January 24th, 2012

America Needs Sound Policy, Not Grand Strategy

Every few months since 1991, there is a new op-ed calling for a new grand strategy or bemoaning the fact that the US doesn’t have one. I’ve written a few blogs/articles to this tune myself. But it’s time to realize that the problem lies with the very conception of grand strategy itself.

In Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks argues that the US needs a grand strategy:

Though different scholars and statesmen define “grand strategy” somewhat differently, at its heart, the concept is straightforward: Grand strategy is “the big idea” of foreign and national security policy — the overarching concept that links ends, ways and means, the organizing principle that allows states to purposively plan and prioritize the use of “all instruments of national power,” diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military. A grand strategy can’t be a list of aspirations, wishes, or even a country’s top 10 foreign-policy “priorities.” (When you have 10 priorities, you really have no priorities at all.) Grand strategy is the big idea that guides the tough decisions, helping policymakers figure out which of those top 10 priorities should drop off the list, which aspirations are unrealistic and impossible, and which may seem like good ideas on their own, but actually undermine the nation’s broader goals.

After this definition, Brooks then criticizes the Obama administration for not formulating one, But with such an expansive definition of strategy, is it ever possible to create one? The problem is that Brooks and other grand strategy writers searching for a “big idea” conjoin policy and strategy together.

To recap, policy (a condition or behavior) generates a strategy (an instrumental device) that executes it through operations and tactics. Policy, in turn, is the product of a political process. In my post on victory, I gave a Chinese food-flavored explanation of this in practical terms. Strategy is not supposed to be an “idea”—it is an practical method of getting things done, a purpose-built bridge between politics and raw violence. I will concede that sometimes a policy will require a global strategy to accomplish it—which is what Basil-Liddell Hart originally meant when he used the term “grand strategy” to refer to World War II.

The idea of grand strategy as both policy and strategy is by definition unachievable, and the source of much confusion.  By infusing normative policy elements into strategy, this fusion turns strategy into a manifestation of ideology rather than a technical device for getting things done.  Think, for example, of how debates about regional strategy and even the tactics and operations of COIN, drones, and counterterrorism have become proxies for domestic ideological political battles. This happens, in larger part, because the policy-strategy distinction in American national security circles is extremely weak, as strategy is taken to be politics and politics becomes strategy.

Nonetheless, there is a very (conceptually) simple way for the United states to rectify its grand strategy problems: decide what is essential for American security and prosperity. Or to be more colloquial, what can Americans not go without, what are the biggest threats to nation, and how does force and diplomacy figure into these things? For example, we have determined that the free flow of Gulf oil into the world market is a critical American national interest (and we’re not alone, it’s also a critical Chinese national interest too) and allocated the necessary amount of military resources to ensure that Iran is deterred from doing anything more than making blustering non-threats to close the Hormuz Strait.

And this, I suspect, this is also why we recursively turn to wishing for a technocratic grand strategy to rescue us: we simply cannot come to an honest accounting of what essential interests  constitute.   Sure, part of this is intrinsic to the poisoned chalice of contemporary American politics. Americans have deep domestic divisions about foreign policy and security. There is a wide gulf between the basic epistemological lens that different political parties use when thinking about the basic parameters of foreign policy, to say nothing of the internal disputes within those parties themselves.

But there’s another problem: a ruthless accounting of actual American interests will butcher sacred cows and commonly held assumptions. Brooks herself argues for the viability of democracy promotion without ever really grappling with precisely why democracy promotion should be an American foreign policy priority. As Dan Trombly argues, similarly a unexamined assumption lies at the heart of the concept of the “global commons.” Sure, some commons are essential to American security—but not all of them.

Aaron Ellis, writing about British foreign policy thought, dubs this the “internationalisation of the national interest.” And I can do no better than Patrick Porter’s precision demolition of the British National Security Strategy (NSS) for describing the lethal consequences of grand strategy rooted in a set of dangerous hidden policy assumptions:

"It claims the country’s security depends on a liberal, ‘rules based’ world order that upholds its values. This is a potentially bottomless concept. …It describes a world of interdependence and connectivity. Britain is endangered by globe-girding, chaotic processes such as state failure. Broken countries are incubators of extremism, disease, or crime. … According to the document, Britain’s security is directly linked to the type of regime in other states. It cannot tolerate the illiberal. Therefore, London must scan the far horizons and take a forward-leaning posture, watching, engaging and intervening on the periphery to protect its core.

…It asserts that Africa matters wherever there is extremism or violence, not a very discriminating test; Eastern Europe matters because Britain is engaged there; the Middle East matters because it is central to security and ‘totemic’ to extremists, and Afghanistan-Pakistan for its links to domestic terrorism. Central Asia, Eastern Europe, large chunks of Africa and the Middle East: these four spheres would strain a superpower, let alone Britain. Defined this way, the country’s interests have acquired an open-ended, de-territorialised and unbounded character. If British policymakers and their military advisers believe that the nation’s interests are at stake wherever questions of order, values, stability or wealth are involved, all things are Britain’s concern and virtually everything matters. “

Ellis and Porter are describing British policy and strategy, but they could also be talking about unexamined assumptions in American foreign policy and national security thinking. To be provocative, I will introduce this question into the mix—what if these perceptions actually amount to the source of a de facto grand strategy?

Minxin Pei, writing about the US and China, accidentally hit the core of it:

The middle course between a U.S.-China partnership and outright U.S.-China conflict is a managed U.S.-China competition.  There’s no denying that, unless China’s one-party regime becomes a liberal democracy, the United States and China won’t be able to build mutual trust.  The Chinese Communist Party’s existential fear of democracy makes it view the U.S. as a political threat, while America’s fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of authoritarian rule means that Washington will regard a powerful one-party regime in China as a security threat. The lack of trust may make cooperation difficult, but doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict.

To drill Pei’s point down, China is threatening to us not because of what it does (behavior) but because we have determined that illiberal regimes are inherently dangerous. Would it then be fair to say that a driving force in American policy is an idea of global transformation?

This is not exclusive to China. It boils down to a view that who rules is more important than what the rulers do. Who rules is not necessarily something that the US can control with either force or suasion. What the rulers do can be influenced through diplomacy and military power. This belief has manifested itself in policy and actual regional strategies. Look no further than Af-Pak, where the US has invested a substantial amount of resources attempting to build Afghan and Pakistani states as a third party.

Such a policy is, by definition, difficult to operationalize in global strategy. To go further with the China example Pei cites, American presidential candidates often rattled sabers about China’s human rights record during election campaigns and then found themselves adopting a remarkably conciliatory China policy in practice. This is not an accident, since each quickly found out that American interests in Northeast and Southeast Asia are rooted in things—such as trade and maintaining Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in crucial regions such as the South China Sea—that are dependent on Chinese behavior rather than internal politics. The difficulty inherent in the transformation of the illiberal makes its implementation inconsistent in practice. So to observers, it appears that the US has no grand strategy, when it may simply have a faulty one.

But this is a digression from the main point: so what about making a modern grand strategy? Here’s a challenge to aspiring grand strategists in an age of austerity: much as a family adjusting its lifestyle to more lean times does, go through America’s proverbial balance sheet and think up what interests are really essential to the security and prosperity of the American nation. I suspect they’ll find a far slimmer set of policies for creating global strategy than documents like the National Strategic Narrative suggest, and that formulating grand strategy is not the bottomless epistemological pit that it sometimes seems.

The US has a lot fewer national interests than it may seem in official strategy documents. For example, does the US really have interests in the Middle East that would justify anything more than a transactional relationship with area governments to keep Gulf oil flowing into the global market and prevent malevolent substate actors from striking the American homeland? These are questions that need to be asked when thinking about policy formulation. And sound policy will guide global and regional strategies to use diplomacy and instrumental force to achieve American interests.

Sound policy would look at what the rulers do and ask whether it is injurious to concrete national interests as opposed to global interests (international norms) or commercial interests (the specific interests of companies). Does it mean that these interests can be meaningfully turned into policy through the political process? All the bets are off. But we’re making grand strategy much more intellectually complicated than it has to be.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng