Breaking Down Obama's Grand Strategy

"The ongoing debate on American grand strategy will benefit from recognizing both the nature and the merits of the Obama grand strategy—as well as the challenges and dilemmas therein."

Does the United States have a grand strategy today? Does it have a coherent set of principles guiding its engagement with the world? These questions have been at the center of recent debates on American foreign policy. In the wake of the president’s widely panned speech at West Point late last month, critics have charged that the United States lacks an overarching design in global affairs; that the country has become rudderless in a stormy sea of international events.

The reality is somewhat different. The Obama administration does have a grand strategy in the sense that there are fairly clear strategic principles that structure its conduct overseas. Those principles revolve around the idea of maintaining American international leadership and primacy, but doing so at lower costs and in ways that better reflect the changing geography of global power. These concepts, moreover, are not obviously wrong or quixotic—given the combination of challenges and constraints that the country now faces, they actually make fairly good sense.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that sensible strategies are not always successful strategies, and the particular grand strategy that the Obama administration has sought to pursue also contains within it a set of key tensions, challenges and dilemmas. These issues touch on some of the fundamental challenges of the grand-strategic endeavor—and they could prove quite serious in the years ahead.

What Is Grand Strategy, Anyway?

Before discussing what U.S. grand strategy is today, it is useful to address what grand strategy is in general.

As I explain in my recent book on the subject, a grand strategy is essentially an integrated set of principles and priorities that give structure to a country’s statecraft. It consists of a series of considered, interlocking judgments: about the nature of the global environment, a country’s highest goals and interests within that environment, the primary threats to those goals and interests, and the ways that finite resources can be deployed accordingly. These judgments make up a sort of intellectual calculus that informs policy, the various concrete initiatives—diplomacy, foreign aid, the use of force—through which states interact with the world. Put simply, a grand strategy is the basic conceptual framework that helps nations navigate a complex and dangerous international environment.

Having a grand strategy is, therefore, essential if states are to maintain focus and discipline in their statecraft, and effectively use their power. Yet getting grand strategy right is never an easy task. The very endeavor of grand strategy requires countries to prioritize among competing challenges and opportunities, and to make painful decisions about trade-offs between various goals and objectives. It forces officials to relate short-term policies to long-term interests, and to both exploit and preserve the myriad sources of national power. Moreover, they must do all of this in a constantly evolving international environment, and amid the furies of domestic and bureaucratic politics at home.

For these reasons, a grand strategy can never be a road map with all of the twists and turns plotted out in advance, or a panacea that somehow wipes away the complexity of the global arena. At best, a grand strategy is simply a collection of generally coherent ideas about where a country seeks to go in the world and how it should seek to get there. These ideas need to be firm and focused enough to keep American policy anchored amid the geopolitical squalls, but also flexible enough to allow adaptation and even improvisation in their implementation. Indeed, the ultimate test of a grand strategy is not whether it provides seamless coherence and flawless performance in a country’s foreign policy; it is whether it simply offers enough coherence and performance so that a country can advance towards its highest objectives over time.

Understanding Obama’s Grand Strategy

So what is President Obama’s grand strategy today? Over the past several years, his administration has gradually assembled a grand strategy based on three overarching ideas, each of which is framed by one of the key geopolitical contexts in which American foreign policy is now operating.

The first of these is the post–Cold War context. By virtually any standard, the post–Cold War order has been extremely favorable to the United States. It’s an order that has been very stable and peaceful by any meaningful historical comparison. It’s an order in which the democratic countries—particularly the United States—have enjoyed a clear preponderance of power. It's also an order that has been very favorable to the further advancement of free markets and democracy. In sum, the post–Cold War order is a world in which the United States can live very comfortably and very advantageously. And so, not surprisingly, the first principle of the Obama administration's grand strategy has been to preserve that order by sustaining the American leadership and primacy on which it rests.

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