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Full transcript: Vox interviews Defense Secretary Ash Carter

Ashton Carter speaks to Vox at the Pentagon.
Ashton Carter speaks to Vox at the Pentagon.
Johnny Harris and Joss Fong

I sat down recently with Defense Secretary Ash Carter to discuss some of the most important strategic challenges facing the United States since the end of the Cold War, how those challenges have changed over the course of his career, and what he foresees will change in the future. You can read a feature article on Carter's vision of great power competition here, and watch a video on the blurring lines of deterrence here. An unedited transcript of our conversation follows.

Max Fisher: If I can take you back to when you first started at the Pentagon, to 1993, when you were starting your career — I know, a long time ago — when you were starting your career in government, just as the US was also coming into this new post-Cold War world and trying to figure out what that was going to look like, and if I could get you to kind of put yourself back in that early '90s flannel mindset. What kind of a role did you expect the US, an American military power, to play in the world?

Ash Carter: Well, Max, I'm embarrassed when you say the early '90s is a long time ago. I actually first worked in the Pentagon late in 1980. Then in the early '80s. The point is that that was the height of the Cold War. I knew the Cold War very well.

I participated in what you might call the fighting of the Cold War, which fortunately never became a hot war. When it ended in the early 1990s, I was in the Pentagon as the assistant secretary of defense, and that is when the Soviet Union broke into 15 new countries.

Our biggest concern at that time was that some of those countries would inherit the nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. This was the first, after all, ever in history breakup of a nuclear state.

Worse than that could have been nuclear weapons falling into the midst of the political turmoil that was then the former Soviet Union. That was the riveting challenge of that time. We look back now, and I remember how fearful that was, but it worked out extraordinarily well.

A part of that was we worked very hard with our Russian counterparts at that time. At that time, Russia hoped to be, and we hoped it to be, a normal partner country for the United States; that all that past would be behind us. Sadly, that's not the course that Russia has taken in recent years, but for a quarter-century, those of us who have been in and out of the Defense Department since that time have not had to think about Russian aggression on European territory. Now we do. Sadly.

But I have to be realistic. It is what it is. Therefore, we are reinvigorating our own investments in countering high-end capable militaries, like Russia, by the way China, separate subject. We're reinvigorating our NATO with a new playbook, different from the Cold War, but new, to deal with, for example, little green men phenomena that you saw in Ukraine. We're keeping our nuclear deterrent strong, safe, secure, and reliable.

But we'll continue to keep the door open. If this Russian leadership, or more likely maybe a later Russian leadership, comes to view what I think is true, which is the best thing for the Russian people in the long run isn't to isolate themselves and stand in confrontation with us. As long as they are, that's what we have to do.

Max Fisher: If you could go back to the early 1990s and tell yourself then about all of those challenges that you're dealing with now, what do you think your early '90s self would find most surprising?

Ash Carter: Well, I think my early '90s self would be very glad that we successfully controlled the nuclear legacy in the former Soviet Union, that there are no nuclear weapons in any other country besides Russia, and that no one has lost control of those nuclear weapons. Myself back in those days would be gratified, maybe even somewhat surprised, to learn how successful we were. I think myself back at that time would be disappointed to know the turn that Russia has taken in recent years.

I think that the general control of nuclear weapons since that time, with the exception of North Korea, which is a major exception, but still with that exception, has gone fairly well. There haven't been new nuclear states added, we just got an agreement with Iran, which if it is fully implemented will prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

I think myself back then would have been pleased in how things have gone in the nuclear field, although they're still far from perfect. I don't think at that time we foresaw, but we did a few years later, the problem of failed states. We were still very much in a worldview where conflict and deterrence pertained to nation-states. We now live in a world where in addition to having nation-state antagonists, and potential antagonists like Russia, and China, and Iran, and North Korea, we also have the problem of failed states. We see it in Syria, we see it in Iraq, that's what gave birth to ISIL. We see it in Libya. We've worked very hard to repair that in Afghanistan, but it's a serious problem and I don't think we foresaw and really had prepared to deal with it in those days.

Max Fisher: Well I wanted to ask you about that because it does seem like a challenge that we've dealt with over and over in the last 20 years. We've tried so many different ways to deal with the problem of failed states, and all of the problems that those cause — terrorism, refugees. We've tried to directly fix failed states, we've tried to kind of contain the damage, and it seems like we haven't quite figured out a strategy that really works for us, as well as we would like to. What do you think we've learned in those experiments about our capabilities and our limits.

Ash Carter: Well, I actually believe we in the Department of Defense have learned a great deal, and I'll come back to that in a moment, but your general point is one thing we've certainly learned is that it's better to prevent those situations in the first place. The earlier you can get into the cycle of the disintegration of a political system that undergirds security and order, the better. That's logical, it's sensible, it is not a lesson I would say we've had to learn, but it's a place where we have consistently fallen short, as has the rest of the world.

With respect simply to the ability to apply the military instrument, which is only part of the solution, but to counter insurgency, my own view is that we have learned a great deal. I know that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are controversial in some ways, however as someone who participated in both of them here in the Defense Department and for whom that was, when they were at their peak, the daily major preoccupation of everyone in here. It can't be any other way when you're at war.

I'm exceptionally proud of the performance of the US military. I think it was extremely skillful, it was innovative. Yeah, we didn't know exactly how to do it at first, but we learned. We learned the importance of dealing with the local population, we learned dealing with things like improvised explosive devices, which hadn't been part of our armamentarium in the past, and the young men and women of this department who make me so proud performed so spectacular.

You could put a young captain in charge of a whole town in Afghanistan. They behaved themselves with skill, they dealt with economic matters and political matters as well as military matters and with very, very few exceptions over a very long time, conducted themselves impeccably with dignity, and with the kind of behavior that causes so many around the world to like to work with the US military. They like us. They like our kids, they like the way we behave, and they like the values that we stand for. That's one of the great strengths of our military, is the reputation they have.

Max Fisher: But we have still struggled to figure out how to rebuild failed states.

Ash Carter: My good friend the Israeli Defense Minister, [Moshe] Bogie Ya'alon, says it's easy to make an omelette out of an egg, but it's very hard to make an egg out of an omelette. You're right. Once the state has failed, the problem is much more difficult because there are armed groups and extremists potentially rampaging around, different political factions. The economy is through the floor. It takes a long time to get all that back together, but it is possible. I'll give you an example that is still a work in progress, but where I think the progress is really palpable, and that's Afghanistan.

Now, we've been at that for quite a long time, but we have there a government that is a unity government. It's fragile in some ways, but there it is. It behaves very decently with respect to its people. It's trying to manage the economy. It's trying to provide security. Now, we're helping a lot, but if Afghanistan succeeds, which we really want it to, think about it.

Look at a map of that region of the world and say to yourself, "There, in that really troublesome region, is a friend of the United States; a government that says it wants to be a friend of ours, it wants to be a security partner of ours." That's a pretty impressive achievement. Again, I'm not saying we've gotten there, but we're getting there and I'm proud of that I think. It shows that we can do it. Your basic point is absolutely right, which is better not to get to the failed state in the first place, if you can possibly head that off you're in a lot better situation.

Max Fisher: Some of the ways that you do that, that you talked about, about the politics, the economics of it, these seem like things that are outside of the kind of traditional core skill set of the American military. How do you think about re-engineering or bending an institution this vast to that very different kind of mission?

Ash Carter: Well, it's a good question and one of the things I'm extremely proud of about this place is that it is a learning institution. We have 250 years of tradition, we're very large, we have the profession of arms, which is a longstanding profession.

However, this place can also be really innovative. It was innovative in counter-insurgency. It's been innovative in how we manage people. One of the things that I'm trying to do as Secretary of Defense, and I'm very committed to, is what I call getting people to think outside of this five-sided box, this Pentagon that we're sitting in.

We need to think about the technological future, that's why I have people like Eric Schmidt, of Google Alphabet, chairing an innovation board for me. That's why I've put an outpost out in Silicon Valley, and I'm going to put one in other innovation hubs, why I have these programs where high-tech wizards can come into my office and work on critically important problems, and bring their skills into the department.

That's why we … I thought it was important that we open up all positions to women, because that's half of our population, I want to have access to all the talent. So, yes, we have to change. That's why we're investing in the future, in new kinds of submarines, unmanned undersea vehicles, a stealthy bomber, all kinds of new missiles and weapons, cyber, space, electronic warfare; because we do need to change and we need to stay ahead.

I'm very proud of this place because it is a learning organization. At the same time, it has to be led in the direction of the future, and whether that's human resources management or technology management, or the craft of conflict and doing counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, as well as regular warfare; all of that, that constant change, that constant adaptation, that constant learning. We're good at that, but we need to stay good at that.

Max Fisher: I want to ask you more about these kind of new developments, but if we could stay on state failure in Afghanistan for a little bit.

That was, even in the optimistic outcome, that was a case that took 15 to 20 years with pretty heavy American investment. It's a costly model to apply even if it does work out. Do you see that, or more like something like the Iraq model, where we're working through local government and institutions, and have a degree of influence on the ground but are also letting them kind of lead the way as the best model to apply in a hypothetical future state failure situation?

Ash Carter: The model is the same in both cases. We couldn't start that way with the Afghan army because there was no Afghan army. In Iraq, there is an Iraqi army, it was just demoralized and broken, riven with sectarianism. But in both cases the "end state," as we say, that we need to seek is one in which we can help make security, but we can't keep security. Somebody has to govern these places, somebody has to keep security. At the end of the day, we can enable the defeat of terrorists in Afghanistan, and we're doing that in Syria and Iraq. But we have to do that by and through and with local forces, because they're the ones that have to sustain the defeat, and what we want after all is a lasting defeat of ISIL, in this case a very high priority for us, our highest priority at the moment.

Our strategic approach there is to help local forces defeat ISIL with the great weight of the American military and our coalition behind them — they can't do it without that. But we're not trying to substitute for them, because they have to, at the end of the day, govern the place.

The capacity to build them up and to make them successful in the battlefield have to go hand-in-hand. That's what we've accomplished in Afghanistan, though we're not done yet. That's the path we're on in Iraq, and also in Syria, by the way, a very different situation, but the same strategic principle applies. When you're dealing with an insurgency, when you're dealing with terrorism, the only way to have a lasting victory is to involve capable and motivated local forces in the victory.

Max Fisher: But that's a difficult and long and time-consuming process, right? To the extent that terrorism, whether it's a group like al-Qaeda, or ISIS, or whatever the next group is, is a symptom of, among other things, state failure, does that mean that during that process of reconstituting a failed state, terrorism will be a reality for us to manage, and to some extent live with?

Ash Carter: That is the problem with failed states, or a problem with failed states, is they're miserable not only for the people there but they become these cauldrons from which violent extremism erupts into other places. You have to take the approach of not just defeating that terrorist groups and that extremism, but making sure that that country is able to itself preserve its own security going forward. Now, you asked does that have to take a long time. I don't accept that it needs to take a long time. I don't accept that the defeat of ISIL is going to take a long time. I want to get that done as soon as we possibly can.

Therefore, we are working very hard to accelerate the defeat, we're bringing to bear everything we can think of: attacking its leadership; attacking its oil infrastructure; attacking everywhere it undergoes transportation; making gains on the ground in both Syria, in the direction of Raqqa, and Iraq, in the direction of Mosul; attacking it through the Internet, blacking it out; and then coming in behind as territory is retaken and making sure that cities are rebuilt, that governance is restored, and so forth. I don't accept that we have a lot of time in the case of ISIL. ISIL is a very evil group, I'm confident we can defeat it. I want to defeat it as soon as possible.

Max Fisher: Well, if I can ask you about a very different kind of military challenge, something that you dealt with a lot in the early '90s, and that US strategy was very preoccupied with, was rogue states.

Of course, the problem is still with us to some extent, but it seems to be less of a preoccupation than it was. Can you just talk about over that 20-, 25-year arc of thinking about and dealing with the rogue states how your thinking has changed and evolved about this problem?

Ash Carter: We don't use that phrase that much, but I know exactly what you're talking about, and of course the two that I mentioned already are North Korea and Iran. They're different, but they're similar in the sense that they've been longstanding antagonists of the United States. Their ideology is anti-American, and they're trying always to improve military capabilities to threaten us and our allies.

Let me take the North Koreans first. The North Koreans are the reason why we have 28,500 forces on the Korean peninsula, the reason why we have the slogan "Fight Tonight." It's not something we want to do, but we're prepared and we have been since I was here in the early 1990s. That part hasn't changed. Three generations of leadership of the Kims of North Korea, but we're still ready to Fight Tonight, as we were back then.

Things have changed in the sense that now we have even greater concerns about their nuclear weapons program, their ballistic missiles; which is why we have ballistic missile defenses. But deterrence remains strong, our commitment to South Korea remains strong, and we'll bring everything to bear in the defense of South Korea, including the American nuclear arsenal, and therefore the nuclear umbrella as part of deterrence of the Korean peninsula, too. That has kept the peace for many decades in Korea. We're committed to doing it going forward, but there you have North Korea, still after all these years, same ideology, third generation of leadership, we have to stand strong every day.

Iran, a somewhat more complicated situation, but likewise since the revolution, the ideology of the regime has been explicitly anti-Western. It's been one of the raison d'être of the whole regime is anti-Americanism that continues to this day, notwithstanding the nuclear deal, which was a good deal but it covered nuclear weapons. If it's implemented successfully it will be an important thing, but it didn't change the ideology of the Iranian regime. It hasn't changed a lot of their rhetoric, and their malign activity in the region, their ability to act aggressively with respect to some of our closest friends and allies, and including especially Israel, all that's the same.

Yes, you're absolutely right, Max, it goes back to 25 years ago, we had those same two: North Korea and Iran. It just shows you that these problems sometimes are just not susceptible to any other quick fix than deterrence. So you're in a deterrence relationship for a long time, we have been, we're ready to continue to do that.

Max Fisher: So does that mean it's a problem that we're focused as much on managing as resolving?

Ash Carter: Well, I think we'd like to resolve it in both cases, but I have to be realistic as secretary of defense. The years have gone by, efforts have been made, and I have to look at capabilities and not just what some people say they intend to do. I have to look at the reality on the ground and not what we hope. And as I look at that situation as it is, it tells me that we need to make and sustain our plans for deterrence and constantly upgrade them. So that, along with dealing with more high-end potential enemies like China and Russia, with whom we don't have that kind of relationship, we clearly have a competitive relationship.

Then, enemies like ISIL which are enemies in the here and now, we're at war with, as secretary I have to do all that: fight today's wars and worry about the long-term future. We have to invest in both. I can't afford not to take the long view here. As committed as I am to defeating ISIL today, I need to worry about 10, 20, 30 years from now. ISIL will be defeated way before that, but there'll be something else after that, and I need to make sure that we're prepared.

Max Fisher: Something that you've been talking about recently, looking forward in that mid and far future, is a return to great-power competition as kind of an animating force in the world. Does that mean that we're going to look back at the early and mid-1990s as a moment of, you know, whatever you want to call it, American dominance, uni-polarity, as a moment that was always going to be temporary?

Ash Carter: Well, I think insofar as our hopes were at the end of the Cold War, you're right. I think our hopes back then, although we weren't confident in this, our hopes were certainly that Russia would follow what we thought and I still think is best for the Russian people, namely a course in which they become a normal country, and integrate, a respected country, a powerful country; but not one that's trying to justify itself to its people on how much it can stand against the West. But that is Putin's Russia, that's not the one we hope for, and for a quarter century not one that we had to deal with. Now we do. You're right, return to great-power competition in that sense, yes.

China, as it rose, we all knew China's power would rise like that of so many other countries in Asia that have undergone the Asian miracle. That's fine. But there is a tinge in Chinese thinking which says not only do we need to grow and become wealthy, powerful — all that is fine, that's what 1.3 billion industrious people will do. The United States doesn't have any strategic problem with that, but also in the Chinese mind the idea that we need to right the wrongs of the past and dominate our region, and reject the system of rules-based order that we associated with the United States. Of course, we associate that with rules and the right way for nations to conduct, and the best climate for business, and protection of intellectual property, and all that stuff. There's a part of the Chinese mind that thinks that that's an American creation, rather than a good in itself.

That tendency of China in the 1990s we always understood was a possibility, but we thought that the logic of the situation would ultimately prevail over the emotion of history. That hasn't happened. I still hope it does happen, but for now, we have to understand that China is building up its military, it's trying to intimidate many of its neighbors, and that's having the effect on us that I am making investments in high-end capabilities of a kind we might not have thought 10 years ago we'd need to make. We're trying to catch up in some areas, advanced technology areas, with respect to China.

Chinese behavior is also having the effect of driving everyone in the region to come to the United States and say, "Will you do more with us?" Our traditional allies, like Japan, and the Philippines, and Australia are coming to us, "Let's do more together." Countries that not only weren't we partners with, but we were even fighting with, like Vietnam not that long ago, coming to us and say, "Let's work together," because we too want to keep the Asian miracle going. The Asian miracle has been a 70-year-old system of peace and stability. This, in a region, Max, that has no NATO, has no automatic security structure, where the wounds of history run deep, World War II and before, and are still unhealed. All you have to do is look at public opinion in Korea, or China and Japan, and see how easy it is to stir those old emotions there.

What's kept the peace in that region all those many decades and allowed and created the environment in which the Japanese miracle occurred, and then the South Korean, the Taiwan, the Southeast Asian, and today the Chinese and the Indian economic miracles? It was the system of rules-based order and the pivotal role of the American military in the region. When President Obama, or I, talk about the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, what we're really saying is we want to keep a good thing going there. The American role there has been pivotal. We're not interested in containing anybody. We're not interested in excluding anyone. We're interested in continuing what has been the course for 70 years, one of peace and stability, which has led to prosperity.

Max Fisher: Well, the process of the kind of great-power competition, as you seem to be describing it, is one in which the US and its allies kind of uphold and defend the status quo international order, which indeed has worked pretty well for the world. I think if you ask someone in China and Russia how they saw it, they would describe it as more a process of negotiation and accommodation. They would say our countries are becoming more powerful and they should have a growing role and say in the system consummate to that. Are those two approaches in tension?

Ash Carter: No, I think not from my perspective, and not what I would say from the American strategic perspective. Of course the United States, we're changing our business practices, technological practices, with the progress of human civilization in every way and are willing to do that. So all these things are always going to be subject to negotiation. That's a different attitude from an attitude which is, "We have to thwart the Americans simply to thwart the Americans." That's different from an attitude where we want to negotiate how to do things differently. In Vladimir Putin's Russia, you have a deliberate tinge of thwarting America becomes an end in itself, not a, "Hey, look, we need to sit down together and accommodate one another."

In China, it's a feeling of destiny about dominating a region rather than participating in a region. We don't have the ambition to dominate a region. Negotiating with other great powers about how we can together help the world progress to mutual benefit, all of that is fine, but if you have the attitude that you're aggrieved and pressing your grievance rather than negotiating the future is what it's about. That makes it very difficult for us. Now, we try to keep the door open, in both the case of Russia and both the case of China, that they'll, in the main and in general, see things differently. The Russian governments did for 25 years. Now that's different.

The Chinese government is, as I've said, of two minds. There's a Chinese mind that says, "Hey, this is a pretty good deal. We're doing well, we're uplifting our own people. We're able to call the shots ourselves. Nobody's pushing us around. We get to participate in the world economy," but against that is this other tendency in China to say, "Hey, the grievances of the past, and we have to rise at the expense of someone, either our neighbors or the United States." That's not the American view, and as long as that's the view there's going to be tension there. And in the military sphere it means we're going to have to continue to invest in making sure that our capabilities are such that anybody who starts a fight with the United States will regret doing so.

Max Fisher: Well, I want to ask you more about that, about deterrence, which seems like it's so crucial not just to the international order now, but much more so in a world of great-power competition. But insomuch as deterrence is built on, not just formal stated doctrines, but also informal but universally understood kind of norms of international behavior, you know, what states can and can't get away with.

It seems like those informal norms are being complicated by some of the changes that you're talking about in the conduct of warfare. Things like hybrid warfare techniques that are designed to deliberately blur the lines, cyber warfare that exists outside of our traditional understanding of what is and is not war. So how do you update and maintain these informal norms and understandings around deterrence that keep pace with these changing practices?

Ash Carter: That's a very good question. As we get into new domains, like cyber and space, and we try to situate old and very solid ideas like deterrence in those new domains, it requires some thought. Remember, what deterrence — and deterrence, by the way, is only one way you protect your security, but it means, it has the word "terror" inside it, right? "Deterrence." That's what it's about, is you scare someone away from doing something you don't want them to do by making them fear the consequences. To do that, they must know what the consequences are, and you're right, it needs to be understood. There needs to be some sort of normality to the idea that this threat will be offered and it should deter.

In the case of space, for example, we're still developing those understandings. But, we do think about it a lot and nobody should have any doubt that if you attack the United States in space, we're going to consider it an attack. If you attack us in cyber space, it's an attack. I'm very straightforward. An attack is an attack. We won't necessarily respond in space, or respond in cyber, we may respond in some other way, but we will respond and you need to understand that: that if you're attacking American interests, there will be a response. But it's important to communicate that fact, that you're prepared for it, we know exactly what we're going to do, and you will regret the consequences of your act and you should be fearful of those consequences and thus not do it in the first place.

Max Fisher: There's also a principle of proportionality, right? A desire for everyone to be able to predict what the certain responses will be, so that no one is surprised.

Ash Carter: Yeah, proportionality is an ancient principle of warfare which the United States abides by. It's like not attacking combatants.

It's one of these rules that even in the violence of warfare, you conduct yourself, and our people are instructed to be scrupulous about conducting themselves, in accordance with appropriate laws of war. Proportionality does mean if you do something, I'm going to do something back to you, but I'm not necessarily going to do something that's out of proportion and that makes it necessary for you then to do more, and more, and more. That's called escalation, obviously nobody wants that. So whenever we think about deterrence responses, we craft them in such a way that they are not by themselves intentionally or unintentionally escalatory. We always have retained the capability to escalate still further, that's part of deterring the next move.

But it's not our intention, in general, to escalate something. It's to stop it from ever occurring in the first place, and if it does occur, to punish it quickly, which makes the opponent say, "Okay, I realize my mistake. I stand down from my objectives," and then it's the end of it.

Max Fisher: When I hear people express this, or talk through this concern with scenarios like Baltic states and Russia, or a cyber attack against a physical facility, or, you know, things are pretty calm right now with China, but you can imagine some future period of tension that would play out through some island chain. The concern isn't about American capability or credibility to maintain deterrence, but it's more just about not being in mutual understanding of exactly where the lines are, and not having a mutual understanding that everybody knows what would be considered a proportional versus an escalatory response, and that this uncertainty, even as we're working it out, introduces a degree of risk. So how do you manage that risk while maintaining deterrence?

Ash Carter: It's very important to keep dialogue, even with potential enemies, and so that, on an optimistic way maybe you can patch up some of your differences, but even if you don't hold out a lot of hope of that, so that it is understood where you stand, what your interests are, and what you're prepared to do to defend them. That's why I believe, among many other things, very strongly in military-to-military dialogue and dialogue between me and my counterparts.

Even in countries where we have a difficult time, because they should know our resolve, they should know our strength, they should know that we are reasonable in our pursuit of our interests, but we do intend to pursue our own interests. Because you can't stop a conflict that your enemy deliberately provokes, but you can try to prevent ones that they blunder into by underestimating you.

One of the ways you do that is by signaling clearly and having dialogue. So part of being good at deterrence and defending ourselves is to be good at making it clear to the rest of the world what we are willing to fight for, so we try to do that as a military as well as of course be ready to fight those fights.

Max Fisher: Are you satisfied with the level of military-to-military communication with Russia and China?

Ash Carter: No, I'd like to see more in general, but it takes two to tango.

It's not just the amount, it's the character of the dialogue and the willingness of those parties to have a dialogue of a kind that we would regard as fruitful. That's not everything that it should be. I remain hopeful in that area, but the reality is it takes two to tango.

Max Fisher: If we could talk a little about nuclear weapons, which of course are an area of personal expertise for you. In the early '90s, you talked about working on Nunn-Lugar, of course you worked on the Agreed Framework with North Korea. It seems like the kind of basic premise that we came into with the post-Cold War era was the optimal policy of nuclear weapons in the world was maintaining the status quo. You know, cutting or rolling back proliferation as best we could, maintaining parity between the United States and Russia, these kinds of things. A lot has changed in the world over the last 20 or 25 years. Has your thinking on nuclear weapons changed at all, or do you think those basic premises still hold?

Ash Carter: The part of my thinking that hasn't changed, and I don't think that any person who understands nuclear weapons could ever change his or her thinking in this regard, is this: They are the single most fearsome and dangerous technology created by humankind. It's still that way, all these years after 1945 and the very first A-bomb.

My bedrock of this department here is our commitment to nuclear security, and also to deterrence in our nuclear arsenal. It's not in the headlines every day, and thank goodness for that, but it's in the back of my mind every day. It is a bedrock capability. I mean a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear arsenal is part of the American security structure as far into the future as I can see. So in addition to defeating ISIL and doing all we deter, which by the way involves nuclear weapons, with Iran and North Korea, and making sure that we're capable of standing against Russia and China, we also maintain our own nuclear arsenal.

Now, at the same time, I think it's important for everyone to be committed to make sure that nuclear weapons don't fall into further hands. That's one area where we and the Russians have agreed, back during the Cold War that was part of this, then after the Cold War where I did run for the Department of Defense at that time the so-called Nunn-Lugar program, which was the program to control all the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union. That program was extremely successful but it was, and needed to be, our highest priority at that time. I haven't changed my thinking since then. Fortunately, we don't have any nuclear superpowers breaking up today, but we had Iran headed in the direction of nuclear weapons. I hope that's been headed off now if the agreement is implemented.

North Korea we have not been as successful with, and North Korea continues to move forward with nuclear developments that are really concerning. And we have to protect ourselves and our allies in that regard. It hasn't been perfect at all, but I haven't changed my mind about nuclear weapons at all. They're still the most fearsome kind of weapon. Therefore it's important the United States deterrent be strong, but it's also important that we try to make sure that they don't fall into the hands of others around the world — still less terrorists, which would be truly catastrophic.

Max Fisher: Well, to ask you about that deterrence, there's a story that I love from when Dick Cheney had your job. I'm sure you know this story but I should tell it anyway. In 1989, he was getting a briefing on US nuclear war plans, and there was a slide that came up for retaliatory strike plans for Moscow. One of the things it showed was, I think it was something like 70 strikes on one radar facility in some suburb of Moscow. He turned to his aides and he said, "What the hell is this? Why are we doing this kind of thing?" The reason I bring that up is I think that's the reaction a lot of people have when they are confronted with the logic of nuclear deterrence, and they see its ends. Within that logic, of course, it makes perfect sense to have a plan like that for its deterrence power. But it's also something that if you approach it from the outside, it looks kind of crazy and a little bit scary. I'm sure in your years of working on nuclear weapons, that's a reaction you must hear. What do you tell people when they have that reaction?

Ash Carter: I do, I hear it all the time. You never get quite used to how terrible such a situation would be.

But until someone has an alternative to deterrence as dealing with someone who might use nuclear weapons against you — and we haven't found, in all those years since the Manhattan Project, any effective defense against nuclear weapons — until those are found, the only defense we have is the threat of retaliation.

And that has to be a credible one, it has to be a sensible one, and has to be one that you believe in. And I do believe in our nuclear deterrent. I think it is what we say it is: it's safe, secure, and it's reliable. Do you ever want to use it? Of course not. That's the whole purpose, is never to use it. Thank goodness in all these decades since 1945, a nuclear weapon has not been used in anger since then. That's a remarkable achievement. But it's one I don't take for granted. And I don't think it's one that we can consider our birthright. It is one that we have to work every day to make sure that we hand off to our children and our grandchildren. It's one of our most solemn responsibilities, those of us who are entrusted with security.

Max Fisher: So there is some risk associated with maintaining that deterrence?

Ash Carter: Well, our deterrent is very safe and secure itself.

The point of having it is to reduce the risk that anybody uses nuclear weapons, uses nuclear weapons against us. In that sense, its whole purpose is to reduce risk. But we operate it in a way that's very safe, and this is why you see us crack down so hard every time we find somebody who's not doing things perfectly with respect to the nuclear arsenal. We tell our people, "You people who manage nuclear weapons in the Department of Defense, you have the most solemn and sacred responsibility of anyone in this department and we demand perfection. Nothing less will suffice." We spend a lot of effort on that kind of quality and make sure that the arsenal is safe and that it's secure.

Max Fisher: It seems like we're in a little bit of a Dick-Cheney-in-1989 moment again with the modernization plans, and specifically the provision for the new air launch cruise missile that's provoked some controversy. Again, this is something that makes perfect sense within the logic of nuclear deterrence. It makes perfect sense in the logic of limited nuclear warfare that you would want to develop this kind of tool to meet or surpass any new air defense technology that could be developed.

But it's also something that if you approach it from another angle, as I think some people have been, it looks a little potentially destabilizing. Not a huge change, but it's something that could potentially be confused with a conventional weapon, it reduces response time, you know, there are various arguments for this that I'm sure you've heard.

My question is not specifically about this weapon system, but rather are these modulations and sometimes increases in the risks that we bring on with nuclear weapons, is that just the cost of doing business and maintaining that deterrent?

Ash Carter: Well, our focus is really on maintaining the nuclear deterrent that we have. We're not looking to increase its size. We're not looking to do anything novel or different with it. We're looking at basic deterrence, and whether it's submarines, or a new bomber that we're building for other reasons, or the cruise missile that you pointed to, that's not a new … that is a way of assisting the bomber leg of the triad to be an effective deterrent because aircraft themselves have great difficulty penetrating a strong air-defense system like the kind that the Russians have. So we're taking these steps.

And ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] also. We are doing that. But the Russians are also very rapidly modernizing their own nuclear arsenal. I don't associate that with what we're doing. I associate it with the dynamics of their own feelings that nuclear weapons are one of the only things that guarantee their status in the world.

I don't think Russia needs to believe that, think that way. I think Russia has a great culture, has a privileged geographic position, has great economic potential, a skilled population, a lot of things that Russia has going for it. Why it has to emphasize military confrontation with the West, anti-Western propaganda, and especially the nuclear dimension of that. I understand that that goes on and we take it seriously, and we have to counter it. It is what it is. But it's not what I think is best for the Russian people, but they're fueling their own nuclear modernization. It's a mistake to think that we're fueling it.

Max Fisher: Many of the things that we've talked about seem to be coming together, where you've got Russia modernizing its nuclear program, the US advancing its own nuclear program, this increase in great-power competition, the effort to maintain universally understood norms of deterrence, even as things like hybrid warfare are blurring some of those lines. I know that there are some people who see all of those forces coming together, and they worry that the risk of an unintended conflict, while still very, very low, is maybe a little bit less low than it's been in the past, and given the nuclear dimension to this, is potentially very concerning. Is this something that you worry about at all?

Ash Carter: Well, I would worry about it more if I didn't think that our strength was as assured, as we work every day here to make sure it is, and that we weren't communicating that. I believe the power of America, of our leadership and of our example and so forth, is still extremely powerful, but that doesn't make everything in the world go our way.

And I understand that. Therefore, we have to be prepared for those who make the wrong decision. And it would be a wrong decision to get in a war with the United States, or get in a conflict with the United States. We have awesome power in our military. We're not eager to use it, and we hope it causes others not to do provocative things, but if they do, I don't have any doubt that we will prevail. I think that most of our potential antagonists understand that. That's very important so that they don't do anything unintentional.

We certainly think through every scenario that is possible and make sure that we have plans that provide for the most sensible thing we could do at the time with the capabilities we have. That's what we're here for. That's what the taxpayers support us to do. That's what our wonderful 2.8 million people in uniform are all about. That's what they wake up for every day is to provide that kind of security. And they're darn good at it.

Max Fisher: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much.

Ash Carter: Good to be with you.

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