Ashton Carter has an unusual background for a secretary of defense. Before assuming the United States’ top military post in February, he studied medieval history and particle physics as an undergraduate at Yale, got a Ph.D. in physics as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and taught international affairs at Harvard. He also served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and as an undersecretary and then the deputy secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. Since becoming secretary, Carter has displayed an unusual bluntness, openly criticizing Iraq’s military forces and talking tough to adversaries such as China and Russia. In his first full-length print interview since becoming secretary, Carter met with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman in his Pentagon office in early July.

You’ve held a lot of jobs in the course of your career. Which best prepared you for your current position?

I would say that what has prepared me best is seeing, over several decades, some of the very best of my predecessors in action. My other previous jobs have been more managerial and in the technology area, which means that I know how things work here.

And all this helps me do the things I’m most intent on doing as secretary of defense. Those are, first of all, taking care of our troops. I learned from all [my predecessors] that I have a tremendous fiduciary duty toward the troops. They’re what I wake up to in the morning.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.
Baz Ratner / Reuters
The other thing is to help the president make the difficult decisions about our foreign policy and carry out that part of it which involves the weight of the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.

And the last thing I keep uppermost in my mind is the future of this institution and making sure that we continue to have the very best people in our all-volunteer force, that we have the very best technology, and that we continue to have the magnetic power to attract everyone around the world. As I travel around the world, I see that they all want more—more association with us, more contribution from us. And that’s a great tribute to the United States and its values, but also to the performance of this department.

Speaking of that performance, how worried are you about the budget cuts that have been forced on this department by sequestration?

The game of budget chicken that has been going on now in Washington for several years saddens me very greatly, and I have really pleaded with the leadership [in Congress]—and this has to be a bipartisan thing—to come together behind a multiyear budget process. The herky-jerky, on-and-off annual decision-making stops us from spending money efficiently in the way that the taxpayer expects. It means that our troops and their families don’t have a perspective on the future and feel at risk. It gives a misleadingly diminished picture of America around the world, suggesting that we can’t get our act together. It’s at odds with the ability of our partners in the defense industry to have an efficient business strategy and therefore to continue to support us.

As well as being the secretary of defense, I’m also on the National Security Council, and so I can’t be indifferent to the budget woes of the State Department, of the intelligence community, of scientific R & D, and of education. The whole thing hobbles me and the rest of the federal government. I really hope that we can rise above it.

Despite the budget woes, the United States remains vastly predominant in terms of military power. And yet Washington often has a hard time getting its way around the world. What good is having the world’s largest and most powerful military if you’re unable to use it—against Russia’s little green men in Ukraine, Islamist terrorists in Syria and Iraq, or China’s island building in Asia?

A U.S. Navy crewman aboard a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft views a computer screen purportedly showing Chinese construction on the reclaimed land of Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 21, 2015.
A U.S. Navy crewman aboard a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft views a computer screen purportedly showing Chinese construction on the reclaimed land of Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 21, 2015.
U.S. Navy
Our military power is there to support our core national interests. And of course, our military power is enormously, awesomely effective when it’s used. But its purpose in many parts of the world is to make sure that war doesn’t occur. You were speaking of the Asia-Pacific. There American military power has kept the region free from major state war for decades—despite the fact that there’s no NATO and that the wounds of World War II were never healed—and we continue to play that role. In the case of the South China Sea, for example, we continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere that’s compatible with international law. We’ve called for a permanent halt to land reclamation and the further militarization of the South China Sea. But China’s behavior is encouraging and strengthening our alliances and partnerships.

You talked about Europe. Certainly, Putin’s [behavior] is an unwelcome strategic development. That’s why we are making what I’ve been calling a new playbook for NATO, to once again strengthen deterrence through the strengthening of allies, the hardening of those countries to the kind of malign behavior that you label the use of “little green men.”

And in the Middle East, of course, we actually are applying military power on a daily basis in the pursuit of the defeat of ISIL [the Islamic State], which I’m confident will occur. But the strategic objective there is a defeat of ISIL that is lasting. And for that to occur, there have to be capable forces that can maintain control of territories after ISIL is defeated. That gets us into the question of overall governance in Iraq and Syria.

So American military power is at work every day all over the world, and I think everyone understands that.

In all of the conflicts just mentioned, the United States has three options available: it could get more involved and solve the problem itself, it could walk away, or it could try to manage these conflicts by working through allies and regional proxies while keeping its own role limited. The Obama administration seems to generally favor the third route. Given that, why doesn’t it commit to it more fully? In Iraq, for example, why not give more support directly to allies such as the Kurds and the Sunni tribes?

Let me differ with you in the following respect. The United States will and does use military power unilaterally in pursuit of our interests. If it’s possible to have allies and partners, obviously that’s our preference. And sometimes it is necessary to secure lasting success. In the case of Iraq, we are applying force. But to make victory there stick requires the development and employment of a capable ground force that can hold territory. So in that case, it is necessary to have a local partner in order to get the strategic result that is desired.

But you yourself have deplored the combat effectiveness of that partner. And in the meantime, we have other partners open to us. So why not do more to empower those other partners to take on ISIL immediately, rather than wait for an optimal outcome that may or may not ever arrive?

Where competent ground forces exist, we are supporting them: the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria; elements of the Iraqi security forces, particularly the counterterrorism service. That is what our bombing campaign is in service of. At the same time, we’re trying to build a larger, multisectarian force under the control of the Iraqi government. But it takes time to recruit and train such a force. It also requires an approach by Prime Minister Abadi that is different from the approach of Prime Minister Maliki, who brought this situation on his country by stoking sectarianism.

In Ukraine, there already is an arguably more competent government to work with. And yet despite all the well-documented Russian incursions, Washington is not doing that much to support that partner directly. Why not give the Ukrainians the weapons they need to defend themselves?

A tattered Ukrainian national flag near the town of Maryinka, eastern Ukraine, June 5, 2015.
A tattered Ukrainian national flag near the town of Maryinka, eastern Ukraine, June 5, 2015.
Gleb Garanich / Reuters
The Ukrainian situation is fundamentally about a collision between the attractiveness of the European economic and political model and the resistance of Russia to seeing a neighboring territory move in a manner that it regards as threatening. So I think one has to bear in mind that the principal weight of our leverage is economic and political. And with respect to economic sanctions, the primary leverage is European, not American, because [the Europeans’] volume of trade with Russia is much greater.

We are supporting the aspirations of Ukraine in trying to build its economy. We are also helping to train and provide equipment to the Ukrainian military, and we’re constantly assessing what kind of assistance they could most benefit from. Our support is staunch, but it’s multifaceted.

How do you see the conflict there ending, given that Putin seems unlikely to leave on his own accord?

I’m frequently asked whether I know what Putin is thinking. In fact, we all do, because he says what he thinks; he couldn’t be clearer. He regrets the demise of the Soviet Union. He wants respect for Russia’s greatness. He wants a voice in the world. And he wants a nonthreatening neighborhood.

Our core interests [in Ukraine and eastern Europe] are a stable Europe that can be an economic and political partner to the United States.
Now, some aspects of that, or the manner in which he approaches it, could be compatible with Western interests. But in other respects, we’re going to have to be strong. I have described our approach to Russia as strong and balanced. It’s strong because we’re making investments in military capability that are specifically intended to deter Russian forces. That’s not something we’ve had to do for 25 years, but we’re doing it now. We’re helping NATO to turn its attention to the deterrence of Russia after a preoccupation with Afghanistan for a decade and a half. And we’re helping societies that are not part of NATO, like Ukraine, harden themselves to Russian influence.

At the same time, we’re trying to work with Putin’s Russia on issues where his geostrategic interests, as he perceives them, are compatible with ours. Terrorism is one of those issues, Iran may be another, and North Korea, yet another. And we’re also continuing to hold the door open in case Putin or his successors decide to go in the direction where I believe Russia’s long-term future lies, a future in which there are economic and political opportunities for the people there.

You raised the subject of deterrence. When one is trying to deter an enemy, it can help to draw clear redlines. When it comes to Ukraine and eastern Europe, what are those redlines, and how have they been communicated to Russia?

What we have communicated there, as elsewhere, are America’s core interests and what we’re prepared to do to defend them. Sometimes that takes the form of what you call “redlines,” and sometimes it doesn’t. There are some places where it’s clearer than others. For example, I am highly attentive every single day to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. It’s not in the newspapers, but it’s a situation in which a single spark could ignite something great. And I think North Korea understands what the United States and its allies are prepared to do in that case. But in every case, you need to begin with our core geostrategic interests and display what we’re prepared to do to defend them.

Our core interests [in Ukraine and eastern Europe] are a stable Europe that can be an economic and political partner to the United States. That means a Europe that’s at peace, a Europe that’s stable. NATO adds another very specific commitment, which is included in the NATO charter: a commitment by all members to defend each other.

A poll taken earlier this year showed that a majority of Europeans everywhere but Poland and the United Kingdom would not favor coming to the defense of an ally in the case of a military conflict with Russia.

I saw that, and I want to say two things about it. One is that the younger generation in Europe is more committed than the older generation. And the other thing is that within the governments there, there is a very strong concern both with what’s going on to the east with Putin and with what is going on in the south, in the Middle East. Europe is beginning to recognize that it’s living in an era of serious security challenges, and it needs to begin to prepare for them. Obviously, we want them doing more. We’ve called on them to spend more, devote more resources. Some of them are quite active, but in general, [their] defense budgets are not matching either the real dangers they face or even an awakening sense of those dangers.

So where does that leave you? Do you have confidence that our European allies would be willing to help shoulder the burden in the case of a conflict, or is it all going to fall to the United States?

They’re collectively very strong. We obviously want them to do more, and we’re helping to strengthen them. 
I’ve just been traveling in Europe, 
and most of them are quite receptive to that.

One of the disadvantages of relying heavily on regional partners to manage conflicts is that you get less control 
over the outcomes than you would if you did things yourself. This is happening now in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has gotten deeply involved in the civil war. 
Is that just something that has to be expected if the U.S. government is 
not interested in directly managing things itself?

When it comes to defending our interests, we are, and need to be, willing to act unilaterally if necessary. [But] working with partners is in many cases essential to getting a lasting result. You mentioned Yemen. Again, you have to go back to asking, what are American interests [there]? Our interests are first of all to combat al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has the intent, and actually has attempted, to carry out attacks against the United States. We continue to prosecute those operations in Yemen despite the civil war. And our other interest is in helping Saudi Arabia to protect itself. In both of those instances, we are applying military power ourselves. With respect to the greater situation in Yemen, we are supporting a political process that’s led by the UN. We’re not involved in that civil war militarily, but where our interests 
are touched, we do act, and we do 
act militarily.

What can really be accomplished in 
the fight against ISIL in the foreseeable future?

To achieve the lasting defeat of ISIL, sectarianism must be tamped down in the territory of Iraq, and, as Prime Minister Abadi puts it, decentralized but nonsectarian governance must be applied to that territory. Prime Minister Abadi was just here in Washington a few weeks ago, and I believe him when he says he’s working toward that end. I do not know whether he can ultimately be successful.

Given the way things are going, how are U.S. troops there ever going to leave?

An Iraqi helicopter flies over military vehicles in Husaybah, in Anbar province, July 22, 2015.
An Iraqi helicopter flies over military vehicles in Husaybah, in Anbar province, July 22, 2015.
Let’s be clear: the United States and a coalition of many countries are involved daily in kinetic operations striking ISIL in Iraq. And we are involved in training, equipping, and supporting the Iraqi security forces under the control of the Iraqi government. I am confident that that will ultimately lead to the defeat of ISIL. At the same time that we’re defeating it, we are containing its effects. You focused on Iraq. But ISIL has global ambitions, and so stanching the flow of foreign fighters, looking out for jihadi recruits around the world, helping other regional partners to harden and defend themselves—all of that is part of a strategy of containing the damage from ISIL while it is deployed on the territory of Iraq and Syria.

How has the U.S. experience in Iraq post-withdrawal affected your thinking about the U.S. approach toward 

This department has learned a great deal from both Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of the ability to fight counterinsurgencies. I’m enormously proud of the performance of our people in these very difficult circumstances.

That said, the two situations are very different. In Afghanistan, we have a government that warmly welcomes U.S. support for the building of the Afghan security forces, that commands them in a nonsectarian manner. And [they have] performed well this year, when for the first time the amount of direct combat support provided by the coalition was minimal.

We certainly hope this success continues, and we’re trying to set Afghanistan up for more success by continuing to support it for years and years and years—not with direct combat support but financially and with advice and assistance.

U.S. policy toward China has long focused on two things: further integrating Beijing into the international system and constraining Chinese adventurism. The United States is trying to maintain that balance today despite Beijing’s more aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. But how far will that restraint go if China keeps pushing?

I’m not someone that believes that conflict between the United States and China is inevitable, or even likely. It’s certainly not desirable. However, [avoiding conflict] is an objective that we need to work toward strategically and not take for granted. While most Chinese and much of the Chinese leadership are inclined to continue to take advantage of an international system of free trade and openness that has allowed China to develop in its own way, there is another tendency in China, which is to believe that after a century of humiliation, as they put it, it’s now China’s time to dominate its region. And that is a tendency that we check through our strength in the region and through our allies and partners. We have many of them, and we’re getting more. I just was in Vietnam a couple of weeks ago and also in India, both of which are eager for U.S. partnership. And one of the reasons for that is that they have the same analysis of China.

You used to be an academic. Has running this department taught you important things you didn’t learn in school?

The most important thing I studied and wrote about was physics. And that did give me a frame of mind that has been beneficial in this job—one based on facts and analysis. My writings and my background in history, meanwhile, have given me a strategic perspective and an ability to foresee what my successors and my successors’ successors will face, so that they’re not kept up at night by any of the many things that keep me up at night.

Those are my commitments, and I think that my scientific background has contributed to that, but so have many years of association with this wonderful department and travel around the world and a deep, deep love of the people who make up this institution.

At the end of the day, this is not a job of the mind so much as it is a job of the heart. And our mission—and my mission—is to allow everyone else in the country to go to bed at night safely, sleep peacefully, wake up, hug their children, go to work, dream their dreams, and not have to worry about their security. And I consider my job accomplished if they’re all doing that while I am staying up at night worrying about things.

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