choices before they eventually get to the right choice. It's too hot, too cold. Maybe allies will push us there. Donald Trump's not going to change. There's a general consensus about that in Washington and around the world, but given that limitation, what one thing would you get Secretary Pompeo or John Bolton or Pence or others to do in Asia to at least shore up our position given what you just said.

Kurt Campbell: I had a chance to talk to the secretary about this. I think this gets back to this question of focusing on the second-tier issues and really taking them on board. It's clear the President's going to focus on China and North Korea. That's what he's decided as are going to be his issues. I find both of those to be deeply unpredictable and it's hard to tell is Huawei in, are they out, we're depending on the, the whims of President Trump after he's had complex interactions with President Xi. I would be much more inclined for a Secretary of State to really focus on and allied initiative. India, Australia, a couple of countries in Southeast Asia, perhaps Vietnam and Japan. And I would be focused on...

Dr. Mike Green: You're talking about a collective.

Kurt Campbell: No, but I think there is...

Dr. Mike Green: Bilateral.

Kurt Campbell: Bilateral but trending a little. You have to be careful how you talk about it, Mike because if you talk about a collective that scares people off, but I do think there's some commonalities and some linkages that you can take advantage of. I would also say I think there are a couple of things that really lend themselves to an American Secretary of state. The fact that Japan and South Korea can barely sit in a room together is a tragedy and we should be forcing those two countries to get along better and we could do it and Pompeo would be good at that.

Dr. Mike Green: Yeah.

Andrew Schwartz: Thanks for listening. For more on strategy and the Asia programs work, visit the CSIS website at and Click on the Asia program page.