Daniel W. Drezner

Is there such a thing as a consequentialist grand srategy?

Is there such a thing as a consequentialist grand srategy?

Ryan Lizza has a 9,000+ word exegesis on the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisionmaking in The New Yorker.  For anyone who’s paid attention to this debate over the past six weeks, there’s nothing terribly new — for those who haven’t however, it’s a decent summary.  The key parts for me:

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

In December, 2009, Obama announced that he would draw down U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of his first term. He also promised, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year, that he was “moving toward a more targeted approach” that “dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.”

“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”….

Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.” (emphasis added)

There’s something that’s really frustrating about the structure of the essay, and then something else that’s frustrating about the content.  Both of them involve China. 

On the structure – despite Lizza’s 9,000 words, and despite Obama’s stated intention to reorient American foreign policy to be less Middle East-focused, the essay…. is totally focused on the Middle East.  I’m not saying that the Middle East is unimportant, but I’d have liked to have read something about how the Obama administration is dealing with the rest of the world.  Indeed, Lizzaa notes that Obama visited South America during the opening days of the Libya operation precisely "to show that America has interests in the rest of the world."  Despite this effort, the thrust of the article demonstrates its futility during the start of a war.  New military conflicts crowd out attention that should be paid to other arenas of foreign policy.  It would have been nice to see how the administration’s strategy is playing/affecting the rest of the world.

The problem with the content is that bolded section.  To tweak Tom Donilon a little bit, I’d characterize it as a "static and one-dimensional assessment" of the U.S. strategic position.  It doesn’t allow for the possibility that rising states might experience their own dips in national power, or that attitudes towards the United States might improve as a consequence of shifts in U.S. strategy. 

Countries make strategic missteps when they overestimate or underestimate their own capabilities.  The Bush administration was clearly guilty of overestimation, but there are ways in which the Obama administration is equally guilty of underestimation. 

What do you think?