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America Doesn’t Need a Grand Strategy
Searching for the next holy grail of foreign policy is stopping the United States from solving the world’s most pressing problems.
In 2014, as Syria fell apart and Russia invaded Ukraine, criticism of U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy mounted. Perhaps frustrated by questions about why he wasn’t solving these complex problems, the president and his advisors summarized the administration’s foreign policy as “don’t do stupid stuff.” The phrase took on a life of its own and became the subject of derision for those claiming Obama did not have a coherent foreign policy. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that this was the “Obama doctrine.”
Unsatisfying as Obama’s explanation may have been, the sentiment wasn’t wrong. Ever since the U.S. strategy of containment was thought to have won the Cold War, the United States has searched, mostly in vain, for a new grand strategy. The gravitational pull for policymakers and experts to develop an overarching vision for America’s role in the world—encouraged by high-level officials and congressional mandates—is strong and can be an important process that establishes policy priorities for the bureaucracy, sends signals to friends and foes, and helps evaluate assumptions and refine goals.
But that search can also be a misguided and dangerous exercise, forcing simplifications of a complicated world and justifying counterproductive policies. Attempts at grand strategy can become nationalistic rallying cries—like “America First” or “the global war on terrorism”—that do far more harm than good.
Today, the United States doesn’t need a grand strategy. Instead, U.S. leaders need to identify their priorities and craft strategies for each of them. The foreign-policy issues that matter to the lives of Americans—from climate change to pandemic diseases to cyberattacks—increasingly require global responses. And leaders need to convince the American people that these challenges affect them directly and that tackling them requires robust U.S. engagement in the world.
The notion of U.S. grand strategy today revolves around America’s Cold War foreign policy of containment—the brainchild of the diplomat George Kennan—which sought to prevent the expansion of Moscow’s influence, bolstering the strength of the noncommunist world and squeezing the Soviet Union until it changed. The objective of containment drove U.S. policy until the Soviet Union collapsed. This victory—assumed to be the result of the containment policy—created a Cold War legacy that subsequent policymakers have looked on as a heyday for Washington’s global strategy.
Ever since, policymakers have searched for the holy grail of the foreign-policy field. In the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that reorganized parts of the national security bureaucracy, Congress even required that the president submit an annual report on national security strategy.
In 1993, Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, reportedly established what he called the “Kennan sweepstakes” to encourage his staff to develop a new grand strategy. Over the years, Washington has jumped from Clinton’s democratic enlargement to George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism to Donald Trump’s America First approach. Some strategies had more success than others, but none has captured the totality of the United States’ interests. Indeed, some grand strategies are little more than messaging exercises, providing a unifying justification for a broad range of disparate policies; others elevate one or two goals above all else.
Even so, the Kennan sweepstakes still continue today in the halls of government, think tanks, and academia. In Washington, there is almost an inherent belief that the country needs a grand strategy. One cannot go long on the circuit of foreign-policy events without hearing about the need to have a coherent foreign-policy vision. Many lament the supposedly simple days when America was guided by containment and yearn for a new term like “offshore balancing” or “preservation” that can justify and explain the United States’ complex role in the world.
Beyond Washington, many Americans are confused by U.S. foreign policy. A recent poll by the Center for American Progress revealed that voters “did not see an overarching principle, rationale, or clear set of goals in U.S. foreign policy. … Several participants wondered why the United States does not have a plan for economic and political success in the world like they perceive China and other competitors do.” This dynamic encourages leaders and experts to develop simplified talking points that can easily explain the U.S. role in the world to voters.
And while grand strategies in the form of public narratives may help convince Americans of the need for a robust U.S. role in the world, they can also justify dangerous policies. As Kennan himself once lamented about the Vietnam War, a conflict that he felt had unrealistic goals, “Our Vietnam involvement marches under the semantic banner as the containment of communism.” Perhaps leaders are better off convincing the American people that there are grave challenges that affect their lives and making the case for each policy on the merits.
After all, while having a grand strategy may instill a sense of comfort, policymaking rarely goes according to plan. Speeches and documents like the annual National Security Strategy can provide helpful signals about goals and identify priorities but rarely offer answers on how to reconcile competing interests or deal with unexpected crises.
The Arab Spring uprisings that swept across the Middle East in 2011 are a case in point. Obama was confronted with a series of revolutions that were transforming the region and Washington’s role in it. Though Obama outlined principles for the U.S. response in a May 2011 speech—highlighting support for democracy while criticizing the U.S. government’s history of prioritizing strategic interests—no simple set of principles could have guided a U.S. president effectively through the Arab Spring.
Syria was the most devastating of the policy dilemmas. While Obama made clear his interest in getting the United States out of conflicts in the Middle East, the Syrian catastrophe could not be ignored. The United States publicly supported the aspirations of the Syrian people, financed humanitarian assistance, and attempted to end the war through diplomacy. As part of these goals, Obama included a “red line”—the public threat that a chemical weapons attack would change his calculus about intervening—but his decision not to respond militarily to a chemical attack in 2013 fed a perception that the United States lacked credibility.
Yet, for all the criticism of the red-line incident, and while other policy approaches may have achieved more, neither a grand strategy focused on supporting humanitarian goals nor a realpolitik policy would have necessarily been more effective: A full-scale military intervention might have caused a protracted U.S. war or left a power vacuum in Syria; a realpolitik approach might have considered Syria not central to U.S. interests.
The South China Sea is another example of the conundrum that policymakers face in applying principles to thorny real-world situations. When it comes to the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors, the United States prioritizes norms like the freedom of navigation and maintaining peace. But in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the United States must consider its risk tolerance for a broader conflict with China: Should the United States be willing to use force to deter China from threatening its neighbors? If the United States is not willing to use force while China is, can the United States effectively uphold norms in the region?
Washington’s response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine presents similar problems. Upholding international law by using force to get Russia to withdraw from Ukraine—as the United States did in pushing Iraq out of Kuwait—is not feasible when confronting a nuclear-armed power.
In my time in government, I can’t think of an instance in which a policymaker dealing with a challenge pulled the National Security Strategy or a speech off the shelf for guidance (other than desk officers cutting and pasting quotes into talking points). Too often events—a crisis or an upcoming speech—spur officials to define a strategy or announce a new policy, which is then usually forgotten.
During two periods since World War II, the United States has adopted grand strategies that garnered widespread domestic support and that served as lodestars for U.S. policy—containment and the global war on terrorism. But both of those grand strategies were often counterproductive.
While the United States’ overarching foreign policy during the Cold War was successful in building up strong alliances and international institutions, aspects of the U.S. approach were disastrous. The list of criticisms is long: proxy wars from Latin America to Africa to Asia, including the Vietnam War, which took the lives of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese; support for coups against democratically elected leaders and in support of dictators from Iran to Guatemala; an arms race in which the United States built tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that could destroy the world multiple times over; McCarthyism and its chilling effect on democracy at home.
There is a very strong case that many of these policies weakened Washington’s overall efforts against Moscow by eroding support for the United States around the world and draining U.S. blood and treasure. Kennan’s original notion of containment was, after all, mostly aimed at maintaining U.S. strength and waiting for the Soviet Union to collapse under the weight of its own internal weaknesses. With the Cold War lasting 40 years, who’s to say that the United States would not have won—which it eventually did because the Soviet Union dissolved due to its internal weaknesses—without fighting proxy wars, supporting anti-communist dictators, or McCarthyism?
Since the end of the Cold War, the global war on terrorism is perhaps the closest the United States has come to an overarching foreign-policy vision. The response to the 9/11 attacks has in part defined U.S. foreign policy ever since—turning the need to combat terrorism into an all-consuming global struggle and attaching it to the “freedom agenda” that promised aggressive support for imposing democracy. The United States and the world have been worse off because of it.
The Bush administration manufactured Iraqi links to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to justify an unnecessary war. The Iraq War resulted in thousands of dead American soldiers and countless dead Iraqis, strengthened Iran, destabilized the Middle East, and arguably led directly to the creation of the Islamic State. It also used the specter of terrorism to justify torturing detainees and illegally spying on Americans.
Obama attempted to reject the use of the global war on terrorism to justify policies harmful to the United States, but he couldn’t completely escape it. He ended the war in Iraq, but the rise of the Islamic State pulled him back in. He wanted to end the war in Afghanistan, but the potential for instability persuaded him to stay. Obama repeatedly attempted to place the threat of terrorism in context compared to much greater threats, but fears of terrorism continued to dominate the U.S. national security debate. Trump played on those fears by falsely linking refugees and immigrants to a terrorist threat.
Two former senior U.S. government officials, Jon Finer and Robert Malley, outlined why the global war on terrorism has been counterproductive: “The intense pressure to immediately address terrorist threats leads to a focus on symptoms over causes and to an at times counterproductive reliance on the use of force. … Sometimes what’s needed is a far broader approach that would entail … addressing factors such as a lack of education or employment opportunities, ethnic or religious discrimination, the absence of state services, and local government repression.” Despite chances of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist being smaller than chances of dying from an animal attack, terrorism continues to dominate U.S. national security policymaking.
Despite chances of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist being smaller than chances of dying from an animal attack, terrorism continues to dominate U.S. national security policymaking.
Even if pursuing a grand strategy were preferable, there are two other practical challenges to implementing it effectively: a changing world and changing U.S. leadership.
America’s first post-Cold War strategy unleashed a fierce backlash as the geopolitical winds shifted. Republican President George H.W. Bush and Clinton, a Democrat, pursued a foreign policy aimed at extending what were believed to be some of the winning pillars of the Cold War strategy—democracy and markets—by supporting European unity and democratization in Russia, expanding free trade deals, and bringing China further into the global community.
Today, however, many would argue that this strategy sowed the seeds of future challenges: an aggressive, autocratic Russia angry at a failed democratic transition and an expanded NATO; a rising authoritarian China; and growing inequality and populism resulting in part from free trade. The bigger and more ideological a grand strategy gets, the more it tends to disregard the negative consequences it may be creating.
Similarly, presidential transitions make it nearly impossible to pursue a consistent grand strategy. Obama once called the presidency a “relay race” in which progress needs to be passed on to a successor, and recent experience shows just how essential a smooth handoff is. The post-Cold War strategy pursued by the older Bush and Clinton was overturned by the foreign policy of the younger Bush the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And just two and a half years after Obama left office, Trump has already dismantled many of his greatest foreign-policy accomplishments, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
If having a grand strategy is undesirable, some argue, then there is a kernel of pragmatism in Trump’s erratic “foreign policy by tweet” approach. Trump might be wary of formal strategies (and even predictable behavior), but that does not mean he doesn’t have a vision of the world.
After all, despite wildly unpredictable policies and implementation, Trump has had some foreign-policy north stars for decades. He believes in zero-sum international politics, particularly on trade. He believes the United States does not benefit from the international rules and norms of the post-World War II order. He believes the United States should be an ethnonationalist state. And he believes that allies take advantage of the United States while strongmen make good partners.
Trump’s America First approach is a grand strategy of sorts—and when it drives U.S. policy, it inflicts significant damage.
Trump’s America First approach is a grand strategy of sorts—and when it drives U.S. policy, it inflicts significant damage. It has justified racist policies including the Muslim travel ban and massive decreases in refugee acceptance. It has resulted in tariffs that harm Americans’ livelihoods. And it has driven Trump to abandon support for human rights and praise authoritarians from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Chinese President Xi Jinping while criticizing Washington’s closest democratic allies.
But Trump’s policies do not have widespread support within the U.S. government or with the American public; they also differ from his administration’s supposed grand strategy on paper, leading to outright contradictory policies. Indeed, large parts of Trump’s own National Security Strategy appear to be divorced from his day-to-day policies. The strategy prioritizes great-power competition with Russia, but Trump seems hard-pressed to say a critical word of Putin. Trump’s administration pursued a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against North Korea, and then the president agreed to a summit with Kim Jong Un without even consulting his advisors.
Trump’s inability to coherently pursue a grand strategy is a good thing. His policies are disastrous, and if they had broader institutional support across the federal government and with the American people, it is hard to overstate how devastating they would be.
Grand strategies have their uses. They can help clarify priorities in a complex world and can foster stability by signaling U.S. intentions to allies and adversaries. When America leads the way, it can produce transformative breakthroughs—brokering peace between Israel and Jordan and Egypt; supporting a united Europe during and after the Cold War; ending the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo; the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
But the United States doesn’t need to articulate a grand strategy in order to achieve its most important goals—it needs to focus on priorities that may not necessarily weave together in a convincing narrative. Today, the United States needs a strategy for preventing and responding to climate change. It needs a strategy for stopping Russian interference in U.S. politics. It needs a strategy for preventing China from gaining military hegemony in East Asia. And it needs to ensure that its budget reflects these disparate and sometimes unrelated priorities.
Below the level of grand strategy, U.S. policymakers should grapple with the big questions of principle that can inform policy. When should the United States be willing to use military force beyond cases of self-defense? Does the United States believe that a hegemonic power dominating East Asia is unacceptable?
The threat from China requires serious, concrete policies, but the growing instinct to treat China like a new Cold War competitor holds great peril. Making China the focus of a new grand strategy risks infusing U.S. policy with racism and fear that could blur Washington’s ability to create effective policies. While the United States must address national security concerns about China exporting its surveillance state, strong-arming allies to not use Chinese telecommunications equipment, such as that made by Huawei, could damage critical alliances. While Washington must counter efforts by Chinese security services to conduct influence operations in the United States, the growing calls for curbing the ability of Chinese citizens to visit the United States could be counterproductive.
In the process of building up a genuine threat into the target of a new Cold War, the slippery slope into a new era of McCarthyism is not difficult to imagine. The United States needs numerous strategies toward China—dealing with its economic espionage and its aggression in maritime Asia, for instance—but those strategies do not need to form an overall grand strategy that subsumes other crucial priorities.
Indeed, Washington can reassure partners and allies abroad about its goals and values without a grand strategy. Avoiding grand visions, in fact, might help the United States bridge what the political scientist Samuel Huntington referred to as the “Lippmann gap,” named for Walter Lippmann, who believed the gap between America’s stated goals and its capacity to deliver on them led the country to adopt dangerous policies. It is important for the United States to articulate bold and aspirational goals, but as the Syria red-line incident made clear, a large gap between stated U.S. policies and Washington’s willingness to back them up can create serious problems.
Today, no single strategy will define the whole of the United States’ purpose in the world. Policymakers should not submit to the false comforts of simplistic goals or ideological missions. They should embrace the complexity of U.S. interests in the world and dive headfirst into solving specific challenges like climate change and not worry about whether there is a convincing narrative to explain it all.
This story appears in the Fall 2019 print issue.