January 12, 2024

Debate is a form of conflict that is played out through words, arguments, civility, and the capability to exchange ideas with people we disagree with. But what happens when debate fails — and what leads leaders and countries to fall into conflict? In this conversation with Retired U.S. Army General David H. Petraeus and historian Lord Andrew Roberts, guest moderator Xenia Wickett speaks with them about their new book “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine,” which gives insight into the current state of global affairs. They also discuss how the wars in Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza fit in within military conflict’s evolution over the last century and the age of misinformation, the morality of conflict and what is considered a just war, and how civil debate and conflict are intertwined.

  • 00:00:01

    John Donvan

    Welcome to Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan. This week, I welcome Xenia Wickett to step in as moderator for a conversation with General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts, the award-winning British historian. They’ll be talking about their new book, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine. It’s a fascinating study of modern conflict, and as we wrestle with recent outbreaks of war in Gaza and Ukraine, we thought it was an important conversation to have. Xenia is a geopolitical strategist and among other things has served in the White House and State Department. She now runs Wickett Advisory, a business she founded which offers expert advice on international affairs and strategy to various organizations or executives. And so, Xenia Wickett, over to you.

  • 00:00:42

    Xenia Wickett

    For regular listeners, this is not the standard Open to Debate format, but every now and then, a topic or an opportunity comes our way in which we can gain sufficient breadth and depth of understanding by taking a different approach, and that’s what we’re doing today. Today, we’re talking to two experts at the top of their fields, a military leader, General David Petraeus, and an academic, Lord Andrew Roberts, who have brought together their different experiences and perspectives on the topic of conflict in a recent book, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine.


  • 00:01:16

    Why is this an important issue for us to di- discuss on Open to Debate? In some respects, you can think of debate as con- and conflict as two sides of the same coin. Debate is a form of conflict played out through words and arguments, and conflict, in the military sense, is what happens when debate fails. These two issues, debate and conflict, are thus intimately entwined with one another and worthy of our discussion. We also hope that the historical framework that this book provides can give us some insight into the current state of global affairs, whether we’re looking at events in Russia and Ukraine, which the book covers, Israel and Gaza, or the tensions between the US and China. So with that introduction, let me turn to our two, uh, interlocutors, and whichever of you wants to start, what made you write the book?

  • 00:02:07

    Andrew Roberts

    Maybe I should start then, because it was originally my idea. I, uh, um, got onto David just after the Russians invaded Ukraine, and, uh, and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we were to, uh, write a book together that put the Ukraine War into its proper historical context and was a military history book, and not a political book or a geopolitical book, but specifically a military history book?” And he leapt at the idea, and, um, we then, uh, got onto some publishers, HarperCollins, and, uh, needless to say, they asked, um, asked how we were going to divvy up the chapters. And I said, “Well, David’s going to write about all the countries he’s invaded, and, uh, I’m

    laughs) going to, uh, uh, fill in, um, some of the other chapters.” He also did the Vietnam, uh, chapter, which needless to say is a tremendously important, uh, chapter in this book. And then we passed the chapters backwards and forwards to one another in literally thousands of emails, until we were both happy with the results.

  • 00:03:06

    Xenia Wickett

    Fantastic, and, and General Petraeus, you leapt at the opportunity. What made this book so important now, to you?

  • 00:03:13

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Well, I was hoping to have an opportunity for some time to write about Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that I was privileged to command, and to revisit Vietnam, which was the subject of my PhD dissertation at Princeton. But to do all of that without doing it in an memoir, a tell-all, or something like that, I really wanted to-

  • 00:03:32

    … approach it as a military history. And so this provided a vehicle for that, to do so with a, you know, someone who’s at the very top of his field as a historian and as a biographer, uh, and that’s why I leapt at the opportunity.

  • 00:03:46

    Xenia Wickett

    Great. Thank you. And, and perhaps we’ll come back to it over the course of this conversation, some of the lessons of history for the conflicts that we’re living through today or we might live through tomorrow, that make it particularly prescient to have the book now. But I actually want to take a step back and go back to some of the basics that I remember from my education from my school days, and this idea dating back to 1200, um, developed by Thomas Aquinas, the idea of proportionality and morality, and perhaps, um, whichever of you wants to take this, say a word about the importance of proportionality in war, if you will. It’s something that comes up repeatedly in the book, and I’m wondering, is it still relevant in today’s world, given what we’re seeing on the streets?

  • 00:04:40

    Gen. David Petraeus

    It’s, it’s very relevant, and it was very relevant in the wars in which I was privileged to command. Um, proportionality and military necessity are constantly tugging one way or the other. Uh, one of the advances for humanity in the wake of World War II and the horrible events that it saw, uh, was of course the development of the Geneva Convention and the laws of land warfare, which Western armies, militaries, uh, have embraced, albeit with some mistakes and shortcomings along the way.

  • 00:05:10

    Xenia Wickett

    So yes, it’s relevant, but is it being applied in today’s conflicts? I mean, you know, you look at what’s happening in the Middle East, you look at what’s happening in Russia-Ukraine. Are we seeing proportionality?

  • 00:05:21

    Andrew Roberts

    Well, we’re certainly not in the Ukraine, where, um, where the Russian invasion is, uh, is wildly out of all proportion. The Russians have ripped up the rule book completely. Uh, they ignore the Gen- Geneva Convention, and, uh, and so, um, no, there’s, there’s nothing, uh, proportional there. Um, with regard to, um, to Gaza and, uh, and what happened on the 7th of October, um, I think that you can’t have an exact number, um, of, uh, of, of dead and wounded as a proportion of the number that, uh, were originally attacked, any more than we did, say, in the Second World War, where we killed, uh, 10 times the number of people from aerial bombardment as the Germans, uh, killed in London in the, in the blitz. It doesn’t really work like that. Proportionality is a, uh, is not a numerical thing. It’s, um, it’s much more a sort of, uh, a moral, um, and almost, uh, in terms of Aquinas, uh, uh, more a sort of spiritual thing, really.


  • 00:06:24

    I think it’s also maybe worth pointing out, Xenia, that, um, of course, all wars since 1945 have taken place under the nuclear umbrella in some form or another, and those nations that do possess the nuclear bomb and haven’t used them, um, have, uh, connected to this concept of proportionality, in that they don’t, um, just rip up proportionality and use the nuclear bomb. There was one moment where the, we thought that that might possibly happen in, uh, Korea, and of course we came very close, uh, the whole world came very close to it in the, um, Cuban Missile Crisis, but other than that, uh, for all the saber-rattling that we’ve had, most recently of course from President Putin, you know, these bombs have not been used, and that is because proportionality has been adhered to by the great powers.

  • 00:07:15

    Xenia Wickett

    You’re picking up so many themes that I want to come back to, but I want to s- Uh, the, the WMD theme, I very much want to come back to. The hearts and minds, we’ll definitely come back to. But I want to stick on this point of morality just for another second. You know, if you were advising, for example, the Israelis today, what would you be saying about, um, how they should operate in the region, given what you know from your hi- from your experience? And maybe I, I’ll, I’ll look to you, General Petraeus, to approach that question.

  • 00:07:51

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Sure. Let, let me actually start where we perhaps might have started, which is to discuss what we lay out in the introduction, which provides an intellectual construct for the conduct of strategic leadership. That’s leadership at the very top, the very senior civilian leader and the very senior battlefield commander, the strategic leader in uniform. They have to perform four tasks in, in order to succeed in a conflict. You have to get the big ideas right. You have to understand the context of the particular, uh, war, the particular campaign. You then have to communicate them effectively throughout the breadth and depth of the organization, and to all those who have a stake in the outcome of the conflict. You have to oversee the implementation of the big ideas. That’s what we normally think of as leadership. It’s example, inspiration, uh, it’s the, i- i- the hiring of great people and keeping them, developing them. It’s allowing those not measuring up to move on to something else. And then there’s a fourth task, which is, formally, to sit down, to refine the big ideas, to do it again and again and again.


  • 00:08:55

    This construct is crucially important. Uh, we went all the way through these different chapters of the different conflicts that we explore. It was very, very clear, in those cases where the side, the Western side typically, didn’t prevail. It was because they failed to perform, uh, the tasks of a strategic leader, in particular to get the big ideas right. We see that in Vietnam. It took all the way until 1968 until the US finally got the big ideas right, the French having had a disastrous big idea about building a big base at Dien Bien Phu to bring the communist, uh, Vietnamese forces, uh, to battle. They sure did, and they defeated the French, and so forth.


  • 00:09:34

    So in this case, now, I have said publicly that I think that there need to be additional big ideas. There are two big ideas right now, uh, that have been articulated by Israeli leaders, by the prime minister, that the, that Hamas must be destroyed, and also its junior terrorist partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that the political wing of Hamas, uh, uh, that, uh, which essentially governs, uh, the Gaza territory, has to be dismantled. Now, those are two critically important big ideas. The military can translate those into a military campaign.


  • 00:10:09

    But I think there need to be at least two additional, uh, big ideas. One is who is going to administer Gaza after the political wing has been dismantled? And I’m starting to think that there is no alternative but that the Israelis will have to do so, at least on an interim basis. Ideally, it would be a Palestinian authority that is competent, capable, and trustworthy would come over from the West Bank and, and take over. That doesn’t appear to be, uh, in the realm of the possible or the doable. I’m not sure there’s a competent, capable, trustworthy, uh, uh, uh, entity there now, frankly. Uh, or an Arab force, but there doesn’t uh, uh, appear to be any enthusiasm for that either.


  • 00:10:49

    So again, I think that it is going to be inevitable that the Israelis end up, uh, having to, at least on an interim basis, uh, oversee the administration, and by the way, perform another critical task, which is to ensure that Hamas cannot be reconstituted. We’ve learned the hard way that extremist groups, uh, that have to be destroyed, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became the Islamic State, that if you take your eye off them, as the Is- uh, the Iraqi Security Forces did three-and-a-half years after we destroyed Al-Qaeda during the surge, uh, they were able to reconstitute themselves. So that is not a trivial task, in addition to the task of administration. And then, the, another very important task. What is the vision for the Palestinian people, uh, in Gaza, after Hamas is destroyed along with its junior partner, Islamic Jihad? And by the way, while they’re at it, probably should discuss, uh, the vision of the Palestinian people in the West Bank as well.


  • 00:11:47

    Now, if that is done, I think there will be enormous attention, uh, to how to take care of the Palestinian people, that would be that which we tried to carry out, uh, when we were separating the people from the extremists in places like Ramadi, Fallujah, Baqubah, uh, where you lay out a vision for them, and you say that life will be much better, and you start to demonstrate that right away.

  • 00:12:12

    Xenia Wickett

    What I hear from you, uh, is absolutely the importance of getting the strategic vision right. That’s a g- that’s a great place to start. So, we’re going to take a quick break now, but we’ll be right back with General Petraeus and Andrew Roberts.


  • 00:12:33

    We’re back with Open to Debate. I’m your host, Xenia Wickett, and I’m talking to General Petraeus and Andrew Roberts. So I want to now take a little bit of a step back. Uh, we’ve been talking a lot about morality and just war, but I actually want to talk about avoiding war, and this is something you brought up earlier, Andrew. You started to talk us, to us a little bit about WMD and, and the news, use of nuclear weapons, um, or their absence in the last 70 or so years. Um, in the final chapter of your book on conflict, you conclude that everything… that as everything can be seen on today’s battlefield, then the most important thing for military leaders to do is to ensure deterrence.


  • 00:13:19

    In the second half of the last century, um, we relied on mutually assured destruction, MAD, as a way to, um, deter, but in a world in which we see little green men, and we see cyber attacks, where attribution is very difficult to impro- to prove, although it’s improving, how, indeed, do we deter? And maybe Andrew, I’ll come to you for this first.

  • 00:13:43

    Andrew Roberts

    Yeah, so right. This last chapter of the book, uh, about the future of war, where we talk about cyber, and space, and drones, uh, AI, robotics, uh, and so on, misinformation and disinformation, these, these big areas that we think are going to, uh, really dominate, uh, future warfare. Um, they’re all a council of despair in a way, because of course, that means that the war has broken out. What, uh, everybody should be much more excited about

    laughs) and uh, and concentrated on, is exactly what you say, deterring war.


  • 00:14:14

    And, um, and deterrence is, obviously has two major aspects to it, the actual, uh, physical capacity to deter and also the message that that physical dapa- uh, capacity sends to a, um, antagonist, uh, or a would-be antagonist, and um, the message that they take away from it. So the key thing is, of course, um, in, uh, in the a- a- area that you’re an expert in, um, Southeast Asia, to prevent the Chinese from ever thinking that it would be a good, um, thing to invade Taiwan. It’s a, uh, very expensive process, needless to say. You have to be at the cutting edge of all the new technologies, those ones that I mentioned and, and many others. Um, and yet actually, money spent on deterrence is rarely wasted, because if it does deter the war, that war is always going to be a multiple of times more expensive than the, uh, than the amount spent on deterrence.

  • 00:15:13

    Gen. David Petraeus

    You know, what you have to ensure is that the potential adversary has no doubts about your capabilities on the one hand and your willingness to use them on the other. And indeed, you see this playing out in various places around the world, not the least of which is the Indo-Pacific, where there are many initiatives, uh, to strengthen deterrence, to ensure that it is as solid as is absolutely possible, and also an awareness of the leaders in Washington, uh, that again, there should be no doubt about our willingness to employ our capabilities, though obviously, we don’t want to do that. What we want to have is as mutually beneficial, uh, a relationship, in this case with the number two economy in the world and our number three trading partner, uh, noting that each of us is highly dependent on the other is a huge difference, uh, from deterrence during the Cold War, where the US and even Western Europe had very little in the way of the kind of economic exchange, uh, with the Soviet Union that we now see, uh, between the Western world and China. And so again, the objective is to make sure there is no question about capabilities and will, so that we can indeed, uh, over time, hopefully, uh, achieve as mutually beneficial a relationship as is absolutely possible, without conflict.

  • 00:16:33

    Xenia Wickett

    As I listen to you, I’m thinking about the politics of it of course, and the, the… It’s very hard to get support, financial and otherwise, um, to stop the dog barking, which is essentially what you’re talking about.

  • 00:16:46

    Gen. David Petraeus

    I actually think there’s competition in Washington to increase, uh, defense spending and increase other elements that would constitute what might be described as a comprehensive, integrated whole of governments approach to China, in other words, all of our allies and partners together, uh, to ensure that conflict is deterred, is prevented.

  • 00:17:10

    Andrew Roberts

    And also, I think it’s, uh, worth pointing out that although a huge amount of trade between China and, and the West is of course, um, a, a g- a good thing in, uh, deterring conflict, because on both, neither side wants to lose that, uh, in the end, you can get an ideology and, uh, and sheer, um, a sort of [inaudible

  • 00:00:17

    :32] trap building up. Um, the classic example of course being bef- before the First World War, where, where Britain and Germany were each other’s largest trading partners, and, um, you know, by all accounts, there really should never have been a war there, for that reason. And yet it didn’t stop it.

  • 00:17:49

    Xenia Wickett

    And yet it didn’t stop it. Exactly. So I want to actually, um, pick up, if I may, uh, something that you said earlier, that the future of war is blurred lines. And I’m going to quote from your book, “Disconnected from traditional battlefields, actions comprise a form of warfare where computers, currencies, and public opinion become primary battlegrounds. This has been termed the weaponization of everything.” And you, you go on… A little actually earlier in the book, you quote a Russian, the current Russian chief of staff, General Gerasimov, who stated, “In the 21st century, we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the state of war and peace.” So, how do you deter? How do you avoid conflict if we can’t actually draw a line anymore?

  • 00:18:37

    Andrew Roberts

    It’s considerably more difficult, um, of course. And, uh, the Gerasimov doctrine, it, it goes so far, uh, the classic example of course being in 2014, when, uh, the little green men who you’ve mentioned about, um, actually, uh, took over Crimea, and, uh, and parts of the Donbas, and they didn’t do it with, um, with shoulder badges saying who they were or where they were from, although it was pretty obvious, of course, who was, uh, behind them. And, um, and yes, this can be the, uh, way in which wars sort of slip into starting. Of course, we knew that it was Putin who was giving the little green men the, um, orders.

  • 00:19:17

    Xenia Wickett

    Uh, General Petraeus, I would like to come to you, um, and move into a topic that we’ve touched upon earlier, but we really didn’t, didn’t dig into, but is a, is a, is a theme that comes up regularly in the book, and that’s around kind of communications and propaganda. You write, quite early in the book, that, uh, and again, I’m going to quote, if I could, “However much it might be comforting to hear one’s opinions parroted back, a general’s staff requires some professional naysayers if it is to be effective.” Can you say a little bit more about the, the role of discussion or debate within a military leadership? Because I will say from a civilian perspective, we think of the military as a very hierarchical organization, so how do you imbue the military with these naysayers, if you will?

  • 00:20:03

    Gen. David Petraeus

    You foster a culture of learning, and that’s what we sought to do, uh, in many different ways, for example during the surge in Iraq, which I was privileged to command. And so we built, uh, a culture of learning into our various activities. First, you actually describe this as one of the big ideas that you want to achieve in the organization writ large, and in the overseeing the implementation of the big ideas, every time that I had meetings, for example with the, uh, two-star commanders and above, each of those commanders had to provide, um, lessons that he had learned or initiatives that would be of interest to the others. Uh, and then on my battle rhythm, in my schedule, there were various events that, uh, would constructively confront me, uh, intellectually, uh, with in- individuals who would, would be willing to challenge some of the big ideas. And then in that fourth task, determining how you need to refine the big ideas, you have events that actually bring together individuals, the full colonels that were the heads of the different lessons learned teams of the Army, Navy, uh, Marine Corps, Asymmetric Warfare Group, et cetera.


  • 00:21:16

    And it’s a structured process. It’s not just a brainstorming session. People come in and they have, uh, ideas that they want to share. Uh, I also brought individuals with me for the surge, who I knew would challenge me. I brought in General H. R. McMaster, still a colonel at that time, who was at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and I used him, uh, to lead a campaign plan review, not once, but that, given how important that first one was, we brought him back two more times and would partner him with a, a senior diplomat, an ambassador, and a team. So again, you have to really go about this. First, you have to have the idea of it, and then you have to actually implement it. And, uh, we worked very hard to do that.

  • 00:21:59

    Xenia Wickett

    So, uh, I just want to double-click on that if I could. You know, distinguish between challenge and debate, you know, and then the other half of that coin, of course, is listening. And what you describe in, in some of your anecdotes is people who weren’t listening, so how do you actually create a context, or create a not just a learning environment, but an environment that listens as well? I don’t know whether you have any thoughts on that.

  • 00:22:24

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Again, the strategic leader, the battlefield commander, has to listen, has to surround himself with people who aren’t intimidated, uh, by him, who will tell him, you know, that the emperor has no clothes, or his socks don’t match, or something, again, are willing to challenge. But of course, at a certain point in time, uh, the strategic leader does have to make decisions, and other folks have to salute smartly. The, the organization in a military is hierarchical, although it’s more matrix than I think people realize as well. And we’ve done a lot to flatten the organization over the years, particularly when it comes to information coming up from the bottom. Needless to say, at a certain point, the leader has to make a decision. Those instructions have to be issued down through the levels of command, uh, and each leader along the way has to echo, reecho them. But the leader-

  • 00:22:24

    Xenia Wickett


  • 00:23:14

    Gen. David Petraeus

    … at the top really begins all of this, sets the tone, and then sets about actually implementing those ideas-

  • 00:23:23

    Gen. David Petraeus

    … and making sure that that culture is a reality, uh, and not just words on paper.

  • 00:23:28

    Andrew Roberts

    It’s a self-confidence thing to a great degree. Uh, the, the leader has to have the self-confidence, intellectual self-confidence, to be able to take on all comers. Uh, Winston Churchill was a great one for appointing, um, no men as opposed to yes men, people who would actually, uh, you know, oppose him, classic example being Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, who, um, would sit there breaking pencils in half in front of him saying, “No, Prime Minister. You’re wrong about this, tha- that, and the other,” and the prime minister would, um, would push back, and as a result of this thesis and antithesis, you got the synthesis of the grand strategy. And, uh, as I say, it, um, it requires, of course, in a, a good-natured way, um, a, uh, a proper, you know, sometimes harsh exchange of ideas.

  • 00:24:14

    Gen. David Petraeus

    You know, I was very fortunate to have, uh, gone to civilian graduate school. I had two years at Princeton. And it was a really out-of-my-intellectual-comfort-zone experience. This is where I realized that there are seriously bright people in the world who don’t see it remotely the way I do. Uh, and that’s a very salutary experience, and when people ask me, you know, “What, uh, what were the formative experiences, uh, in your life?” Thinking, I guess, that I would talk about previous campaigns I’d been engaged in, and they were important, uh, or formal schooling, or this or that. Um, I would always add in the civilian graduate school experience, because in many respects, it was the most formative, uh, of those developmental experiences, uh, and it was one of those that helped contribute to an awareness that none of us is smarter than all of us together, and that you need as big a tent as is possible and as many people in it, uh, as i- inclusive as is possible.


  • 00:25:09

    Because the big ideas, by the way, don’t hit you in the head like Newton’s apple, fully formed. If you sit under the right tree, you get hit on the head by a seed of a big idea, a kernel, and you have to shape it, uh, into a big idea, by lots of interactive discussion, debate, and again, some of that debate can be, you know, fairly heated, emotional, and so forth, although at the end of the day, the strategic leader has to make the decisions about the very, very biggest of the big ideas.

  • 00:25:37

    Xenia Wickett

    So, I, uh, I am so tempted to stay on this, because of course, debate is what Open to Debate is all about, but I’m going to let it go, because I think we’ve got a l- a lot that I want to cover, and I want to kind of move slightly sideways, if I may. You s- you say, towards the end of the book, there are currently five widely recognized dominions of warfare, land, sea, air, cyber, and space, and you then note that actually, maybe we need to add a sixth, which is information. Uh, you know, if we look at information warfare, and I’m kind of getting a little bit, uh, General, to your hearts and minds now, um, that we talked about earlier.


  • 00:26:14

    In today’s conflicts, if, if you take what’s happening in Russia, if you… Or, uh, in Ukraine, if you take what’s happening in the Middle East, the war is being fought not just on the ground, but very much being fought in, in the airwaves, in the information warfare space. Disinformation is playing a massive role, so how do societies, how do individuals, how do the people listening to this learn to distinguish truth from falsehood? How do they ensure that they are not seduced by the clever argument?

  • 00:26:48

    Gen. David Petraeus

    First of all, leaders play a role. You have to recognize that there is, again, a domain, if you will, an additional domain to land, sea, air, space, cyberspace. There’s information. It’s been around for quite some time, but it is different now. You look at Ukraine, the first war that’s ever been fought in which just about everybody on the battlefield has a smart phone, uh, and ability to take videos and photographs and then upload them, because connectivity is, is available. Uh, and then that there are social media platforms and so forth onto which all of this can be uploaded, so the explosion of open source information.


  • 00:27:27

    Uh, and then leaders contribute to this. They have to be good communicators. Uh, President Zelenskyy has been a brilliant communicator to date. Now, perhaps he should be. He was an actor. He was a comedian who played the president so well he got elected president. But he’s actually been a brilliant strategic leader to this point. Problem is, of course, the conflict is still ongoing, but his performance is getting the big ideas right, by the way. “I don’t want a ride. I want ammunition. I’m going to stay in Kiev. My family’s going to stay. We’re going to defend our country. Every male is going to stay.” Communication skills, brilliant, oversees it brilliantly, beautiful example, inspiration, at the front lines, whereas an OD, uh, uniform instead of, uh, a, a suit and all the rest of this, and then re-tweaking this, the fourth task and, and doing it again and again and again.


  • 00:28:15

    But an element of this, clearly, is the communication, uh, component. We see it very much playing out in, uh, Israel’s war on Hamas. International public opinion is very important in this regard. Uh, Israel needs support, uh, from outside. They have to be keenly aware of that, and they are, um, but, uh, you have to have big ideas about this. The big idea during the surge in Iraq for dealing with the press, and really this whole domain, was that we were going to be first with the truth. Uh, we want to beat the bad guys to the headline. That’s not a trivial issue in a war in which the bad guys have the CNN Baghdad Bureau dialed in speed dialed on their, uh, their cell phone. Um, so you, but you want to get the headline, but you want to do it with the truth. Uh, this is not propaganda. It was not disinformation. You lose your credibility if you engage in that. If you put lipstick on pigs, instead of just acknowledging that you had a really bad day in Baghdad and being honest and truthful about it, uh, if you, if you carry out those kind of activities, again, you undermine your credibility.


  • 00:29:21

    And then finally of course, the consumer of information has a responsibility. We should obviously, in our schools, try to help individuals understand to be good consumers of information, given that there is lots of misinformation out there, to understand the perspective of the media platform and the media source, uh, the information source, to understand how to consume it, uh, et cetera, et cetera. Uh, but doing all of that obviously without a particularly, particular bias, or perspective, or pol- pol- political, uh, persuasion, uh, a- again is challenging. But that lays out this particular component, which is, uh, ever more important because of the advent, again, of smart phones, internet connectivity, and social media.

  • 00:30:08

    Andrew Roberts

    And also… Sorry, can I just add another thing, Xenia? Uh, also of course, um, the technology of, uh, propaganda has come on leaps and bounds, the deep fakes, uh, the bots, the way in which a lie can, uh, can zoom around the world much, much faster than, than truth can. I mean, that’s actually, um, been a, um, proven fact. MIT did a study on it, and a lie goes, uh, gets, uh seven times more, uh, retweeting

    laughs) than something that’s, uh, true, which says something about human nature, but nothing particularly good. TikTok, uh, this war, uh, the Gaza war, is being fought, you know, essentially on, uh, TikTok, which, um, uh, where people will take part in demonstrations, it’s happened here in London, with people who c- who couldn’t possibly put Gaza on the map, uh, couldn’t find Gaza on a map. So, so we are fighting, because of the increase in this [inaudible

  • 00:00:31

    :02] and speed of change in technology, a, uh, a new kind of warfare, where the media, um, shows like this one, have a profound moral responsibility to, um, to, to get to the truth.

  • 00:31:15

    Xenia Wickett

    I feel like we’re back on morality again, but I’m going to resist, because we have to take a break. When we come back, we’re also going to invite some members of the audience to join us and ask their own questions. I’m your host, Xenia Wickett. We will be right back.


  • 00:31:34

    We’re back with Open to Debate. I’m Xenia Wickett. This week, a conversation with General Petraeus and Andrew Roberts, and right now, we’re inviting some of the members of our audience in to introduce a few new questions to the conversation. First up, James Fallows. James Fallows is a journalist and author of the book National Defense. Jim, please come in and join us with your question.

  • 00:31:57

    James Fallows

    Xenia, thank you so much, and of course, it’s a tremendous honor to be able to ask a question of these two distinguished, um, au- authors. And I have a question in par- about the management of conflict in democratic societies. We know that in theory, warfare ultimately depends upon consent of the governed, but it’s become a more and more imperfect process, it seems, from my perspective. I know the US, UK situation is different from the US, but during my lifetime in the US, it seems as if accountability for military decisions has been sort of more and more systematically removed from, uh, what we think of as the normal democratic processes. We know that the last formal declaration of war in the US was in World War II. Presidential authorizations have rolled on after that. Congress seems intentionally not to want to take responsibility for decisions about use of force. The public is less and less involved. How do the two of you see this phenomenon? Are we seeing just what has always been the case of managing war, or is there a difference of degree that’s become a difference of kind in the way democratic societies make decisions about conflict?

  • 00:33:04

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Great to see you, Jim, and thanks for a characteristically thoughtful question, uh, that builds on a lot of the research and writing that you’ve done over the years. Um, I, I think it’s… What’s interesting is that, of course, in the wake of Vietnam, uh, Congress sought to establish, um, guardrails, guidelines, requirements, uh, for, uh, the use of force, uh, by American president’s, uh, who previously really did exercise that, um, somewhat unfettered by Congress, at least until the point that Congress would eventually, as it did with Vietnam, but after many, many years, uh, begin to restrict the authorizations and the appropriations for it.


  • 00:33:47

    Um, and the War Powers Act, as that did, uh, did indeed impose some restrictions, but then, uh, of course in the wake of 9/11, uh, you see a return of a really quite, uh, substantial authorization for presidents, and that authorization actually continues to this day. The authorization for the use of military force, AUMF, is still extant, uh, and it has proved to be a f- reasonably elastic. And it, together with the self-defense, uh, power granted to the, the president, the, the ability for our forces to defend themselves, has enabled really quite a substantial, uh, amount of use of force over the years, and although Congress has, at various times, announced a desire to, uh, either do away with the AUMF or to redefine it, or what have you, uh, it never has. And I think what you have, therefore, is a performative, uh, expression by Congress that it wants to exercise more, uh, in this particular area, influence, restriction, and so forth on a very empowered presidency, uh, but at the end of the day, they shrink from that, uh, and allow this to continue.


  • 00:35:03

    Right now, I think the presidency still has very substantial power, uh, when it comes to use of force, uh, certainly in the kinds of counterterrorism and to a degree counterinsurgency, uh, operations that are going on around the world still. Uh, and then obviously to, uh, empowered by enormous defense budgets, uh, to build up quite substantial forces to deter the most important potential, uh, conflicts, uh, in particular the one we were discussing earlier in the Indo-Pacific region.

  • 00:35:35

    Andrew Roberts

    With the, uh, regards to the British, um, aspect, it’s a little bit different, because of course, our parliamentary system is very different to your presidential one, and, um, it means that the House of Commons is very much in control. It was the House of Commons that really forced the government into war in both the First World War, the timing of the, um, forcing the government into the, the Chamberlain government into the Second World War. Of course, in occasions where it doesn’t, uh, like the, the wars, um, or it won’t, uh, approve, uh, for example in 2013, when President Obama, um, was, uh c- was considering his red lines in Syria, the House of Commons opposed giving an ultimatum to Assad, and so governments can, can rise and fall on the back of, uh, of votes in the House of Commons at any time, and, uh, it therefore gives MPs tremendous, uh, power, which is a good thing, of course, in our democracy, to, uh, push the government one way or another in the, uh, in the course of a war.

  • 00:36:37

    Xenia Wickett

    Thank you, Jim, for a great question, um, and a little bit of divisions between the US and the UK system, but many commonalities. Next up, we have Kevin Baron. He’s the editorial director of POLITICO Live. Kevin, join us with your question.

  • 00:36:51

    Kevin Baron

    Thank you, and thank you gentlemen. Good to see you both. General Petraeus, what you said about deterrence, if, if, uh, adversaries need to be assured that the US and allies have capabilities and have the will to use them, what happens when neither of those things might necessarily be true? There’s a lot of, uh, co- consternation that the US does not have the capabilities to fight and defend itself in a large war, much less continue to equip a war like a Ukraine, that might go on at, at the big war level. And, then politically, uh, with the rise of MAGA, Brexit, other movements, that are less inclined to be involved in foreign wars at all, do leaders need to do more to convince their publics to, and their industries to, uh, to do something more for defense, to be more willing to fight, or do leaders have to grapple with, uh, just the realities that may prevent both of those things from ever happening?

  • 00:37:43

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Well, there’s a number of questions, uh, in that, uh, Kevin. Thanks. Um, one is that clearly, uh, Ukraine has demonstrated that the military-industrial complex of the entire Western world, uh, particularly, though, uh, NATO, Europe, uh, and North America, needs to be increased, given the expenditure of some munitions that we’ve never, uh, seen, uh, used at such a rate, so 155-millimeter Howitzer ammunition and the rest of that. That’s, that’s a lesson of this. Um, there is another that, I mean, again, if a country is fighting its war of independence and explicitly does not want your soldiers on the ground, uh, because of the complications that that might bring, again, and we see this with Israel as well. Yes, we have two entire aircraft carrier task forces and additional aircraft force protection, air and ballistic missile defense, uh, in the Greater Middle East, but Israel is, i- is determined, uh, to fight Hamas on its own.


  • 00:38:40

    So, uh, again, uh, uh, always preferable, uh, to advise, assist, enable, train, and equip others, um, rather than do it for them, and with the rise of unmanned systems in particular, especially when it comes to the conduct of counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations, you can do that, uh, in a much more efficient manner. But, when it comes to the bigger issue, again, we come back to the potential adversaries’ assessment of your capabilities on the one hand and the willingness to employ them. I think it’s very important in the case of the latter element, to recognize, as we lay out in the book, that what takes place in one part of the world reverberates in others. So if you have a red line in Syria that doesn’t turn out to be a red line, as a S- Southeast Asian prime minister told me the day that I was meeting with him and that actually took place, he said, “You know, that affects, uh, dynamics out here. It reverberates out, out here.”


  • 00:39:39

    Um, it may be interpreted, uh, in various ways. When we withdrew from Afghanistan, uh, when, uh, we didn’t have the strategic patience to keep even just 3,500 troops on the ground, having not suffered a battlefield loss in 18 months, uh, and the cost was very, uh, very, uh, doable for, you know, an, uh, a defense budget of 800 to $850 billion, to spend 25 billion to make sure that this country didn’t fall back into the situation it was in when the 9/11 attacks were planned on its soil. That reverberated, and President Xi, in fact, of China, uh, observed that, “See? You can’t count on the Americans. They’re not a dependable ally. Uh, and look at how the withdrawal went. They’re also a great power in decline.”


  • 00:40:22

    Again, that effects deterrence. You have to be aware of that. I think that that withdrawal also was at least one of the factors that led President Putin to think that he could invade Ukraine without the very formidable, uh, and impressive response led by the US and other NATO countries, uh, to help Ukraine in that case.

  • 00:40:43

    Andrew Roberts

    If I could just add, also, um, that, um, I think it’s a common misconception that Brexit was an isolationist thing. It wasn’t. It was an anti-EU thing. In fact, Britain has been at the forefront of, uh, being able to help Ukraine partly because of Brexit, because we haven’t been part of what the French and Germans were wanting to do w- in both cases, rather, um, rather slowing down the response. Instead, Britain’s been in the forefront of it, and, uh, and that’s, as I say, partly due to Brexit. Um, uh, and th- which therefore can’t be mixed up with MAGA or, or any isolationist, uh, concept.


  • 00:41:18

    The, um, with regard to NATO, um, I think that we mustn’t think that Ukraine, although it is of course a very important hint and signpost to what future wars, uh, might look like, uh, it’s not a signpost to what a war between Russia and NATO would look like, because NATO has got, uh, weaponry that it hasn’t given to, um, Ukraine, and which if it did use, um, it would be devastating.

  • 00:41:45

    Xenia Wickett

    Thank you, Kevin, very much. Um, I want to stay on this theme, uh, An- Andrew, and, and General Petraeus, for a moment, because you write in, in your book about, in reference to the Rwandan Civil War, about a moral conundrum. Um, you know, to what extent are nations and/or the UN or NATO responsible because they are powerful, because they can do something? Um, even in a world in which their national interests aren’t threatened? And uh, uh, what’s, what’s your answer to that? Perhaps Andrew first.

  • 00:42:20

    Andrew Roberts

    Um, well, uh, I mean, how powerful is the United Nations? It’s one of those questions. It’s like Stalin asking how many divisions has the pope. It’s very difficult, really, to know. I mean, in a, if the United Nations were a powerful force, it would be running Gaza after the, uh, defeat of Hamas, but nobody’s mentioned the idea that it, uh, it would, or, or could, and it certainly obviously doesn’t want to, anymore than, um, anymore than

    laughs) Israel does, frankly, but, uh, anymore than the Arab League does. Uh, we’re in a situation where the UN, were it more powerful, might have been able to have stepped in earlier in Rwanda and maybe saved up to a quarter of a million lives. But, um, but that wasn’t there. It’s a, uh, it’s, it’s one of the great tragedies.

  • 00:43:03

    Xenia Wickett

    And, and General Petraeus, I mean, the US is powerful. Uh, is there a moral obligation on the part of the US, whether it’s in the Middle East or elsewhere?

  • 00:43:12

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Th- there is, but it obviously has to be balanced with your capabilities, uh, with the, um, prospect for actually being able to intervene in a timely manner, and to make a difference, uh, uh, and what the outcome will be. Uh, keep in mind that in the case of Rwanda, uh, the US had just had a very difficult experience in Somalia, uh, and despite the expressions of concern about what was going on in Rwanda, there was enormous reluctance and, and caution, because of that terrible experience, uh, in Mogadishu. So, uh, again, certainly, uh, there is a responsibility. Ideally, it would be exercised collectively. Uh, the reality is that in many cases, the US has to lead coalition efforts, certainly if it’s to be Western countries, uh, and even in those where it doesn’t, it typically has to play some significant role, uh, because of the preponderance of resources that the US can bring to these efforts.


  • 00:44:10

    By the way, we, we should keep in mind that even with European countries very much stepping up to the plate, uh, in the case of Ukraine, um, the US defense budget is still more than double that of all of our NATO allies put together. Uh, so again, it does, uh, mean that the US, uh, has a unique role in the world, uh, and that is extended to these cases, uh, of humanitarian assistance, uh, just as it is to those involving more traditional security tasks.

  • 00:44:42

    Xenia Wickett

    General Petraeus, um, we say we always fight the last war, and, uh, as you just quoted, you know, the events in Somalia affected American desire to act in Rwanda. Today, we’re living through two horrific conflicts in Russia-Ukraine and in the Middle East, in, in Israel and, and Gaza, but we’re very focused on a potential war with China. How do we make sure that we’re not fighting today’s wars and we’re preparing for what tomorrow’s might look like?

  • 00:45:19

    Gen. David Petraeus

    Well, you have to be very conscious of where the future of war is headed, and I think we are. Uh, we lay that out in an entire chapter, uh, in the book. I think the military is keenly aware of that as well. Uh, we’re out to transform our forces, in very simplistic terms from a very small number of very large platforms that are incredibly capable, heavily manned, exorbitantly expensive, um, but also increasingly vulnerable, uh, to a massive number of unmanned systems, uh, that will increasingly r- be not just remotely piloted, but actually algorithmically piloted. So again, you have to be conscious of that. But the US uniquely has to be prepared, and eng- engaged in all kinds of different warfare, some of which are throwbacks to the past. Uh, indeed, Ukraine to a degree, uh, is representative of this. Uh, Max Boot, the brilliant, uh, Washington Post, uh, columnist, has described Ukraine as the war in which All Quiet on the Western Front meets Blade Runner.


  • 00:46:21

    Um, and so you have to be conscious of all

    laughs) of the different components, uh, of conflict in a case like that, um, and we have to as well. And again, the US uniquely, together with our allies and partners, but we leading the way, have to keep innumerable plates spinning around the world, the, the plates meaning the challenges, the threats. We have to deal with all of these. Obviously, we have to do it as efficiently, and effectively, and as, and, and so forth as we possibly can.

  • 00:46:50

    Xenia Wickett

    To pick up on Kevin’s question, which is you’ve just described the US as needing to be able to be capable of doing everything, and yet, the American people and the American budget is limited. So, how do you think about, and, and briefly if you don’t mind, but how do you think about prioritization in that context?

  • 00:47:11

    Gen. David Petraeus

    This is always about establishing priorities. It’s about allocating shortages. When I… You know, there’s never been a commander in history, and I certainly was not one of them, who ever felt that he had enough troops, uh, enough now drones, enough bandwidth is another, uh, key challenge, all of this, so again, those at the very top have to assess where they’re going to prioritize, but the US, when you’re talking about an 850 to $900 billion defense budget, there’s an awful lot that can be done with that, and I think we are capable of doing that.

  • 00:47:44

    Xenia Wickett

    I wish we had a little bit more time and I could dig in a little bit more, but time is always of the essence. Andrew, you quote Timothy Snyder in the book, saying, “Those who took democracy for granted were sleepwalking towards tyranny. The Ukrainian renaissance is the wake-up call.” Can you tell me a little bit about what you mean and who’s woken up?

  • 00:48:04

    Andrew Roberts

    Well, I think, uh, NATO has, uh, woken up. That’s the reason that, uh, we’ve got Finland and Sweden in NATO now. Um, David, uh, is, uh, fond of pointing out that Putin started this war in order to make Russia great again, and all he’s really done is make NATO great again. And, uh, he’s, um, reminded the, uh, world that democracies can be snuffed out, um, militarily, uh, unless other democrats and, and others, uh, try to prevent it. And that’s what’s happening in, um, in Ukraine. It, uh, it’s, it’s not over, of course. Um, the, the latest, um, counteroffensive has not, uh, done everything it was hoped to do, and, um, and that’s, uh, pretty clear now. Um, this war’s going to carry on, but, um, the importance, and we were speaking earlier, um, with, um, with Kevin’s question, about American isolationism. You know, the, the key thing is that, uh, the whole world should be standing by Ukraine, and if a vitally important part of the free world, that being America, uh, doesn’t in the future, it’s going to be catastrophic for, um, for the, um, Ukrainian democracy.

  • 00:49:18

    Xenia Wickett

    Thank you, Lord Andrew Roberts. Thank you, General Petraeus. It’s really been a pleasure to talk to you both, and once again, the book is Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine. As a nonprofit working to combat extreme polarization through civil debate, Open to Debate is made possible by listeners like you, The Rosenkranz Foundation, and supporters of Open to Debate. This show is generously funded by a grant from The Laura and Gary Lauder Venture Philanthropy Fund. Robert Rosenkranz is our chairman. Our CEO is Clea Conner. Lia Matthow is our chief content officer. This episode was produced by Alexis Pangrazi and Marlette Sandoval, editorial and research by Gabriella Mayer, Andrew Lipson, and Max Fulton provided production support. The Open to Debate team also includes Gabrielle Iannucelli and Rachel Kemp. Damon Whittemore mixed this episode. Our theme music is by Alex Clement, and I’m Xenia Wickett. Thank you for listening. See you next time.


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