What if an American grand strategy is not needed or necessary in the 21st century? If it means having one underlying strategy that responds to an overall threat facing this country – what we had during the Cold War – perhaps a new grand strategy will never measure up.
One reason is that threats are coming from everywhere. The Pentagon’s 4+1 construct describes this best. We have great power competition with China and Russia, rogue states aching for attention in North Korea and Iran, plus resurgent terror groups such as ISIS-K. I argue that a single consensus grand strategy is something that Presidents and their administrations will never successfully formulate or live by.
A grand strategy that can fit on a bumper sticker, like “containment,” is now pie in the sky to most people outside the foreign policy establishment. It may be better for Presidents to focus on threats and crises as they erupt. That seems to be what the American people want. Presidents already devise foreign policy responses based on what is on the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, not to mention social media hot takes and the cable broadcasting networks covering the latest outrage. Perhaps foreign policy practitioners should steer clear of making up the next newfangled strategy.
You can’t be a foreign policy think tank without calling for the United States to have a grand strategy. The research institutions within the military have also formulated many strategies over the years. The war colleges develop their own strategies and train leaders to be the next Clausewitz. Academics have called for an original grand strategy too. Congress has held hearings about the lack of a distinctly American international affairs strategy. The Pentagon has an Office of Net Assessment whose job it is to peer into the future for the composition of a new grand strategy. The White House National Security Council is required to periodically release a National Security Strategy to Congress. To further confuse things, the Office of the Secretary of Defense also drafts a National Defense Strategy.
Sometimes these documents result in a doctrine that is assigned to various presidents. George W. Bush based his doctrine on spreading democracy throughout the world. Obama was known for the murky concept of strategic patience and leading from behind, along with a half-hearted pivot to Asia. Trump had his populist America First strategy.
Presidents are also known for their adherence to a particular international relations theory. Clinton was a liberal internationalist. George H.W. Bush was a realist. Conventional wisdom says that Bush’s loyal servant Brent Scowcroft was an uber-strategist that all national security advisers should mimic. But does anyone outside of Washington, DC really care about Brent Scowcroft? I do because I love foreign policy, and I am also nostalgic for Dean Acheson, but that makes me an anachronism these days. None of these shorthand monikers count as a grand strategy unless you lump in Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with their answers to containment. Indeed, approaches to containment have always been the measuring stick for foreign policy strategies, although each president during the Cold War offered a different “strategic wrinkle.” For example, Eisenhower had his New Look. Kennedy had Flexible Response. Nixon had Détente.
Now we have a smorgasbord of grand strategies to pick from and each have logical and even intelligent tenets, concepts, and conclusions. A restrained foreign policy is popular. This is the belief that it is better for the United States to stick to domestic affairs and avoid foreign entanglements. America First fits into this construct as well. Others call for a muscular defense build-up in danger zones and a reliance on stiffening up our allies based on “human liberty, elected governments and free enterprise.” Liberal internationalists, such as Joe Biden, still insist on working within international organizations and treaties. More imaginative ones, such as Conservative Internationalism, yearn back to Reagan and his success during the Cold War. Conservative Internationalism adroitly calls for some precise nation-building with a prioritization of nation building only where democracy is possible. This means that effective democracy promotion comes with armed diplomacy and peace through strength. Realists still dominate the think tank world and they call for grand strategies that are based on the preponderance of power and use of force only if it is in the nation’s interest.
These “rise of the great power” proponents warn about the growth of China and Russia and how America should proceed against these foes. But what if there is never a war with either country? Are we preparing for foreign bugaboos only to give the military branches a way to seek relevance and defense budget dollars for new ships, airplanes, and other hardware? War fighting capability from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran should not be confused with their intent to use new arms systems against us.
We know the foreign policy establishment clamors for a grand strategy, but do the American people? After Afghanistan’s debacle, I would say the population does not desire overseas engagement based on a duty to protect democracies. In a poll taken early this year, only 20 percent said they agreed with foreign policy based on democracy promotion. The media doesn’t really talk about the need for a grand strategy. However, there are academic departments that call for this. Quality institutions such as Yale, Duke, and Texas A&M even educate students to become budding strategists at the national command level. The service academies promote it among their cadets and midshipmen too. To what end? And is this a fool’s errand? After all, most grand strategies become long, convoluted reports that sit on shelves to collect dust after they are written.
Practitioners who have boots on the ground are not completely sold on the need to have a grand strategy. One of my close friends, an Army Special Forces battalion commander, told me that he publicly buys in to the threat matrix facing the Pentagon, especially the growth of capabilities in China and Russia. He tells his superiors that it is necessary to prepare for war against these revisionist powers in his professional capacity. “But privately,” he confesses, “I don’t think we will ever go to war with China or Russia.” And he admits that he has grown tired of calls for grand strategies that have been around for the entire two decades of his military career.
I recommend that we quit trying to devise grand strategies and reluctantly give into what Presidents do best. They treat every foreign policy crisis differently depending on how long it is in the news cycle. Ad hoc foreign policy is now a reality. And it is based on targeted assassinations mainly executed by drones. (See my work on what I call the “gamification of war”). Just look at the Afghanistan withdrawal. The White House simply rode out the controversy, hoping the American people would eventually forget the details. This might actually work. Even though there was a significant hit to Biden’s approval ratings in the short term, the White House is betting that once Afghanistan is out of the headlines, the country can go back to domestic concerns.
Presidents also do not want to be boxed in by strategies that require the consistent utilization of levers of power for the use of force at any given time. Some Commanders-in-Chief think it is better to have freedom and flexibility to maneuver. Obama exemplified this when he resisted his own red line when Syria deployed chemical weapons in 2012. He simply changed his mind from executing some attack to doing nothing. This do-nothing approach is always a foreign policy option. (See Obama’s paralysis during the Crimean crisis of 2014.) Foreign policy observers and other non-practitioners may howl at the moon calling for Presidents to “do something.” But this is not a strategy and pleas to do something are often driven by politics and dependent upon which party is in power at any given time.
I contend that grand strategies are not as necessary as the foreign policy establishment will have you believe. The American people are not really on board with international relations strategy development in the first place. The media also mostly ignores strategy, although it does shape elite’s conduct of foreign policy. The military goes through the motions of strategic formulations which often become just an exercise for staff officers who are taking breaks from line duty.
Patriotism can drive strategic considerations. But what if the populace hates the direction of the country in the first place? A recent CNN poll found that 69 percent of Americans think that things in the country are going badly. This is probably not the time to devise a grand strategy when the American people do not like the direction of its political leadership. What about working with allies? A new CBS poll just revealed that a majority of Americans do not believe in partnering with other countries when it comes to fighting terrorism.
Some Presidents overcome this reticence. Reagan won re-election in 1984 against Walter Mondale in a historic landslide – winning every state but Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Reagan had ample political capital for his effective foreign policy doctrine, even though the Iran-Contra scandal definitely got in the way. We now have a 50-50 country with bedrock states locked into supporting one political party or another. This leads Presidents to approach foreign policy as “firefighting.” It means put out foreign policy fires as they crop up and hope the public’s memory fades after any scandal. To be sure, Jimmy Carter lost the public’s confidence in his leadership during the Iranian hostage crisis that went on for months. This perceived weakness hurt his re-election chances, but that was a different time. The American public is now cagey about foreign policy. Take a look at social media and if you remove calls for public protests overseas, you get very little interest in international affairs.
So put away your grand strategies for now. We need more people to care about international relations in the first place. We need a media to hold strategy in high esteem and one that is based on public interest. We need an all-consuming existential threat personified by one overarching nation-state or non-state actor that violates our comfort zone over and over. We need an American public that easily reaches a consensus on what to do. We need Presidents who are not pressured to “do something,” because we do not know what levers of power, policy options, and blowback “doing something” really requires. A grand strategy, even though some of the best minds in foreign policy devise them, may not be needed after all.
I hope I am wrong. I hope someday we have a President who devises and executes a grand strategy that reduces the chance of war, wins wars if they happen to start, and protects American interests overseas. But it appears there is no chance of that President being elected any time soon.
Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is a Political Scientist and Emerging Threats expert. He was Founder and CEO of an award-winning tech firm that predicted world events using machine learning and artificial intelligence. He served in the U.S. Senate as a legislative fellow and advised a senator on defense and foreign policy issues. Brent has taught at George Washington University and George Mason University. He is a former U.S. Army Infantry officer.