Maybe the United States doesn’t need a strategy.
There have long been good reasons to favor a strategy of “muddling through.” The United States government, with its four year Presidential cycle and general public indifference to foreign affairs, has never been particularly well-suited to long-term strategic thinking. “Isolation” and even “containment” arguably resulted from the accretion of a series of small decisions, rather than from strategic forethought. And one event that most assuredly fell under into the definition of proactive grand strategy, the invasion of Iraq, is now widely believed to have been an expensive, destructive failure.
In the shadow of Iraq, “muddling through,” “retrenchment,” or “restraint” all look a bit more attractive. A recent post by Xavier Marquez gives some historical heft to the argument for strategic inscrutability by examining the career of Francisco Franco. Marquez suggests that Franco survived for such a long time because of the coalition he represented was “inherently contradictory, yet could only act through him.” Inscrutability, the capacity not to make a decision, or even to hint at what he really wanted, allowed Franco to manage internal divisions and external opponents.
Marquez’ point emphasizes the “strategic” part of grand strategy. Strategic decision-making is, by definition, part of a game that includes more than one player. While some games favor the player who chooses first (and thus defines the terms under which the other players decide), not all do. Not deciding, but rather of waiting until the other players have revealed their intentions and committed themselves to particular courses of action, maximizes flexibility and maintains strategic options.
A different way of thinking about the problem would be to suggest that proactive strategic action is suitable for some contexts, but not for others. At the end of the Cold War, as at the end of World War II, the United States possessed such an immense advantage over any potential competitor that it could enjoy the luxury of tipping its grand strategic hand, and taking assertive steps to structure the international playing field. As the world shifts in a multipolar direction, that moment is lost, and it becomes more sensible to adopt a reactive strategic posture, one that forces revisionist states to, well, make clear their grounds for revision.
If this is correct, then it is not only possible for the United States to shift to a reactive posture; it’s potentially imperative for Washington to do so. This is virtually the opposite of all the advice strategic theorists give for U.S. foreign policy, which almost invariably focuses on ways to manage the strategic environment. In fact, the United States has some history with strategic “inscrutability” in the Pacific, from the ambiguous relationship with Taiwan to the cautious approach to the Senkaku Island dispute. And there is some evidence to suggest that allowing the other players to commit has already paid off; for the most part, simply allowing China to do what China wishes to do has resulted in the most aggressive balancing on the part of regional states.
Deciding not to decide is likely more difficult than it sounds, if only because of the constant howling from analysts demanding a “strategy” and allies demanding a commitment. Nevertheless, forcing the rest of the table to tip its collective hand may be the best long term “strategy” that the United States could pursue.