Wondering Where the Lions Are: American Grand Strategy

originDeM Banter:  As mentioned in the ABSTRACT POSTChapter 1, 2, and now in Chapter 3: in 2007-08 I was fortunate enough to be selected a a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  An outstanding year spent with some of the foremost personalities in National Security on both the Right and the Left sides of the aisle.  While there we were required to present a paper… the DeMarco paper focused on Leadership and National Security Strategy.

As with any work, I look back on the years and the paper to see a ton of wishful thinking.  However, given that the paper was written before the 2008 election it was a bit of a plea to our incoming POTUS (then unknown) to develop a strategy in light of not only the “War on Terror” but to also stare into the next two decades and establish a strategic vision to guide our country.  The paper was relatively short, maybe 50 pages…but not really a blog post.  I will post the chapters over the next few weeks….Abstract  and Chapter 1 and 2 are available at the links above and on to Chapter 3. Please share any thoughts… on the blog, Facebook, twitter… anything. Thank you

Chapter 3:

US Grand Strategy

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” -Winston Churchill

“Most people assume there are all sorts of ‘master plans’ being pursued throughout the US government. But, amazingly, we are still searching for a vision to replace the decades-long containment strategy that America pursued to counter the Soviet threat.” — Thomas Barnett

By J. William DeMarco

Given the choice, would the next US President choose the international situation in January 1953 over the one that he/she will inherit in Jan 2021? Today, the world is more dynamic, but the danger was no less in the early 1950s. The US was in a similar state of strategic ambiguity. Truman’s containment policy evolved in stages between 1945 and 1953, largely in reaction to Soviet operations. Following the onset of the Korean War, Truman adopted a more aggressive strategy documented as NSC-68, to counter the threat posed by Soviet nuclear capability. NSC-68’s objectives and programs focused on coercing “rollback” of Soviet power through military predominance before the “year of maximum danger.” NSC-68 led to tripling the defense budget and the NATO decision to re-arm West Germany. By the time Truman left office, efforts to pursue this strategy produced a confused legacy of objectives, policies, and programs in disarray.

In January 2021, the new American President inherits: The rise of China and India, Russia’s resurgence on the world stage, Europe’s evolution, globalization’s powerful and unpredictable effect, and national, cultural and religious reactions to globalization…naming only a few. Any strategy must go beyond the usual National Security Strategy rhetoric and embrace what Eisenhower knew to be true. The U.S. must clearly present and articulate concise priorities with a well defined strategy to communicate what this reluctant hegemon represents to its populace and the world.

Leadership and Strategy:

Strategy, derived from the Greek word strategia, literally means “generalship.”

Generalship is defined as “skillful management or leadership.”  Strategy also describes the means by which policy is effected, accounting for Carl Clausewitz’ famous statement that war is the continuation of political relations via other means. In his book, Strategy, Basil Liddell Hart examines wars and battles from the time of the ancient Greeks through World War II. Concluding his review, Liddell Hart arrives at the short definition of strategy: “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”

National grand strategy, well above military strategy, involves more than simply the application of military forces. National strategies serve as guidance for the implementation of plans, programs, campaigns, and other activities. Any national strategy must consider all the economic, political, diplomatic, military, and informational instruments to promote a nation’s interest or secure a state from its enemies. Strategies released to the public may also serve political purposes designed to appeal to certain constituencies, influence public opinion, or intimidate the enemy.

Influential strategies make tough choices—allocating scarce resources, setting clear goals, or establishing priorities and further adjusting the strategy when those resources, goals and priorities are in conflict. Strategy bridges the gap between policy and tactics. Strategic theory cannot, however, obtain a high level of predictive value. Further, the study of strategic behavior falls within the social sciences where few laws exist. At best the social scientist can give only a probability that a particular action will be followed by the desired result. Strategy is more art than science, a framework, and most importantly it should cast a vision—provide a rallying point and direction. As such, without a coherent strategy—the nation exists in a state of ambiguity with a lack of focus—wasting resources and effort.

Strategy creation is not easy. Returning to the Greek definition, it demands skillful leadership, a leader not afraid to make tough choices on what America represents strategically and allocating recourses and vision to achieve those ends.

National Security Strategy (NSS): Context and Foundation

The basic objective of national security strategy is to protect the country’s people and the American way of life. The current NSS concept was developed by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act (GNA). The Act requires the President to submit an annual report on the National Security Strategy. The NSS is a statement of interests, and objectives, along with the concepts for achieving them. The report was designed as a formal Congressional presentation of grand strategy lending coherence to the budgeting process. A well-written NSS provides Congress a clear idea of resources required to support the strategy.

sleepyThere are two major issues with the current NSS process. The first issue is the actual production of the strategy creates the false impression that its formulation is a rational and systemic process. In fact, strategy formulation, within the executive branch, between other government branches and Congress is intensely political and the national strategy emerges only after protracted bargaining, compromise and possible dilution. Strong leadership and a clearly articulated overarching vision must guide the bureaucracy to ensure the end product meets the original intent. 37

Faced with a fast-paced media-oriented world, the President can be expected to resist producing a static, written report detailing his strategic vision. Politically, there is recognition the NSS is not the only, the principal, or even the most desirable means for the President to articulate publicly his strategic vision. Personal testimonies by the administration before Congress–supported by Presidential speeches, creating a coherent campaign of public awareness and buy-in to the electorate–is perhaps preferable in influencing public opinion and resource allocation. Understandably, this view relegates the NSS to a mere piece of paper before Congress.38

Second, strategy is not limited to the NSS or the elected officials producing it. There are pockets of planning activity within many departments and agencies, particularly Defense and State with insufficient overarching integration for these strategy cells. Strategy at these department levels is comprehensive planning but usually from the perspective of that particular agency. NSS takes its roots from Goldwater Nichols, a DoD reform act—as such the NSS tends to take on a very military flavor. Grand strategy must address much more than military aims, but in the current NSS construct this integration is difficult. Further departmental strategy is devoid of the political dynamic provided by those who have won elections, providing the authority to set future directions of security policy and strategy.39 A future Solarium construct might bring all branches together, debating, contrasting, and pontificating the president’s vision and direction for the nation in an integrated fashion.

The NSSs submitted by the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and William J. Clinton administrations usually did little more than simply restate policies already in effect. The reports were bland, inciting little discussion on Capitol Hill or elsewhere, and appeared more akin to promotional brochures on administration policy than carefully reasoned documents of national security. In 1994, an angry Senator Strom Thurmond (S.C.- R), involved in passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act, complained that the reports “seldom met … expectations.”40 Thurmond further noted that reports tended to be late, if presidents even bothered to submit them at all.

National Security Strategy: Today

National Security Strategy must be grounded in social and cultural realities, with a focus on achieving clearly defined objectives, and a call for resources adequate to achieve those objectives as well as cope with unanticipated conditions.41 It is critical to acknowledge the difference between the strategic, the operational, and the tactical. Today, the importance of the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan can not be overstated, yet they are operational fronts in a larger conflict. The national grand strategy must rise above these theaters and address the position, the plan, and the direction for the US today and into the future. Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, a Vietnam and Persian Gulf combat veteran, notes our “…strategy is unbalanced, incoherent and underfunded.”42

The Bush administration often referred to the pledge of spreading democracy, as the premise of the US security strategy. “With the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” President George W. Bush stated in his second inaugural address. Yet the strategy lacks in ways, means and there are no clearly defined milestones on the path to the end state. In what might amount to frustration, Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a memo leaked in October 2003, “Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.” Without a clear, well thought out strategy, there are no metrics.43

The US Government has not lacked in action, but failed in want of a cohesive, well articulated plan, and overarching strategy. Attempts at efforts like Solarium II, mentioned in the previous chapter, should be applauded yet they failed in delivery. The importance of a global strategy in light of a new war, a new enemy, fought in territory like Afghanistan in which the US had little in the way of war plans is imperative.

The Global War on Terror—if the conflict is indeed global, a war, and confined to the tactic of terror—requires the next President of the United States to articulate a strategy to unify US efforts across this country’s diplomatic, military and economic spectrum. No agency alone can plan its way through this conflict. It requires innovative, imaginative, bold and audacious leadership, something that is hard to come by in bureaucracies at times.

There is no evidence that the current administration ever held a grand strategy session with its principals in which all the variables were laid on the table: the costs of the global war on terrorism, the strategic goal, and the real costs, in dollars and lives, of an Iraq invasion. In February 2003, the administration did release the “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” which was mainly a statement of aims, boilerplate, and it was drowned out by the Iraq war the following month. As former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft quoted, the administration still needs to study “the roots of terrorism and not the manifestations of it.” 44

KennanBook_0419George Kennan’s famous Long Telegram in February 1946, described “the sources of Soviet conduct,” and culminated in NSC-68 in the spring of 1950. NSC-68 was not boilerplate. This internal policy document included precise requests for defense spending and projections for how America eventually defeats the Soviet Union. It did take about four years, but America developed a strategy that ultimately prevailed.45 The U.S. is seven years into this generational conflict. The incoming US President will have a short window of opportunity to gather the leaders from all over the federal government and blaze a new trail for America. It is time for something different, time for an “out of the box” long term security strategy.

Dr David Mets, of the US Air Force’s Research Institute notes, “Strategy rarely survives the first contact with any enemy, but that the exercise of making strategy is highly useful nonetheless because it accustoms the mind to the issues it will have to face once the battle is joined, and quicken the responses.”46 Strategy is not always about the answers; many times it is more about the questions. President Eisenhower was acutely aware of the importance of strategic planning and the associated questions. He often quoted Count Helmuth von Moltke that, “planning is everything; plans are nothing.” By engaging in a well-structured planning exercise, such as Project Solarium III, one becomes prepared for the unexpected. While the short-term utility of such an exercise might be limited, the long-term benefits include: 1) it provides strategic thinkers with an opportunity to move beyond the day-to-day problems; 2) a solid methodology would help ensure the integrity of any final decision that is made; and 3) a methodology is reusable whereas a policy may not be.47

National Security Strategy: The Future

First, since the end of the Cold War, the United States corporately has not devoted the requisite intellectual and political energy necessary to truly understand its relative position in detail and the real obstacles, risks, and costs associated with maintaining that position over time. The greater “United States” can donate the corporate will, but it takes a lion to direct America. A strong leader must provide the plan on how the country will achieve the envisioned end state. Second, the United States has yet to develop a grand strategy that employs all of the enormous potential embodied in its instruments of power to secure its strategic position and influence effectively against direct and indirect challenges. Finally, the nation’s strategy elite must identify and articulate the principal aspects of the resultant grand design and both assess and account for the real costs associated with pursuing it in a meaningful way.48

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, America confronted similar problems. The US government worried about the spread of communism and feared its forces could take over the world. Through the action of the Truman administration and the deep thinking accompanied by action of the Eisenhower presidency the threat was eventually defeated. This effort was definitely not an overnight success; it took time, thinking, adjustments, patience and above of all a strategy.

America needs to be similarly imaginative today. Cynthia Montgomery at the Harvard Business School notes, “Strategy is not what it used to be—or what it could be.” Her argument is leadership must be placed back into strategy. Strategy is now thought of as an analytical problem to be solved, a left brain exercise of sorts. Strategy is fluid by nature as it must adjust to competition and as such demands continuous, not periodic leadership.49

Why did the U.S. neglect deep thinking strategic planning? Perhaps in part the National Security Strategy process as posed by the Goldwater Nichols Act is a culprit. Has the leadership elite focused on process over substance? In the days of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Hap Arnold, strategy was identified as the most important duty of a leader—the person responsible for setting the course of a nation and seeing the journey through. The role encompassed both formulation and implementation–thinking and doing combined. Over many decades, strategy makers met many formulas, equations, economics, and an ever increasingly changing world. In the advent of new processes and thought something has been lost. While gaining depth, strategy has lost breadth and stature. Montgomery notes, “It has become more about formulation and implementation, and more about getting the idea right at the outset than living with a strategy over time.”50

One can, for example, make a cogent argument that foundational Cold War efforts like Kennan’s “long telegram” and his “X” article (“Sources of Soviet Conduct”); NSC 20/4 (“US Objectives with Respect to the USSR to Counter Soviet Threats to US Security”); NSC 68 (“United States Objectives and Programs for National Security”); the Eisenhower Solarium Project; and, finally, NSC 162/2 (“Basic National Security Policy”) established a grand strategic foundation. Further, that this strategic foundation, with some subsequent and at times substantial course corrections and style adjustment, informed and guided strategic decision makers for half a century.51

Strategy is not simply a plan, not just an idea; it is a way of life, a guiding light. Strategy does not just position a nation in its external landscape; it defines what a nation stands for. Watching over a strategy day in and day out is not only a leader’s greatest opportunity to shape the global landscape it is also the greatest opportunity to shape the country itself.

Michèle A. Flournoy and Shawn W. Brimley note in their work “Strategic Planning for US National Security, A Project Solarium for the 21st Century,” three trends caused the decline in strategic planning, at least in the way President Eisenhower envisioned it. First, the special assistant to the President for National Security Affairs evolved into a powerful political player. This in turn, has helped propel the NSC staff to a dominant position in the foreign policy process. Second, informal methods of presidential decision-making, while always important in the final calculus of choice, have eclipsed the more structured and formal mechanisms that were once equally valued and prominent in the process. Finally, as presidential administrations focus on crisis management and daily operations, outside entities such as Congress, other government agencies, and think-tanks have attempted to address the strategic planning deficit, with results of varying value. These trends run deep within the currents of national security policy and process, and have greatly influenced the development of American strategy over the last fifty years.

President Bush, much like Truman, has led in the initial phases of this new generational conflict and now a new administration must strategically plan the path America will blaze.

Much akin to President Eisenhower taking the Oval Office from Truman, the next president must develop a plan for the future conduct of this conflict. One issue must resonate clearly; this is not just about the current situation in Iraq or Afghanistan. These countries are merely fronts in this war. The new strategy, must address the U.S.’s position in the world and its position as the current hegemon. America may not taunt others with that position, but recognition of the position and what America represents is of the utmost importance.


32 Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003), I.
33 Bowie, Waging Peace, 124.

34 American Heritage Dictionary, on line, internet, 5 December 2007, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/generalship.
35 Mark Sauter, James Jay Carafano Homeland Security, A Complete Guide to Understanding, Preventing, and Surviving Terrorism, (McGraw-Hill Company, 2005) 238.

36 Bruce Russett and Harvey Starr, World Politics, A Menu for Choice, (Wadsworth Publishing, San Francisco, 1981),.32

37 Don M. Snider, The National Security Strategy, Documenting Strategic Vision, Second Edition, (Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College, 1995) on line, internet, 15 December 2007, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/Pubs/display.cfm?pubID=332 pg 4 .
38 Ibid.

39 Snider, The National Security Strategy, 15.
40 Intelligence Encyclopedia, The National Security Strategy, United States of America, on line, internet, 15 December 2007, http://www.answers.com/topic/national-security-strategy-united-states.
41 H.R. McMaster, “On War: Lessons to be Learned” Survival, Volume 50, Issue 1, February 2008, on line, internet, http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a790435566~tab=send , 12 March 2008, 21. 42 Barry McCaffrey, U.S. Air Force After Action Report, October 2007, Internet, online, 15 January 2008, http://www.mccaffreyassociates.com/pages/documents/AirForceAAR-101207.pdf

43 Hirsh, 9/11 and Counting, B01. 44 Ibid.
45 Ibid

46 David Mets, Email dated 12 March 2008, Chapters 1-3.
47 Notberg, Once and Future Policy Planning: Solarium for Today. 48 Ibid.

49 Cynthia A. Montgomery, “Putting Leadership Back into Strategy,” Harvard Business Review Jan 08, 56. 50 Ibid.
51 Bowie, Waging Peace, 12, 31-32, 155 .

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