Friday, June 1, 2012

Grand strategy: good but unlikely

I really enjoyed this post by the always excellent Daveed Gartenstein-Ross as a counter to anti-interventionists with regard to Syria. Daveed lays out arguments made by wunderkind Dan Trombly and his posts against intervening in Syria; mainly that acting in Syria does not further American interests, that non-interventionists need to prescribe alternative methods of dealing with the situation, and (getting to this post I wrote earlier) that a grand strategy would help the United States determine trades more effectively when deciding to intervene.

Frankly, I don't disagree with any of that and I'm not sure Daveed characterizes my post and position on grand strategy most accurately. Which is why I don't disagree with him. My writings on grand strategy have focused until recently upon the need for a grand enemy to formulate a strategy of equal magnitude. That is not the same as saying we only need grand strategies for grand enemies. Rather, the political entities that craft grand strategies tend to permit strategic drift in a state void of a grand enemy. Grand enemies serve as a beacon or focal point for strategy development. In the absence of such enemies, nations have difficultly determining their role in the world and focusing their resources and efforts because of such increased uncertainty. Therefore, grand strategy is not and should not be dependent upon a grand enemy, but grand strategy is less likely to exist without a grand enemy to drive its formulation.

That said, my post did not argue against a grand strategy for the United States or that it would not be a good thing, but rather that policy-makers have no interest in developing a grand strategy with the intricate and elegant statements of purpose we would expect from such a document. Such a document is what I considered a pipe dream. Elucidations of the nation's challenges, foreign and domestic, that require action by the Government could compel the Government to take action in situations where action may be unwarranted, immoral, or simply not in our interest regardless of what was written on a piece of paper. And no policy-maker wants to be compelled into a situation they think is unwise, even if the folly of the act only affects domestic political capital.

The Syria conundrum is indicative of this. One of the enduring American interests listed in the National Security Strategy (and the QDR and QDDR) is "respect for universal values at home and around the world."  For policy-makers, this is perfectly worded because it leaves them a maneuver axis 10 divisions wide. What are universal values? There's an entire focus of philosophy dedicated to studying and arguing for or against the existence of universal values. Are there values that the preponderance of the human race could probably agree are valid? Of course. But using a (non-) term such as universal values, as yet undefined, allows us to act to protect certain values when we can and want and not protect them when we can't or won't. The United States has intervened in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia (1990s), and Libya because of values and because we thought we might be successful. We didn't in Rwanda, Uganda, and as of yet Syria in spite of our values. One could argue that we had no strategic interest in the former group and yet intervened because of values and yet acted. We had equal strategic interest in the latter yet intervening would have been coherent with our values. Why the difference?

In a word: flexibility. The first group above were deemed more achievable than the latter group. While there is a significant strategic calculus to determine that the United States should only act when it thinks it can be successful (a moral imperative even), our description of interests is so broadly defined as to allow politicians to pick and choose what are vital American interests. Values are among the squishiest interests we have, enigmatic wisps of emotion couched in strategy. This is not to say that defense of values does not constitute a strategic interest, but it's impossible to define. Would Presidents Bush and Obama agree on what our values are? Or what values are worth defending? That Venn diagram probably has a lot of overlap, but it wouldn't be one circle.

Because of this, there is no constituency to create a grand strategy that may compel politicians to act when they don't want to - for whatever reason. An amorphous role in the world benefits the political class. Someone with moral certainty who can attain high levels of power, Anne-Marie Slaughter for example, could certainly add the protection of civilians against murderous regimes to the list of universal values for which the United States would go to war. Would a subsequent administration want to be held to that standard? How would they remove such an item from their list of values? What if that value is believed to be valid but compels the United States into a conflict it cannot win? How does a president explain that even though our values are worth defending, we just really, really can't in a specific case?

There is a lot of goodness to a grand strategy. It would help the United States understand the myriad challenges it faces and draw lines in the sand that would help it determine its role in the world more clearly for ourselves, our allies, neutral parties, and our adversaries. It would help us conduct the trade-off calculus to determine whether or not to intervene in most situation. I would love to see such a grand strategy. But I just don't see it happening. Daveed and I are both interested in avoiding foreign policy mistakes, but both paths (with and without grand strategy) are fraught with potential mistakes. In the current situation politicians have a freer hand to make those mistakes instead of possibly being forced into them. They have no impetus to change this condition.


  1. Jason,

    I've been reading your strategy posts with keen interest and want to comment more completely on them when I've got more time.

    I agree that structually, we have a system that cannot organize itself well outside of a true existential threat (however we define existential) but I disagree that it's a pipe dream to think of changing things. Surprised you all with that, didn't I? I'm not always skeptical or cynical.

    It took decades of hard work for the interventionists to set up the various post-WW 2 institutions that now serve mostly to fulfill their own needs, in my opinion, and confuse institutional health and wealth for national security. Mainly, I think of the following:

    Several reasons can be offered to explain the enduring power of Washington's humming hawks even after the Soviet Union dissolved; among them: the great influence of foreign lobbies on Congress, which jerk the priorities of legislators in a thousand directions; lobbies for the U.S. weapons industry, which exercise a similar jerking motion on the Pentagon's attention span; and the academic culture underpinning modern U.S. defense policy, which has elevated the prosaic task of writing a term paper into an industry sustaining thousands of PhDs, and which can find in the wheeze of an asthmatic rat a U.S. security concern.
    Humming hawks have long defended their scattered approach to warfare by calling themselves hawks and pointing to the difference between hawks and doves; i.e., those who are more inclined to use military force than those who prefer the exercise diplomacy over war. This is a false argument when one considers there's a world of difference between waging a war and winning it; the latter a feat well nigh impossible to accomplish without the ability to focus on winning.

    I don't agree with all at the link, but I find a lot of it spot on.

    At any rate, it will take a lot of hard work and perhaps the building up of other institutions to change. Or else, if the hard work is not done, we get a global NATO, R2P, and a constant presence around the globe, ever expanding. We may not be able to avoid the SysAdmin Barnettian world, but we can try and point out the problems and issues.

    I don't know. Rambling, as usual.

    So that’s what I wrote for Ethos — and one of my analytic buddies already sent me a comment:

    There is def a vacuum that needs to be filled that intersects relevant research with a level of independence for writers. Something between academia and a think tank.

    I think that’s an important issue — but it shouldn’t remain at the issue level, it should be acted on.

    Any ideas about that?

    - Madhu

  2. Madhu - I'm still mulling your comment. While I think much of the problem is structural, I think ideology and political realities play a greater role. Are these compounded by our governance and political structures? I'm not sure. Maybe? Will a different and new structure create the conditions whereby the USG can formulate grand strategy without the aid of a grand enemy to focus their efforts? I'm skeptical.