WASHINGTON ― Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is known for personal crusades against big tech companies like Google and Facebook, and also what he’s called "a martial, expansionist” China. A former Missouri attorney general, Hawley unseated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill last year to become, at 39, the Senate’s youngest member.
Now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hawley wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper last month to warn that U.S. troops in the Indo-Pacific region are over-concentrated and outgunned by China. In a foreign policy speech Tuesday, he called China’s drive for regional dominance a “clear and present danger” to the United States, arguing America must empower its military to deter China from attempting the subordination of Taiwan.
His broad foreign policy vision echoes President Donald Trump by stressing American interests, but Hawley’s been described as “the polished, welcome face of the new right.” Arguing for a foreign policy reset, he faulted both Republicans’ and Democrats’ overconfidence in the idea that false progressive values and institutions would spread in the “new world order.”
“It is time for a new departure, based on America’s needs in this new century,” Hawley said. “Because the point of American foreign policy should not be to remake the world, but to keep Americans safe and prosperous. And those aims are themselves in service to a higher one: to preserve, protect and defend our unique way of democracy.”
The senator spoke to Defense News on Nov. 13 in his office at the Capitol.
What prompted you to deliver a foreign policy speech now?
It’s pretty clear that we are in a moment of major change in the world, and we’re rethinking our posture toward the world ― and frankly, China is the huge driver for that. I’ve been to Hong Kong recently and seen for myself there the protests, the situation, the circumstances. In my time on the Armed Services Committee, the last 11 months, one consistent theme has been Chinese expansion, Chinese ambitions. It’s having an effect, not just on our foreign policy but trade policy and economic policy, so it seems to me that we’re in a moment of transition.
We’re also trying to reckon with our commitments in other places around the globe ― particularly in the greater Middle East and our “forever wars,” as they’re being called. I think it’s incumbent upon us at this particular and crucial moment in the country’s history, in our foreign policy, to think through what does the future look like. Let’s think through the basics: What are our core interests? What does it look like to protect our security and our prosperity? What’s it look like to do that for the people of our working and middle classes? And what’s that mean for our foreign policy?
Your recent letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned the U.S. is outgunned in the Indo-Pacific region and that American troops are in danger of being overrun. What’s the specific threat for which the U.S. is unprepared?
China has been in the midst of major military modernization and buildup for some years now, and we, frankly, have not appreciated the extent to which they are gaining a military and strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, I’m thinking about the ability to project their power in a sort of quick strike on Taiwan.
It’s not clear that we would be able to help resist a military strike, invasion of Taiwan before it was already done, before it’s a fait accompli. The National Defense Strategy sets out in somewhat alarming but very accurate terms China’s anti-access and area-denial capabilities, its seagoing capabilities, its ballistic missile and other advanced missile capabilities. It’s acquired the ability to deny us access at least for the short term, while projecting its power to the first island chain, if not beyond. That could really shift the balance of power in that region in a way that’s very unfavorable to us.
With the administration’s defense budget request coming in a few months, where would you push the administration to spend more?
Nuclear modernization, undersea capabilities that can be deployed in the Indo-Pacific region and an expansion of basing are all very important. We’ve got to think about platforms that can help with the anti-access and access-denial problem, which is a huge, huge issue for us.
I’ve called for dedicated funding streams like the European Defense Initiative. But for the Indo-Pacific, that will give the area combatant commander the ability to ramp up our efforts to get into the right posture.
Broadly speaking, we need to be forward postured in that region. We need to diversify our posture so we’re not so concentrated, and we need allies. We’ve got to work on building out our network of partnerships and alliances, and basing does come into it.
You see a vulnerability because of an over-concentration of U.S. forces. Are you worried about South Korea? How should the posture of U.S. forces in the region change?
What we want to avoid is an over-concentration in just Northeast Asia. We want to be able to spread out, I think, into Southeast Asia as well ― Japan, the Philippines ― so that we’re not basically sitting ducks. It makes the access denial harder if our basing is diversified and if we’re not geographically concentrated either in any country or even in any one area. This is the direction in which, I think, the joint force ought to be thinking and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command ought to be thinking.
You’ve made a strong point that you can’t have a $1 trillion or $2 trillion defense budget — that the U.S. can’t do everything. Where are the trade-offs? Are aircraft carriers too vulnerable? Is a 355-ship Navy too costly?
That’s what we need to continue to push the services and the Pentagon as a whole to ask, and it’s part of my reason for emphasizing that we’re already spending almost $800 billion a year on defense ― which I’m for; we’ve got to protect the security and prosperity, the American people. But that’s not limitless, our capacity isn’t limitless, we’re not the unipolar power anymore. I think it’s a mistake to try to go back and be the world’s hegemon. That would require $2 trillion or $3 trillion, and we’re not going to do that. So it is vital to push the services and the Pentagon to think about this.
But a 355-ship Navy? Count me as, you know, a question mark on that. Capacity versus capability, but do we need 355 ships to meet the priority set out in the NDS? Aircraft carrier? Similarly, I’ve asked a number of questions about aircraft carriers at our hearings, and I’d like to hear more. Platforms, weapons systems and basic posture: All of that has got to be rethought in terms of this present challenge.
Taiwan is central to your thinking. Are there capabilities the U.S. needs to sell Taipei, like advanced fighter aircraft?
In our ongoing dialogue with Taiwan, we need to urge them to be thinking about what platforms and systems will make a fait accompli difficult, and then survivable: What do they need to do to repel or slow down a quick strike [as part of an] invasion [by China]? The degree of fancy, in terms of the weapons system, I know that there are sort of prestige systems, but that shouldn’t come into it. We need to be very rigorously focused on what’s going to help repel or slow an invasion.
The idea is to not have to fight, obviously. We don’t want to have a conflict with China; China doesn’t want to conflict with us. We’ve got to get ourselves postured in the region, and globally to make it clear that any similar projection of Chinese power will fail. And therefore, don’t even attempt it.
Also to all of the other nations in the region: Don’t kowtow to China. You don’t have to count on China because they’re not going to become the hegemon of the region.
You’ve taken a stand for human rights in Hong Kong, but your foreign policy vision seems weighted toward the interests side and less the values side. Does that reflect today’s foreign policy thinking, where the Trump administration emphasizes trade and a transactional approach, as opposed to a the Reagan-era approach that emphasized values?
Preserving our democracy and our way of democracy in the world — I think that’s our highest value and it’s our greatest service to the world, because if we preserve an international system where American democracy is safe and free, we will improve the position of our partners, allies and freedom-loving people everywhere.
We have a broad middle of working-class people in this country that deserve prosperity. And for that prosperity to happen, we have got to be able to sell the things that we manufacture, to enter into commercial agreements with other nations ― and the Indo-Pacific is a hugely important market for us. That’s something in our interest, but it is absolutely foundational ― the prosperity of our own people.
Does the administration have a cohesive China strategy? If so, what do you think of it?
I think that the president has done a terrific job of communicating the threat from China by highlighting what China has done to us economically, for literally decades now, and that [it is part of its] global ambitions. China has used its permanent normal trade status with us, its World Trade Organization status, its access to the international trade system, to steal technologies, to steal intellectual property, to steal manufacturing [information from] industry. This is what they’ve been attempting to do. And give them credit — they’ve been really good at it. The president is drawing attention to that, which is fantastic.
Then the National Security Strategy represents a fairly significant sea change. Any time you’re in the midst of a major sea change, things are kind of choppy, and it’s a different way thinking. The NDS calls for pretty significant changes at the Pentagon, and by implication if you think about what it would take, from a whole-of-government approach, to steer in that direction means a lot of change. We’re in the midst of that, and it’s hard sometimes for people to take it all on board.
How’s the environment on Capitol Hill for action? Is there bipartisan agreement here?
What I see the most is what I call the “all-of-the-above approach,” and I don’t think will work. That’s the approach where we just add China in, we’ll just layer that on top of everything else we’re doing in the world. We won’t actually change anything fundamentally, we keep doing what we’re doing in the Middle East, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing in Europe, and we’ll do it all. That gets us to the $2 trillion defense budget, and that’s not a strategy. Doing more is not a strategy.
The resistance will come when you decide not to do things.
Absolutely, and I think that’s why it’s important to start with the baseline: “OK, what are our interests?” Our interests are in securing the prosperity of the American people, especially our middle class and our physical security, and then we build out from there.
Counterterrorism, I mean that’s a key interest, clearly, to prevent the formation or the reformation of terrorist groups that can strike the homeland and American interests. We’re going to have to do that, but our counterterrorism effort, do we need to have thousands of troops in the greater Middle East in order to carry out counterterrorism? I don’t think that we do. So there’s some tough choices to be made here. But we’ve got to make the tough choices because China and Russia aren’t waiting around for us.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.