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On Wednesday, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs hosted a talk with visiting fellow Adm. James Stavridis to discuss his first work of fiction, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,”  a futuristic narrative that explores the implications of a global conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

More than 130 participants across the Jackson Institute and broader Yale community attended the Zoom event. The talk was moderated by professor of history Paul Kennedy, who also serves as distinguished fellow of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and director of International Security Studies at Yale. The first half of the event consisted of general discussion, and the second half consisted of a question and answer session with the audience.

“The Jackson Institute was delighted to host this engaging discussion,” Edward Wittenstein,  deputy director for Leadership Programs at Jackson and executive director of the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy, wrote in an email to the News. “Admiral Stavridis is one of those rare breeds of hybrid military, academic, and private sector leaders. I was struck by his use of the novel as a device for inspiring ‘outside the box’ thinking during this volatile period in U.S.-China relations.” 

Prior to becoming a best-selling author, Stavridis served 37 years in the United States Navy, where he rose to the rank of four-star admiral. While active, he was the supreme allied commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and also led the U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. European Command. After military retirement, he served as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University for five years.

Stavridis coauthored the novel with Elliot Ackerman, a fellow decorated veteran and former White House Fellow who served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantry and special operations officer.

The novel begins with a confrontation between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea — which, according to Stavridis, the latter country “views as being an extension of its territory as opposed to international waters.” The encounter then escalates significantly and unfolds into a multi-faceted world conflict.

The discussion began with analyses of Stavridis’ extrapolations for the future, which were based on present trends, contemporary events and the authors’ knowledge in their fields of expertise. 

“The novel is set in 2034, so its systems are recognizable, but much more lethal,” Stavridis said.

He identified three key changes in the military that he believed would occur in the next 15 years: major advancements in subsurface maritime warfare, increased offensive cyber operations and the integration of military operations in space, such as through a space force. Stavridis hinted at a future increase in reliance on technology, described as both an asset and a potential threat. 

“This crisply written and well-paced book reads like an all-caps warning for a world shackled to the machines we carry in our pockets and place on our laps, while only vaguely understanding how the information stored in and shared by those devices can be exploited,” said a review from The Washington Post. 

Additionally, in terms of demographics, Stavridis predicted a significant improvement in women’s rights in the next few decades, affirming that “women, by the end of the century, will be coming into equal positions of power [as men].” This belief is reflected in the novel, where one of the main characters, U.S. Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt, is a respected military leader. The book also takes place in a U.S. governed by an unnamed female president.

Wittenstein moderated the Q&A session of the talk, where Stavridis answered queries about a variety of topics, including historical parallels for his novel, technological vulnerabilities and the presence of emerging world powers. 

Stavridis emphasized the potential of both Iran and India to become future great powers, citing demographic, ideological, political and geographic reasons. He also advocated for a more patient and stable long-term vision for the United States’ future, as well as the creation of a more robust diplomatic system, which would also be beneficial in improving U.S. relations with these two key states.

“If Nixon could go to Beijing,” Stavridis said, “Biden can go to Tehran.”

Another trend of interest for Stavridis was that of an established power challenged by a rising power. This is applicable in the case of the United States and China, where there is “antipathy between democracy and totalitarianism.” He described this phenomenon as a “recurring pattern that goes back to the Peloponnesian War” and has “never turned out well.”

“2034: A Novel of the Next World War” was released on March 9 and is widely available wherever books are sold.

Wei-Ting Shih | wei-ting.shih@yale.edu 

WEI-TING SHIH