A Roadmap for American Grand Strategy

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A Roadmap for American Grand Strategy

Mapping a grand strategy to strengthen and enhance America’s role in the world.

(Please see Part I of our three part series on American Grand Strategy: America's Dangerous Drift.)

Part Two: The United States desperately needs to formulate a grand strategy that reinforces the domestic foundations of American power while providing strategic guidance and direction to the nation’s actions in foreign policy. America must adapt with new ideas, tools and innovations if it is going to meet the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing world. To be successful, this strategy must embrace several overarching themes. 

First, the United States must remain committed to playing a leadership role. While a deep and painful economic downturn followed by a slow recovery has dimmed the American public’s interest in global leadership, the costs of inaction are simply too great to contemplate. America has led in building the global order that we see today, but the image of a world without strong American engagement is equally dismal and potentially catastrophic.

Consider the chaos enveloping Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Or, consider Iran’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, or the pressure on states in Eurasia as Russia and China become increasingly assertive. The list of foreign policy problems calling for American leadership is long and growing ever longer. 

Americans, however, have good reason to be tired of carrying the mantle of global leadership. Peoples around the world continue to benefit from the public goods that America contributes in countless ways. Now, the nation has arrived at a crossroads where America must engage others in the task of leadership. From global terrorism to climate change, the world’s problems are too great for America to confront alone.

As rising nations gain regional and global influence, the international community must ask more from them. America must engage growing powers such as China to take on increased global responsibility. Worryingly, there is a long list of cases in which the United States has drifted without a grand strategy. But a grand strategy is precisely what America needs if its foreign policy is to provide clear direction and exercise leadership.

Second, American grand strategy must promote a positive, hopeful, and optimistic vision for the world that it seeks to build. It cannot rest simply on what the nation wants to prevent, such as proliferation or genocide or extremism, which invoke reaction and crisis management. Instead, Americans must focus on ‘achieving.’ For too long, U.S. policy has emphasized preventing or responding to such problems as extremism, proliferation, and roguish behavior. We must return to the time in America’s history when the nation sought to achieve peace and prosperity, democracy and free markets, shared responsibility among nations, and the will to tackle pressing problems.

As with earlier eras, the United States has not been and cannot credibly be a proponent of radical change or policies that seek to redefine the international order. Even in the face of a monolithic ideological adversary during the Cold War, Washington was the defender of the status quo values based on democracy, freedom and prosperity. In effect, grand strategy should call for more than solving problems; it must advance an agenda that builds peace and security.

This logic holds today. American grand strategy must promote a world in which states are permitted and encouraged to pursue peace and prosperity. As the hallmark of such an era, Washington’s grand strategy must be governed by both moderation and balance.

Third, a grand strategy will be effective only if it commands broad and unequivocal support from the American public and their policymakers. The vision for foreign policy must reflect the society’s essential values – its political culture and national identity. Beyond the overall lack of vision, the single greatest weakness of American grand strategy in 2013 is the strident and destructive tone of partisanship that envelops its domestic and foreign policies. Simply put, a politically divided or ideologically polarized America cannot provide a positive vision for leadership.

Fourth, the nation is long past the age when American grand strategy can pursue “cookie-cutter” or “school solutions” to challenges. What I am proposing is the hardly radical but often overlooked principle that American grand strategy should be, above all else, agile and flexible as it responds to the demands of the American people and the challenges of a rapidly evolving world. America desperately needs principles that help policymakers adapt policies to fit widely varying challenges – in effect, to move beyond the same old, tired solutions to new problems.

Until the present economic downturn, the United States unquestionably had – and ultimately still has – far greater economic strength than its nearest competitors combined. But this state of affairs is at risk. About the constantly escalating fiscal cliff crisis, as Fareed Zakaria recently warned, “looming past the cliff, however, is a deep chasm that poses a much greater challenge — the retooling of the country's economy, society, and government necessary for the United States to perform effectively in the twenty-first century.”

If Washington continues to grossly mismanage the U.S. economy and produce annual trillion dollar deficits, the inevitable consequence will be to diminish American economic power. If this trend continues, the American people must contemplate living in a radically different, and for many, a dangerously unfamiliar one.

In this climate, Washington needs a more agile grand strategy, which rebuilds the domestic foundations of the nation’s power, while actively confronting forces, both foreign and domestic, that weaken international peace and security. The United States must also commit itself to building a world in which other states contribute to regional leadership, while working collaboratively toward common goals.

These principles of reinforcing the domestic foundations of power, exercising strong leadership, and practicing greater collaboration often exist in tension. However, it is vital for the nation to develop a framework that guides how it deals with competing challenges at home and abroad. Neither the public nor their policymakers should assume that America’s supposed preeminence will exist in perpetuity. In the end, the United States needs a strategy that encourages positive American leadership and global security, while balancing the need for all states to work together to rebuild and reinforce the foundations of peace, security, and prosperity. It did so before, and can do so again.


Principle 1:  Reinforce domestic foundations of American national power

Just as U.S. grand strategy needs to look outward, it also must look inward to address the problems facing American society. For too long, scholars and policymakers preoccupied themselves with the foreign policy and national security elements of grand strategy. Sadly, most current thinking about foreign policy operates almost exclusively through the lens of security and military affairs.

However, at this moment the “grand strategy imperative” calls for policymakers to define America’s roles and responsibilities in a less hegemonic and, perhaps more humble, demeanor. To reinforce American leadership abroad, the United States must demonstrate that its grand strategy is as much about devoting attention and resources to reinforcing the domestic foundations of power as it is about conducting foreign policy. Unfortunately, modern policymakers often forget this most basic of principles.

Policymakers and scholars must remember that grand strategy embraces vastly more than foreign policy. American influence derives precisely from the free-market economic underpinnings that give the nation such immense influence – often permitting it to marshal tremendous power when it is necessary to do so. If America is to remain a global leader, as many Americans believe it should, then it must recommit itself first to reinforcing the domestic foundations of America’s national power. To express this another way: When the nation ignores the domestic foundations of power, it will court disasters, often unfolding in slow motion, as the will of American society lags behind its commitments.

With global powers standing in ruins after World War II, the United States used its national power as a leading actor on an unprecedented scale to rebuild many of its closest allies today. Throughout the 20th century, America also built its own world-class infrastructure – a national network of industries, roads, bridges, schools, electric power grids, and energy infrastructure.

Without that investment and the national consensus it symbolized, the United States could not have been such an effective force on the world stage. Infrastructure is as an important instrument of American national power for competing economically as are armies, navies, and air forces for defending its interests.

Nor can policymakers and scholars forget the critical role of education, health care, and social safety systems for ensuring broad opportunities for all Americans. U.S. grand strategy cannot be effective until we restore the infrastructure and social safety nets that assure all Americans of the opportunity to compete and succeed. America's global role derives from the strength of its people, its ability to be innovative, and the entrepreneurial spirit that Americans harness to solve the most daunting challenges.

This, however, is not a prescription for throwing “more money than god” at problems. Simply spending money is unlikely to reinforce the foundations of American power. For that, the nation needs a political consensus, largely absent from the national debate, and resources. It is time to rebuild the American spirit of innovation, hard work, ingenuity, and collective action.

Such considerations, while often subordinated or ignored altogether in the national debate, are as central to foreign policy as just about everything else we do. These ideas, however, seem always to fall by the wayside as debates about foreign policy and national security compete for policymakers’ time and attention.

For the public, the daily onslaught of media reports – Iran, Egypt, North Korea, Russia, China, European Union, energy, or the crisis of the moment – shift vital attention away from the domestic sources of power that define American influence and are central to its grand strategy. Rebuilding the national foundations of American power, on which grand strategy rests, is essential to dealing with a world whose innumerable risks and opportunities demand American leadership.

To be direct, emphasizing the domestic foundations of power is not a call for the United States to withdraw from the world or see its leadership decline. It is a call for realigning the nation’s grand strategy. With this realignment, American policymakers and the public once again can, strategically and effectively, rebalance how the nation allocates resources to meet the demands imposed by foreign and domestic challenges and opportunities.

This is the right time, as friends and allies urge the United States to maintain an active leadership role, for the American people and their policymakers to realign the nation’s policies.

Principle 2: Reinforce American leadership to restrain sources of disorder

The sense of drift in American foreign policy relates directly to the failure to define a grand strategy for the nation. As I discussed last week (see part I), this is occurring precisely at the moment when the world faces increasingly dangerous sources of disorder. The rise of great powers, middle powers, authoritarianism, and unexpected sources of disorder undermine the peaceful and secure world that the United States historically seeks to build. These sources of disorder pose a direct challenge to American leadership.

Building on the first principle, we must think of defining American grand strategy in terms of actively restraining the forces, actions, and ideas that contribute to instability, insecurity, and chaos. Since the world remains a dangerous and unpredictable, it is strategically necessary for the United States to remain engaged – to lead on occasion, so to speak, “from the front.”

This principle of American grand strategy must rest on more than simple rhetoric. Its purpose should be to make the world safer, more prosperous, secure, and free. Washington must exude a sense of strength and purpose. By ‘strength,’ I do not mean in the classic military sense, but strength in using all of the nation’s tools – political, economic and diplomatic – to help build a better world. For its grand strategy to succeed, the United States must demonstrate in word and deed a sense of vision as well as the judgment and power to use its strength to promote a just and peaceful world.

Simply put, America needs to stand for and defend principles that promote human rights and dignity, equality for all peoples – men and women – freedom of expression, free enterprise, and fair elections. These values are consistent with the historical principles of American foreign policy that existed well before the Cold War and will endure well beyond this and subsequent generations.

This principle of America’s leadership role emphasizes how essential it is to discourage states or actors from taking actions that harm the interests of the United States or other free societies. In promoting these values, American grand strategy has many tools at its disposal. It can withhold political or economic support from, use military power against, or build alliances to confront, actors whose behaviors undermine peace, security, and prosperity.

Principle 3: Reinforce alliances and partnerships

For political and economic reasons, this is precisely the moment when the United States faces a new imperative in its grand strategy. Its challenge is to formulate a grand strategy that reinforces America’s influence and ability to exercise a leadership role, but without going so far in the opposite direction that the nation effectively disengages from the world – or creates the impression that it is doing so. If it creates a leadership vacuum, the United States will face all manner of risks, challenges, and truly bad outcomes.

While some believe that the United States is in decline and must scale back its involvement, my own view is that an enduring element of American grand strategy must be to reinforce the role of alliances and partnerships. This powerful and enduringly positive principle should be central to and wholly enshrined in every facet of the nation’s grand strategy.

In practice, Washington’s credibility and influence increase when it willingly demonstrates its support and encouragement for other states to exercise leadership. Washington only gains when it shows greater support for multilateralism. It must learn to use existing international institutions, while building new ones, as part of its strategy for promoting states and actors to work together to restrain the dangers to international security.

One corollary to the principle of greater multilateralism in American grand strategy is that Washington should no longer view challenges as essentially “American problems.” The new lens through which to view American grand strategy is to strengthen alliances and partnerships so that more nations, and not just the United States, work to solve the world’s greatest problems.

We all know, if occasionally ignore, that American power is limited. Policymakers in Washington will learn that they can accomplish vastly more once they enshrine American grand strategy with the value of collaborating with states and institutions who share a commitment to building a peaceful, stable, and secure world.

Whether diminishing nuclear proliferation, preventing genocide, providing humanitarian assistance, restraining extremism, or confronting economic policies that threaten the global economy, the United States and its allies will be better able to build a more secure and prosperous world when they work together.

Policymakers and the public should not forget the eminently practical and straightforward reason for building stronger alliances and partnerships. In practice, it is no longer necessary or appropriate for Washington’s grand strategy to rely on diplomatic domination or playing the role of referee of last resort.

In reality, the United States cannot afford to exempt itself from global leadership. The time has come, despite being mired in an anemic and slow recovery from the "Great Recession," for the United States to exercise greater world leadership. This is crucial when one looks at the challenges posed by China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela – and increasingly Egypt in the highly unstable Middle East.

However, the counterpoint to this principle of leadership is eminently practical: the United States does not have unlimited power – it cannot do everything, everywhere, all of the time, for the rest of the world. Attempts to “do everything” only further erode the American public’s support, as the public asks why the nation is carrying the burden while other states apparently get a “free ride.”

The two extremes – where America engages less, as expressed by “leading from behind,” or where America takes the lead on all issues – are equally unacceptable and impractical. This is the precisely right time, after nearly seven decades, for America to reinforce its alliances and partnerships – new and old – so that other states and institutions can rise to the occasion to share the responsibility and burden of leadership. The United States rebuilt states and regions after World War II and has protected them for fifty years, now is the time for those states to join in efforts to resolve global problems.

The practical challenge for U.S. grand strategy is how to balance working in concert with others in the international community, while keeping one’s options open in those crucial moments when the United States might decide that it is necessary to act alone.

Grand strategy, if it is to be effective, must use principles such as these to help build a world in which states are permitted and encouraged to pursue peace and prosperity.

Toward Building Peace and Security

Ultimately, the central question is toward what ends should the United States rebuild the domestic foundations of its power, exercise stronger leadership, and collaborate with alliances and partnerships? Put another way, what is the fundamental goal for American grand strategy?

When reflecting on American history, my strongest inclination is that the primary goals of American foreign policy are and always have been to build peace and security. Such a world is the greatest legacy that the United States can aspire to achieve.

This logic holds today. For now, however, the nation does not have the resources or domestic support to build democracy and freedom in other nations. This is especially true as America pivots away from entanglements and nation building episodes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since World War II, America has taken the lead in creating a more peaceful world order. One reason is selfish: a peaceful international system, which keeps threats and sources of disorder to a minimum, permits the United States to pursue its vital national interest in seeing democracies grow, prosper, and build a vibrant global order.

Let us remember the world that FDR envisioned when he outlined his iconic four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In declaring freedom from fear to be a human right, FDR positioned the United States to lead in efforts to reduce armaments and dissuade aggressive nations from threatening and bringing harm to peaceful states.

American political and economic power and diplomatic and military might are essential instruments in building the peace and security that must prevail if Americans and all states are to strive to live in a world, as FDR envisioned, free from fear.

These principles of grand strategy are designed to build such a world.