Thursday, May 24, 2012

The grand strategy pipe dream

Grand strategy in this era and political climate in the United States is a pipe dream. The idea of a unifying, coherent set of statements that declare what the U.S. believes is its overarching role in the world sounds great and could then drive our actions across the globe. So we're all on the same page, I'm going to borrow a definition of grand strategy from Peter Feaver:
the collection of plans and policies that comprise the state's deliberate effort to harness political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools together to advance that state's national interest. 
Does the United States have a grand strategy? Well, not as such. We have a National Security Strategy which broadly defines American interests:

  • The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;
  • A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;
  • Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
  • An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges. 
It's not much, but it's all we have. It's a far cry from the Churchill description of Great Britain's grand strategy for 400 years. The problem is that, barring a grand enemy to drive a more specific grand strategy (more on that in a bit), the political class of the U.S. has no interest in defining a grand strategy to any greater depth. Much like the all-volunteer force is convenient to wage wars of interest without involving the people, a vague grand strategy allows the U.S. to define its interests as it wishes. Security of the United States, etc., could be interpreted in any almost any way no matter how tenuously connected to actual existential security of the nation. We are still in Afghanistan ostensibly because doing so protects the security of the United States, but is that really true? Some say yes, others say no. What matters is that the politicians in power say yes and use the cover story of security to maintain forces there. Is Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons a threat to the United States? A lot of people think so, but the current administration does not seem to think so enough to use military force at this point. China falls into this category as well.  Vague grand strategic statements provide the political class the flexibility to determine interests ad hoc which suits their domestic political needs. Occasionally it suits the security of the United States, but our actual physical security as a nation has rarely been challenged. 

While I had posited some time ago that a grand enemy was required for a grand strategy (see link to Churchill above), I now do not believe that a grand enemy* is any more useful to drive a coherent global policy than the vague statements above. In theory the United States had a grand strategy to prevent the spread of communism. And yet it did not prevent us from the folly of the Vietnam War and other activities across the globe for which we are still feeling the effects today (such as arming the mujaheddin in Afghanistan).  So maybe grand strategy isn't the panacea we hope it to be. 

The final reason I can identify that makes grand strategy unlikely is that political discourse is so dichotomous to prevent a grand strategy from ever being realized. Iran, China, Libya, Syria are all good indicators that the United States cannot self-formulate its role in the world without the opposition party tearing that grand strategy to shreds, negating its impact and utility. A grand enemy may help overcome this last reason, but we do not have one at the moment (in spite of attempts of giving China that role). The current version of our grand strategy is watered down because (except for maybe the last one) everyone can agree on them. 

Grand strategy is an aspirational chimera that we are unlikely to see. While policy-makers seem to want to do best for the nation, you cannot ignore the impact of domestic politics. Just as Francis Urquhart wanted his Falklands, politicians have always been more than willing to flex America's military muscle for domestic audiences (see: R2P and why we do it in some places but not others). Grand strategy in its current form allows them to do just that while maintaining a modicum (veneer?) of coherence with the national interests, broadly defined as anything they have a pet issue with that is at least palatable to some Americans. While we should continue to study grand strategy, let's not hold our breaths that it is achievable or desirable to those that would form it.

*The original version of this post had "it" as an ambiguous pronoun instead of "grand enemy" - the change was made for clarification. 



  2. Good read - thanks for the link.

  3. BIG difference between national security strategy and grand strategy. A true grand strategy would take into account economic factors such as trade and immigration.

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  5. @ attack on Iran. I didn't say the NSS was a grand strategy. The four interests I list appear in numerous documents and seem to be the overarching concept for the various strategy documents from DoS and DoD. The highest order document I can find is the NSS and those four interests guide that strategy.

    And I disagree that a grand strategy would necessarily address specifics such as trade and immigration - as long as more overarching economic principles/interests/goals are defined.