Clash of the Strategists

A U.S. Marine, who is part of a military honor guard, takes his position before a welcoming ceremony for German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over.

May-June 2018

ABRAMS ADVOCATES directing American assistance, more of it private than governmental, to support the development of political parties rather than that of nongovernmental organizations, which tend to focus more on individual human rights than on regime modification or, better yet, replacement. He would condition security assistance on domestic reform; he argues that with the demise of communism, there no longer is an excuse for supporting “our sons of bitches.” What he seems to overlook is that the United States no longer dominates the international economy as it once did, and that states can and do look to China as a source of assistance as well as an alternative model for governance. Indeed, China is not alone in its willingness to support authoritarian regimes with no questions asked. India is no different. Nor, for that matter, is Israel. The United States simply cannot snap its economic and security fingers and demand progress toward democracy. Autocracies have elsewhere to go. And they do.

Autocracies will also not sit still in the face of American attempts to foist a new governance model upon them. They will retaliate. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has shown the way by banning the very institutions that Abrams argues offer the most in support of his agenda: the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Indeed, Putin has not stopped there. He has interfered in domestic American politics to a far greater extent than any other foreign power since British support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And, despite being overwhelmingly reelected, he continues to protest American “interference” in his own electoral process.

None of this deters Abrams. His policy menu still would direct more American aid toward the development of political parties and focus less on supporting nongovernmental organizations and civil society. It would press for Islamist participation in governance. It would condition security assistance on domestic reform. It would call for elections. And it does not rule out military action to bring about regime change, rather merely acknowledging that the current American political climate renders such action unlikely, if not impossible. The contrast with Kaplan could not be greater.

HARLAN ULLMAN approaches American security policy from a rather different perspective. Drawing upon his experience as a naval officer in Vietnam and then as a senior defense analyst, both while still in uniform and subsequently with a number of leading Washington think tanks, Ullman argues that since the end of the Cold War, the United States simply has lacked the “sound strategic thinking” necessary to address effectively an increasingly evolving international environment. As a result, “where the use of force has gone badly awry, it was through the failure of decision makers, who allowed unsound and flawed strategic thinking to drive bad decisions.” Every administration since that of John Kennedy comes in for Ullman’s criticism, though he treats that of George H. W. Bush more gently than the others.

Ullman offers three requirements for what he repeatedly terms the “sound strategic thinking” that must underpin any major decision relating to the nation’s security. First, decisionmakers need a “deep understanding and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding and encompassing the issues.” In his view, the decisions to intervene in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the war on ISIS, all fell short of this standard.

Second, “administrations have failed to understand the changing strategic environments of their times.” In Ullman’s opinion, “today’s foreign-policy intellectual framework remains embedded to a considerable degree in twentieth-century and Cold War thinking.” Policymakers have yet fully to assimilate the realities of a networked, multipolar world, and for that matter, too often view challenges through an ideological prism rather than in terms of their reality. In particular, Ullman identifies notions of deterrence as an example of outdated thinking. Deterrence is no longer dependent on force of arms and the threat of thermonuclear war; rather, Ullman asserts, it depends on “sound strategic thinking” that calls for cooperation with states in some respects, for example, defeating the Islamic State, even as there is competition and tension in others.

Third, Ullman calls for what have been called “whole-of-government” approaches to address international challenges through the use of nonmilitary influence—what Joseph Nye has termed “soft power.” Overreliance on military force to compensate for other tools of influence can never succeed. Nor for that matter, can reliance on what he calls “sound bites” such as “war on terror” or “hybrid war,” which he argues is “antithetical to sound strategic thinking.” By now the reader will have come across the term “sound strategic thinking” enough times to tire of the phrase. Ullman’s purpose, however, may well be to drive the point home sufficiently often and thoroughly so that it might actually influence policymakers and analysts after they put down his book.

Ullman proceeds to evaluate the degree to which each administration since that of John F. Kennedy employed such thinking. In some cases, he offers some keen insights. For example, Ullman compares the Kennedy administration’s hard-line, ideologically driven response to the Cuban missile crisis, which misread Khrushchev’s desire actually to reduce military expenditures, to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the former, Kennedy employed “raw military power in order to close a missile gap that did not exist”; in the latter, the invasion was “in response to weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.”