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General Mark Milley discusses foreign relations, domestic politics in 'Defending the Nation in the 21st Century' lecture

General Mark A. Milley visited the Wilkinson Building Friday while at Duke. Photo courtesy of Duke Today.
General Mark A. Milley visited the Wilkinson Building Friday while at Duke. Photo courtesy of Duke Today.

With Page Auditorium full of Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, midshipmen, prior service members and members of the larger Duke community, General Mark A. Milley gave the fall 2021 Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture.

Milley’s lecture held Friday was titled “Defending the Nation in the 21st Century.” It focused on topics ranging from military involvement in domestic affairs to the growth of foreign military powers. 

The lecture was structured as a conversation between Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and moderator Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and director of the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy. 

On service

Feaver first pointed out that the lecture date fell on the University’s observance of Veterans Day. He asked Milley, who was described by Feaver “as the most prominent veteran on Duke soil today except for [Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Duke men’s basketball]” to describe what Veterans Day meant to him.

While Milley acknowledged the special role of the military in his response, he also noted that there were many ways outside of uniform for individuals to serve the United States. Milley specifically highlighted the importance of the roles that doctors, nurses, police officers and even those in academia play in service.

“There's lots of ways to serve, and one of the things I always say to young people is if you choose a life of service in uniform, that's great,” Milley said. “But if you don't, that's okay too, as long as it's a life of service. I think we all should be serving causes greater than ourselves.” 

The military, domestic politics and domestic threats

Milley believes the military should stay completely out of politics, including electoral issues, which have become ever-more prominent after the Jan. 6 armed insurrection at the Capitol

“The American people have a voice. They go to the polls and they vote for whatever candidate they vote for. Their votes are counted, and if the election is contested, then the next step is to go to the courts. Courts are done and it goes to the legislature. The legislature certifies the election,” Milley said. “At no point is the United States military involved in any of that.”

Feaver asked Milley if he was concerned about political extremism in the military, citing the fact that several of the individuals arrested Jan. 6 were serving military officers or recent veterans. Milley responded that all militaries are representations of their societies, so if there are extremists in a society, there would also be some extremists in its military. 

“I am not losing sleep [over] extremists in the military,” Milley said. “That's not to deny that they exist. There are some out there, but we have good, solid chains of command, and if behavior goes in a direction of extremism, we take corrective action.”

Innovation and foreign powers

The lecture discussed the importance of containing potential geostrategic threats. To Milley, the most significant threat for the next several years is China. 

He said when he was commissioned 42 years ago, China was a “peasant-based infantry army” and the seventh-ranked economy in the world. Now China is the second-ranked economy in the world, and economists believe that it will be number one by gross national product or gross domestic product in 10 years

Milley said that the economic improvement in China has vast implications for its military, as they now have a very sophisticated military that can operate in all domains—space, cyber, land, air, sea and undersea.

“We've seen a military that has at least regional ambitions and arguably global ambitions to fulfill the Chinese national dream,” Milley said. “We may or may not like it, but that is a fact that is going to be with us for years and decades to come to grips with as a nation.” 

Milley sees research and development in technology as a way to compete with the Chinese military. He said that artificial intelligence and quantum computing are examples of advanced technology that China is developing rapidly and that the U.S. should be putting more money into. He also said that after the lecture he would be visiting the artificial intelligence and quantum computing labs at Duke. 

The way forward

According to Milley, the global landscape of the world is changing, and the system of rules and regimes that has kept the world largely at peace since World War II, referred to as the “liberal international order,” is under threat. Milley said that this system has kept the world away from a great power war for over 70 years, and while it wasn’t designed to prevent terrorism or limited wars, it has helped avoid large, ongoing, world-level conflict.

“As I look around the world today, I see various indicators of instability, [which] is something we’re going to have to pay much more attention to over the next 10 to 15 years in order to prevent [a great power war] from happening,” Milley said. “God forbid that would ever happen.”


Adway S. Wadekar

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department. He has also contributed to the sports section.

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