To understand 21st century geopolitics, think of the global capitalist system: it is a marketplace, not a monopoly. In this diffuse network of nodes and connections, stronger and weaker ties, interdependencies and feedback loops, bad decisions are punished almost as quickly as the stock market punishes bad business models. We have just lived through the inaugural cycle of this geopolitical marketplace. Two decades ago, president George H.W. Bush proclaimed a “New World Order” at the United Nations General Assembly, yet today’s world is multipolar and leaderless. It is a Gaullist world: no allies, only interests. The difference between alliance and dalliance is just one letter.It is in this context of realities too complex for sound bites that we must formulate grand strategy. Sadly, though this imperative has been especially clear since the September 2001 attacks, rather than focusing on meaningful strategy, Washington’s policy elites appear to have spent the past decade obsessed with finding a winning narrative. Like a high school debate competition, style seems to matter more than substance. Absent a coherent grand strategy to guide them, debates about national security spending and defense budget cuts quickly devolve into turf wars, ultimately decided by patronage rather than national interest. Graduating from the hard-versus-soft power divide and embracing “smart power” is considered a great intellectual stride. Jargon swamps strategy.
Grand strategy should be about connecting ends and means on a global scale that transcends administrations and their peculiar obsessions and preoccupations, whether it be Iraq, Afghanistan, or China. It is about more than reacting to immediate events. In the age of globalization, grand strategy must take into account the financial crisis, Middle Eastern instability, Asia’s hunger for commodities, nuclear proliferation, technological disruptions, and trans-regional terrorist networks — all at the same time. Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy over the last two decades has been characterized more by, to borrow the great historian Arnold Toynbee’s terms, alarmism and reactiveness than the necessary foresight and adaptation. From Afghanistan to Iraq to the Arab Spring, the U.S. has been either over-confident, caught off guard, or behind the curve. In all cases, it still lacks a coherent vision grounded in a realistic grand strategy.
Washington elites have spent more time debating their neologisms than building a useable inventory of “all the elements of national power,” a phrase on which all sides have approvingly converged. Both liberals and conservatives separate out foreign policy categories that can be ticked off like a to-do-list without appreciating how they inter-relate: China, promoting democracy, the “broader Middle East,” terrorism, “the Muslim world.” But grand strategy is not just about prioritizing, it is about connecting. How do these valid concerns relate to each other so that we can find points of leverage and efficiently achieve our goals?
George Kennan’s containment doctrine lasted over a generation, carried forward by a succession of presidents. Whatever you think of its merits, it was surely a grand strategy in scope and vision. But since the end of the Cold War, a succession of piecemeal doctrines named for Weinberger, Powell, Bush, Rumsfeld, and other figures have substituted for a genuine long-term grand strategy. In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Drezner argues that Obama has already had two grand strategies — in just his first term! The first, which he calls multilateral retrenchment, focused on burden-sharing with allies while beginning a clean up at home, and the second he dubs counter-punching, re-assuring Pacific allies about China’s growing assertiveness and stepping into gaps such as Libya. All of these are sensible ingredients to a single integrated grand strategy that could last longer than two years — if ever such a strategy existed.
During the Clinton administration, Henry Kissinger quipped about then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, “You can’t expect a trade lawyer to be a grand strategist.” Today again, foreign policy is overseen by lawyers such as Tom Donilon and Hillary Clinton who give advice on specific events and problems but not guidance on the bigger picture. As a result, Obama’s speeches remain mellifluous but no longer really register abroad, other than to frustrate for their lack of clear purpose. As Kissinger wrote, “A statesman’s job is to resolve complexity, not just contemplate it.”
Overcoming decades of complacent triumphalism requires a fundamental recognition that the alternative to American hegemony is not necessarily chaos but a potentially self-ordering world. We have to stop pretending that massive expenditure on wars of choice gets filed on the global balance sheet as “underwriting global security” or “provision of global public goods.” Like it or not, the U.S. no longer serves as the world’s geopolitical anchor. Indeed, America is no longer the constant but itself a variable. The downgrading of its debt rating has been more than huge embarrassment; it casts doubt on whether America’s cherished notion of a deep-rooted capacity for national renewal.
Our contribution to global security will increasingly be judged by how much we help others help themselves. Regional groupings are gradually developing their own security organizations, through which they collectively manage affairs. This could mean stronger, regionally based peacekeeping forces for Africa, the Arab world, and Central Asia. To the extent that our heavily resourced regional commands (CENTCOM, PACOM, etc.) and NATO conduct interventions in North Africa and Central Asia, it should simultaneously be about building and leaving behind regional security communities that prevent relapse. In the Persian Gulf, bullying Iran on behalf of Sunni Arab states is not enough; a Gulf Security Conference at which Near Eastern neighbors all sit at the same table would be the fundamental — and still missing — act of long-term statesmanship.
There is mutual benefit to helping others help themselves, thereby reducing America’s burden. This makes fiscal as well as strategic sense: regional conflicts are more likely to remain that way, rather than escalating or drawing in global powers. Furthermore, if China is viewed as the exploitative, neo-colonial power, while the West helps troubled states achieve good governance, the U.S. will eventually win the “race to the top.”
The U.S. also needs a fundamentally different approach for the collapsing post-colonial world. State failure and fragmentation may accelerate from Central Africa to Central Asia, from Congo to Pakistan. Here we must bridge the gap between letting civil wars and local conflicts fester out of control on the one extreme end of the spectrum and launching full-fledged nation-building on the other. Libya was a good example of “leading from behind” — using minimal resources to support a collective purpose–but it doesn’t plan for the aftermath. We’ve typically punished governments who don’t behave well. Something closer to a grand strategy would marry this with more cost-effective “expeditionary economics,” small-scale infusions of assistance and capital that could help jump-start economies towards self-reliance. As Congress further slashes foreign aid, necessity will be the mother of innovation to spend only on programs that actually work — and to focus on priorities, such as containing any leakage from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
In a time of global economic upheaval and convulsions, exploiting the nexus of technology, sustainability, and economic vitality must also be pillar of American grand strategy. World history is increasingly driven not by geo-politics or geo-economics but geo-technology. The competition to capture the leading sectors of innovation will determine winners and losers. America’s infrastructure morass presents a unique opportunity for an investment program that would bring new technologies and skills to the American heartland. The U.S. remains the world’s leader in invention, but to keep up it needs far more companies that design, build, and sell high-tech goods and services to the rest of the world. Otherwise, all the world’s electric cars and mobile phones will be Indian or Chinese, and all its solar cell units and wind turbines European — including in America.
No single power contains within it the richness and talent of America’s government, corporations, academia, civil society groups, churches, diasporas, and more. American companies are still the top brands. American private universities have expanded into the Middle East over the past decade despite official U.S. policy, demonstrating that America can still be welcome around the world in so many diverse ways. But America’s vast potential remains haphazardly deployed absent a grand strategy, which would harness this wealth for clearly and consistently articulated and executed domestic or international campaigns through public-private partnerships. Since the White House is currently occupied by experts on process, this would be one process worth getting right.