8 myths about American grand strategy

8 myths about American grand strategy

Grand strategy appears to be the flavor of the month in the strategic community. I have planned or been invited to numerous conferences looking at the topic and the debates on this topic are as lively as I can remember in a long time. Just recently, I gave a talk to a grand strategy conference at NDU on the myths that afflict the field. Here is the gist of the talk.

Myth 1: The U.S. can’t do grand strategy
Many critics claim that the United States is simply too disorganized to do strategy on a grand scale.

In fact, we had a coherent grand strategy during the 19th century build around the Monroe Doctrine. We had a coherent grand strategy during WWII built around winning in Europe first. And we had a coherent grand strategy during the Cold War built around the idea of containment.

Myth 2: The U.S. lost the ability to do grand strategy when the Soviet Union disappeared
Many critics concede we had a grand strategy during the Cold War, but claim that we haven’t had one since. This is by far the most prevalent myth and some of the very best in the business peddle it.

In fact, we have had a coherent, bipartisan, and largely successful grand strategy from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama

Myth 3: A grand strategy has to have a 3-syllable label that rhymes with "ainment"
This gets to the heart of why you get the odd argument that we had a grand strategy during the Cold War but we haven’t since. When critics say that we haven’t had a grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, what they really mean is that we haven’t had a label like "containment" that enjoys widespread popularity. This is true, but trivial.

In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union a 5-pillar grand strategy has been clearly discernible:

Pillar I. The velvet covered iron fist. Iron fist: build a military stronger than what is needed for near-term threats to dissuade a would-be hostile rival from achieving peer status. Velvet covered: accommodate major powers on issues, giving them a larger stake in the international distribution of goodies than their military strength would command to dissuade a near-peer from starting a hostile rivalry.

Pillar 2. Make the world more like us politically by promoting the spread of democracy.

Pillar 3. Make the world more like us economically by promoting the spread of markets and globalization.

Pillar 4. Focus on WMD proliferation to rogue states as the top tier national security threat.

Pillar 5 (added by George W. Bush). Focus on terrorist networks of global reach inspired by militant Islamist ideologies as another top tier national security threat, i.e. co-equal with WMD in the hands of rogue states. The nexus of 4 & 5 is the ne plus ultra threat.

No administration described the strategy in exactly these terms. Every single president succumbed to the political temptation to product differentiate and especially to describe one’s own actions as a bold new departure from the "failed" efforts of his predecessor. Yet a fair-minded reading of the core governmental white papers on strategy, especially the National Security Strategy reports prepared by each administration, as well as the central policy efforts each administration pursued, reveals a broad 20-year pattern of continuity.

All post-Cold War presidents championed the first 4 pillars. The last two presidents (Bush and Obama) adopted the last 2. And the major grand strategic moves of the period derive from one or more of these pillars: eg. The outreach to India derives from Pillar 1, the invasion of Iraq derives from Pillars 4 and 5, and so on.

Obama campaigned as if he was going to make a grand strategic innovation by adding a 6th pillar: elevating climate change to be co-equal with WMD and terrorism. But he chose to do health care instead.

Myth 4: Maybe we had grand strategies but they were follies
Some critics say that maybe the United States has tried grand strategies but we are just not good at it.

In fact, all of the grand strategies I have mentioned above were largely successful. I defy you to identify a great power that has had a better 230+ year run, or a better 100 year run, or a better 50 year run. Maybe we could have an interesting debate about whether some countries have had a better 20-year run. Perhaps Prussia under Bismarck had a better 20 years, though the period afterwards rather took the luster off the earlier achievements. And in the era of U.S. sole-superpowerdom, a number of near-great powers have thrived by free-riding on the public goods provided by the United States.

Now I concede that China has had a better last three years or so than the United States has. But despite the bluff and bluster from Beijing, it is clear that Chinese leaders understand the very daunting challenges they face. Betting against America for the medium to long run boosts one’s speaker’s fees, but it otherwise has not been validated by history.

As great powers go, we have a remarkably good track record. Perhaps you will argue we have just been lucky. I think the capacity to select satisfactory grand strategies and to refine those strategies as circumstances dictate is part of the story.

Myth 5: A grand strategy only exists if it commands such a dominant consensus as to end all politics at the water’s edge
If stopping at the water’s edge means parties do not have strong disagreements about foreign policy ends and means and do not seek political advantage from foreign policy maneuvers, then I do not know of a period when this happened in U.S. history.

A large part of the confusion about today’s grand strategy is due to sloppy historical understanding of the Cold War grand strategy. Containment was coherent enough as an over-arching grand strategy to be recognizably operative from 1947-1989. But during that period, that left room for deeply divisive debates about:

  • The need to defend the Korean peninsula
  • The need to prevent falling dominos in Southeast Asia
  • The possibility and desirability of splitting the Soviet pact
  • The mix of confrontation and détente
  • The adequacy of arms control
  • The requirements of nuclear deterrence

The point is that grand strategies have lots of subordinate debates. We tend to exaggerate the strategic consensus during the Cold War and the strategic dissensus during the post Cold War.

Myth 6: A grand strategy has to be forward looking
On the contrary, grand strategies tend to be backward looking. If generals prepare to fight the last war, grand strategists prepare to avoid fighting the last war. Thus, containment was designed to confront the Soviet Challenge while avoiding another global war like World War II. The post-Cold War grand strategy has been designed to deal with the challenges we face today while avoiding another cold war (i.e. another rivalry where our global interests are challenged by a hostile peer competitor). Even Bush’s refinement of the post-Cold War strategy, elevating the threat posed by militant Islamism, had a heavy dollop of backward-looking "never again" to it.

Of course, any successful grand strategy must also address the evolving and future strategic environment. Thus, containment had to adjust to post-colonialism and the Sino-Soviet split. The Bush GWOT was unusually forward-looking, with its emphasis on promoting political and economic liberty in the broader Middle East, and its willingness to contemplate short-term costs to achieve long-term benefits.

But most grand strategies begin with a look backward before they look forward. To the extent that we are starting a fundamental debate about our grand strategy today, it is probably out of a desire to avoid another Global War on Terror, that is a high cost, high OPSTEMPO conflict with a dispersed global footprint.

Myth 7: A grand strategy requires an existential threat
It may be easier to describe the grand strategy when there is an overarching existential threat to concentrate the mind. But as the post-Cold War has shown, it is possible to have a coherent grand strategy even when the threats are dispersed and less-than-existential.

The Cold War was not a time when everything was simple or when everyone knew priorities or everyone agreed on the threat. And it sure wasn’t "a time of great stability and security unlike these really dangerous times today," — a curious view that I hear most often from students who never lived through the Cold War era.

But it was a time when the much more obvious, and by the late 1950’s possibly existential threat posed by the nuclear confrontation overlaid on top of a global ideological contest with the Soviet Union circumscribed strategic thinking in a way that is not the case today.

Compared to the Cold War period, we have more slack in our security environment and that introduces a certain amount of indeterminacy in the strategic debate.

Myth 8: Only big grand strategy shifts matter
There is vastly more continuity than change between Obama and his predecessors. As you move up the ladder from rhetoric, to policy, to strategy, the higher the level, the more this is true. But over-time the small changes can be significant, like a 1-degree shift in the vector of an air-craft carrier over a 1000 mile voyage.

So the comparatively small changes — small compared to the out-sized rhetoric of the 2008 campaign — could over-time be quite consequential. Obama has made some very consequential and risky bets. If they do not pay out, they could force a reconsideration of our grand strategy. Indeed, the ferment in the strategic community about grand strategy suggests that such a reconsideration is well underway.