Daniel W. Drezner

Waiting for Kennan….

Waiting for Kennan….

So I see that Jackson Diehl’s Washington Post column attracted a lot of eyeballs yesterday.  He argued that Obama thinks that the same things that were important 25 years ago are important now.  Diehl closes with the following:

[T]his administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy – or strategists. Its top foreign-policy makers are a former senator, a Washington lawyer and a former Senate staffer. There is no Henry Kissinger, no Zbigniew Brzezinski, no Condoleezza Rice; no foreign policy scholar.

Instead there is Obama, who likes to believe that he knows as much or more about policy than any of his aides – and who has been conspicuous in driving the strategies on nuclear disarmament and Israeli settlements. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." Yes, and it shows.

Oh, snap.

I’m shocked, shocked to discover that conservatives think this critique is really spot-on and liberals find it absurd.   Four thoughts on this:

1)  If one takes Diehl’s list of grand strategists as given, I’d have to conclude that presidents do much better without one.  If you reflect on the Nixon, Carter and Bush 43 administrations, only one of them had a grand strategy that looks even semi-respectable at the present moment.  Maybe grand strategists don’t lead to great foreign policy (then again, I’m not sure I’d take Diehl’s list as given — Condi Rice is many things, but no one thought of her as a grand strategist.  Even if she was, I don’t think the Buswh administration’s foreign policy followed this blueprint at all.  And, let’s face it, the word "strategist" is already in mortal danger of being demeaned into nothingness). 

2)  Having edited a book on the subject, I’ve become more and more dubious of those who complain about grand strategy in foreign policy.  Bemoaning the lack of a grand strategy is the first refuge of the foreign policy critic.  Often, it’s not that the president in question lacks a strategic vision, it’s that the president has a grand strategy that the critic doesn’t like.   If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that it is possible to have a coherent, well-articulated grand strategy that is nevertheless completely counterproductive in advancing the national interest. 

3)  Even though it’s possible to nitpick Diehl’s op-ed to death, there’s a grain of truth buried in those last few paragraphs.  No one disputes that Obama has a White House-centric foreign policymaking process, but I’m not sure Obama’s White House staff merits that allocation of power.  The recent shifts in foreign policy personnel have narrowed the foreign policy circle even more than before.  And there are real mismatches between the Obama administration’s grand strategy and its current foreign policy priorities. 

4)  Ordinarily, none of this would matter.  So long as really stupid policies are avoided, I don’t think that grand strategies matter for most  countries most of the time — what matters are good fundamentals like a robust economy.  The thing is, this is one of those rare moments when strategy does matter.  Any time you have a systemic shock — like a great power war or a massive global recession — you get massive uncertainty about the future direction of world politics.  Add on the fact that there’s now a potential challenger to the most powerful state in the world, and there are a lot of key actors in the world wondering what’s going to happen next. 

These are moments when a well-articulated and executed gramd strategy can reassure allies and signal possible rivals about a country’s future course of action.  And I’m unconvinced that the Obama administration’s existing strategy documents provide any kind of clear signal at all. 

What do you think?