Why America Needs a Grand Strategy
Image Credit: Flickr / Stanhua

Why America Needs a Grand Strategy


It takes no great leap of imagination to realize the obvious: the world shows clear signs of increasing disorder.

Consider recent events: thousands massacred in Syria; the collapse of nuclear negotiations with Iran; continued authoritarian rule and repression in Russia; signs Greece may leave the Eurozone; the U.S. economy remains stuck in neutral; Russia and China seem to be gaining influence; North Korea’s ongoing nuclear test plans; Afghanistan and Pakistan are highly unstable. The list goes on and on.

To make matters worse, despite such disorder, we have failed to develop clear principles to guide U.S. foreign policy.

One source of the problem is tectonic shifts in the geopolitical, social, and economic fabric of the world. Such shifts defy comprehension, but require policymakers to catch up intellectually with these challenges. Part of the problem seems to be the unwillingness of policymakers to adopt new forms of strategic thinking – a result, perhaps, of clinging stubbornly to familiar approaches despite evidence all around us of profound uncertainties and growing disorder.

Today, many states, including the United States, make policy choices without an overriding grand strategy. This is, without doubt, an immensely dangerous development, given the sources of disorder in the world.

Now, more than ever, policymakers must come to grips with the new world that we live in if the United States is to develop coherent guidance for navigating the challenges posed by the modern world.

How did we get to this point?

From the end of World War II to the 1990s, the United States was guided by a coherent grand strategy. American strategy, as George Kennan outlined, was designed to contain the Soviet Union in ideological, political, military, and economic terms. It was an immensely successful strategy, as societies realized when the Soviet Union collapsed unexpected.

This period was remarkable for the deep consensus in U.S. society and among our allies on the overall direction of our grand strategy. Today, however, there’s no such accord. By contrast, we have adopted policies that rely on the residue of containment or, more frequently and alarmingly, on piecemeal responses to challenges. Occasionally, we ignore certain challenges altogether.

During the Cold War, the United States and its allies confronted risky, but largely predictable, circumstances if they made serious mistakes in foreign policy. Today, however, policymakers face a world characterized by much greater unpredictability, and governed by the false belief that the risks are so low or shared with other global actors that the world is less dangerous.

Nuclear war between the great powers is about as unlikely as matters get. What has replaced the clear-cut nuclear deterrence balance between countries, however, is a wide range of more inchoate and uncertain risks – nuclear proliferation into the hands of new actors as well as possible stand-offs between nuclear-armed regional powers.

Once central to strategy, nuclear matters no longer command a solid anchoring point in foreign policy lexicon. In the absence of clear and decisive threats along the lines that societies faced during the Cold War, the once-solid organizing principles of grand strategy are no longer relevant or useful, or were discarded altogether.

A number of developments also suggest that the world is becoming not simply more disorderly, but much more unstable as well. For example, regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan have joined stalwarts Russia and China as states of concern on Washington’s strategic radar.

A reevaluation of grand strategy is in order. As these shifts in the global order continue to cascade upon each other, there are many questions that societies and their policymakers can no longer avoid. How do we formulate a grand strategy for managing a world that shows signs of increasing disorder? What principles should govern foreign policy? What choices should societies make? How do we create some order out of the emerging disorder?

Answering these questions is the key challenge for today’s policymakers if they want to ensure peace, freedom, and security.

Principles for Organizing a Grand Strategy

The function of grand strategy is to organize foreign policy issues in a useful way for policymakers and society. Approaches, however, differ.

For some, the solution lies in organizing our thinking by focusing on the states that pose the greatest challenges. For others, however, the preferred approach entails thinking in terms of what we often call transnational issues – such challenges, as proliferation or extremism, which transcend individual states and regions. For still others, the best approach is to focus on regions, such as Asia and the Middle East.

March 4, 2013 at 20:33

Foreign policy is usually directed by intrests and rarely by  principles .A grand strategy requires an accurate readings of international relations and an udertanding of major motivations behind other countries foreign policy orientations .For peace sake and intrnational stability any good strategy has to be based on a win win sum game.The united states has the power and the capacitty to pursue such strategy that will serve international peace and its own interests .It is indeed a delicate exercice that requires to accomodate other nations interests for influence ,power and economics gains .Some countries like China ,India or Russia aspires to assume a global role and others smaller nations like North Korea ,Israel , Turkey or even Iran feel sufficiently confident to project a regional influence.They have to understand through negociations  dipomacy,and a set of incentives that abiding by international rules and avoiding the threat of force is the right path to get recognition from the international community and to continue their progress towards more development and prosperity.Washington need to pay a special attention to some urgent and complex regional problems such as the stalling negociations in the middle east peace process ,the imperative acompaniment of the democratic and economic transition in the arab world ,and to adress the nuclear issue issue in Iran and  North Korea by helping these two nations acquiring nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and breaking their isolation from their regional environnement .

March 4, 2013 at 04:50

Dear Aristeon and those who think likewise,

Everyone is entitled to read what you want to read, even though your perception might not correspond with what professor Martel actually writes. I suggest you read John's comment and follow his advice to read Mead. I wish you to mature in your reading and to live a better life in Asia.

[...] enormous domestic and international challenges, the United States today needs, more than ever, an effective grand strategy. Without one, the nation is in a dangerous state of [...]

February 6, 2013 at 21:04


"It takes no great leap of imagination to realize the obvious: the world shows clear signs of increasing disorder.
"From the end of World War II to the 1990s, the United States was guided by a coherent grand strategy. American strategy, as George Kennan outlined, was designed to contain the Soviet Union in ideological, political, military, and economic terms. It was an immensely successful strategy, as societies realized when the Soviet Union collapsed unexpected."

These assumptions appear to me to be both great "leaps of imagination". It is assumed that the world is in a state of exceptional disorder and that the United States are called to bring back order, like they used to do in the Cold War. This is an utterly flawed interpretation of the present and a dangerous vision for the future. 
1) The world as a whole doesn't show greater signs of disorder than in the past. It is only from the perspective of the US, which were accustomed to be the first and undisputed 'good' world power, that today's world is more chaotic. If you ask Chinese, Koreans, Singaporeans, Russians, Argentinians and so on, they might tell you a different story of the period from WWII to the end of the 1990's. Let's take East Europe, for example, where the 'shock therapy' propagated by Western economists made their industry and society collapse. Or look at Rwanda, look at Vietnam, look at the military dictatorship in S. Korea or the Nationalist white terror in Taiwan. There are so many examples. 
2) The axiom that whenever there is disorder the US should step in and guarantee a paternalistically benevolent guidance to all nations is deeply offensive, and it has been one of the biggest mistakes of the American elite not to realize they are treating a majority of the world population like incapable children. Americans are oblivious to the fact that by doing so, they will lose the leadership that is already endangered. Leadership means that people want to follow you because they see you as an example, because they want to be like you. You cannot convince them to follow you by bombing or disparaging them. In this respect, the US is losing its ability to lead.
3) The US does not understand that the first thing to fix is not the American leadership in the world, but the American economy, and that in order to do this, a re-thinking of the dominant neoliberal, laisse-faire narrative of the last forty decades is necessary. An indebted, industrially non-competitive nation is not going to be the kind of example people want to follow. The US should begin a debate about economic policy that goes beyond ideological positions and find a new way to prosperity. Otherwise you'd better put up with your international decline, as long as you don't want to defend it aggressively, which might seem a solution to some desperate, cynical and hysterical people, but it can't be considered as a viable "grand strategy" by any sound American.  
aristeon @my-new-life-in-asia.blogspot

December 9, 2012 at 05:39

A strategic global strategy does not always have to come from the government.  In 1944, George Kennan, an assistant to the ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote what is now known as "The Long Telegram."  In this document, he gave a basic outline of the Soviet mindset and how the United States may deal with that mindset.  The "X" article put him on the map and this is where a young brilliant member of the state department or a member of the military can come up with an idea that can be shaped into a strategy.  I do not have faith in our president to do carry this out but I do have faith there is a person who could stand up and help shape our mindless wanderings for the past twenty years since the end of the Cold War.  This is a dangerous time in history of the world.  The world needs a country to step up as we did after World War 2 and lead.  I agree with the statement Moses made above me in the comments that American debt needs to be controlled and our financial house in order and foreign policy will follow.  I welcome anyone to please step up and try to formulate a theory or strategy that can be expanded and made into a working document for the United States.

September 14, 2012 at 09:05

There is a grand strategy, but it falls more in the purview of history than policy, which is why policy junkies tend to miss it. Read God and Gold by Walter Russell Mead and then re-examine the proposition that the US has no grand strategy…

September 5, 2012 at 14:08

Actuall what USA requires is" Put own house in order". Good domestic policy  allows stable foreign policy. With US debt increasing exponentially, US is hijacked by mega companies and Americans are paying the debt on behalf of US govt. In my view strong economic and domestic polcy review is required for at least one presidential session and then focus on foreign policy- extended reach to global commons. Economically under debt, US cannot exert her influence on global politics. Trillions of dollars are being wasted in Afghanistan, if the same amount was to be spent of developing US economic policies and common US public, it would have reduced US debt and stabalized the country.

September 1, 2012 at 00:44

One of the problems with this is that too many policy wonks tend to focus on their small niches and fail to look at the big picture as a whole. Thanks for writing this article and for addressing this important issue.

July 26, 2012 at 14:27

Now Romney has picked on China as the villain in his presidency bid.He shd know better.  All US  president hopefuls   spout a harsh anti China tone.Once they assume office, the stark facts stare at him.
They need China on a number of issues. To treat China like in Mao's time is un realistic.Then China was weak and
the US could easily force China to do its will. It's different game now.. The Chines e aint going to usurp US leadership of the world. It's just to remind the US things in 2012 and from now on aint going to be the same as in 1996.

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