The White House needs someone to look beyond the crisis of the day and focus on the United States' role in the world.
As the presidential race enters its home stretch, politicos’ obsession has turned to tactics: How can Mitt Romney win Ohio? Where is Barack Obama buying ad time?
But this focus on minutia is not just a symptom of the campaign’s closing days — it has become, unfortunately, the new normal for American politics. President Barack Obama’s administration is just the latest example of this trend, which has been perpetuated by Republicans and Democrats alike. Much like its post-Cold War predecessors, the current White House appears to deliberate on key questions — from Iran to trade to climate change — without something it ought to have: an overarching framework that prioritizes U.S. goals in the world, and sketches out a plausible pathway to achieving them. In other words, it operates without a grand strategy.
The lack of a grand strategy represents an institutional failing within the U.S. government — but one that could be addressed by creating a new executive branch position of "chief strategy officer" tasked with getting the big-picture questions of America’s role in the world asked and answered.
Grand strategy is frequently belittled by national security operatives as a navel-gazing obsession of academics with too much time on their hands, which has limited relevance to the world in which decisions actually get made. The future is unknowable, they say. Crises have to be managed as they arise, and the world’s complexity no longer lends itself to grand policy designs like "containment" — certainly not ones that fit on bumper stickers.
But it’s hard to see how the United States is better off if fateful decisions — like what to do about Iran’s nuclear program — are made in isolation from a comprehensive and thoughtfully developed point of view about where the world is headed. If American officials can develop a better understanding of that, they will be better positioned to formulate a vision of a U.S. global role that is both desirable and achievable, together with a plausible roadmap for arriving at the desired destination.
And if grand strategy is worthwhile, common sense tells us that it ought to be the outcome of a well-designed deliberative process. It should not be the unthinking extension of a vision and strategy developed long ago in a dramatically different global and domestic context. Nor should it reflect an abrupt left or right turn driven by little more than someone’s intuition — even someone elected president.
No president since the end of the Cold War has presented such a blueprint, backed by a serious deliberative process. President George W. Bush’ "global war on terror" and "democracy agenda" might seem to have elements of a grand strategy. But published insider accounts suggest that the Bush approach wasn’t the outcome of a systematic strategy review process. Rather, it flowed from the 9/11 attacks, the strong views that several influential players brought into the administration, and the quick, intuition-based decisions made by a president who prided himself on being a "gut player."
This is not to say Washington completely neglects strategy. Administrations now routinely publish several strategy review documents: The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), and most prominently the White House’s National Security Strategy (NSS). But none of these is a comprehensive grand strategy statement. The QDR and QDDR are limited to their discrete policy spheres – the Defense Department and the State Department, respectively. And while the NSS has been expanded in recent years to include issues like global health, food security and finance, it typically reads more like a wish list than a meaningful strategy that recognizes tradeoffs, makes hard choices and is willing to submit legacy commitments to serious scrutiny.
One obstacle to the U.S. government’s "doing strategy" better is that nobody below the president — who has a lot on his plate, after all — actually "owns" this responsibility. Senior figures like the national security advisor typically lack the freedom to look beyond short-term crises. Worse, they lack the jurisdictional breadth to formulate a far-reaching strategy for the entire U.S. government. It’s only within individual agencies that positions like the State Department’s Policy Planning director — an office designed by Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947 to "look beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of the current battle" — come close to cultivating meaningful vision and strategy. Yet such roles aren’t designed to take the needed "whole-of-government" perspective.
In order to improve the nation’s strategy performance, the White House might take a cue from the private sector. CEOs at companies from Merck to Microsoft, while retaining ultimate responsibility for strategy, increasingly look to a "chief strategy officer" to help them with strategy formulation and, especially, execution. While also helping ensure that a president’s strategy gets executed, a White House CSO would add particular value on the strategy formulation side. A CSO would not usurp the president’s role as chief strategist, but rather orchestrate a serious process by which the president and a select but diverse group of senior officials would deliberate over core questions of vision and strategy.
All this would help ensure that the most central questions pertaining to U.S. global objectives and resource commitments are continually asked and answered. These answers — adding up to the nation’s grand strategy — would then underpin decisions on more specific issues, including the crises that regularly arise and demand quick decisions.
A CSO would not be a panacea. Many will argue that the U.S. political system is inescapably focused on the short-term due to election cycles, 24-hour news, the separation of powers and the prominent role that short-tenured political appointees play in the U.S. bureaucracy. All this is true. Yet the absence of a structure for orchestrating grand strategy in the White House consigns the U.S. government to avoidable policy incoherence, an unsatisfactory assessment of and response to global trends, and the unthinking perpetuation of yesterday’s visions and strategies.
Without reform, these deficiencies will persist — regardless of who Americans elect in November.