Elephants in the Room

Grand Strategy Is Overrated

Why President Trump shouldn’t necessarily heed the long-term vision of his own National Security Strategy.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on February 20. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on February 20. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

In the next few days, the Trump administration is likely to release its first National Security Strategy (NSS) document. Even before the document is published, however, some grand strategy scholars have warned that the NSS will most likely fail to provide a long-term grand strategic design that the current president would be willing and able to follow. For example, Rebecca Lissner and Micah Zenko deplore what they perceive as the “short-term focus” of the administration as opposed to “long-term strategic foresight,” and trenchantly warn that “In resisting the careful patience required to develop and execute a purposive course of action over time, the administration’s method of policymaking is explicitly anti-strategic.” But should we really judge the NSS by whether it articulates a coherent and farsighted grand strategy, and the Trump administration by how closely it will implement such a plan?

While common in some parts of academia and the think-tank world, the idea that pursuing a long-term grand strategic design such as the NSS is key to the formation of successful strategy betrays a naive understanding of both how the U.S. government works, and also of what leads to successful outcomes in world politics. In fact, when one examines key policies and strategies adopted by U.S. presidents over the past 70 years, the relation between following a coherent long-term grand strategy and achieving success in foreign policy is much more tenuous than commonly assumed.

Quite the contrary, a model of “emergent strategy” formation based on flexibility and learning from short-term improvisations explains many of the most successful foreign policy results of American statecraft. This paradigm of emergent strategy, developed in the business world by Henry Mintzberg and advocated by top management consulting firms such as McKinsey & Company and the Boston Consulting Group, has been largely ignored in the strategic studies literature until recently, but newer scholarship is finally casting some doubt over the conventional wisdom about successful strategy being the result of farsighted designs.

There is a narrative inside Washington that credits U.S. diplomat George Kennan with designing a containment grand strategy that successfully guided America to victory in the Cold War, but this view is grounded more on myth than historical evidence. While Kennan’s ideas contributed in some ways to the formation of U.S. strategy in the 1940s, many of the most successful elements of President Harry S. Truman’s containment framework, such as the Truman Doctrine, NATO, and the Marshall Plan, came out of emergent processes and a series of improvisations and responses to the urgent crises of the day; moreover, many of the elements of the resulting containment strategy were in fact often at odds with Kennan’s long-term strategic designs.

For example, Kennan opposed the formation of NATO and argued instead for “the eventual peaceful withdrawal of both the United States and the USSR from the heart of Europe, and accordingly toward the encouragement of the growth of a third force which can absorb and take over the territory between the two.” He also criticized the values-infused language of the Truman Doctrine speech, and, while supporting the Marshall Plan, he nevertheless left Germany and the United Kingdom off of an initial list of countries that should be part of it. It is perhaps unsurprising that Kennan himself concluded that, for better or worse, “American policy since World War II was not based on any global plan, but owed much to a great deal of improvisation.”

To the extent that a long-term design did impact the long-term contours of containment during the Truman administration, it was Paul Nitze’s NSC-68 report rather than Kennan’s plans. However, the overall impact of NSC-68 arguably led to as many positive outcomes (such as the post-Korea military buildup to shore up the military position of the Western world) as it did to negative ones, such as the advocacy of a monolithic view of international communism and of the view that a “Kremlin design” for world domination was motivating the actions of the communist world. It is easy to see how these latter two ideas contributed to the misunderstanding of Third World conflicts in Vietnam and other places, and eventually led to costly errors of statecraft.

Some might argue that Truman’s containment strategy may have been more based on emergent learning and trial and error due to the high uncertainty of the early Cold War era that made long-term planning devilishly difficult. But how about other famous long-term-focused grand strategic designs produced during the Cold War era? Their record is unimpressive. Three such major initiatives during the tenures of Dwight Eisenhower (the “The New Look” that came out of Project Solarium and the NSC 162-2 report), Richard Nixon (the detente best articulated in Henry Kissinger’s “A New Strategy for Peace” report to Congress), and Ronald Reagan (the “rollback” concept advocated in the famous NSDD-32 directive) are best regarded as ill-fated efforts to shift the broad course of American strategy set by Truman’s early actions. The changes brought by these strategic plans were eventually reversed either later on during the same administration, or soon after the respective president left office.

The New Look’s idea of relying on nuclear brinkmanship and covert action in order to save money on conventional forces was too risky and, hence, of limited use in dealing with the Cold War challenges of the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Similarly, the Nixon-Kissinger detente in 1970s failed to achieve its promise of a sustainable “long-term structure for peace” based on a multipolar world order, and its narrow view of national interest and disregard for the promotion of U.S. values was emphatically rejected by subsequent administrations. Lastly, the early talk of rolling back Soviet communism during the Reagan era, and the grand strategy outlined in early plans such as NSDD-32 and NSDD-75, represents a poor guide to understanding Reagan’s actual strategic decisions in his more consequential second term. In fact, it was not until Reagan’s shift toward an emergent improvisational approach in his negotiations with Gorbachev that the Cold War came to a successful conclusion.

One implication of these findings, then, is that Donald Trump’s success or failure in foreign policy is likely to be influenced more by its future actions than by the coherence of its first NSS or by how well he implements it. Having said that, what criteria should be used for judging whether Trump’s NSS indicates that the administration is pursuing what business theorists call emergent strategy, as opposed to ad hocery as its critics claim? The key question is the extent to which his administration’s NSS shows signs of emergent learning after a year in office.

Whether the Trump administration is learning or not has been an issue of intense debate. The early teasers from the administration’s NSS appear to indicate that, in addition to campaign priorities such as a focus on homeland security and economic competitiveness, the administration will list Russia’s “aggression and propaganda efforts” against the West as a core goal of American strategy. If so, that would indicate a shift on an issue candidate Trump struggled with mightily during the campaign and early on in the administration. Another area where the NSS is apparently to show some evidence of emergent learning is a discussion on the growing technological threats in areas like space weaponization and Russian hybrid warfare.

It is crucial to keep in mind that the key to the successful formation of emergent strategies is the ability to learn from one’s actions, and adapt one’s strategy based on results. The president’s penchant for short-term improvisation and for a possible emergent strategy-style of governing need not doom his foreign policy. After all, no less a grand strategist than Henry Kissinger once quipped: “In retrospect all successful policies seem preordained. Leaders like to claim prescience for what has worked, ascribing to planning what usually starts as a series of improvisations.”

Ionut Popescu is the author of the newly released Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins, 2017).

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