Welcome to the Age of Strategic Triage

A member of the U.S. Ceremonial Guard Drill Team during training. Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense

"The history of great powers is rife with examples of states that tried to do it all, everywhere, and frittered away their dominance by failing to retain a balance between resources and obligations."

The next U.S. president will have to face the harsh reality of a war-weary public, contentious domestic politics, uneven economic growth, and a world in which America’s influence seems to be fading. Regardless of who wins this November’s election, the new administration will be forced to set priorities and concentrate national attention and scarce resources on the serious foreign-policy challenges facing this country.

Governing requires hard decisions concerning whether to maintain, expand, or shed commitments. The new administration will have to address questions pertaining to reducing operations in Afghanistan, maintaining obligations in Iraq, and expanding security commitments in the South China Sea. U.S. leaders must constantly evaluate the costs, risks, and potential benefits connected with the myriad of competing interests facing this country. Some obligations may promise too little gain to justify their expense in lives and resources. Others drag on, trying popular and elite patience. Some outlive their usefulness, siphoning resources from more pressing commitments.

Offloading burdens becomes necessary when a great power finds itself stretched too thin. For better or worse, the United States now presides over an age of strategic triage. While the word triage comes from the world of medicine, it is surprisingly useful for strategic deliberations. The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines triage as:

1: the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors.

Triaging is a commonsense method used by field hospitals in times of war or disaster to allocate scarce medical resources to save the most victims possible. Doctors recognize that some patients will recover without immediate medical attention, while others will die even with medical care. Identifying these two groups and excluding them from immediate care allows medical personnel to devote their energies to helping those whose chances of recovery improve with medical attention.

The goal is to wring the most life-saving value from the doctors’ labor. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Medical professionals apportion finite resources to save as many victims as they can.

The Logic of Strategic Triage:

Strategic triage is triage of a political nature, but like the public-health concept, it’s also about allocating finite resources where they can do the most good. But in this case the process benefits not the “victims”—allies, theaters, or operations of doubtful value—but the great power that took on these commitments. It’s a self-serving process conducted to bolster the well-being of the “physician.”

In international relations, health is measured in terms of a state’s military, economic, and diplomatic power and influence. Since all power is relative, it is incumbent on strategists to produce an accurate diagnosis of their country’s health, as well as the health of allies and adversaries. In the zero-sum game of global politics, in which one country’s gain is another’s loss, being healthy is necessary but not sufficient. This is particularly critical for superpowers like the United States, which must remain the strongest and healthiest of all because anything less simply means that the republic is losing ground to rivals.

After completing an accurate diagnosis, great-power strategists then develop a course of treatment that not only maintains but expands their nation’s unique strengths vis-à-vis its rivals. That’s essential because great powers need to effectively manage or cure short- and long-term ailments while seizing opportunities to reinvigorate their health. Only then can they tend to others.

A quick survey of U.S. interests around the globe reveals a dizzying array of competing interests, making an accurate diagnosis problematic. One way great powers have traditionally balanced competing interests is by establishing a clear hierarchy among them. Ideally, this involves a two-step process. The first step is a careful assessment of aims. The second step is to establish the type of aims that will be pursued. Both are required to formulate effective strategies with a reasonable chance of achieving the political aims.

Fortunately, the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz has offered sound guidance on this matter. Clausewitz argues that the conduct of a state’s foreign policy must be governed by the pursuit of rational objectives. The value decision-makers assign to a political aim determines the amount of time and resources they are willing to invest to achieve the goal. That’s easier said than done, but it is still excellent guidance.

So the first step in determining national security interests is to measure the political aim’s importance and the costs associated with achieving it. This allows strategists and decision-makers to make logical decisions about the allocation of resources. The qualitative categorization of political aims and national-security interests enhances their ability to make rational choices.

Using this logic as a foundation, strategy must be based on the value of each political objective and judged by the resources and sacrifices required to achieve it. Clausewitz concludes, “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced […].” In other words, the value of any political aim is measured by its relative costs—the rate at which a combatant expends lives, treasure, and military resources of all types—and the time required to achieve the objective. Rate × time = total cost. Simple!