The United States Needs a New Strategic Mindset

For decades, U.S. strategists were thinking short-term. Its leaders should start taking an infinite perspective.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of a press conference in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

The United States hasn’t had a coherent strategic vision for a generation, and it shows. The absence of an overarching strategic concept has produced little but short-sighted moves that have left the country less secure, less prosperous, and less relevant.

President Donald Trump has made a string of abrupt decisions—banning TikTok, withdrawing the United States from the World Health Organization, and cutting American forces in Germany, are only the most recent examples. The Trump administration is by no means uniquely guilty of fixating on the short term; American leaders have failed the marshmallow test of great-power competition for decades.

To regain strategic coherence and set a better course for the future, the United States needs leaders who can break free from short-term thinking habits and provide a renewed sense of purpose to guide American policies.

In short, the country needs leaders with an infinite mindset.

When the Cold War came to its unexpected end in 1991, the strategy of containment that had broadly guided American policy for almost a half-century did too, and no one had thought far enough ahead to replace it. The United States spent the 1990s tilting at windmills in a period now almost derisively called the “unipolar moment.” After 2001, it reflexively—and then monomaniacally—fixated on the threat of terrorism to the exclusion of all else, squandering its wealth, sacrificing its soldiers’ lives, and tarnishing its reputation, all for nothing.

More recently, it has spent exorbitant sums on what it construes as “great-power competition,” but is really just the defense industrial complex’s same old graft with a different guise—all while its public institutions rot.

Meanwhile, its competitors have been investing in the future by laying the foundations of global integration. They are building the physical and digital infrastructure that’s connecting continents—all while America’s own infrastructure has either lagged or crumbled.

China specifically understands that in the information age, great-power competition is about these global infrastructures. China’s need for infrastructure at home has been fortuitously—for Beijing—matched with global demand abroad. It has woven an impressive system of dependence and influence by buying up controlling interests in ports, laying fiber-optic cables, connecting fifth-generation telecommunications networks, and financing the development of modernizing states—in much the same way the United States itself once did.

China has crowned its foreign investments with a far-flung constellation of diplomatic posts, the most now of any country on earth—all while the United States has cut its own foreign service to the very bone. China has built the planet’s greatest capacity for solar energy generation, even as the United States has foolishly wasted its own resources doubling down on the fossil fuels of the past.

What’s passed for U.S. strategy for the past 30 years or more has been about reaching conclusions—end states, in the strategist’s parlance. But this sequential, linear conception misses the essential point that that nothing ever ends.

Strategy isn’t about reaching an end state, or even about winning.

Strategy isn’t about reaching an end state, or even about winning for that matter. These militarized concepts of strategy are an inheritance from the 19th century only later imperfectly adapted to fit large-scale competition between states. And while the relatively straightforward language of war—with its campaigns, objectives, and engagements—might still suit the battlefield, it is far too reductive to be of much use describing the societal rivalries of the digital era.

Strategy is better described as what James Carse called an infinite game, a competition in which the point is not to win or lose but simply to keep playing. Finite games, like chess, have straightforward rules. They are about tactics—limiting an opponent’s options until the only choice left is capitulation—the checkmate. Infinite games, in contrast, are about expanding a player’s options and ensuring the competition continues even when other options are removed. The classic example of an infinite game is Nomic, in which players have the option to change the rules in play, and can win by tying their opponents up in a knot of contradictions—an outcome more reminiscent of international competition. As Carse wrote, “Finite players play within boundaries. Infinite players play with boundaries.”

Everett Carl Dolman, a professor of military studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Command and Staff College, wrote that strategy seeks not the culmination of events but “a favorable continuation of events.” Strategists aim to increase their options by manipulating the structure of the competition itself, dictating the terms by which the game is played. Unlike tactics, strategy is never about the next move. It is instead about defining the range of moves that are even possible. A good strategy, in other words, aims to make the outcome of tactical events irrelevant.

America’s adversaries seem to grasp this more clearly than its own leaders do. While the United States has been playing the game under a certain set of assumptions, its enemies have been changing them. As former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia John Culver writes, China perceives that “the side that best marshals superior domestic stability, economic performance and relevance to international conditions will prevail.”

For more than two decades now, Chinese leaders have worked assiduously to change the structure of great-power competition. They have manipulated the boundaries of play both by growing Chinese influence in existing institutions and by founding new ones more suitable to Chinese preferences. Today, President Xi Jinping is building China’s state capacity while the United States dismantles its own; he’s expanding Chinese influence beyond East Asia while America stains itself with transactional diplomacy and foreign policy by pique.

This isn’t some master strategy or stroke of brilliance. China makes plenty of mistakes, from its obsession with domestic control contravening attempts to build soft power to the needless picking of border fights that have alienated almost all of its neighbors. It simply benefits from having some sense of vision that, for better or worse, goes beyond the obsession with the next six months or the next poll.

Today, for good or ill, the decisions of great powers reverberate through a global competitive network. The states that build solid foundations will be well positioned to ride out the inevitable shocks of an age of disruption. Those that don’t—those that fixate on the immediate or the expedient while letting others manipulate the infinite—will decline, and perhaps even fall. To make sure it doesn’t wind up in the latter category, the United States needs to start thinking in infinite terms.

U.S. leaders need to decide what the country stands for in the 21st century. Vociferous daily condemnations of China aren’t nearly enough. Everyone knows what the United States is against; they must also know what it is for. An infinite-minded America would argue big, bold ideas that safeguard individual liberty and accelerate human progress—for everyone, everywhere.

An infinite-minded America would argue big, bold ideas that safeguard individual liberty and accelerate human progress.

Next, it must choose the role it seeks to play in a world where it is no longer a virtually unquestioned hegemon. Those days are gone, and they aren’t coming back. Because the United States remains a hemispheric power with a large market and global reach, it will always exert a powerful influence on world affairs. But it can no longer expect other nations—even allies—to follow its lead by default, something it should have learned from the paltry character of its willing coalition in 2003.

With its values set and its aspirational role defined, U.S. leaders could begin to craft a compelling story to illuminate every subordinate decision about where the United States stands, where it wants to go, and how it intends to get there. They could envision new mechanisms to buttress the liberal order America built after World War II, changing the structure of the game once again—to benefit not only Americans, but also everyone around the world who believes in freedom and the rule of law.

An infinite strategy would finance the future by investing first and foremost in Americans themselves. It would prioritize the rebuilding of public infrastructure over profligate spending on antiquated military platforms, recognizing that the health, welfare, and education of a nation’s citizens is the foundation of all political power. It would modernize the national security bureaucracy, both by reforming existing institutions to make them more responsive and representative and by designing new ones better able to seize opportunities and mitigate risks. It would reassure friends by being transparent with its motivations and deter enemies by making it clear what the United States will and will not accept.

The world needs a vigorous and united United States to offset the growing power of an authoritarian, avaricious China. But Americans must understand that no nation is inherently great, or even good, and that past pedigree counts for little today. Nations are made great only by the actions and choices of their people over time. Every generation of Americans must choose reform over stagnation, and hope over fear, if they are to navigate the disruptions of the 21st century and show a path the rest of the world will follow.

Zachery Tyson Brown is a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a board member of the Military Writers Guild. He is a graduate of the U.S. National Intelligence University. Twitter: @ZaknafienDC

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