America’s Dangerous Drift

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America’s Dangerous Drift

The U.S. faces tremendous challenges at home and abroad. Without a grand strategy, America’s perilous drift is likely to continue, and worsen.

In light of today's enormous domestic and international challenges, the United States today needs, more than ever, an effective grand strategy. Without one, the nation is in a dangerous state of drift.

In the aftermath of the recent U.S. presidential elections and in the midst of grueling battles over spending and deficit crises, American politics is highly polarized with the electorate and their policymakers deeply divided on domestic issues.

Turning to foreign policy, the picture is equally troubling. The United States struggles without a coherent grand strategy, while the American people, its friends and allies, and competitors wonder what principles guide Washington's foreign policy. What, they must ask, does the United States want to achieve in its foreign policy, and what leadership role does it seek to play in this rapidly evolving world order.

Worse, many fail to grasp that grand strategy involves far more than foreign and national security matters. Grand strategy is precisely about the broader, if often ignored, context of building and reinforcing the domestic political and economic foundations of American national power.

Knowing full well the serious challenges facing the United States, there is no more pressing problem for the nation than to develop a grand strategy that gives policymakers and the public a clear, positive, and bipartisan vision of the principles and ideas that guide U.S. foreign policy. This strategy must articulate a vision for the U.S. that is more than the sum of the challenges the nation faces.

To be effective, America’s new strategy must reinforce the domestic foundations of American power, reassure friends and allies that American foreign policy embraces a prudent balance between our principles and ideals, and avoid the twin perils of strategic overreach or neglect.

While the challenges are daunting, failure is not an option.

In a series of essays over the next several weeks, I will discuss the current void in American grand strategy at precisely the moment when the world faces increasingly dangerous sources of disorder. These essays will define the purposes American grand strategy should strive to achieve, as the nation deals with a new set of international challenges. Next, the series will outline the main principles that define a new grand strategy for the United States, and then discuss how to put those principles into practice. Lastly, this series proposes that despite great challenges, America nevertheless has the will and determination to move toward greater clarity of purpose in its foreign policy.

Why America Needs a Grand Strategy

Simply put, grand strategy is a broad set of principles, beliefs, or ideas that govern the decisions and actions of a nation’s policymakers with public support on foreign policy. The need for grand strategy is particularly acute in the case of the United States today. Its extraordinary power and influence make it more necessary than ever for American actions to be guided by a coherent grand strategy. The logic is inescapable: no nation can operate without a grand strategy. Without one, the nation faces a singular danger: when its policymakers are tempted to take actions without the guidance that a clear, purposeful strategic framework provides, we will see confusion, shifting policies, and “drift.”

The failure to define a grand strategy and the problems it causes are not new, but the challenge is more urgent than ever. With the end of the Cold War, scholars and policymakers failed to formulate a successor to the grand strategy of containment. Policymakers instead adopted policies that relied on the residue of containment or, more commonly, on piecemeal, ad-hoc solutions to problems. The danger is that adhering to the obsolete strategy of containment will contribute to foreign policy failures.

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.”

Second, Russia is resurgent with a government and politics creeping inexorably toward what many see as authoritarianism. This shift under President Vladimir Putin with his “cult of personality” gradually dominates Russian society. Putin’s increasingly strident rhetoric toward the United States, past predatory energy policies towards Europe and support for authoritarian governments in Iran and Syria are sources of growing concern for states in Eurasia. Seeing the rise of yet another anti-democratic leader, many in Russia and elsewhere fear another era of hostility.

2. Destabilizing “Middle” Powers

The sources of disorder include the expected but nonetheless demanding challenge of destabilizing middle powers. Hardly a new problem, these smaller states are not simply proxies for larger adversaries, but represent powerful sources of disorder on their own. Such states threaten the West by undermining peace and security.

A prominent case today is Iran. Tehran’s nuclear weapon and missile programs and often strident and reckless rhetoric, threaten Israel and the United States – and could provoke other states in the region to develop their own nuclear deterrent. America now faces the delicate task of balancing between the West’s dependence on Middle East oil and the consequences of a military attack against Iran’s nuclear industry, particularly if Tehran unleashed terror groups after such an attack. Washington’s failure to be exquisitely clear about its intentions only makes matters worse.

North Korea is the perpetually difficult case. It’s isolated and insular regime, inexperienced leader Kim Jong-un, active ballistic missile and nuclear weapon tests, moribund domestic economy, prolific international trade in illicit goods, and demonstrated aptitude for winning diplomatic concessions from the international community – all underscore Pyongyang’s ability to create disorder.

Next is Pakistan. With Afghanistan slowly unraveling as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw, Pakistan remains an immensely dangerous case. The West sees political instability, active support for extremist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, and fears of its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of extremists.

Lastly, the civil war in Syria, which easily could escalate into a crisis involving Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, remains a powerful source of disorder. Tens of thousands of civilians have died, while Russia and China largely insulate President Bashar al-Assad’s government from United Nation’s sanctions. Syria sits astride a region with the potential to become a flashpoint for war.

3. Authoritarian Axis Rising

A third source of disorder for American grand strategy is the rising “authoritarian axis.” This axis or bloc describes an imperfect but still tangible coordination between such great powers as China and Russia, and the destabilizing smaller states of Iran, North Korea, Syria, and others.

Its foremost members, China and Russia, continue to forge stronger bonds that strengthen their strategic partnership. Recent rumored defense purchases such as advanced fighter jets and near silent diesel electric submarines along with support for nations like Iran, Syria, and others all point to dangerous sources of disorder that no nation can afford to disregard.

Another recipient of significant coordination among the axis powers, Iran, is a deeply worrisome source of disorder. Its radical ideology and virulent hostility toward the U.S. and Israel may well end in confrontation. As it moves closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, Iran’s language and actions remain so provocative that the West cannot indefinitely ignore its threats to annihilate Israel.

North Korea, under its new leader Kim Jung-un, is a worrisome, if only slightly less dangerous, source of disorder. It routinely threatens its neighbors with careless and reckless language, while its military and elite draw most of the nation’s scarce resources. North Korea’s benefactor is China, which provides food and oil, but is unwilling to rein in its provocative behavior. Pyongyang’s recent long-range rocket and nuclear test make it clear the “hermit kingdom,” with its past behavior of sharing such dangerous technologies with Syria and Iran, has destabilizing consequences for Northeast Asia.

4. Unexpected sources of disorder

Grand strategy must deal not just with the expected sources of global disorder, but it must guide states so that they know how to deal with the eternally difficult problem of the less predictable or totally unexpected sources of disorder. These pose fundamental problems for societies and the international community.

America’s grand strategy must guide policymakers who deal with the normal ebbs and flows in world politics. While such political shifts are routine, these can have destabilizing consequences when policymakers are not acutely mindful of the risks posed by powerful and often unexpected “sources of disorder.”

Foremost is the resurgence of extremists in Afghanistan. With U.S. forces withdrawing and the Taliban still a force to be reckoned with, Afghanistan risks sliding back into violence and terrible repression. Accelerating its deterioration was the U.S. announcement that its forces would leave no later than 2014, with approximately half of U.S. forces being withdrawn this year. Where once the Taliban believed they were losing, their resurgence is a stark reminder that they are seemingly biding their time until the U.S./NATO withdrawal.

Second, despite hopes for democracy in the Middle East, the Arab Spring, once so promising, is spiraling into violence. Egypt teeters on the edge of chaos as President Morsi’s gamble to gain unchecked power accelerates political confrontation and draws the country toward civil war. Meanwhile, Libya is a breeding ground for extremists while events in Mali point to the rise of al Qaeda and growing instability. Violence in Syria, costing tens of thousands of lives, shows no signs of abating.

While U.S. policy once rightly encouraged the democratic “spring,” what is Washington’s strategy as we watch these societies descend into the chaos and all-too-familiar authoritarianism from the past?

Three, global trade and rapid technological change flatten power relationships between individuals, firms, and states. With globalization altering power, American policymakers need a grand strategy, using soft and hard power, to help them manage unexpected developments in the public and private sectors. 

Fourth, American grand strategy must contend with the rise of new and unforeseen non-state actors whose ideas mobilize followers. Beyond its military and economic might, America’s “soft power” permits it to help shape a global community based on shared interests, universal values, and ideals. Working with non-governmental and civil-society actors, the United States must effectively communicate what values shape its foreign policy.

Policymakers also face the truly modern challenge of cyber warfare in the hands of non-state actors. Never before have non-state actors, groups, and movements possessed an instrument capable of inflicting such immense harm. One element of American grand strategy must consider how to deal with groups that could attack the physical and economic infrastructure of American society. Imagine if cyber hackers from an extremist organization cut off U.S. electric power during the winter, or hacked into the safety controls of a nuclear reactor. The old grand strategy, which focused on ideology and nuclear weapons, is irrelevant in the face of modern foreign and domestic challenges.

Policymakers also must contemplate self-generated sources of disorder. The United States, dangerously, has been adrift for more than two decades. A nation deeply divided politically faces the additional burden if it operates without a positive,reassuring, and bipartian strategy to guide its foreign policy. How can policymakers expend resources – the nation’s “blood and treasure” – when it is unclear why they are doing so and for what purposes? How can policymakers ask the public to support policies when people rightly wonder what, precisely, is the purpose of American foreign policy? Why should we, much less others, make sacrifices when the fundamental goals of American foreign policy are unknown?

An inert or decaying grand strategy, when facing powerful sources of global disorder, presents a truly serious problem. Can the United States effectively manage challenges from great powers, middle powers, authoritarian states acting in rough concert, and unexpected problems when it lacks a coherent, positive, and compelling vision for its grand strategy? Suffice it to say, the answer is no.

Ultimately, the sources of disorder and the inevitable crises that will be spawned will compel the United States to formulate a new grand strategy – one better aligned and more precisely attuned to the risks and opportunities we face. It is far better to do so now than to wait until a crisis strikes.

In the end, grand strategy is about much more than responding to problems. To be effective, it must embrace the fundamental reasons and motivations that shape how and why the United States engages in foreign policy.

Just as there can be no substitute for having a coherent and purposeful grand strategy, the failure to define one produces an immensely dangerous drift in foreign policy.