Friday, November 5, 2010

Is a clear and equal enemy necessary to develop a valid grand strategy?

In times where powerful nations have had clear, and often equal, enemies, developing a real and viable grand strategy has usually happened. Necessity has dictated this requirement. One could argue that we have a clear enemy - al Qaida, terrorism, whatever - but is it really? We can't find their leadership (well, other than their #3 man repeatedly) or them massed on the battlefield which we could then use our military against. So it's not really clear. And it's certainly not equal. While today's enemies could hurt us, they are by no stretch of imagination an existential threat to the United States or any other western nation.

This question came to me after reading the passage I'm about to quote at length. It is from Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm and in it Sir Winston is quoting an address he gave in March 1936 (it's on page 207 for those of you with the 1948 U.S. edition).
For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries falling into the hands of such a Power. Viewed in the light of history, these four centuries of consistent purpose amid so many changes of names and facts, of circumstances and conditions, must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes which the records of any race, nation, state, or people can show. Moreover, on all occasions England took the more difficult course. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been very tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe, protected the growth of its vivacious and varied society, and emerged after four terrible struggles with an ever-growing fame and widening Empire, and with the Low Countries safely protected in their independence. Here is the wonderful unconscious tradition of British foreign policy. All our thoughts rest in that tradition today. I know of nothing which has occurred to alter or weaken the justice, wisdom, valour, and prudence upon which our ancestors acted. I know of nothing that has happened to human nature which in the slightest degree alters the validity of their conclusions. I know of nothing in military, political, economic, or scientific fact which makes me feel that we might not, or cannot, march along the same road. I venture to put this very general proposition before you because it seems to me that if it is accepted, everything else becomes more simple.
Observe that the policy of England takes no account of which nation it is that seeks the overlordship of Europe. The question is not whether it is Spain, or the French Monarchy, or the French Empire, or the German Empire, or the Hitler regime. It has nothing to do with rulers or nations; it is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or the potentially dominating tyrant. Therefore, we should not be afraid of being accused of being pro-French or anti-German. If the circumstances were reversed, we could equally be pro-German and anti-French. It is a law of public policy which we are following, and not a mere expedient dictated by accidental circumstances, or likes and dislikes, or any other sentiment.
There's more if you want to read it, but that is the most coherent grand strategy I've ever read. Once could conjecture that the menace of Soviet communism was a strong and potentially dominating tyrant on the Continent. So this policy, this strategy, continued for another 50 years after this speech was given. Now there were no more threats to the peace and stability of Europe - and certainly none to the Low Countries. No wonder the UK National Security Strategy was so vapid. The strategy that had been used for 450 years until what is comparatively just recently became somewhat useless.

What about the United States? I wouldn't say that we've had the same strategy for 200 some odd years. At least I wouldn't say we've had a coherent one - possibly to improve our status in the world or our economic condition or something else so nebulous as to be of no value. But we did spend the first hundred years "taming" the land and consolidating the government's power over it. After that things get a little messy except for the World and Cold Wars (the latter of which I would argue was the longest we've ever gone with a single grand foreign strategy). So now what?

Are the UK and US unable to make a strategy because the thing that worries us most (an existential threat) just doesn't exist anymore? When we had enemies with grand strategy, we countered with a grand strategy (or in the quote above have an overarching grand strategy that most everything else fits in). But now we have an enemy that uses a strategy of tactics, which we've met with a strategy of tactics. Having an enemy whose abilities we exaggerate doesn't help - we create operational plans for tactical gains but just come up empty with grand strategy. Is that because we just haven't done it yet, that it's too hard, or that there just isn't one to be had? Why don't we have some overarching theme to our foreign policy like the Brits did for 450 years(!)? Once we get past the platitudes we usually use maybe we'll get there, but I'm not holding my breath. But we need to get there soon, because for the past 100 years in the US and the past 20 years in the UK, we've been letting our enemies dictate the level and validity of our strategic thinking - or even dictate that we shouldn't use strategy at all. I can only imagine what Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS would think of that. I'd guess not much.

25 comments:

  1. Does that mean US/UK grand strategy is like a tango, you need a partner (enemy) to dance with? Perhaps the next step is to look at a nation that does not base its grand strategy/ies on confrontation with an opponent.

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  2. Hell of an idea. I'll see what I can gin up this coming week.

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  3. What if we had an enemy that was generally accepted by the clueless as a benevolent religion which must, by certain conventional rights, be excluded from discussion?

    The premise of a religious doctrine intent on conquering or supplicating those who don't accept that religion's supremacy can be tested and should be considered for discussion.

    How about militant Islam, for instance? Does it meet the test for consideration?

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  4. John - I don't accept your premise on Islam. I've spent enough time in the Middle East to know better than that.

    But, for the sake of argument, were we to look at the militant branch of said religion, is it a clear enemy? Is it an existential threat to the United States (or any other western power)? Not by a long shot in either case. Wanting to create a caliphate is a long, long ways from being able to do so. And most of the Muslims I had met in Iraq had no interest in doing any such thing. You would be hard pressed to make the case to me that they are a peer competitor in any way.

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  5. 'The Gathering Storm' is an interesting reference to make - Churchill's work was most certainly marred with British nationalism, and a distinct view of 'Britishness' that entailed noble and just purpose. This is most clearly apparent in his dissection of appeasement, which is a major feature of the book. If you are going to accept this breed of thinking as Grand Strategy, you would certainly have to be aware of the myth it perpetuates. Whilst the British may have at times protected smaller nations from aggressors, we should not pretend that they did this for some benevolent reason - it was plainly for their own military and economic security each and every time. Moreover, the British were certainly pursuing less-than-noble colonial interests the world around at the same time.

    We see this same breed of thinking quite often in justifying Afghanistan - that we should stay because of feminism, education, and just because it's 'the right thing to do'. I'm not here to debate whether this is true or not - but it is deceptive and not at all constructive. American politicians should not act like the US entered Afghanistan for any other reason that its own interest, just as Australian politicians shouldn't pretend the Australian commitment isn't at least 50% alliance maintenance.

    If we wish to construe this to form a wider, unifying Grand Strategy, caution is undoubtedly needed. Grand Strategy should not be misleading or deceptive, and any of this ilk surely would be.

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  6. Will - it's a good point I didn't make, but should have. Churchill was obviously a master of rhetoric, especially with regard to Clausewitz's wonderful trinity. Did he mention that the real reason they took such an interest in the Low Countries was to prevent an invasion of England from those shores? No. Did he mention the many, many wars of conquest and certainly choice designed to increase the power, riches, and status of Great Britain? Not a bit. Certainly Great Britain's actions on the Continent weren't out of some solidarity with common peoples - it was self interest. But the basis of their grand strategy remains - to keep one faction from attaining overwhelming power on the Continent and definitely to prevent such a power from occupying the lands from which they could invade England. Every thing else was corollary.

    Thanks for raising the issue. I sort of read past the crap into the real strategy. I guess there's some precedence for vapid strategy statements. But I still think it was backed up by a real strategy.

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  7. Yeah for sure, I didn't mean to imply that if I did, just thought it was something that had to be raised. Interesting post, thanks.

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  8. When I read recent Chinese strategy and policy documents, I see a coherence and forward-thinking that is completely absent in similar U.S. documents. While the reasons for these differences are numerous, my sense is that the nature of our democracy in contrast to Chinese “communism” makes the formulation of a grand strategy difficult regardless of the presence of a peer competitor.

    Our policy towards Cuba and Israel illustrate this challenge well. In the case of both countries, relatively small special interest groups distort policy away from strict national self-interest. While I personally believe our Israel policy runs contrary to our national interest, this could be argued endlessly. Few could competently argue that maintenance of a failed 60-year policy towards Cuba does anything to strengthen our nation. Nevertheless, both policies continue largely unchallenged year after year. If we cannot articulate dynamic policies towards small countries such as Israel and Cuba, I am unconvinced we are ready to undertake the significant reformulation in national policy required to implement a non-threat based grand strategy.

    Nick

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  9. "The strategy that had been used for 450 years until what is comparatively just recently became somewhat useless."

    Has it become useless, or merely more circumspect?

    Britain has long attempted to make the EU an inter-governmental affair, as opposed to a supra-national one.

    And is this not the week where we have leveraged one half of the franco-german axis away from the other?

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  10. First, I know next-to-nothing about Chinese war plans, but as an aside, IMO Israel and Cuba are not germane to the discussion because they're small. If they were larger, I suspect, the irrationality of policy toward them would by necessity be corrected. But moving right along, regarding grand strategy, I'd be inclined to argue along with John Mearsheimer that the US has pursued a policy of offshore balancing. The US waits, with the stopping power of water protecting it, until a hegemon appears on the horizon, at which point it begins to act. Obviously this theory or historical interpretation, like all theories or historical interpretation, has exceptions, and one can poke holes in it; I have no doubt this group could do so But I think it explains a lot of US foreign policy over the last 235 (?) years (relatively pacific in the nineteenth century, intervention in WWs I and II and the Cold War). The other pertinent scholar who comes to mind is Andrew Bacevich, who IIRC has argued for a return to the Rainbow system of war plans of the interwar period (eg, War Plan Orange against Japan, War Plan White for civil unrest, etc). I think there's something to that.

    ADTS

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  11. #########################################################################################

    This should be mandatory watching for all officers and senior non coms, as we wind down:


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Real_Glory

    Plot

    In 1906, Alipang (Tetsu Komai) and his Muslim Moro guerrillas are terrorizing the people of the Philippine island of Mindanao, raiding villages, killing the men, and carrying off the women and children for slaves. Instead of maintaining garrisons indefinitely to protect the Filipinos, the U.S. army tests out a new tactic at Fort Mysang. The army detachment is replaced by a handful of officers - Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon), Captains Manning (Russell Hicks) and Hartley (Reginald Owen), and Lieutenants McCool (David Niven) and Larsen (Broderick Crawford) - who are to train the native Philippine Constabulary to take over the burden. Army doctor Lieutenant Canavan (Gary Cooper) is sent along to keep them healthy. They are welcomed by a skeptical Padre Rafael (Charles Waldron).

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  12. This is a really interesting subject, and I hope to chime in once I've emerged a bit more from the fog of this past weekend. In brief, I disagree that grand strategy requires a peer competitor, and I further disagree that the British have abandoned or otherwise ignored their fundamental interest in preventing dominance of the Continent by a single power. I do agree with Nick's suggestion that American strategic vision is limited by our form of government, and assert that this factor is less limiting for the UK in light of its history of empire and dramatically different national self-image.

    I'm probably going to write a separate post on this subject, as there's too much to say to limit this to comments. But thanks to Jason for kicking us off and offering some good thoughts on this.

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  13. Are you familiar w/ 5GW -- Fifth Gradient Warfare? In this approach to manipulating the environment, a specific, identifiable enemy need not always exist, since most actors or forces upon the playing field will fill the roll of pawn or proxy. It's a whole-systems grand strategy. See: http://arherring.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/the-5gw-handbook-is-here-but-what-is-5gw/

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  14. The British example seems to suggest that one does not need an enemy to come up with a grand strategy—the strategy of siding with the weakest to maintain a balance on the continent and prevent the emergence of an hegemon (or at least a peer competitor) works no matter who the enemy is—and as a matter of fact, it has been successively Spain, France, etc. depending on the times and power configuration in Europe. The strategy defines the enemy rather than the other way round.

    One could argue that Britain’s strategy has become vapid not because they do not have an enemy anymore, but because they changed their strategy of balancing to side instead with the dominant power of the past twenty years—the United States. Bandwagoning is a perfectly decent strategy and makes a lot of sense if you are under financial constraints and share many political, economical and social values with the dominant power, but it is not a particularly glamorous or exciting one. I am not saying it is a bad one, either: with the process of European unification, playing a balancing role on the continent had become largely obsolete anyway.

    As for the United States, I am not sure either the enemy determines the grand strategy. There has been a constant back and forth between isolationism and interventionism, no matter who the prevalent enemy of the time was. I could imagine the general mood moving back toward isolationism (if it has not already done so), with radical islamism representing the same level of threat, or a bigger one, as what it is today. If anything, enemies are useful to unite domestic constituencies behind a given course of action—in other words, they serve the strategy rather than determine it.

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  15. Grand strategy is a vision, not a plan. It is not a fixed blueprint with iron laws that tells us what to do next. It is an overarching and ecological view of the world that relates all the parts to the whole. To survive and succeed, it will help if we have a basic idea of how to relate our power and resources to our goals and interests.

    http://offshorebalancer.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/lecture-notes-grand-strategy/

    According to the lecture notes that I've linked above, the answer seems to be "no".

    I don't see why economic vitality and expansion can't be a Grand Strategy. It seems to inform the Chinese strategies. I'd love to see a strategy that seeks to connect with as many global trading partners as possible. Not to go all Tom Barnett on you all, but why do we need to make enemies? If they get made in the process of, well, life, then I hope we are well-prepared but we shouldn't go out of way to make them.

    That way we can all keep our eye on the big picture future challenge: the potential invasion of the Earth by space aliens. If only we would all work together to build self-sustaining space colonies.

    But we won't. Stupid humans. We'll just keep warring with each other.

    Er, sorry, but "intellectual" dilettantes can only be so serious.

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  16. Gulliver:

    This monograph might help you compose your treatise, which I look forward to reading; FWIW, I read the Tiannamen chapter, and it was great.

    ADTS

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  17. That's called, "Whoops."

    http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub623.pdf

    ADTS

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  18. Mr. Fritz asks if America has no grand strategy because it faces an existential threat. In a sense, this is correct - but only because existential threats are so effective at forcing disparate groups within the decision-making class to see the world the same way. This type of shared vision, I think, is by far the most important prerequisite for any grand strategy. These visions can be formed in a world without existential threats (think U.S. 1815-1850), but it is more difficult.

    I have greatly expanded on this topic at my own site, and I would direct readers who are curious about the details of this line of thought to the more fully fleshed out versions posted there:

    Dreaming Grand Strategy
    T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 12 May 2010.

    Addendum to Dreaming Grand Strategy
    T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 31 August 2010.

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  19. ^Ooops. That first sentence should read "Mr. Fritz asks if America has no grand strategy because it faces no existential threat..."

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  20. T. Greer - Thanks for the links. I'll be sure to read them. For those of you following this thread, I will have a follow up later this week on this topic. The original post, in retrospect, is ill-formed and requires some refinement. The nature of blogging...

    Thanks for all of your comments (and continue to do so!) as they're helping me form and expand this idea in my head. Now to get it on paper - or digits at least.

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  21. Jason:

    IIRC, there's been some debate - Trubowitz and Kupchan versus Parent and Bafumi in the correspondence section of IS not too long ago, in response to the original Trubowitz and Kupchan article - about whether the determinants of grand strategy are external or internal.

    Aw, screw IIRC. It's issue 33(1), Summer 2008 (don't know when the Trubowitz/Kupchan article actually came out).

    Your post was great. My gripe is my comments on this blog have been so below-the-bar relative to the content you all have been creating (not looking for validation here - my ego is robust enough). Keep it up.

    ADTS

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  22. And just to state the obvious, it goes without saying the debate is not a new one; I just wanted to point out an article (and a recent one at that) which touches on the subject.

    ADTS

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  23. Another work (works) on defense spending determinants - Kevin Narizny. I don't have his book, but he did publish, among other places, in the APSR on whether the right or the left is more inclined to spend on defense (his finding was, usually, to the left). And also, Friedberg's "The Weary Titan" comes to mind - the strategy of a fading great power (perhaps especially apropos to us?). Haven't read it, heard it's really good. Last but not least, Zakaria, "From Wealth to Power" - wealth leads to expansionism, based on America in the long 19th century, IIRC.

    ADTS

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    Dissertation help

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  25. The US should have a grand strategy. Whether it is openly articulated is another question. In essence the US should become the ultimate "pivot state" where we can decisively shift our support among various powers in any region of the world to decisively impact ongoing or brewing conflicts.

    This entails not allowing a Eurasian land power to acquire decisive influence there while working to avoid the emergence of any power with global power projection capability, especially sea and, in the future, space capacity.

    We maintain our military balance but do not engage in any major theatre of operations until that interference will result in the emergence of a regime either amenable to our interests, or, at least, inimical to the interests of a true great power rival, most likely in the next generation China (but not necessarily Russia whom we should probably attempt at co-opting more into the "West" a la Brzezinski in his new work, Strategic Vision).

    As for terrorism, ongoing special force operations and drone strikes will be needed, but minimal boots on the ground and no nation building unless resources are present and a straight quid pro quo is observed.

    This may be a fairly bleak form of realpolitik, but America no longer has the domestic consensus to "spread our values." Simply put, the American public doesn't care as long as our domestic economy is humming.

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