Good Strategy Requires Policymakers to Up Their Game

Good Strategy Requires Policymakers to Up Their Game

Policymakers must be prepared to accept their responsibilities to take the hard choices involved in translating strategy into policy.


As someone who teaches military officers and national security professionals, both at the U.S. Naval War College and at Harvard Extension, I wholeheartedly endorse the points made by Josh Kerbel and Jake Sotiriadis in a recent National Interest column:

…today’s complex strategic environment requires a fundamentally different set of skills. To be sure, we need a strong understanding of strategic foresight, future literacy, and complex systems. We must also acknowledge that today’s hyper-connected strategic challenges are not so much solvable as they are merely manageable. Strategic foresight—which involves the practice of envisioning alternative futures in order to better sense, shape, and adapt to change—can help. It cultivates a tolerance for uncertainty, which cognitive psychology tells us can reduce judgmental bias and promote non-linear thinking.


I would submit, however, that producing better, more innovative strategists capable of providing guidance for navigating this “complex strategic environment” produces a reciprocal charge to policymakers to up their own game. Nothing has frustrated me more over the years than to see creative strategic approaches wither on the vine of policy and political failures.

Reading this essay in conjunction with recent reporting about Washington’s inability to translate wide-ranging, ambitious proposals for Latin American integration and development into concrete policy gains exacerbates my frustration. President Laurentino Cortizo of Panama sums it up: “The speeches are very pretty.” The fault lies not in the strategic thinking, but the dysfunctionality of the U.S. policy process. What makes this so personally painful is for a decade I have seen students coming through our strategic education process chart out how the United States needs to compete using all tools of statecraft against the growing Chinese presence in Latin America—but policymakers are largely unable to act on them, except at the margins. Ricardo Zúniga, who serves in the Biden administration as principal deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, acknowledges that the U.S. effort relies on a cobbled-together approach because the big-picture strategic proposals have no way of being translated into action. He told the Financial Times, “Our political reality right now is that there’s not support for expansion of free trade agreements” (which requires Congressional legislation) and instead rested upon “taking advantage of trade facilitation and ... nearshoring opportunities” (by using executive authorities to interpret pre-existing regulations and policies). This is the same challenge Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo faces as she attempts to stretch executive actions to try and capture some of the strategic benefits (in terms of trade and technological cooperation) among U.S. partners in the Indo-Pacific basin—via the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which is a poor person’s substitute for the ambitious goal of creating a trading community binding the Pacific rim to the United States.

Yet the lack of binding commitments always undermines the reliability of such proposals. The problem is exacerbated because executive actions are highly dependent on who sits in the White House. An enterprising entrepreneur might have concluded, at the end of 2015, that President Barack Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to commit the United States to the Paris climate framework and to reach a nuclear deal with Iran might create opportunities: a United States committed to reducing emissions (and also engaged in the first wave of economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea) might support the rapid development of Iran’s underutilized natural gas reserves (to help offset European dependence on Russia and to use natural gas as a bridging fuel towards a long-term green energy transition). Had Hillary Clinton succeeded in her 2016 presidential bid, that might have been a gamble that paid off. By 2017, however, President Donald Trump had reversed both of those executive actions.

How confident are IPEF countries that announced regulatory changes would last into the next administration—or that President Joe Biden himself might reverse those decisions if domestic interests complained about losses from these efforts? Germany and South Korea both have seen how the administration is whipsawed between promoting the notion of increased trade and technological collaboration among the states of the democratic community, and advancing proposals that sound suspiciously like an “America First” approach. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai is not wrong when she says, “There are actually a lot of countries around the world that really want to be economically engaged with us.” But her efforts to, as she herself describes it, pitch “America as a reliable and positive partner” runs up against these concerns. And, it bears noting, the U.S. approach to Ukrainian security guarantees—to rely not even on an executive agreement, but an even less-binding “memorandum”—shows the risks when certain obligations and courses of action are not solidified into U.S. law and practice.

What this has meant, as my colleague Ali Wyne has often said, is that the United States has tended, over the last decade, to respond to what China does, rather than proactively setting the agenda. And I would argue that while China’s efforts may fail, it is not strategically wise to predicate U.S. policy on expectations of Chinese failure. As we have seen with Russia in Ukraine, Moscow’s ability to prolong its invasion has far outlasted expectations of Russian collapse.

Moving forward, there are two immediate recommendations for policymakers. The first is to return to the legislative process: for Congress and the executive branch to write new laws, enhance regulations, define authorities—and commit funding. Full-fledged free trade agreements may be politically problematic at this time, but there are other legislative building blocks that can be enacted, building on the success of proposals like the CHIPS and Science Act. It requires political figures to assess trade-offs, set priorities, and be prepared to compromise to get proposals in place, following President Ronald Reagan’s old adage about it being better to get 60 percent of what one wants than to go over the cliff flags flying. This includes painful but necessary discussions about where U.S. domestic interests might be negatively impacted, and how that damage might be mitigated.

The second is to also set—and abide—by priorities in our foreign policy. Building a lasting and durable coalition both to develop a security cordon across the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic basins but also to promote the technological, energy, climate and health partnerships needed to secure the peace and prosperity of the United States and its allies means that Washington has to be able to accept what elements on its “preferences” list it is willing to set aside. For instance, the Biden administration’s proposals for new infrastructure development funds to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative is going to require commitments from U.S. Gulf allies to deploy their sovereign wealth funds and for India to help reorient supply chains away from the Chinese hub. Yet the United Arab Emirates and New Delhi are not fully committed to joining Western measures to increase economic pressure on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. Balancing their noncompliance with such measures with the fact that any coalition to offset China requires their active participation requires a nuanced and delicate approach.

Just as in 1989–91, the world today is undergoing major shifts in the global system. We have every right to ask our strategists to be able to assess, analyze and propose ways to secure U.S. national interests in this changed environment. But our policymakers must be prepared to accept their responsibilities to take the hard choices involved in translating strategy into policy.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor at the Naval War College and the Editor of Orbis. He also co-hosts the Doorstep podcast for the Carnegie Council. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Shutterstock.