Daniel W. Drezner

The virtues of grand strategies

Fareed Zakaria’s Washington Post column today opens as follows: Every few months, commentators find a new grand strategy that animates Barack Obama. First he was the antiwar candidate, because his rise in the Democratic primaries had much to do with his early and consistent opposition to the Iraq war. But even some on the right, ...

Fareed Zakaria’s Washington Post column today opens as follows:

Every few months, commentators find a new grand strategy that animates Barack Obama. First he was the antiwar candidate, because his rise in the Democratic primaries had much to do with his early and consistent opposition to the Iraq war. But even some on the right, including Robert Kagan, pointed out that he was interventionist on other issues, such as Afghanistan. Some criticized his multilateralism, pointing to his offers of engagement to all comers, from Iran to Russia to China. More recently, watching his vigorous outreach to Asian countries threatened by China, the scholar Daniel Drezner concluded that the new grand strategy was one of “counterpunching.”

In fact, the search itself is misguided. The doctrinal approach to foreign policy doesn’t make much sense anymore. Every American foreign policy “doctrine” but one was formulated during the Cold War, for a bipolar world, when American policy toward one country — the Soviet Union — dominated all U.S. strategy and was the defining aspect of global affairs. (The Monroe Doctrine is the exception.) In today’s multipolar, multilayered world, there is no central hinge upon which all American foreign policy rests. Policymaking looks more varied, and inconsistent, as regions require approaches that don’t necessarily apply elsewhere (emphasis added).

A minor point and then a major point.  Minor point:  as I said before, there’s a difference between a foreign policy "doctrine" and a grand strategy, and Zakaria is conflating the two here. 

The major point:  the whole "world is too complex and multilayered to fit into a grand strategy" sounds great — except that it is precisely in this kind of uncertain environment when countries need to prioritize what’s important and what’s not.  Or, as I phrased it in Foreign Affairs

A grand strategy consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them. Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence. Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones. Either way, a well-articulated grand strategy can offer an interpretative framework that tells everybody, including foreign policy officials themselves, how to understand the administration’s behavior.

That’s what a coherent grand strategy should provide.  Admittedly, it’s much easier to do this when a single overarching threat exists — but it’s still necessary in a complex world. 

Zakaria seems to equate a grand strategy with rigidity, but that’s hardly necessary.  Linking back to my previous post on whether Reagan was really a Reaganite, one could argue that Reagan’s greatest strength was his ability to simultaneously articulate a toghness in his rhetoric but have a political gifts to make exceptions when necessary.  This is the only way a president who traded arms for hostages, negotiated with terrorists, refused to escalate a crisis with the Soviet Union, cut and ran after a terrorist attack, and came veeery close to negotiating a nuclear-free world with the Soviet Union could have the reputaion as a hawk.   

I agree with Zakaria that there are times when grand strategy is not necessary — but this ain’t one of them.  Or, to repeat what I said back in April: 

[I]f I were Obama’s foreign policy team, I’d start thinking very hard about a speech that clearly prioritizes American interests and values.  Because unless the president defines his grand strategy, pundits will be more than happy to define it — badly — for him.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola