Does U.S. Need Grand Strategy?

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Does U.S. Need Grand Strategy?

A grand strategy might be good for headlines, but the days of railing against an “Evil Empire” are behind us.

No offense to Rosa Brooks, who laments in Foreign Policy over Barack Obama’s supposed failure to provide a “grand strategy,” but it seems to me that the administration is doing just fine.

It’s true that U.S. foreign policy can’t be summed up succinctly or in flashy headlines, but the broad thrust of working to counter future threats is a step in the right direction. No, we don’t have talk like that of Reagan’s Cold War “Evil Empire” challenge or even George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” But the United States has been placed on a clear course of shifting U.S. attention toward the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific as it winds down the two conflicts that have dominated the past decade.

America exists in a complex, multi-threat world, and there simply isn’t a “grand strategy” that neatly encapsulates all the challenges it faces. Grand strategies can undoubtedly sometimes be a good thing, and I sometimes personally wish the United States could craft a buzz-worthy foreign policy mission statement that it could confidently plug around the world. However, such a singular idea needs a singular global challenge, one that can rally not just Americans, but other nations to a universal threat.  

For now, at least, it’s just not there.

That’s not to say that America doesn’t face serious challenges overseas – it does. China is quickly developing military capabilities that seem aimed at denying U.S. forces entry into any combat zone (the Anti-Access or the much ballyhooed A2/AD that we love to write about). Iran also appears to have a similar strategy in mind, hence the increased U.S. military focus on these parts of the world. Today, therefore, the Department of Defense press conference and white paper further illustrates the United States’ efforts to move away from the wars of the past decade to focus on these new developments.

This shift isn’t something new – U.S. forces have been moving into the Pacific since the George W. Bush administration, a shift that has been continued and fleshed out by the Obama administration, including in Secretary of State Clinton’s article in Foreign Policy declaring the U.S. intention to adopt a more “Pacific-based” approach to international affairs. Obama followed this up with a visit to Australia to announce increasing collaboration, as well as to attend the East Asia Summit, where he pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  All this might not fit neatly on an 8×10 postcard, much less in a punchy headline, but it sounds like a strategy to me.

Yet the United States also faces challenges at home, including the ongoing threat of terrorism and an extremely fragile economic recovery.  The challenges the United States faces in 2012, then, are real but multifaceted.

A neatly packaged grand strategy worked well in the Cold War. One could even make a good argument the “War on Terror” was a good buzz phrase for its time. But in 2012, The United States doesn’t face one giant, present threat, and it is therefore looking to the future, and what it may face in different parts of the world and at home. Of course, Obama may not be making the case clearly enough for some, or he might be on the wrong track altogether – but those are different issues. In the meantime, a strategy has clearly been crafted.

But if you are looking for a post-it note foreign policy how about this: life’s complicated.