Dr. William Martel
Dr. William Martel
"When our economic strength is in doubt – the U.S. cannot be a serious economic power when it is running $1 trillion+ deficits each year for as far as the eye can see – the United States will undermine its credibility to be a serious player on the world stage."

Dr. William Martel


When it comes to American grand strategy, many would argue America has had no overarching grand strategy since the Cold War. What would you attribute this to? Would you consider America’s “War on Terror” a grand strategy?

Sadly, I would agree. Since the end of the Cold War, America has struggled to define a grand strategy to govern its foreign policy. From the great clarity of containment to the muddle of today, the contrast could not be starker. The problem is that without a grand strategy, the United States is unclear about what its interests and priorities are. And worse, policymakers have no clear sense of what, precisely, they should do on a daily basis in foreign policy.

The source of the failure to define a grand strategy falls on the shoulders of policymakers and scholars, who were so enamored of containment that they failed to move beyond it and to conceptualize a world in which policies are defined by a far more diverse set of challenges than one central adversary.

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America’s war of terror or extremism was less a grand strategy than a temporary response to an attack on our homeland. Unfortunately, the political unanimity behind the post-9/11 policies has eroded steadily in recent years.

Since a grand strategy provides guidance to policymakers and the American people as to what our foreign policy seeks to achieve, the failure for twenty years to define a grand strategy since the end of the Cold War and containment constitutes a serious weakness in American foreign policy. Moving forward, we must articulate our vision for America’s role in the world, discuss how we plan to achieve that vision, and define the core principles that will guide our actions. Anything less is abdicating America’s responsibilities.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Commerce noted that America’s economy declined by 0.1 percent in the final quarter of last year. How will economic matters factor into the formulation of American grand strategy in an era of constrained resources?

Perhaps the fundamental element of American grand strategy is our economic strength. Too often, policymakers and scholars fixate on the national security and foreign policy dimensions of grand strategy, while ignoring the fact that generations of American policymakers worry perhaps as much about the economic foundations of American power as they do about our foreign policies.

What has made the United States a global leader is its economic and technological power as well as its defense of freedom, democracy, and free markets. At the end of the Cold War, the capitalist structure of free markets and low barriers to trade and innovation remained the enduring pathway for the world, and it has been led by America.

Now, we remain mired in a deep economic downturn, which raises questions in the short term about the nation’s ability and willingness to act decisively as a leader in world affairs. When our economic strength is in doubt – the U.S. cannot be a serious economic power when it is running $1 trillion+ deficits each year for as far as the eye can see – the United States will undermine its credibility to be a serious player on the world stage.

One gets the sense that many states increasingly worry that the United States is unwilling to lead – hence, the allure in Washington of the phrase “leading from behind.” Worse, a world without American leadership is vastly more dangerous and unstable. In order to project and attain a leading role in global affairs, we must be strong economically, and that begins with rebuilding our economy and restoring growth.

As you have noted in lectures as well as in the press, American foreign policy goals — in many respects — have seen bipartisan support. Yet, today Americans are as divided politically as ever. Is there a set of goals or principles that can build a positive, bipartisan vision for American grand strategy?

A recent analysis by Gallup Politics reported that 2012 is tied as the most polarizing year in Gallup polling records. Whether in domestic politics or foreign policy, America is intensely divided – and yet policymakers at all levels seem unwilling or unable to heal this divide. An America that is polarized politically is unable to conduct foreign policy on a bipartisan basis. Without bipartisan support, the United States cannot conduct a coherent or effective foreign policy.

Consider the swings in American foreign policy – from intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq to withdrawals from both conflicts – all within the last couple of years. Now more than ever, America’s future has no time for cynics or partisan politics.

What strikes me is the desperate need for a coherent grand strategy, which rests on three principles. First, the United States must reinforce the domestic foundations of its national power. Second, the United States must exercise global leadership where it is most needed. Third, the United States must work more with other states, allies, and partners to build a more secure, peaceful, free, and prosperous world. These three principles provide broad guidance and direction to foreign policy, without appealing to the partisan sentiments of today. Most importantly, they are principles that I hope can endure the test of time, and help strengthen America’s ability to confront challenges and grasp new opportunities.

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