Dr. Ash Carter on National Security, Competitiveness and U.S. Global Engagement

Former Defense Secretary Dr. Ash Carter shares his views on the country’s national defense, global competitors and more.


Air Date: April 7, 2021

Moderator: David Ignatius, Foreign Affairs Columnist, The Washington Post

Featured Guests: Dr. Ash Carter, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Barbara Tyran, Director, Macro Grid Initiative

Dr. Ash Carter, the former Secretary of Defense for the Obama Administration, has become an expert in defense over his decorated career. As the current director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and an innovation fellow and corporation member at MIT, Dr. Carter has leveraged his expertise in national security technology and innovation in both the public and private sectors to help create a more secure and prosperous world.

David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, sat down with Dr. Carter to explore the U.S.’s national security, competitiveness, and global engagement.

Confronting Afghanistan Should Be President Biden’s Top Defense Priority

“I've known [President Biden] for a long time,” said Dr. Carter. “I served under him, and he's a very deliberative guy … He's had to focus on [COVID], and what that means is other things inevitably are going to have to wait.”

“Something that won't wait … are things like Afghanistan and Syria,” he continued. “We are, at the moment, inadvertently on a backslide in both of those places because we haven’t been decisive as a country … These things don't wait because … with every day, you're losing ground, in my opinion. What nobody wants is needlessly lost ground after all we've put in there.”

How Does Negotiating with Putin and Russia Work?

First introduced in the 1990s to Vladimir Putin, Dr. Carter has observed Putin for decades and learned the best way to negotiate with him.

“This is a guy for whom thwarting us is an objective all by itself. It's really hard to build a bridge to that mentality,” Dr. Carter stated. “I do believe Vladimir Putin is a very realistic guy … You don't have to wonder what the guy's thinking. He tells you … He's a formidable diplomatic opponent, but he's not mysterious, and he does respond to counter push.”

“I think it's important that you push back,” he continued. “Keeping him pushed back is about as good as it's gonna get with modern Russia, and I do think that is an achievable strategy for the United States.”

There Are Different Ways the United States Can Negotiate With China

“Xi Jinping responds to push back in my opinion, and it's dangerous not to push back,” said Dr. Carter. “His hubris accumulates like a snowball rolling downhill if you don't push back.”

Dr. Carter noted that a strategy for China should involve both offense and defense, but no in a “war-like way.” Defense includes “protections on whether they can invest here, protections on whether they can steal intellectual property here, whether we protect intellectual property and so forth,” while “offense is beating them; being better.”

Dr. Carter added that we need an Asia policy, not just a China policy.

“China is only half of Asia, so let's get to the other half,” he said. “If we can't deal with China and can't trade with it freely, let's at least be able to do that with the other half of Asia and with the other four-fifths of planet Earth.”

The Future Trajectory of the Quad

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as the Quad or QSD) is a strategic dialogue group between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. Dr. Carter hopes it improves over time.

“The quad has been around for a while; I worked on it, I participated in it,” said Dr. Carter. “I think it's a good thing, and I hope it gets stronger.”

“I hope we'll continue to [have] a number of groupings in the Asia Pacific,” he continued. “And some of those are determined by history, some of them by chance, some of them by whoever happened to get there at the beginning, but what's critical to all of us … is that we remain a network of countries that work together closely in the security and other areas.”