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U.S. Defense Policy in an Age of Geopolitical Turbulence: A Conversation with Dr. Colin Kahl

August 29, 2023 @ 5:30 pm - 6:45 pm


On August 29, AGS hosted a conversation about the major challenges and opportunities currently facing U.S. defense policy with former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr. Colin Kahl.

Dr. Kahl, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and expert in international security and foreign policy, delivered a thought-provoking talk, reflecting on how the world has transformed from 2017 to 2021. His discussion covered a wide range of critical global issues and the shifting dynamics in international politics.

He presented a comprehensive overview of key issues, starting with the evolving threat landscape he encountered while serving in the Obama and Biden administrations. Dr. Kahl underscored the increasing prominence of counterterrorism efforts and the emergence of rogue threats as significant global concerns. He delved into the evolving nature of these threats and their implications for global security, setting the stage for a nuanced analysis of the broader geopolitical landscape.

Moving forward, Dr. Kahl delved into the substantial changes in the global power balance that occurred during the Obama administration. He highlighted the far-reaching implications of these shifts and their impact on the international stage, providing context for the subsequent discussions. The event also dedicated considerable attention to the impact of the Trump administration on U.S. alliances. Dr. Kahl shared valuable insights into how these critical relationships were affected during this period, allowing the audience to appreciate the intricacies of international diplomacy during the preceding years.

A pivotal moment in the conversation was the examination of the United States’ transformation following the events of January 6, 2021. Dr. Kahl elucidated the resulting changes in the U.S. political landscape and explored their implications, both domestically and on the international stage, thus bridging the discussion to contemporary events.

Turning to the Pentagon, Dr. Kahl addressed the multifaceted challenges faced during the Obama years, encompassing issues like sequestration and budget cuts. He further explored the repercussions of low morale among military personnel, which had been exacerbated by the challenges posed by the pandemic. This provided an essential perspective on the internal dynamics within the U.S. military establishment.

The talk also touched on the evolution of the confirmation process for government officials, which had grown increasingly contentious and polarized. Dr. Kahl urged a return to substantive debates centered on ideas rather than personal attacks during these processes, emphasizing the need for a more constructive and intellectually driven dialogue in government.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan emerged as a critical topic within Dr. Kahl’s discourse. He contended that a conditions-based withdrawal, as opposed to the more abrupt approach taken, would have been a more suitable strategy, reflecting on the significance of the Doha agreement and critiquing the lack of planning during the Trump administration’s negotiations.

Russia’s geopolitical agenda came into focus with Dr. Kahl emphasizing Putin’s desire to restore the Russian empire. This ambition was discussed in connection with the timing and motive behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, underlining the importance of understanding the broader context of international conflicts.

The complexities surrounding the Ukraine conflict and the Western world’s ability to present a united front against Russia’s actions were also discussed. Dr. Kahl raised questions about Putin’s expectations regarding Western divisions and their impact on Russia’s economic, military, and global standing.

Throughout the discussion, Dr. Kahl stressed the significance of adopting a cautious approach when criticizing Ukrainians on the front lines, recognizing the nuanced nature of the conflict. Additionally, he noted that while Russia may struggle offensively, it excels in defense, shedding light on the intricacies of Russian military strategy.

Dr. Kahl’s thoughtful exploration of complex international issues illuminated the multifaceted challenges and opportunities that the United States and the world faced during this period. The event fostered a deeper understanding of the evolving global landscape and underscored the importance of diplomatic efforts, unity, and nuanced analysis in addressing global challenges.

Colin H. Kahl served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2021 to 2023. In this role, he was the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense for defense policy and led the formulation and coordination of national security policy within the Department of Defense.  Dr. Kahl ensured the integration of defense policies and plans to achieve desired objectives.  He was responsible for efforts to build partnerships and defense cooperation with U.S. friends and allies.

Dr. Kahl is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, the inaugural Steven C. Házy Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a Professor, by courtesy, in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. He is also a Strategic Consultant to the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.


August 29, 2023
5:30 pm - 6:45 pm
Event Category:


Fleishman Commons
201 Science Drive
Durham, NC 27708 United States
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