Grand Strategy Isn’t Grand Enough

The world’s best national security minds know to study every aspect of foreign policy. That’s not enough.

Henry Kissinger with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC on October 10, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Henry Kissinger with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC on October 10, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Grand strategy is a concept familiar to experts on foreign policy and national security. Its meaning has inflated over the years. Some critics think that it has bloated so much that it is no longer useful — but they are wrong. The real problem with grand strategy is that it is not grand enough.

In the 19th century, grand strategy was about the actual fighting of wars. A commander in a single theater of operation had a strategy for defeating the enemy, and top-level commanders had a larger plan for deploying forces across many theaters. Grand strategy, one writer explained in 1904, reckoned with “the whole armed force of the nation, ashore and afloat.”

With the advent of total war, the concept expanded. If victory in war depended on mobilization of the entire physical and moral forces of the nation, as Gen. Erich Ludendorff argued, it followed that wartime planning should have similar scope. B.H. Liddell Hart defined grand strategy as a national policy guiding all aspects of social and economic activity toward the achievement of war aims. “The basis of grand strategy,” other experts agreed in 1942, “is the reciprocal relationship between war and the society in which war occurs.”

With the onset of the Cold War, the concept expanded again. Grand strategy was still concerned with mobilizing the full spectrum of societal resources. But the objectives became fuzzier. During the world wars, national leaders were concerned with actual war-fighting. After World War II, by contrast, the great powers were caught in a decades-long tussle for positional advantage. Thus the big view of grand strategy that we have today: as Thomas Christensen has defined it, “the full package of domestic and international policies designed to increase power and national security” in peacetime as well as wartime.

Some critics say that theorizing about grand strategy bears little relationship to the way that decisions actually get made. In the real world, they argue, proper coordination of domestic and international policies is all but impossible. Leaders are not visionaries, and they never maintain a steady course toward crisply defined goals. More often, leaders tinker with the status quo, experiment, and lurch from crisis to crisis.

These criticisms are largely misguided. Incrementalism and experimentalism are often a reasonable response to conditions of uncertainty and political polarization. More importantly, the fact that the actual course of policy is erratic or ineffectual does not imply that leaders are neglecting strategy. Some leaders try to behave strategically but are not very good at it. But an inept strategist is still a strategist, just as a bad writer is still a writer. And even the best-laid plans can be thrown into confusion by events.

Leaders are driven to strategy by force of circumstance. The world is a turbulent and dangerous place, and leaders cannot ignore the sphere of foreign affairs without jeopardizing vital interests. They must engage. Each decision must be driven by some calculation about ends and means, and about the implications for other decisions. These are the rudiments of grand strategy. Experts try to improve the quality of strategy, but the impulse for leaders to behave strategically is already there.

But here is the difficulty. The world of domestic affairs is equally treacherous. Machiavelli, the grand old man of realism, warned that a prince must have two fears — “one internal, based on his subjects, the other external, based on foreign powers.” In democracies, leaders who bungle internal affairs are tossed out in the next election. In autocracies, they are overthrown in coups. And sometimes, clumsy leaders suddenly discover their states collapsing beneath them. If danger in the sphere of foreign affairs impels leaders toward strategy, the same is also true in the sphere of domestic affairs.

It is easy to see that this is the case. Leaders are constantly refining political programs that are designed to manage threats to vital domestic interests, such as order, prosperity, justice, and their own survival in office. They try to mobilize societal resources and coordinate policy tools to secure these interests. In other words, they formulate a domestic grand strategy. Some leaders do this better than others, but all are driven to do it.

These two grand strategies, foreign and domestic, are intimately connected with each another. Because tranquility at home depends on economic growth, leaders search overseas for resources and markets. Foreign wars are launched or halted as domestic opinion sways back and forth. Leaders make concessions at home — extending the vote, building the welfare state, protecting civil rights — to bolster support for their overseas campaigns. Domestic regulatory powers are trimmed to cement trade agreements with key allies. And so on. The ways in which the two grand strategies may be entangled is endless.

However, we confront a conceptual problem. If there are two grand strategies — one foreign, one domestic — is either one of them really grand? Moreover, do leaders really think this way? We know the answer to these questions. Leaders do not keep Machiavelli’s two fears in separate boxes. They manage both at the same time and search for a coherent approach — a single strategy for governing — that reconciles domestic and foreign pressures at the same time.

Reaganism was a single doctrine whose domestic and foreign components could not be disentangled. So was Clintonism. The same is true today of Trumpism, Putinism, and “Xi Jinping thought.”

Grand strategy, in its conventional formulation, is not grand at all. It is one facet of something larger, an overall strategy for governing. There are some experts who recognize this and seem to stretch the concept of grand strategy accordingly. Peter Trubowitz has defined grand strategy as “a means by which national leaders strive to maintain or strengthen their hold on executive power,” and not just as a way of pursuing foreign-policy objectives. And in a recent book, Andrew Monaghan defines grand strategy as the art of “using all of the nation’s resources to promote the interests of the state, including securing it against enemies perceived and real.” These definitions indicate a desire to move the analysis one level up, for a broader and more integrated view of statecraft. At the end of the day, though, the study of grand strategy usually remains fixed on matters of national security and foreign policy.

To some degree, this is a matter of scholarly convenience. The academic community has a long tradition of bifurcating domestic and foreign policy. But this conceptual division bears no relation to the way that leaders actually think. Realism demands a broader view of strategies for governing.

A more expansive view offers three benefits. The global convergence on market democracy that was predicted in the 1990s has not been realized. We are entering an era in which the governance strategies of great powers are diverging sharply once again. The debate in coming decades will be over the merits of competing national strategies. We have been here before — at the dawn of the 20th century, in the 1930s, and again during the Cold War. Reformers in every country will be influenced by their judgments about the performance of rival states. As they make these judgments, reformers will not separate questions of domestic and foreign policy. They will look at the track record of other states as a whole. The role of scholars is to help structure this global debate. We can do this more effectively if our theoretical toolkit reflects the realities of the conversation.

A bigger view of strategy is also useful in moments when the conventional wisdom about national policy has broken down. The United States is suffering through one of these moments right now. The old consensus about domestic and foreign policy has shattered, and we are struggling to reassemble the pieces in a new configuration. We need a conversation about the overall design of national policy — and not just about the domestic or foreign components in isolation. Some vessel larger than grand strategy is needed to carry this conversation.

And the third benefit of a broader view? Verisimilitude. Machiavelli, so often named as one of the fathers of modern grand strategy, did not write The Prince as a guide to foreign policy, nor as a guide to domestic policy. It was a guide to statecraft in toto. Adopting a similar viewpoint today may seem daunting, but for realists there can no escape from the task. Leaders are not allowed to compartmentalize, and scholars should not either.

Alasdair Roberts is director of the School of Public Policy at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. His latest book is Can Government Do Anything Right?

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