'The World That We Will Live and Die In'
Sen. J.D. Vance talks foreign policy in an exclusive interview.
The drive from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, to the Dirksen Senate Office Building is about five and a half hours. J.D. Vance has come a lot further than that. But at least one part of the freshman senator from Ohio’s road to Capitol Hill began in Cherry Point. As the base’s media relations officer for the final nine months of his Marine Corps service (2003–2007), Vance, as he wrote in his bestselling memoir, learned that “I could work twenty-hour days when I had to. I could speak clearly and confidently with TV cameras shoved in my face. I could stand in a room with majors, colonels, and generals and hold my own.”
On the campaign trail, Vance broke hard with a Washington establishment preoccupied with Ukraine, questioning how involvement in the conflict could be in America’s interest. Last February, before Russia’s invasion, he sparked controversy when, pointing out bipartisan complacency about America’s southern border, he told Steve Bannon, “I think it’s ridiculous that we’re focused on this border in Ukraine. I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” And at The American Conservative and American Moment’s “Up From Chaos” conference in April, he described how campaign donors acted as if his craziest idea was that the U.S. should avoid nuclear war with Russia. “We don’t have that many non-insane people in Washington,” he told attendees. As a senator—though lately he and his staff have been busy studying railroad safety, and making sure the people of East Palestine, Ohio, are not forgotten—he has pushed for a full accounting of American funding in Ukraine and has repeatedly called for U.S. officials to support negotiations for peace.
“I have never been one of these guys who says nice things about Putin, despite the implication from the left,” Vance told me in an interview. “I don’t think that the invasion was somehow justified. But I also try to think about this rationally. And there are a lot of people that I don’t like, and there are a lot of bad guys, and that doesn’t mean we should try to fight them.” The Russia hawks of both parties are not thinking about this rationally. “A big part of the Russia hawkishness from the left is blood lust over 2016. They still blame Vladimir Putin for Donald Trump. And the fact that so many Republicans don’t see that obvious obsession from the left is bizarre to me, because if the left wasn’t so obsessed with Vladimir Putin, I don’t think that they would be seeing the Russia-Ukraine conflict the way that they do.”
In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal at the end of January, Vance endorsed Donald Trump for reelection, citing the president’s record of starting no wars, “despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his own administration. Not starting wars is perhaps a low bar, but that’s a reflection of the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s predecessors and the foreign-policy establishment they slavishly followed.” He also offered the first distillation of how he thinks about international statecraft, though China received only one mention in the short piece: “I prefer a different kind of statesmanship: one that stands athwart the crowd, reminding leaders in both parties that the U.S. national interest must be pursued ruthlessly but also carefully, with strong words but great restraint.”
Of course, these days there are a lot of liberal idealists claiming an America First, realist mantle. “There’s been this desire in the last fifty or sixty years—and it really accelerated as I started to pay attention to this stuff—to define America’s interests so broadly that you could fit any moral crusade, any foreign nation’s economic interest,” Vance said, comparing the exercise to the square peg and the round hole. “I see that a lot with Ukraine arguments,” he continued. “A number of my colleagues who disagree with me on this issue, they’ll say, ‘This is morally the right thing to do. But it’s also purely in American self-interest, the right thing to do.’ It’s like, well, if it was clearly in America’s self-interest the right thing to do, you wouldn’t need the caveats.”
Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. When I sat down with the senator in his windowless temporary office in the Dirksen basement—like an even drearier Cabinet war room—I asked Vance if he had ever held conventional Republican foreign policy views. “I was very supportive of the Iraq War when I was a high school senior. And so I think, yeah, at least then I was a conventional Republican, in that I sort of picked up on all of the influences from all around me.” There were influences that might have told him better. Vance recalled reading Pat Buchanan’s Death of the West in high school: “It’s funny, because in a lot of ways, I absorbed the cultural and the economic messaging of Pat Buchanan. But then it took me a little while to sort of absorb his foreign policy views.”
He joined the Marine Corps—his patriotic duty, a job, a ticket to order, a promise of education—and his foreign policy perspective began to catch up. Vance was deployed to Iraq summer of 2005 to spring of 2006. That fall and winter saw Iraq’s constitutional referendum and first parliamentary elections, and the world saw pictures of purple fingers in the air. “We were doing security for poll workers,” Vance said, which meant shift work and a lot of time to kill on base. “I read this book by Natan Sharanksy called The Case for Democracy, and it was sort of a neoconservative manifesto.” He found it compelling at first, the idea that the human desire for peace and the solution to political problems could be found in simply giving people the right to vote. “And then I sort of compared and contrasted that with the actual world I was seeing around me,” he said. “People—like many of them were very nice people—they didn’t give a shit about American-style democracy. And so the juxtaposition was pretty striking.”
We have always been pivoting to Asia; at least so it sometimes seems. At a moment when public figures are crawling over each other to signal the right sort of China hawkishness, it is easy to forget that the original Obama administration “pivot to Asia” was much less an effort to counter the CCP than a last gasp of the old consensus, that economic interdependence would lead to liberalization and democracy and eventually global governance. Indeed, when in 2012 then-candidate Mitt Romney told Wolf Blitzer, “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe”—a position and a politician for which, like George W. Bush, liberals have discovered a strange new respect—President Barack Obama countered not just with, famously, “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” which was right, but by emphasizing that Al-Qaeda, not a rising China, was the primary threat to the American way of life. That was wrong in 2012; it was wrong in 2002, too. It is wrong today.
“I remember that moment very well. I remember people debating it, and certainly debating it,” Vance told me. “Sort of ideological blinders compelled me to say that I was somewhat sympathetic to Romney’s view, but I also just didn’t take that much of it.” Vance said that while it was clear to him Russia at the time was a potential adversary, the idea that it was the most important rivalry struck him as far-fetched. “The idea that Russia in 2012, or 2023, is our most important geopolitical foe is clearly not right. It’s obviously China, it was obviously China back then,” he said, adding that recent praise of Romney’s comment is an indictment of the foreign policy establishment and the way they see the world.
“I voted for Mitt Romney, but I didn't really think that his foreign policy was sort of the main thing that drew me to his platform. He was actually pretty good on China in his 2012 campaign,” Vance said. “You know, there were elements of Trumpist economic nationalism in Romney’s 2012 campaign that I really, to this day, admire.”
“My feel on the Asia pivot is broadly the same as it was ten years ago,” Vance told me. “I was worried about the trade stuff ten years ago; I was worried about the effect it had on the American middle class; I was worried about the sort of reverse Opium War where China manufactures fentanyl, sends it into our country, and it devastates American communities, jobs, families.” Vance was in law school at Yale when Romney and Obama were debating. “Ten years ago, I was pretty skeptical of American focus in the Middle East; I remain pretty skeptical,” he said. “I think we have to have a strong national interest in the absence of nuclear proliferation. So to the extent that we can prevent Iran from getting a bomb, I actually think that's a very valid and very important American foreign policy goal. But clearly, the Middle East is just not—like, Iran is not as important to America's national interests as China is. There’s just no way around it.”
In addition to his experience in Iraq, Vance’s years in New Haven may have played a role in his disillusionment with American hubris in the Middle East. Amy Chua, the John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, met Vance in the fall of 2010, his first term at the school, when he took a 1L contracts class with her. “I think he sat at the very back, and his now wife, Usha, sat in the very front,” Chua told me in our phone conversation. “He was a really brilliant contract student—believe it or not, maybe not quite as brilliant as his wife.” Chua soon became friends with the couple. She and Vance bonded over the firestorm around her memoir, and as they got to know each other she encouraged him to write some of his own story (good advice, when it becomes Hillbilly Elegy). He took a second class with her in the spring of 2011 called international business transactions. “While I was battling this controversy, that’s where he and I started talking about bigger ideas,” she said. “He wanted to write a very ambitious paper about, oh, gosh, democratic theory and all the stuff about how it impacted his hometown. He was always first and foremost really kind of homesick and wanting to go back there, and he wanted to help his community. I remember telling him, ‘This is way too ambitious.’”
As part of that class, Chua taught from her December 2002 book World on Fire, “which I would say at the broadest level, without getting into the technicalities, is kind of saying that, hey, you know, the reason that we have screwed up U.S. foreign policy so much over the last fifty-plus years—I mean, now it’s longer than that, but we have about fifty years—is because we assume that countries all around the world are just like us.” Other countries have ethnic and religious and social and tribal structures completely different from those in the United States. “So policies that might work well here in America,” she said, “just transplanted without thought elsewhere in the world, might just blow up in our faces.”
“I haven’t ever really talked to J.D. about foreign policy more than me as a professor teaching this book,” Chua told me, cautioning that as his friend she knows Vance the private person, not the policies of the public figure. But she was confident in international business transactions class, and in her book, because she’d been proven right. “I was very critical about going into Iraq,” she said. “It wasn’t conservative or liberal for me, it was just that I had this theory of market dominant minorities, saying that if you have a very, very small minority, like, in this case the Sunnis that have dominated so much of the economy and the power of a country for so long, and then we suddenly democratize it and empower the majority, that could actually be a recipe for demagoguery, and eventually, ethnonationalism.”
Or civil disorder and ISIS, as the case may be. “If you look at the afterword of World on Fire,” Chua said, “I did pretty much predict exactly what did happen over the next six years.” By spring term 2011, of course, Vance had his deployment in Iraq to compare that thesis to, and everyone had seen the results of the wind down. But perhaps there was something personal about the thesis that American policymakers didn’t understand other cultures, too. “I think that did resonate for J.D.,” Chua said, “because maybe at another level, it was kind of like he was in a community at Yale where he felt a lot of people just had no idea about the place that he came from, where it was—or they had so many assumptions.”
“I think we're fundamentally in a bipolar system,” Vance told me, describing a world in which nations will be increasingly divided on economic and cultural lines between American and Chinese poles. “I don’t think there’s another nation that can really challenge America for the foreseeable future.” In his assessment, the Chinese have been effective at exercising their economic leverage and gathering allies to form what is trending toward a bloc. “And so we really are living increasingly in a bipolar world,” he said. “That’s probably the world that we will live and die in.” The senator qualified his analysis, “It will dominate the next, at least, twenty or thirty years. China has serious demographic problems, most of East Asia does. So it may not last for a half-century, but it’s going to last for a little while.”
That conviction does not mean Vance thinks a foreign policy that puts America first is simple—fight China. Plenty of unrepentant supporters of regime change and nation building in the Middle East have turned their sites on Beijing now, too. “I’m growing a little alarmed with the posture of you know, some of the China hawkishness,” he said. “There are basically two strands of what I call the neoconservative hawkishness on China, one which I agree with, one which I don’t. The one that I agree with is a sort of straightforwardly economically nationalist argument, that even though it may cost a couple basis points of GDP, we should be making more of our stuff. Okay. So in that way the neoconservatives sort of adopted, you know, the Pat Buchanan, Steve Bannon view. And I think that’s a great thing.” But there is another kind of China hawk on Capitol Hill, too. Vance said these hawks think, “We don’t really need to change any of our economic relationship with China, we just need to prepare to fight a war with it.”
“I think the questions Vance is posing and the impetus he presents are the kind the country needs,” Elbridge A. Colby told me over a Zoom call. Colby is co-founder and principal of the Marathon Initiative, focused on preparing the United States for an era of great power competition with China, and the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. In some ways, his focus on deterrence—“obviously, this term gets perverted, and people use it as a rationale for aggression”—puts him closer to Vance’s second camp above, with an emphasis on preparing for a potential conflict with a military build up. But their disagreements are friendly ones. “He is absolutely right that our foreign policy establishment has led us deeply astray over the last quarter century,” Colby said. “And a critical part of what needs to happen is the unseating of much of that foreign policy establishment, and its replacement by a better foreign policy outlook and apparatus.”
“The thing is, is that to sort of slightly mix up Barry Goldwater, moderation in the face of a manifestly catastrophic trajectory is not a virtue,” Colby told me, of Vance’s willingness to break with the bipartisan consensus on further involvement in Ukraine. “Where I see him heading, is this leading voice that is saying, at the end of the day, what’s in it for regular Americans? That’s the right question. What’s in it for regular Americans in practical terms? The Washington establishment’s response to that is to try to ignore or even suppress the conversation, or a huge amount of hand waving.” Colby describes the current world as bipolar with features of multipolarity. That qualification recognizes, for example, that India will grow over time, but the U.S. and China are way ahead of everybody else, and so for the foreseeable future we live in a basically bipolar system. “Many, especially on the right, wish it was a unipolar world,” he said. “But it’s not. And you’ll make terrible decisions for Americans if you act like it is when it’s not.”
“Fight China” might be too simple a response to bipolarity, but that also doesn’t mean the situation is too complicated. To think about American posture toward China, Vance described a two by two quadrant, where the horizontal axis is China should make all of our stuff and the vertical axis is We should go to war with China. “I think the right view is: China should not make our stuff, and we should try to avoid war with China. And the absolutely stupidest view is: China should make all of our stuff, and we should go to war with them,” Vance said. “And there is a strain of American neoconservatism that I think has adopted the very dumb version of the argument. And, of course, look, we may eventually be forced to fight a war with China. But if we are, God forbid, we need to be more self-sufficient economically.” So, if there is something close to a Vance doctrine, it is this: China should not make all our stuff, and we should try to avoid a shooting war with China.
“I don’t want to change the status quo in Asia, so I’m not talking about an aggressive attack on China,” Colby told me. However, the Colby doctrine is clear: The United States should defend Taiwan. He worries the economic decoupling side of the policy debate can be overemphasized, neglecting certain hard power realities, even by realist-type thinkers focused on the national interest. “What I’m concerned about is that many on the new right are convinced that China is the priority challenge, but they believe that you can kind of bring up the drawbridges, and have a quasi-autarkic industrial policy,” he said. “That’s just not going to work.”
Colby argues that if China establishes a hegemonic position over Asia, representing half of global GDP, it will have a commanding position over much of the rest of the global economy. “That will enable it to completely undermine any attempt to build an American economy for the working-class,” he said. What peace through strength means in the Pacific is a debate the right will continue to have up to, if not past, the point events make it irrelevant.
For Vance, peacefully decoupling from China will take a focused industrial policy and smart economic diplomacy. Indeed, there might be things for the U.S. to learn from Chinese diplomatic strategy over the last couple decades. “China is very good at using their economic leverage to create allies of convenience,” Vance said. “They’ve done this in the Middle East with a lot of digital technology. They’ve done the same in Africa with a lot of capital investment and infrastructure development. And I do think that one of the ways that we have to understand the next twenty or thirty years is, we need to make sure that America’s economic interests are being pursued in a lot of these regions.”
Of course, the U.S. also has allies and partner nations in the Asia Pacific, such as India, Japan, and Australia. “We have nations with aligned interests, and we have to try to promote those with aligned interests and encourage those who are a little bit more on the fence to think about things from our perspective,” Vance said. But when it comes to decoupling from China, not all allies are going to see that as a good deal. “Even in Western Europe, there are signals. I think some of the countries got a little too close to Huawei,” he said. “Israel, they’ve been quite good. But if you talk to the Israelis off the record, they’ll tell you there’s an incredible amount of pressure to do more business with the Chinese.”
Similarly, major American and international corporations may be the biggest obstacle to an industrial policy that ends with China does not make our stuff. “We have to recognize there is a divergence of interests between major multinational companies and the national interest,” Vance said. “And obviously, a lot of Republicans are not willing to make that concession. But I think we’re more open to it now than we were two years ago.” While it is a popular position in Washington today to worry about Chinese businesses and individuals buying American farmland or investing in American companies—and Vance agrees those are undesirable—the senator said he is more concerned about American investment in China, “specifically, in the form of joint ventures that often take the shape of American company, X, joins with Chinese company, Y, and puts a ton of capital into the Chinese mainland, but then anything that company develops in the future, and even in the past, is controlled by the Chinese.”
“We should basically be trying to prevent those types of arrangements completely,” he concluded. The issue is that American companies have every economic incentive to let, or at least risk, their valuable—sometimes critical, from a national security perspective—intellectual property be stolen by Chinese companies with inevitable ties to the Chinese regime. “If you talk to these guys, they will tell you, ‘Look, China is a billion two, a billion three market, it’s a massive place, you know; our intellectual property, we’ve gotten most of the juice out of the squeeze here in the United States, and so if the price of opening those markets to our business is there’s a little theft along the way, well, that makes economic sense,’” Vance told me. “For the United States as a sovereign nation, it doesn’t make sense at all.”
In a Washington Post essay from the early days of last year called “The Radicalization of J.D. Vance,” Simon van Zuylen-Wood tried to make the case—not alone in criticisms of this kind—that statements similar to the above by Vance represent some kind of incriminating inconsistency from a Yale Law graduate and venture capital partner. For his part, Colby has no patience for these sorts of class betrayal accusations, one way or the other. “The criticism that he’s evolved his thinking—that’s not a serious critique. Who hasn’t changed his thinking?” he asked. “Is it a crime to change your thinking based on your own growth, and your own observation of the world, and facts? I think that’s good. Is everyone bound to what they believed when they were twenty-two? No!”
Colby added, “The critique that J.D. has betrayed his class is one of the most foolhardy, because isn’t the purpose of any elite to serve the people in our republic? Isn’t that the point? So that doesn’t even make sense.” Listing Vance’s accomplishments, as self-made a senator as any, Colby quoted Scripture: “To whom much is given, of him much is expected. So the fact that someone like that is taking risks to do what’s in the American people’s interests is exactly the point. That’s what we want.”
Not all of the effects of an emerging bipolarity or a failed foreign policy consensus are felt primarily on the other side of the world. While establishment focus may remain on the Donbas and Crimea, the situation at America’s southern border continues to deteriorate, and the drug cartels continue to kill. Those things are connected. “Any real business has manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers,” Vance said, describing the fentanyl crisis as “one of the main ways that our society has been weakened over the last couple of decades, if you think about orphan children, businesses that can’t find workers, communities that have been hollowed out, incredible strains on the healthcare, education system.” The senator situated the fentanyl crisis within the framework of American–Chinese bipolarity and the failure of the U.S. leadership class. “I tend to think, you know, if the Chinese are the manufacturers, the cartels are the wholesalers and distributors,” he explained. “And so there’s this very symbiotic relationship, where the Chinese weaken their main geopolitical foe, the cartels make a lot of money, and the American people lose.”
I asked if Vance thought the Mexican government bore some responsibility for the situation, especially as U.S. relations with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appear bound to deteriorate further. “You would expect me to say yes, and I think certainly there are nits that I could pick,” Vance said, but he demurred. “The Mexican government is in a preposterously difficult position, because they are dealing with cartels that in some ways are more functional than they are.”
America should want a strong Mexican state, since it could prevent the flow of South and Central American migrants into our country, he argued. “If we want to force the Mexicans to do something, we should reimplement the Remain in Mexico policy, that actually strengthens their hand,” he said. “And we should really attack the cartel activity that funnels what is effectively a domestic terrorist organization within their own borders. I actually think it’s one of the main arguments for cutting back on the cartel activity, is that it’s weakening Mexico.”
As Vance admitted, that assessment might come as something of a surprise. His Senate campaign gave him a reputation as a bit of a firebrand, and public figures in both parties were quick to make what controversy they could out of his statements. But to Chua, Vance has always been a bridge builder. “I never had occasion ever to see him as a disrupter, or even controversial; he was just not a controversial guy,” she told me. “He was actually quite well liked; he was chosen by a very left wing professor to be his teaching assistant.” Vance has already shown that side of himself as senator, working with his Democrat Ohio colleague Sherrod Brown on a bipartisan rail safety bill that has received the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. As Vance told Burgess Everett of Politico: “One of the things I’ve learned here is that it’s very easy to disagree with people so long as you’re not an asshole, and still get things done.”
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“It was very striking for me to kind of read about him during the campaign,” Chua told me, “because the guy that I knew had friends from all walks of life, and he was a very likable guy that was always very authentic and honest. And he would have these big conversations and sometimes disagree with people, but I mean, really, he had friends from every, gosh, every background.” Chua said that Vance—a foot in New Haven, his heart in Middletown, Ohio—experienced a Yale that was not as polarized as university campuses, or Capitol Hill office buildings for that matter, are today. She described a campus where people in the Federalist Society were friends with Democrats, and students socialized and dated across political lines. One wonders if Yale gave Vance a taste of an American establishment and American elite that had made some huge mistakes (“The Iraq war was bipartisan, and it was a f***ing disaster,” he told Politico), but still knew what that role was supposed to look like, cooperating for a common good, or at least being citizens together. Chua said: “He, in some ways, knows both languages now. He can kind of see all sides.”
Even with Vance the bridge builder, there seems little chance of this administration, or even this Congress, effectively altering the balance of power at the southern border, despite recent noises about it; there seems little motivation to. Attention remains fixed on Eastern Europe, though the fervor for American involvement in the war appears to be flagging somewhat. That might be a sign to hope for a negotiated settlement to end the bloodshed soon, but it certainly is not a promise. “I don’t see an obvious off ramp in the next couple of months,” Vance said. “It’s pretty clear that America has not played a constructive role diplomatically. I think that we’ve been geared toward escalation. The Biden administration seems obsessed with escalation; I think certain actors in the Biden administration are especially hawkish, and a lot of Republicans have been preoccupied by escalation, too.”
The senator suggested conditions on the ground will have to change dramatically, perhaps with spring weather, before either side reconsiders their position and decides they can live with what they have. “My hope is that the next time there is a major strategic change, either in the favor of Ukrainians or the Russians, somebody says, ‘Okay, it’s time to bring this thing to a close.’”