Why Grand Strategy Still Matters in a World of Chaos

"Grand strategy is undeniably difficult to get right, but it beats the alternative, grand strategic nihilism, hands-down."

In their provocative recent essay in Foreign Affairs, David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs argue that Washington should quit its flawed pursuit of grand strategy and its obsession with planning. The world, they argue, is too unpredictable for master plans. Our capacity to interpret and predict international affairs is inevitably distorted by cognitive blinders. Government is bureaucratically fractured rather than a purposeful unitary actor. The very process of strategizing leads to threat inflation and overstretch. Grand strategy is thus a dangerous pipe dream, and America should act “pragmatically”—on a case-by-case basis—instead.

There are three crucial problems with this argument. First, it poses a narrow, reductionist view of grand strategy. Second, it underestimates the range and value of strategies that history suggests are possible. And third, its proposed alternative of mere “pragmatism” is deeply flawed, and in fact, oblivious to its own grand strategic design. As we argue, grand strategy is best understood not as a formal planning process, but as a guiding intellectual framework. When done well, it has helped America harmonize its power with its commitments, and both shape and react to its environment in purposeful ways. Grand strategy is undeniably difficult to get right, but it beats the alternative, grand strategic nihilism, hands-down.

The Concept of Grand Strategy

Edelstein and Krebs’ account of grand strategy is narrow and reductionist. To hear them tell it, grand strategy is little more than a process of formal state planning that must “look like” the elaborate process we see today, with intensive interagency activity and the crafting of documents like the National Security Strategy. Their conception reflects not some broad understanding of grand strategy across time and space, but an indictment of the particular habits of the current U.S. national security bureaucracy and its myriad planning efforts. In this respect, the authors fail to imagine beyond mandarins cloistered in a room, charting an elaborate, step-by-step program. They conflate their dislike of America’s current strategic process with a dislike of strategy itself.

But there’s more to strategy than just planning. As we have argued elsewhere, grand strategy is not a rigid process to control history or eliminate uncertainty. It is an ecological worldview, formed from a mix of different influences—experience, study, values, ideology—that helps officials make sense of complexity and bring resources and commitments into alignment. It consists not of a detailed roadmap to the desired destination, but of a set of core ideas that lend basic coherence to policy and improve the improvisation that is inevitable in world affairs. It may not dictate every decision, but it lays down the basic parameters by which interests are defined, opportunities and challenges are assessed, and power is applied. Grand strategy thus involves proactive efforts to set long-term objectives and shape international affairs; it also involves efforts to react to unavoidable surprises and shocks in ways that are broadly congruent with those long-term objectives. To use a musical metaphor, grand strategy is not a meticulously composed concerto. It is more like jazz, designed around a shared key but adapting as it goes.

Doing all this is quite difficult, of course, thanks to the contingent nature of international relations, the vagaries of domestic and bureaucratic politics, and the limits of human foresight. But the question is, knowing that grand strategic efforts are likely to fall short to some degree, is it sensible simply to give up? Edelstein and Krebs believe that it is. What they miss, however, is that even if grand strategy is hard to do, it can still be made to work well enough. No grand strategy can provide flawless coherence and foresight in foreign policy. What it can do is help a country achieve better results than would be possible without the overarching guidance that grand strategy provides.

Grand Strategies Past

History offers instructive examples of effective grand strategic behavior, where states have effectively brought power and commitments into balance, either by expanding means (resources, alliances, opinion) to meet ends, or refocused depleted resources to strengthen its core security interests.

Consider just two cases. The first is the grand strategy of Franklin Roosevelt in World War II. Nicknamed “the juggler,” FDR pulled off the notable feats of mobilizing America’s latent power, managing diverse and fractious allies, staying within the casualty limits imposed by domestic opinion and thereby winning the war (and making America the world’s preeminent power) at a fraction of the cost paid by others. He did this not by making things up as he went along, but by keeping several core principles—the need to defeat Germany first, the conviction that America’s comparative advantage lay in wealth and technology rather than manpower, the imperative of muting diplomatic disagreements while the war was on—at the heart of U.S. policies. If this wasn’t successful grand strategy, nothing would be.