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When Ashton Carter began his career at the Pentagon, in 1993, geopolitics was changing more rapidly than it had at any point since the Second World War. As the Cold War ended, a new world was taking its place, one dominated by American power.
Carter, at the time, expected that America's greatest challenge in that world — and, by extension, the focus of his own career — would be limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, he told me in a recent interview at the Pentagon. And the greatest threat, he thought, would be political instability within nuclear-armed Russia.
"That was the riveting challenge of that time. We look back now, and I remember how fearful that was," he said. "But it worked out extraordinarily well."
Twenty-some years later, Carter now runs the Pentagon as defense secretary. The world, and the challenges it presents for the United States, turned out somewhat differently than he, or anyone else, had expected.
What Carter has seen over the past two decades, and has often overseen, is the long and difficult process whereby the United States has tried, and at times struggled, to navigate those unexpected turns in the grand experiment that is the post–Cold War world.
The challenges of this era have only recently become clear: the failure and collapse of weak states, which can bring terrorism, civil war, and refugee influxes; rogue states that resist the American-led order and proliferate dangerous weapons; and now, according to Carter, a return to "great power competition."
In a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation, Carter expounded at length on those challenges: how they've changed, what the US has learned in its successes and stumbles with them, and what he sees coming. You can read the interview in full here.