The Making of Future American Grand Strategy

"If America is to assure its future security and prosperity, we need a new grand strategy that harnesses its peoples’ spirit, sense of optimism, and perseverance..." An excerpt of the new book by the late William C. Martel. 

A note from TNI’s Executive Editor Harry J. Kazianis: The following is the final chapter of Professor William Martel’s new book Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice: The Need For an Effective American Foreign Policy (please see reprint permission at the end of the chapter). Martel passed away on January 12th after a long battle against leukemia.

Martel was an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also served as a Senior Foreign Policy adviser to Governor Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. Martel was a friend and colleague to many of TNI’s editors and staff. On behalf of TNI, we send our personal condolences to his family and the Fletcher School community. He will be greatly missed.

The purpose of this book is to provide a framework that helps guide scholars and policymakers as they articulate and implement a grand strategy. A coherent grand strategy, which plays a fundamental role in guiding the state’s foreign and domestic policies, is key in times of both peace and war because only it provides the broad sense of direction, clarity, and vision that policymakers, operating at the highest levels of government, need as they make difficult and consequential decisions. Fundamentally, grand strategy describes a broad consensus on the state’s goals and the means by which to put them into practice.

This book has explored analytically the evolution of grand strategy and used a number of historical case studies to understand the practice of grand strategy, In so doing, it has examined grand strategies pursued by various states and empires, some of which have been highly successful while others less so. While many studies of grand strategy have a discrete historical focus, this book also examines grand strategy in analytic terms by using a breadth of case studies. By covering the evolving nature of grand strategy from ancient Greece and China and throughout American history to the present administration, this study deliberately seeks to examine the crucial patterns and themes that have shaped the historical evolution and implementation of grand strategy.

To this end, Part I of this book examined analytically the evolution of the concept of grand strategy. It described grand strategy as a concept in the theory and practice as states, ancient and modern, conducted their foreign policy. It defined grand strategy as the state’s highest, overarching strategy that considers the long-term consequences of using all instruments of national power, including its military, economic, diplomatic, and informational capabilities. When scholars describe a “hierarchy of strategies”—which in ascending order evolve from tactics, operations, and military strategy to ultimately grand strategy—what emerges is the observation that grand strategy operates at the broadest and most conclusive level for the state.[1] Definitional precision is essential, because, for example, when the state conducts policies, including when it uses military force, its ability to succeed depends in part on whether those policies link directly to and are consistent with the state’s overarching grand strategy. In all cases, grand strategy should govern all the decisions that operate at the lower levels of strategy, and it is likewise the case to ensure that the lower levels never determine or directly influence the state’s grand strategy.

Thus, grand strategy provides guidance to the affairs of the state in the broadest conceptual sense. In the hierarchy of interests and principles that guide a nation’s overall approach to foreign policy, grand strategy provides the central organizing framework or consensus that guides how policymakers articulate and implement their policies. It is precisely because grand strategy, when properly defined and practiced, exerts the greatest influence on foreign policy that it deserves considerable attention and study. Yet policymakers also find that it is difficult to articulate and implement grand strategy effectively, for reasons that are discussed in more detail below.

Fundamental Attributes of Grand Strategy

This first and perhaps most challenging attribute relates to the confusion that surrounds defining the term ‘grand strategy’ clearly. Whereas earlier thought about grand strategy centered on military strategy and how to handle serious if not existential threats to the polity, the current problem with grand strategy runs much deeper. At present, we need to define grand strategy in ways that help policymakers more effectively incorporate domestic economic priorities along with diplomatic and military considerations into the nation’s broader strategy.

As mentioned at the beginning of this book, one reason for the failure to deal properly with grand strategy relates directly to debates about the relationship between strategy, grand strategy, and foreign policy—and the failure to properly distinguish among these concepts. While foreign policy tells us what politics to pursue and strategy tells us how to do so, grand strategy deals with the broader questions of why the state pursues particular policies. Essentially, the unalloyed purpose of grand strategy is, first and foremost, to define for policymakers the goals that they want the state to achieve and its role in the international system. In this sense, grand strategy provides a framework for outlining what kind of world the state seeks to build.