After the Cold War, policymakers believed the world was less dangerous. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, some held that communism’s collapse would unleash the “end of history.” This belief in a benevolent future masqueraded as hope that the world, guided by liberal democracy and free markets, would become a more peaceful, stable, and better place.
Despite challenges in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the hopes for a more benign world lasted about a decade. This relative peace, shattered by 9/11, signaled the start of a struggle against extremism. During the last decade, the international community has floundered in the face of a seemingly never-ending stream of unexpected and destabilizing challenges. Many of these events have affirmed how desperately America needs a grand strategy to guide how it deals with unexpected geopolitical shifts and surprises.
Ideally, debates about grand strategy and how to address challenges should occur at a higher conceptual level. Sadly, however, largely tactical considerations have dominated such debates. When specific decisions and policies are unguided by bedrock principles of grand strategy, U.S. policies will feel more haphazard or random, which is a recipe for ineffective and, at times, self-defeating policies.
The United States lacks a strategic framework that defines its role in world, what the country seeks to achieve, and how to bring that role into balance with the nation’s resources and public will.
Above all else, Americans need to answer one basic question: what principles should govern U.S. policy in an increasingly unstable world?
While by no means a panacea, a grand strategy will help the United States understand what threats are inevitable, which ones really matter, and how to deal with them. Where states once faced singular ideological, political, or military threats, today’s problems flow from complex and overlapping sources of disorder. Furthermore, modern threats and challenges, ranging from rising great powers to unpredictable non-state actors, do not lend themselves to the simple guidance offered by earlier grand strategies. Unless American policies toward both current and future problems are governed by a grand strategy, U.S. policies will be disorderly, incoherent, and ineffective.
Sources of Disorder
Conditions in 2013 directly put at risk the peaceful and secure world American policymakers and the public historically hoped to build. These sources of disorder, often defined by unique circumstances, fall into several categories.
1. Great Powers
Foremost among these is the threat posed by other great powers to American interests and global stability. The rise of China undoubtedly is the most prominent example. Beijing’s growing economy, the world’s second largest, with its increasingly competent military and assertive foreign policy, signal China is a power to be reckoned with. States in Asia rightly worry about the consequences for security if China’s rise occurs in the face of America’s “drift.”