Why America Needs a Grand Strategy

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Why America Needs a Grand Strategy

Failure to formulate a grand strategy will only further fuel talk of American decline. That’s no more so the case than it is for Asia.

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.

Predictably, such linear approaches aren’t terribly useful – often putting forward fairly prosaic, “school solutions” to problems. Facing today’s global disorder, we have moved well beyond the point where policymakers and societies can rely on old solutions to new problems.

Rather than using the tired approaches of focusing on states, issues, and regions that threaten U.S. interests, I’d like to outline an alternative approach. The first step in formulating a grand strategy, whose principles will be outlined in a second piece, is to categorize the fragmented, fragile, and unstable world into what I call “sources of disorder.”

In the end, these categories will help policymakers overcome the current confusion by establishing the broad outlines of a coherent American grand strategy.

Policymakers must ensure that grand strategy deals with complexities while providing guidance that helps them formulate policies for dealing with the sources of disorder. Such disorder has disoriented our vision of policy and demoralized the present generation of policymakers who have failed to formulate a coherent grand strategy.

Grand strategy should help the state deal with the expected ebbs and flows in world politics. While such shifts are routine in the vicissitudes of geopolitics, these have destabilizing consequences for policymakers who must be mindful of several sources of disorder in 2012.

Foremost among these changes is the threat of rising states that challenge American power. The rise of China undoubtedly is the most prominent example. Beijing’s growing economy, the second largest in the world, increased spending on defense, and growing global footprint in development and energy signal that China is a power to be reckoned with.

Then we turn to the case of a resurgent Russia. Under President Vladimir Putin’s tutelage, Russia’s increasingly strident rhetoric toward the United States, predatory energy policies toward Europe, and reckless language about nuclear weapons cause deep concern in Eurasia. Working closely with China, the emerging Sino-Russian axis uses the United Nations to stymie U.S.-led initiatives to deal with Syria and Iran. Some leaders in Asia and Europe fear that Russia’s power is rising, the United States is weak and distracted, and we could be seeing the dawn of a second Cold War.

To the category of the expected but destabilizing challenges we must add a new dimension. This is the possibility that small states, which aren’t simply acting as proxies for larger adversaries, can be sources of disorder that threaten the great powers and undermine global security.

Iran offers a prominent case. With its nuclear weapon and missile programs and harsh rhetoric toward Israel and the United States, states fear that Tehran’s reckless policies could foment war and devastation. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt worry that a nuclear-armed Iran will become a regional hegemon, leading to hints that they might develop nuclear weapons. With the West’s dependence on Middle East oil and growing concerns of a military attack against Iran’s nuclear complex, Tehran in response could contribute to disorder if it unleashed extremist groups following such a military attack.

North Korea remains a perpetually difficult case. It’s isolated and insular regime, inexperienced leader Kim Jong-un, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, moribund domestic economy, prolific international trade in illicit goods, and demonstrated aptitude for winning diplomatic concessions from the international community – highlight Pyongyang’s ability to create disorder.

Pakistan remains an immensely dangerous case, which has an exceptional ability to foment instability and war. The forces of political destabilization, active support for extremists such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the West’s existential fears of its arsenal falling into the hands of extremists – all constitute sources of disorder that could drag Washington into a crisis.

The central problem for grand strategy facing these sources of geopolitical disorder is an eminently practical one: how do we manage the challenges from great powers and lesser states, since both categories can harm U.S. interests?

Surprises and Uncertainties

In contrast to expected geopolitical challenges, grand strategy must deal with a second set of challenges. These involve paradigmatic changes in political and social structures that magnify the problems caused by individual states.

After the Cold War, policymakers believed the world would be less dangerous. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, some argued that communism’s collapse would unleash the “end of history.” This view masked the hope that the world, guided by liberal democracy and free markets, would become more peaceful.

This hiatus in the attention we paid to global threats lasted for about a decade. But the relative peace was shattered by 9/11, which signaled the beginning of  the war against extremism. During the last decade, the international community has floundered in a continuous stream of unexpected and destabilizing developments. Not surprisingly, recent events affirm that grand strategy must prepare states for dealing with unexpected surprises and gradual geopolitical shifts.

Consider the unexpected sources of disorder today.

We face the possibility of the resurgence of extremists in Afghanistan and its political collapse. What happens in Afghanistan is fundamentally uncertain given widespread corruption in its government, the Taliban’s enduring commitment, and growing doubts about Washington’s resolve.

The emergence of the Arab Spring and the challenges of democratization in societies ruled by authoritarianism and extremism is an unexpected development in foreign policy.We are relearning that revolutions evolve in unpredictable directions in developing societies, and that democratization is difficult and uncertain.

To the category of unexpected surprises and uncertainties, architects of grand strategy must expand their thinking to include developments in the global economy. For decades economic considerations were subordinated to political and military considerations, but today economic issues are central to grand strategy.

The modern global economy presents the possibility of another paradigmatic shift in the world. In 2012, America faces deep economic problems, high unemployment, and the most anemic economic recovery since the Great Depression. During those decades since the 1930s, the economic dimension of grand strategy was not foremost in the minds of policymakers. But that has changed as economic disorder puts the global economy, prosperity, and peace at risk.

Europe faces an unparalleled crisis. In the Eurozone, countries such as Greece confront economic collapse, political violence and social disorder, and possible departure from the European economic and monetary union. As a result of globalization, economic crises can ripple across the globe with unprecedented speed impacting all societies.

In Asia, policymakers must wonder whether China’s growth will prove sustainable or whether it will produce another economic bubble. As an export-driven economy, China’s political stability depends heavily on a healthy global economy and the ability of other countries to purchase Chinese goods. As a result of dense webs of economic interdependence with China, any failure in China’s economy will have devastating global consequences.

Grand strategy must deal with another new category, which falls somewhere between the expected and unexpected.

While policymakers assumed that technology and globalization would substantially affect the world, understanding and predicting how exactly those changes would influence geopolitics is not a science. Such changes will continue for the foreseeable future and while we still don’t know the exact effects in the long term, we can be confident that they will be profound. Indeed, we can already observe the emergence of game-changing trends.

Facing an era of stunning progress in internet and communication technologies, and the increasing affordability and accessibility of technologies in general, policymakers must formulate a grand strategy that helps them deal with an era in which power relationships – between individuals, firms, and states – are gradually flattened.

States seem somewhat less influential, as the emergence of new technologies gives non-state actors greater ability to disrupt security. Consider the risks posed by weapons of mass destruction and cyber warfare in the hands of non-state actors.

Grand strategy must be able to deal with increasing domestic and international pressure for governments to be transparent on virtually all policy matters. However, policymakers need to guard state secrets and protect sensitive information vital to the state’s security, its population, and its citizens and soldiers abroad.

Several other conditions further complicate the formulation of grand strategy. One is the tension between wanting to act in concert with the international community while keeping one’s options open.

This principle is evident with the U.S. strategy toward Iran as Washington seeks to bolster our relationship with the members of the P5+1 group, while preserving the ability to act alone.

Consider the deep and enduring political polarization in Washington that complicates and paralyzes U.S. decision-making. While the United States once conducted its foreign policy on a bipartisan basis, we now see divisions on virtually all issues. For now, Washington has failed to move beyond this polarized environment, which puts its ability to act with one voice on foreign policy at risk.

Last, there are several global flashpoints that can provoke dangerous escalatory conflicts beyond their localized origins. Despite the desire for peace, the potential for armed clashes remains high, as unchecked areas of fragility could draw states into crises.

In Asia, an India-Pakistan conflict could involve the United States and China as could a crisis between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. A crisis with North Korea could draw in China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

In the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear and missile programs constitute a flashpoint that could involve the United States, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The same logic applies to crises involving Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Anxiety Without Grand Strategy

When societies conduct foreign policy in the midst of disorder and act without a coherent grand strategy, they naturally will fall prey to anxieties. How could states, which face an increasingly disordered world, and yet lack a strategy to guide their actions, feel or act otherwise? Disorder without strategy is a recipe for disaster.

To start, Americans generally want to exercise leadership, but it’s unclear whether the United States is willing and able to provide that leadership. Worse, it’s difficult to formulate a grand strategy when we do not have a coherent framework for relating the arc of problems to world politics.

The United States will remain in intellectual limbo until we come to grips with building a grand strategy that can deal with the sources of disorder. Beyond the usual domestic political differences, one source of political polarization in Washington is deep uncertainty about what really matters in foreign policy.

Americans are especially vulnerable to weariness from the daily grind of foreign policy, particularly when their actions are not guided by a positive vision of foreign policy. For signs of weariness, according to public opinion polls in June 2011, only 11 percent of Americans believed the U.S. should be the world’s policeman. In 2012, 69 percent favor the use of military force overseas only when U.S. security is threatened.

Dangerously, the United States has been adrift for more than two decades, operating without a positive and reassuring vision for its foreign policy. How can policymakers expend resources – by which I mean “blood and treasure” – when it’s not clear why they are doing so and for what purposes?

Americans clearly are tired of war and economic hard times. Beyond this decade of war, preceded by more than four decades of the Cold War, World War II, and World War I – the American people devoted virtually all of the twentieth century fighting wars, hot and cold, and providing global leadership, often well beyond what other states were willing or able to provide.

Without a vision of what to accomplish in foreign policy – the Holy Grail of grand strategy – it is a virtual law of nature that societies lose focus, a sense of purpose, and strategic momentum. What happens next is a sense of perpetual drift, as foreign policy swings from fighting wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) to public discontent with such involvement. In 2012, 56 percent support the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014.

Last, the failure to develop a grand strategy fuels debates about America’s decline. The United States faces grinding wars without end, a deep economic crisis, the emergence of authoritarian powers such as China and Russia (perhaps as the leaders of a new authoritarian axis with Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela), deep worries about the future, and no clear sense of purpose. Is it any wonder that the American people and their leaders wonder whether they should bear the mantle of global leadership?

Dr. William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: Tufts University. He is the recent author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.