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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief