Stephen M. Walt

Who’s in charge of grand strategy?

Now that we know who the main players on Obama’s foreign policy team are, it’s time to ask: who is going to be in charge of grand strategy? By “grand strategy,” I mean the administration’s “theory” of foreign and national security policy, its broad plan for employing the various instruments of national power to advance ...

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WASHINGTON - JANUARY 27: U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to the news media after meeting with Republicans in the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol January 27, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama was on Capitol Hill working to gain support from Republicans for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, the $825 billion economic recovery package proposed by House Democrats. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Now that we know who the main players on Obama’s foreign policy team are, it’s time to ask: who is going to be in charge of grand strategy? By “grand strategy,” I mean the administration’s “theory” of foreign and national security policy, its broad plan for employing the various instruments of national power to advance the U.S. national interest.

Grand strategy is about identifying the critical forces that are shaping the current international environment, and then deciding how our resources can be used to make the United States more secure and more prosperous. It means setting priorities, making choices, figuring out the big picture, and where possible, getting other states to work with us instead of against us. Most of all, it means making sure that different policy initiatives are reinforcing each other instead of working at cross purposes.

Here’s why this is important. Obama says he wants to make progress on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and he also wants to pursue a diplomatic engagement with Iran. If this is done right, those initiatives can reinforce each other. Engaging in a serious and non-confrontational effort to reach a modus vivendi with Iran would reduce Tehran’s incentive to play spoiler on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which will in turn encourage Hamas and other radical groups to rethink their own positions. By contrast, opening discussions with Iran by listing a lot of demands and refusing to address Iran’s legitimate security concerns will make them look for ways to increase their own leverage, and that means more help to hardliners in Hamas or Islamic Jihad. So who is going to see to it that we approach both problems in a way that makes sense?

Here’s another example: the United States keeps asking Russia to support tougher sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, while continuing to expand NATO despite persistent Russian objections. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t worked. A well-integrated grand strategy would determine which of these goals is most important and downgrade the other, at least for the time being. And that requires having a clear sense of which dangers matter most and which opportunities are ripest for plucking.

The need for a coherent strategy is especially great given the economic crisis and the array of problems Obama has inherited from President Bush. We don’t have a lot of surplus resources to throw at global problems these days, and some foreign policy challenges (e.g., Pakistan) may defy a solution. If we try to do everything, or if actions taken by one part of the government end up undercutting other initiatives, the results are not going to be pretty.

Looking over the administration’s main appointees, it’s hard to see the person (or people) who are going to provide the sort of clarifying, conceptual architecture that will help President Obama sort out the important from the trivial, and then help him figure out how to approach them in an integrated way. Whatever her other gifts may be, Secretary of State Clinton has never articulated a clear strategic vision of her own. Her chief aides are traditional liberal internationalists who are good at devising laundry lists of problems to be solved but less inclined to set priorities or to devise integrated strategies for achieving them.

James Jones at the NSC may have a strategic vision for our current situation but I have no idea what it is.

George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke are accomplished diplomats with impressive track records, but they are also powerful egos who will push to make sure that their areas of responsibility get top priority. And neither is in a position to articulate a global strategy.

Larry Summers has a million ideas about everything (including foreign policy) and he’ll hardly be bashful about sharing them, but I really do hope he fixes the economy first.

During the campaign and transition, President Obama suggested that he was going to be the one that provided that vision. I’d like to think so, but I don’t think he can do it alone. He has his hands full with lots of other problems, and he will ultimately need someone to keep his eye on the big picture and to keep all those big foreign policy egos in check.

So who’s it going to be?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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