America's Grand Strategy Disaster

June 9, 2014 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: United States

America's Grand Strategy Disaster

There is no excuse for Washington’s failure to articulate a clear and concise set of core principles that will guide its foreign policy path.

On this point, the United States must actively isolate authoritarians who foster repression, fear, strife, and instability. American grand strategy must directly confront the challenges posed by authoritarians, whose power rests in part on the West’s acquiescence to their initiatives.

Washington must exude a sense of strength and purpose. By ‘strength,’ I do not mean simply in the classic military sense, but rather a strength based on the nation’s commitment and perseverance to building a better, safer, more prosperous, and peaceful world.

Simply put, America needs to stand for and defend principles that promote human rights and dignity, equality in the fullest sense (including gender) for all peoples, freedom of expression, free enterprise, and fair elections. These values were consistent with the historical principles of American foreign policy well before the Cold War and will endure well beyond the present. These principles emphasize that America’s leadership role is essential to discouraging states or actors from taking actions that harm the interests of the United States or other free societies.

Third, reinforce alliances and partnerships by working with others to create and implement grand strategy

While some gravitate towards the belief that the United States is in decline and must scale back its involvement, my own view is that American grand strategy must build on the nation’s current strengths to reinforce alliances and partnerships.

We all know, if occasionally forget, that American power is not unlimited. Indeed, the United States cannot do everything, everywhere, all of the time, for the rest of the world. Attempts to “do everything” erode American public support, as the public asks why we are carrying the burden while other states apparently get a “free ride.”

Conversely, policymakers in Washington learn that they can accomplish vastly more once they enshrine, as a central element of American grand strategy, the value of collaborating with states and institutions who share a commitment to building a peaceful, stable, and secure world. In practice, Washington’s credibility and power increase when it willingly demonstrates its support and encouragement when other states exercise leadership. Washington only gains when it shows greater support for multilateralism. Thus, it must commit to meaningful engagement through international institutions, if we are to encourage states and actors to work together to restrain the dangers to international security faced by all.

At home, the importance of reinforcing alliances is just as crucial. Simply put, partisanship hurts American grand strategy and its vital interests. Although the days of saying that “politics stop at the waters edge” are gone for now, this is a noble aspiration to keep in mind.

Fourth, resist at all costs the impulse to disengage and reject any impulses to unwind American power and influence

Nothing can be more destructive to international peace and security than the belief that Washington actively seeks to disengage from the world. To disengage and walk away from an international system America fought so hard to protect ensures its collapse—a collapse that would only invite chaos.

To cite the examples of several states, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan, and South Korea, among many others, are watching carefully. They remain deeply fearful that a world without American leadership is vastly more dangerous and treacherous.

The parallel belief to be resisted at all costs is that the United States does not need a new grand strategy, despite the assurances of President Obama. Without a coherent grand strategy, allies and adversaries will see U.S. actions and policies as unpredictable, erratic, and ultimately destabilizing.

I worry that policymakers in Washington may seek to unwind American power and influence. From the failure to engage in critical problems to massive increases in the nation’s debt, to cuts in defense spending, one senses that after a decade of massive American involvement, some policymakers may believe it is time for the United States simply to turn away.

Frankly, while apprehension may be misplaced, the “measurables” are not reassuring. States could believe that its leaders want to diminish America’s power and influence.

To me, this possibility is immensely dangerous not only for American interests and those of our friends and allies. It also puts at risk the freedom, security, and prosperity on which so much of the world depends. It is hard to argue against the fact that the world will be a much less stable place if America disengages.

Fifth, don’t be afraid of doing grand strategy

The United States should not be apprehensive about developing a new grand strategy. Grand strategy, despite what some may fear, is not a recipe or roadmap for intervention.

Nor does it imply cookie-cutter solutions. Rather, it is a strong declaration of the principles and objectives that guide American foreign policy. The consequences for other states if the United States does not articulate one are dire. Without a coherent grand strategy, friends and allies will fear American disengagement, worrying that they will be left to fend for themselves against rising pressure from such authoritarian states as Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Adversaries who conclude that the United States is weak will put pressure on Washington and its allies in part to demonstrate America’s indecision. I cannot name a time in history when geopolitical momentum on the side of authoritarian states led to a happy outcome.

Let us hope that Americans and their leaders are not afraid of conducting grand strategy. Grand strategy is the guidepost to action and it has been that way since the administration of George Washington. In reality, Americans and their policymakers have much to lose if we do not articulate a coherent grand strategy, which outlines what the nation seeks to achieve in its international relations. Indeed, a clear and effective grand strategy will better guide the United States as it seeks to address the world’s challenges with strength and leadership.

William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2014), conducts seminars at the U.S. Naval War College on ballistic missile defense, cyber, and space, and served as an advisor to the National Security Council on the review of U.S. National Space Policy (2008-2010). He also served as a Senior Foreign Policy adviser to Governor Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. You can follow him on Twitter: @Billmartel234.

Image: White House Flickr.