Rethinking American National Strategy for the 21st Century

July 24, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: United StatesU.S. Grand Strategy

Rethinking American National Strategy for the 21st Century

"The United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, should continue to take the lead in sustaining and extending a rule based international order."

The Obama administration put in place a national strategy of retrenchment and redirection: retrenchment in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, and a redirection of attention and resources toward East Asia. This strategy was responsive to the public mood. Most of the President’s individual decisions pursuant to this strategy had broad support, to include withdrawing American forces from Iraq, moving to do the same in Afghanistan, leading from behind in Libya and not intervening militarily in Syria. But while each individual decision may have been popular, the overall results have not been. The American people may have been happy to assume less cost and less risks abroad, but they have not been satisfied with the resultant decrease in influence and increase in threatening disorder.


Obama’s policies, indeed Obama’s very election have been the result of more than a decade’s disappointment with counterinsurgency, nation-building and democracy promotion. If one might caricature the first term foreign policy of George W. Bush, as action without reflection, then one might contrast Obama’s approach as reflection without action. Neither charge is entirely just, but certainly Bush’s greatest failing was one of commission (invading Iraq) whereas Obama’s have been ones of omission (leaving Iraq, not stabilizing Libya, and not doing anything about Syria before it became overrun by militant extremists).

Assessing and Accepting Risk

Many of the choices facing the next administration will come down to the tradeoff between expenditure and risk. The United States can spend more on defense, or risk strategic setbacks in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. It can spend more on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, or risk the many negative consequences of climate change. As long as the risk is not of existential damage, recovery remains possible, albeit perhaps at much increased expense. The United States was unprepared for WWII, for the Korean War, for Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait in 1991, and for 9/11, but recovered from each. The size and power of the United States relative to the rest of the world provide it unique resiliency. In such cases, strategic decisions may come down to a choice between spending more now, or possibly having to spend a lot more later on.

It thus makes sense not only to examine desirable objectives, but also minimally acceptable outcomes. In Europe, the United States might like to see a unified Ukraine moving toward NATO and European Union membership, but might be able to accept a divided Ukraine with the larger part linked to Europe but forswearing NATO membership. In the Middle East, the United States would like to see a peaceful Syria under a moderate pro-Western government, but at this point could probably live with a peaceful Syria under almost any government actually able to impose control. In East Asia, the United States faces little difficulty helping ensure its treaty allies against actual invasion and occupation. The sources of friction with China tend in many cases to be issues in which the United States has no inherent interest. Absent some major miscalculation, the risks are not existential either for the United States or its allies. Some non-treaty partners or potential partners are more vulnerable. So there are legitimate cost/risk equations to be evaluated when drawing red lines in seeking to contain China.

This is not to suggest a race to the lowest acceptable outcome, but rather to note that the cost/benefit ratio associated with doing better than the acceptable minimum needs to be part of the decision process. Declaratory policy will naturally set out desired outcomes; actual strategy needs to leave room for bearable outcomes that fall short of declared goals. Strategic failure will ensue when resources committed prove insufficient to reach even the minimally acceptable goals.

Values and Interests

The next administration, like its predecessors, will want to ground its national strategy in American values as well as interests. The ultimate test of leadership, after all, is followers. Washington needs to enunciate policies that its public will support, its partners join, and its adversaries respect.

At a certain level of abstraction, this is easy enough to achieve. The United States values democracy and free markets and is interested in peace, international collaboration, and expanding trade. It is easier to collaborate with established democracies and to trade with free market economies than to do so with authoritarian governments and closed economies. Therefore our values and interests cohere.

At the retail level, promoting values can be rather more complicated. Non-democratic regimes resist and resent efforts to remake them in our image, and will sometimes withhold collaboration on otherwise shared interests as a result. Freedom, democracy and human rights may be universally applicable, but much as we would wish otherwise, they are not universally attractive, particularly within conservative societies where gender inequality and authoritarian rule are sanctioned and even enforced by religious authority. Finally, as the aftermath of the Arab Spring has demonstrated, there are worse things than a cooperative authoritarian government, to include an uncooperative and even more authoritarian government, as in today’s Egypt, or anarchy and bloodshed, as in today’s Yemen, Libya and Syria.

In practice, therefore, there is sometimes a tension between promoting democracy and human rights and advancing security and economic interests abroad. This requires case-by-case assessment of the local receptivity to the export of values, the cost in terms of other issues of pressing too hard, and the likelihood, if change comes, that it will move in the right direction.

Even back at the dawn of the Cold War, George Kennan, the father of containment, cautioned against looking at the world through a single prism. Reacting to what he regarded as President Truman’s imprudent commitment in 1947 to support any nation threatened by communism, Kennan was “struck by the congenital aversion of Americans to taking specific decision on specific problems, and by their persistent urge to seek universal formulae or doctrines in which to clothe and justify particular actions.” Containment, in Kennan’s view, was a very specific response to a very specific problem, not an organizing principle for America’s global engagement. “Whatever the origins of this tendency, it is an unfortunate one. It confuses public understanding of international issues more than it clarifies it. It shackles and distorts the process of decision making. It causes decisions to be made on the basis of criteria only partially relevant or not relevant at all. It tends to exclude at many points the discrimination of judgment and the prudence of language required to the successful conduct of affairs of a great power.”

Keeping Pace with Change

As noted above, there is a common perception that the world is changing today at a much faster pace than heretofore, making it difficult for U.S. policymakers to keep up. Certainly information flows more quickly and more widely than ever, allowing and even requiring rapid responses to distant events. Moore’s law, which held that computing power would double annually for several decades into the future, is sometimes extended more broadly to suggest a comparable acceleration of geopolitical developments. Events in the Arab world are cited to illustrate this thesis.

However, in terms of shifts in global power balances, prior periods have seen even more rapid change. WWI brought the collapse of the Ottoman and Austrian empires and the creation of more than a dozen new countries. During the two decades after WWII, control over more than half the world’s surface and population shifted radically, as dozens of “non-state actors” — then known as liberation movements — seized power and set up new regimes, both in established states like China and Cuba, and throughout the colonial world. Even without the benefit of television and the internet, contagion and imitation from one society to another throughout this period was quite rapid. Change occurred at an even greater speed during in the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, with the unification of Germany, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again there was broad contagion, with very similar political changes occurring throughout Eastern Europe and 15 new states emerging from the former Soviet Union. Further, with the end of the Cold War, a number of civil wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America that had been stimulated by superpower competition were quickly brought to a conclusion.

Most of these earlier geopolitical shifts changes were favorable to the United States — in contrast to current developments in the Arab world. Not surprisingly, people seem more likely to notice the pace of change for the worse, as opposed to that for the better. Nevertheless it would be hard to maintain that the distribution of power among states is changing more quickly today than after 1918, 1945 or 1989.

This leaves the issue of the power distribution between states, on the one hand, and non-state actors, including individuals, on the other. Are states losing their grip? Is power devolving downward? An oft heard concern is that the inter-state system first formalized by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is unraveling. But most governments in Europe, East Asia, and the Western Hemisphere have not experienced diminished capacity. Africa has long been home to a number of failed and failing states, but the problems there are no more acute today than at any time since the decolonization of that continent some 60 years ago. What is new and disturbing is the fragility of Arab states. Several have descended into civil war. The rest are deathly afraid of so doing, leading their governments to take extreme and often ill-considered measures to counter what they regard as the forces of dissolution.