Q&A with Edward Luttwak: American Power at Home vs. Abroad, China, Immigration, the Competency Crisis, and more
Dr. Edward N. Luttwak is a world-renowned American author born in Arad, Romania, in 1942, and subsequently raised in Italy and England. An expert in military strategies, international relations, geoeconomics, and military history, he graduated from the London Schools of Economics and John Hopkins University, where he gained his PhD in 1975. He skyrocketed to international attention at the age of 26 with the publication of his first book, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook. His books, such as The Logic Of War And Peace which is now required reading at various war colleges around the world, have since been published in more than twenty languages. He served for a few years in both the British Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces. In the United States, he worked as a consultant for the US Department of Defense, the US Army, the US Navy, and the National Security Council. In the 1980s, he became a security adviser to the White House. He currently lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife.
As part of our series of interviews with populist and dissident figures, we decided to reach out to Dr. Luttwak for an interview on the current state of American Power at home and abroad. What follows is an edited transcript of a two-hour conversation between IM—1776’s contributing editor Lafayette Lee and Dr. Luttwak, recorded on September 28, 2023.
— The Editors
Lafayette Lee: American power appears to be a paradox. On the one hand, we have a country that is sharply divided internally, with almost irreconcilable differences. On the other, American power abroad, especially given what we have seen with old alliances like NATO, seems to be stronger than ever. What do you make of this?
Edward Luttwak: As far as American power abroad goes, you have identified one-half of the phenomenon; the other half is Asia. The United States is now in a confrontation with China, for which it will need allies. But the United States finds itself possessed of very good allies – seriously good allies.
You have India, which has all kinds of shortcomings, but practically speaking, it is the only ally we have that ties down PLA forces. There are at least 80,000 PLA troops active on the Indian border. India was trying desperately hard to stay neutral in this conflict, but the Chinese had to kick the Indians in the face until they became our allies. So China gave us India.
Japan wavered briefly, but at the worst possible moment the Chinese chose to raise the Senkaku issue. The Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan, are basically uninhabited – just about a mile and a half across. But China chose to dispute Japan’s control of the islands, precisely when the Japanese government was wavering for the first time since 1945. And so we got Japan.
We have Australia, as well. For the first time in its history, Australia is spending money to build up its military. The Australians just gave us an interesting base in Darwin. It is not a frontline base, but unlike Chinese bases in the South China Sea which are only good for harassing fishermen, this is a proper base that overlooks islets that used to be completely exposed. So we have Australia, and it is mobilized and spending money to get stronger.
Of course, this leaves us with our best ally, Vietnam. After a complicated history together, we now have a full-scale alliance with that country. They have a small, capable navy able to operate at sea, but the most important quality is their willingness to recruit themselves on land.
Vietnam is adjacent to the Yunnan province, which is home to various minority groups like the Yi and Bai; it is mostly jungle with slums like downtown Beijing. The Vietnamese line is this: if you outnumber us at sea with your ships, we will cross the border and we will fight you. The Vietnamese are rather eager to fight the Chinese, and they are convinced that they will win. These are two important assets.
Now what you said about Ukraine is completely correct. NATO was half-dead, but the Russian invasion brought it back to life; it started growing again, spending more money, and getting stronger. We gained two great allies, Sweden and Finland, with the whole of the NATO alliance – which had been moribund and half-dead before the war – being revitalized.
But you are completely correct that we have this paradox here in America. In the United States, there’s what people call “political divisions.” But these divisions are not, in fact, political; they are much more serious than that. We have cultural divisions. We have a group who believes in a certain societal structure, one where there is the family, and then on top of the family, communities that maintain communal stability, law and order, and decency, with the state above that. These are the Americans. Then there are the other Americans, who reject gender, identity, and the family as a concept. They want to pursue individualism. They do not believe in the family or the community, and they reject the legitimacy of the United States.
This is a cultural war. It is not a party thing between Left and Right. It is cultural and fundamentalist. And it is largely the result of the mindless expansion of higher education without the professional content. No society would ever be prejudiced by the fact that you have a huge number of dentists. But a society is prejudiced when an entire federal system conveys millions of people into higher education, while at the same time, shrinking the number of middle-class teachers.
Professors used to be bourgeois. Perhaps you were a professor at Johns Hopkins University, you lived in Chevy Chase, you had a nice, beautiful house – maybe even a swimming pool. What changed? The administrators took all the money, appointed more and more administrators with high salaries, and the teachers were left with very little. The teachers became poorly paid – they became proletarian. And with proletarians come proletarian politics.
The idea of expanding higher education was a good one. The fact that the trustees of universities from coast to coast did not notice that these deans – these clerks – were taking more and more and appointing each other, became a huge problem. It was unexpected.
So again, this is the paradox of American power. We are very strong abroad, but we cannot resolve these internal divisions that are so profound they prejudice the power of the United States. Such divisions should nullify this power because power is mass multiplied by cohesion. We have no cohesion, and therefore, we have no power. We may have power invested in structures like the military, but these structures are declining.
Lafayette Lee: There is a meme circulating on social media in which men are asked how often they think of the Roman Empire. Given the paradox of power and these deep internal divisions, do you see any parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire?
Edward Luttwak: Parallels to the Roman Empire? I sure wish there were. Well, here is one parallel: after 378 years of success, Rome, which was surrounded by barbarians, slowly started admitting them until it completely changed society and the whole thing collapsed. I am sure you know that the so-called barbarian invasions were, in fact, illegal migrations. These barbarians were pressing against the border. They wanted to come into the Empire because the Romans had facilities like roads and waterworks. They knew that life in the Roman Empire was great. Some of these barbarians were “asylum seekers,” like the Goths who crossed the Danube while fleeing the Huns.
I think we could last another couple hundred years, but not much longer. For Rome, they had barbarian migrations and, of course, an ideological break that was fatal. Rome’s institutions were remarkable, and their concept of citizenship was something deep and profound, but the Romans were overwhelmed demographically.
Lafayette Lee: Historically, the United States benefitted greatly from the Roman model of civic virtue and citizenship. How do you see the concept of citizenship faring today?
Edward Luttwak: This concept of citizenship is the key. What do you see when you look at images of protests in Israel? You see a sea of flags, but they are waving Israeli flags. They are not waving gay flags or Black Lives Matter flags; everyone is waving Israeli flags. They are fighting over two different ways of operating a society, but citizenship itself is not in question.
But here the very concept of citizenship is being delegitimized. I live in Chevy Chase, for example, and when I moved in there were doctors and lawyers, but they are all being squeezed out. Now we have hedge fund managers. Nobody dreams of putting up an American flag. If I put up an American flag in front of my house, which I am thinking of doing, as it so happens, people would think that I am crazy.
The problem begins with education. Public schools today teach that the United States was founded on genocide and slavery – the genocide of the Indians and stealing of their lands and the enslavement of Africans. This is what children are learning, as early as elementary school, up and down the country. And if adults are not aware of it, it is because people do not pay attention to what young children say. But it is having a profound impact.
Lafayette Lee: The cultural divisions you mentioned earlier seem most pronounced in our debates over immigration and US border policy. What do you make of the federal government’s inaction? Why is the Biden Administration allowing the crisis to deepen?
Edward Luttwak: Because of the fundamental ideology of Biden’s staff. These are Obama people. To them, the United States has no right to the wealth of the world. We must share it with the poor of the world. It is illegitimate to prevent foreigners from coming to the United States and sharing in the wealth. Therefore, any border control is illegitimate.
There are governments all over the world that control borders far longer than ours. The pro-immigration side will say that the US-Mexico border is too long to be controlled, but this is rubbish. We simply refuse to do it. I personally worked on the border of a country in Central Asia, which has an immensely long border, and they managed it. Kazakhstan is the seventh largest country in the world, with only a population of 25 million. They simply hired a company, set up fences and electronics, and nobody could get through. If Kazakhstan can control its immense border, preventing immigration at all, we could do it too. Trump, of course, did everything carelessly, without doing five minutes of homework first. He wanted a big wall when what we needed was just a modern fence system.
When people say that you cannot control our border, what they really mean, and do not want to say, is that there is no moral right to deny the wealth of the United States to anyone else. But these people are not aware of the fact that the wealth of the United States is the product of a specific culture, a culture they wish to destroy.
Lafayette Lee: With the concept of citizenship weakened and these dramatic changes taking place, can anything be done? Are there any historical examples to follow?
Edward Luttwak: The only precedent we have, that I lived through, was the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who in his quiet way, was firmly against patriotism. He is the one who refused to authorize any use of force during the Iranian hostage situation. He also did not feel entitled to respond to Iranian violations of diplomatic immunity. Jimmy Carter’s complete surrender left American power defective in the Middle East and shattered our global prestige.
But then came Reagan. I was in the transition team. It was a real transition team, not one of those pretend things we see nowadays where hundreds of people are writing position papers. There was a very small group of us, we always had the president with us, and we would go around the table from problem to problem.
Reagan was inaugurated without making any concessions whatsoever, and the hostages were released. Why? Because the Iranians were told in a one-way communication the following: the President will be inaugurated around lunchtime on the 20th of January, afterward he will go to the White House and rest, and when he wakes up and the hostages are not released, he will order the bombardment of an Iranian city. There will be no negotiations, just the bombing of Iranian cities. As for the hostages, they will have died for their country. The Iranians got the message.
We have problems that are cultural and political, and so on and so forth. The answer may come from different angles and can be defined in different ways, but the solution is one, and that is for a president to come in and reestablish things. You need to use the electoral process and find the proper person, but when they come in, they need to act.
How did Reagan do it? When the flight controllers decided to strike, PATCO, the union, prepared a list of demands and declared a strike. When the union president was asked in an interview about his plans, he laughed and said that all the air traffic controllers belonged to the union, and unless every condition was met, he would personally shut down all airline travel in America.
Reagan saw this interview. As he saw it, the union president was challenging the United States of America, telling all other Americans that they had to pay a tribute to a small number of people because this union president saw himself as their boss. So Reagan had the FAA announce that any air traffic controller who went on strike would be immediately fired and never be employed again in the federal system. The union did not realize who they were dealing with. There were some disruptions, but all the PATCO members who resisted were fired and never reemployed. The union was destroyed, and it was because the President of the United States said that he would rather serve 200 plus million of his fellow citizens or the union.
There was never any choice, this is how he became Reagan. You would be amazed at what can happen with a good leader.
Lafayette Lee: Nayib Bukele has captured the attention of many here in the United States for being a decisive leader, what do you make of him?
Edward Luttwak: I do not know if Bukele will be re-elected in El Salvador because according to the constitution he is not supposed to run again. But I do know that he would get re-elected in Honduras, if he were able to run; he would probably take 98% of the vote. He would definitely win in Honduras, maybe Nicaragua, and possibly Mexico.
Lafayette Lee: For several years now we have seen increased investment in Latin America. Some say this should diminish the pressure at the border, but that is not happening. What do you see in the future for Mexico and other Latin American countries?
Edward Luttwak: There are individual towns in Mexico that have benefitted from increased investment. There is a lot of investment in production, but little will come of it. And this is because the political realm in Mexico is fundamentally sick. If the politics are fundamentally wrong in a place, no amount of production or investment can make a country wealthy; it will only make individuals wealthy.
Mexico harbored the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, but Mexico can never be even moderately rich because public service in Mexico is just looting. If you become an administrator in Mexico, the next thing you do is start looting. The ruling ideology of Mexico, and every Latin American country, for that matter, is amoral familism. I give a job to my son, even though he is incompetent. Amoral familism prevents these countries from becoming wealthy.
In Mexico and many other Latin American countries, you have hyper-talented populations; highly competent people doing very demanding things like making nonmetallic aircraft structures and the world’s most efficient power plants. But what do they not have? A healthy political culture. They cannot generate even a mediocre police force. The local police are useless, the federales are useless, the army is useless, and why is that? Amoral familism – it dominates Mexico. Public servants do not serve the institutions or the country; it is all about enriching yourself and your family. Amoral familism prevents an effective Mexico. Every resource is wasted in some way, and so it is a poor country.
Most Mexicans coming to the United States do not want to bring that sort of thing with them. They want to become Joe Martin. But the tiny number of Latino politicians are different, they want to bring that corruption into the country. Often these Latino politicians are in an alliance with black politicians, with both betraying their constituencies. Immigration degrades the income of uneducated blacks, who also lose out on jobs. Latino politicians do not give their constituents what they want, either, which is to have no contamination of the American political culture by the Mexican political culture. It is why these people escaped Mexico, renouncing their countries of origin to fly an American flag.
In Europe, immigrants call themselves “asylum seekers.” They use the term as if it were meretricious. Those people fleeing the consequences of Islam, which prohibits democracy and good government. Once they arrive in Europe, however, they want to be Muslim.
The United States is different. We get Jose Martinez, whose biggest ambition in life is to become “John Martin,” join the Marine Corps, and get a Marine Corps tattoo. Overwhelmingly, these Latinos want to become American, they do not want to perpetuate the Global South; the only people who do are the Chicano, the Latino politicians.
Lafayette Lee: Let’s return to our biggest rivals, China and Russia. When it comes to foreign policy, these two countries dominate our attention. Is this misguided?
Edward Luttwak: Not being obsessed with China is a serious problem. It is a very big shortcoming. Russia is not like China. In fact, if the Russian Federation were to break down, we would immediately lose Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. They would all go to China. China would then become a country that has every known mineral and huge amounts of space. It would become dramatically more self-sufficient rather than be dependent on the importation of food and fuel.
Russia, on the other hand, is a power that is constrained. But we cannot have them win, even though Ukraine cannot win, either. We must find a way to a compromise. My suggestion would be to have plebiscites in the two contested regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, based on 1919 plebiscites.
There are very specific rules, where you have to have neutral officials in small numbers determine the eligibility to vote and neutral armed inspectors to determine the actual fairness of the procedures there. So I would say we need a Donetsk plebiscite, a Luhansk plebiscite, and 10,000 armed inspectors, at minimum, at every polling place. The decision will have to be made by the people.
We must find a way to get out of this war, but we do not have a way to get out of the China war. China is headed to war because of Xi Jinping wants to rejuvenate the Chinese people, and he will do that by showing them that they can win a war.
Historically, the Chinese were defeated by everyone. If the United States had not destroyed the Japanese Empire, there would still be Japanese garrisons in Shanghai and many other places. China tries to forget this by making hundreds of movies showing brave Chinese troops attacking cowering Japanese soldiers, but Xi knows the truth. He is a bit like Benito Mussolini. Every Italian city has a street called Via Veneto, which is a reference to Vittorio Vento rather than the Veneto region. It commemorates Italy’s victory over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as Mussolini well knew, the Italian army only defeated the Austro-Hungarians after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had already collapsed. Before that, the Italian army was beaten every time. Mussolini was obsessed with that, which is why the walls of Italian cities were covered with phrases like, “better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years a sheep.” These were desperate attempts to turn the Italians, of all people, into warriors.
Xi Jinping has a similar problem. China has a long history of being ruled by foreigners. The Chinese were ruled by the Jurchen of the Manchu; this was the Qing dynasty. Their last emperor, Puyi, spoke Jurchen. He did not speak Chinese, but they claim him anyway. These foreigners, the Qing, conquered Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and China, but the Chinese claim them as their own. It is like Sri Lanka claiming India because both countries were ruled by the British.
But Xi Jinping is determined to rejuvenate the Chinese people. Americans should read his speeches, they are very interesting. He uses phrases like “red juvenile” to show the Chinese that they can fight. Fight! Fight! Fight! He visits military commands. He went to Nanjing a month ago saying, “I want you to be ready to fight. Be ready to fight and win.”
Fight and win. Everything is about fighting and winning. Look at their torchbearer at the Olympics, Colonel Qi Fabao. Fabao provoked the Galwan incident, a clash with India in which four Chinese and thirty Indians were killed. He is a big, tall, and very aggressive man. He wants all Chinese to be big, tall, strong, and aggressive – to behave like the Japanese. That is what rejuvenation means.
So Xi is preparing China for war, not a full-scale war, but a limited conflict – a skirmish with the US Navy. He is storing grain and making other preparations. China’s foreign minister to the United States knew about this, but when he showed low enthusiasm, he disappeared. The Chinese spread a story about some affair, but it was nonsense. Another person who knew was their newly appointed defense minister, who was a PLA general with a technology engineering background. He also showed low enthusiasm, and now he has disappeared, too. He is under investigation for corruption. So, in other words, Xi Jinping’s plans are alarming people.
The limited war he wants will be with the United States, a naval skirmish. And if the US Navy does poorly, which I do not think she will, it will be an important and heroic event for China.
Lafayette Lee: If war is on the horizon, the United States would need to draw from a deep reservoir of capable institutions and personnel. Do you think we are experiencing a competency crisis?
Edward Luttwak: Yes, there is a competency crisis, especially with regard to institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency. Our human intelligence is a fraud. It is completely incompetent. The CIA is only good at public relations. Yes, they can rely on the main correspondent at the Washington Post, David Ignatius. And before him, it was Walter Pincus. They are very good at selling themselves to Hollywood, but again, they are fraudulent. There are no CIA officers operating in China. There is no one in Iran. Where do these undercover people operate that they are very proud of? They operate in Paris and Warsaw. They refuse to operate unless it is out of an embassy, under official cover. Often they cannot verify a source, as opposed to someone peddling nonsense, and so the work becomes a fraud. And when fraud is exposed, nobody is fired. The CIA, which told the president that Kabul would hold out for two and a half years without any help from the United States, insisted Kiev would fall within 72 hours of the Russian invasion. They persuaded the White House, and so along with the evacuation of the US mission in Kiev, ten other missions were also evacuated, which would have been demoralizing in other circumstances. The head of the CIA and of national intelligence were not fired.
Putin’s FSB chief predicted a quick victory in Ukraine, and when that failed, Putin sent him to prison. And he was not sent to “The Sailor’s Rest” prison by the Moscow river, which is quite a pleasant place. He went to the Lefortovo fortress, where the walls drip humidity. At the CIA? They did not punish anyone. Why? Because failure is habitual. The CIA people in “stations” abroad, all safely inside US chanceries, hardly ever leave the building. In many countries they do not speak the language, so they spend all their time calling Langley to talk about promotions and the like. They are totally incompetent. It is a problem that will never be addressed because of the aforementioned paralysis – the paradox of power and internal divisions.
With the War on Terror, it was fought by people who do not speak the language or any dialects. The CIA people refuse to learn languages. If you are working for a private company and you are sent to Egypt and do not try very hard to learn conversational Arabic after six months, you get fired. And not just from the job in Egypt, you get fired from the company for a lack of commitment.
The CIA does not demand anything. The languages are too difficult. Living on the economy, living outside diplomatic facilities is too difficult. My knowledge of CIA operations around the world inclines me to the following conclusion: everybody should be fired. The building should be fumigated, and then Americans interested in foreign countries and foreign languages should be hired.
We need radical change in these institutions. We need radical change in the military, as well. The military is considered an inexhaustible well of competence that can be prejudiced and compromised for any political reason, at any time. But the well is not infinite.