The Making of Future American Grand Strategy

January 27, 2015 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: United States

The Making of Future American Grand Strategy

"If America is to assure its future security and prosperity, we need a new grand strategy that harnesses its peoples’ spirit, sense of optimism, and perseverance..." An excerpt of the new book by the late William C. Martel. 


A note from TNI’s Executive Editor Harry J. Kazianis: The following is the final chapter of Professor William Martel’s new book Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice: The Need For an Effective American Foreign Policy (please see reprint permission at the end of the chapter). Martel passed away on January 12th after a long battle against leukemia.

Martel was an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also served as a Senior Foreign Policy adviser to Governor Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. Martel was a friend and colleague to many of TNI’s editors and staff. On behalf of TNI, we send our personal condolences to his family and the Fletcher School community. He will be greatly missed.


The purpose of this book is to provide a framework that helps guide scholars and policymakers as they articulate and implement a grand strategy. A coherent grand strategy, which plays a fundamental role in guiding the state’s foreign and domestic policies, is key in times of both peace and war because only it provides the broad sense of direction, clarity, and vision that policymakers, operating at the highest levels of government, need as they make difficult and consequential decisions. Fundamentally, grand strategy describes a broad consensus on the state’s goals and the means by which to put them into practice.

This book has explored analytically the evolution of grand strategy and used a number of historical case studies to understand the practice of grand strategy, In so doing, it has examined grand strategies pursued by various states and empires, some of which have been highly successful while others less so. While many studies of grand strategy have a discrete historical focus, this book also examines grand strategy in analytic terms by using a breadth of case studies. By covering the evolving nature of grand strategy from ancient Greece and China and throughout American history to the present administration, this study deliberately seeks to examine the crucial patterns and themes that have shaped the historical evolution and implementation of grand strategy.

To this end, Part I of this book examined analytically the evolution of the concept of grand strategy. It described grand strategy as a concept in the theory and practice as states, ancient and modern, conducted their foreign policy. It defined grand strategy as the state’s highest, overarching strategy that considers the long-term consequences of using all instruments of national power, including its military, economic, diplomatic, and informational capabilities. When scholars describe a “hierarchy of strategies”—which in ascending order evolve from tactics, operations, and military strategy to ultimately grand strategy—what emerges is the observation that grand strategy operates at the broadest and most conclusive level for the state.[1] Definitional precision is essential, because, for example, when the state conducts policies, including when it uses military force, its ability to succeed depends in part on whether those policies link directly to and are consistent with the state’s overarching grand strategy. In all cases, grand strategy should govern all the decisions that operate at the lower levels of strategy, and it is likewise the case to ensure that the lower levels never determine or directly influence the state’s grand strategy.

Thus, grand strategy provides guidance to the affairs of the state in the broadest conceptual sense. In the hierarchy of interests and principles that guide a nation’s overall approach to foreign policy, grand strategy provides the central organizing framework or consensus that guides how policymakers articulate and implement their policies. It is precisely because grand strategy, when properly defined and practiced, exerts the greatest influence on foreign policy that it deserves considerable attention and study. Yet policymakers also find that it is difficult to articulate and implement grand strategy effectively, for reasons that are discussed in more detail below.

Fundamental Attributes of Grand Strategy

This first and perhaps most challenging attribute relates to the confusion that surrounds defining the term ‘grand strategy’ clearly. Whereas earlier thought about grand strategy centered on military strategy and how to handle serious if not existential threats to the polity, the current problem with grand strategy runs much deeper. At present, we need to define grand strategy in ways that help policymakers more effectively incorporate domestic economic priorities along with diplomatic and military considerations into the nation’s broader strategy.

As mentioned at the beginning of this book, one reason for the failure to deal properly with grand strategy relates directly to debates about the relationship between strategy, grand strategy, and foreign policy—and the failure to properly distinguish among these concepts. While foreign policy tells us what politics to pursue and strategy tells us how to do so, grand strategy deals with the broader questions of why the state pursues particular policies. Essentially, the unalloyed purpose of grand strategy is, first and foremost, to define for policymakers the goals that they want the state to achieve and its role in the international system. In this sense, grand strategy provides a framework for outlining what kind of world the state seeks to build.

The second attribute of grand strategy is that it should encompass all dimensions of policy and doctrine, including the domains of operations and tactics. In every sense of the word, grand strategy implies an integrated and inclusive approach to the policies that the state pursues in order to achieve its desired ends. Less-than-successful grand strategies often fail precisely because they do not base the nation’s policies on a coherent and agreed-upon set of the nation’s foreign and domestic policy goals. Put another way, the success of a grand strategy derives from its ability to completely integrate the military and nonmilitary elements of the state’s policies in a coherent, consistent, and effective manner.

The third attribute examined in this book is that articulating and implementing grand strategy is a never-ending process. Formulating grand strategy should not begin when a crisis grips the state or end during periods of relative peace and calm. Policymakers and scholars should be constantly reassessing the strategy, its relevance, and utility as it shapes and is reshaped by domestic and international influences. The conduct of grand strategy is as relevant to the conduct of policy in peacetime as it is during periods of war. It is a failure for the state if discussions about grand strategy occur only after the nation finds itself facing an imminent risk or crisis. If policymakers ignore grand strategy until the moment of a crisis, which unfortunately is a recurring pattern for democracies, the nation will experience unnecessary risks, confusion among allies and adversaries, and polarizing domestic debates.[2] One premise in this book is that while grand strategy often evolves in response to significant, even if not necessarily existential threats, it should not disappear from the public debate simply because the state does not face an obvious enemy or adversary. On the contrary, grand strategy should always be foremost in the minds of policymakers as they strive to ensure that the state’s policies align with its overall strategy.

The fourth attribute is that grand strategy should guide the state as it marshals all of its resources—human, political, economic, technological, and military, among others—to defend and promote its long-term interests. While often ignored or misused, this attribute has been a prominent feature in the study of grand strategy as far back as the writings of Thucydides, then Machiavelli, and more recently as the United States mobilized itself to fight the First and Second World Wars and later the Cold War. This attribute first emerged prominently in the strategies pursued by the antagonists during the Peloponnesian Wars, to the struggles among Italian city-states during the Renaissance, and to the wars of the Napoleonic Age when states learned how to mobilize their entire society for the conduct of foreign policy, including war. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the challenge for grand strategy was how to mobilize society for the conduct of foreign policy by marshaling all of its resources but without bankrupting the state.

The fifth defining attribute is the concept of balancing ends and means in grand strategy. From Thucydides’ writings, to the ideas articulated by so many of the classic theorists, to the rise and decline of the Ottoman and Soviet Empires, to the economic resources that the United States devotes to foreign policy—no issue has played a more prominent role in the articulation, implementation, and eventual success (or failure) of grand strategy than the ability to balance means and ends. This classic means-ends balance is of fundamental prominence as policymakers struggle with how to articulate and implement the state’s grand strategy in the face of perpetually evolving economic and political constraints. This challenge presents a lesson in the perils of overreach, which is all-too-common when states miscalculate what level of resources and public support their grand strategy calls for.[3] As first discussed in Chapter 3 and subsequently throughout the book, the relationship between means and ends is an intellectual centerpiece of grand strategy.[4]

The sixth attribute relates to the idea that an effective grand strategy must reflect a fundamental political, philosophical, and ideological unity among the state’s goals and policies. Since its purpose is to defend and promote the state’s interests, the central function of grand strategy is to ensure that the means by which those objectives are pursued closely align with the state’s national character and political tradition and culture. This critical element has been revisited time and again throughout the development of grand strategy. Notably, this attribute was evident during the American Civil War when President Lincoln was reluctant to engage in total war because he feared it would lead to the destruction of the country that he so desperately sought to protect. In modern times, various U.S. presidential administrations struggled with how to develop the grand strategy of containment during the Cold War, whose credibility derived in part from the threat to use nuclear weapons, without having to destroy the nation and civilization itself.

Part I also demonstrated the extent to which grand strategy has evolved through different historical eras, notably the Modern, the Revolutionary, and the Nuclear. Grand strategy in each era was the product of the central role played by nation-states, the existence of opposing political ideologies, and the military technologies available. In a study of grand strategy that is conducted across millennia, an inquiry that examines different societies, regions, political ideologies, and systems will reveal distinct patterns and principles, all of which offer important and relevant principles to contemporary scholars and policymakers.

These attributes, of course, emerged in the early chapters of this study as it examined the influences from ancient to modern times that shaped the evolution of grand strategy. In the Ancient Era of grand strategy, such ancient strategists such as Sun Tzu and Thucydides, who made significant contributions to thinking about the conduct of war and diplomacy, provide early glimpses of intentional and systematic efforts to articulate grand strategy as an instrument for balancing the state’s aspirations with its means and ends. We should note, however, that many of these ideas and principles were largely, if not entirely, derived from the study of military strategy. Although we can extrapolate many lessons from the wisdom of Thucydides and Sun Tzu, their emphasis on strategy as a product of the nature and conduct of war clearly only scratches the surface of grand strategy.

The non-military dimensions of grand strategy emerged in the Modern Era, beginning with the Renaissance and later with the Enlightenment. Following in the wake of Machiavelli’s insights, political philosophers rapidly developed ideas that contributed to the formation of grand strategy as a distinct and separate field, which exists in conjunction with the disciplines of philosophy, military strategy, economics, and social science. A number of seminal thinkers brought about a renewed focus on using a coordinated political, military, and economic strategy to enhance and preserve the state’s interests. Clausewitz significantly advanced the state of the art with his study of strategy because his ideas expanded its definition to establish, along with contributions by many other thinkers, the foundations of what we now know as grand strategy. The role of political objectives in military strategy was the product of his famous maxim, “War is a continuation of policy by other means.” These developments, when combined with later contributions on the economic foundations of strategy that derive from the deliberations of Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton, defined the Modern Era of grand strategy. Together, these ideas help to develop an integrated military, political, and economic approach to achieving the state’s objectives.

Thus, the Modern Era of grand strategy was defined in terms of a bureaucratized state, which is based on a nationalist identity that relied primarily on conventional military means to provide internal and external security and pursue the ends of its grand strategy. These ends typically involved territorial expansion and internal political consolidation. In this Modern Era, systematic thinking about grand strategy continued to develop, but it changed with the advent of the Revolutionary Era. The hallmarks of this era in the late 19th century and early 20th century were the decline of European empires, the emergence of violent international groups which proclaimed adherence to the counter-nationalist ideologies of anarchism, and the ideologies of communism and nationalism that often took on the mantle of anti-imperialism and fascism. Military technology in this era, which included handguns, rifles, and explosives, proliferated dramatically, while the era of assassinations and the first manifestations of modern terrorism began to emerge. Finally, the Nuclear Era, which began with the end of the Second World War, was defined by global superpowers that created a worldwide bipolar system based on opposing ideologies of capitalism and communism. The grand strategies of these states were stabilized by the concept of mutual deterrence that emerged from the threat of nuclear war.

Part II in the study shifted the focus to the evolution of American grand strategy, which shared both similarities and differences from the traditional development of grand strategy. It was similar in the sense that American grand strategy continued to evolve during these three eras of grand strategy. During the course of the Modern Era, the United States became a modern, industrialized nation-state that had to deal with the fall of the European empires and the emergence of revolutionaries in the Revolutionary Era. But it was different in the sense that grand strategy during the Nuclear Era was dominated by two superpowers whose concepts of politics were based on radically opposing ideological systems of thought. During these periods, the evolution and content of American grand strategy was marked by the formation of three core traditions that dominated American foreign policy.

Three Unique Traditions of American Foreign Policy

First, a unique tradition of American foreign policy stems from the fact that the United States benefits from distance to other significant powers. It never faced the constant threat of naval or land invasion since its continental neighbors were generally too weak to mount a land invasion. And the distance across two oceans made it a nearly impossible target for a naval assault or amphibious invasion. In short, the United States had the luxury of time to develop the domestic foundations of its power. This first tradition rests on the ability to stand aloof from world politics to strengthen the American economy, achieve enduring prosperity and growth, and maintain internal political stability. Rooted in the American ethos of self-reliance and entrepreneurship, it shuns activist foreign policy agendas and prioritizes economic and trade policy. At its’ worst, this tradition can evolve into isolationism, while at its best it can produce a tradition of humility but not ignorance when it comes to engagement in world politics.

What makes this stage in the evolution of grand strategy unique to the United States is that most states did not have the luxury of pursuing this option. European states, by contrast, could not afford to remain disengaged from their nearby competitors who were too close and often ambitious. This reality was evident in their foreign policies. To paraphrase John Quincy Adams, Europeans lacked the option of not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy because the monsters came to them.

The second tradition also has a uniquely American character. For this tradition, the United States is a gradualist power that seeks democratic change but not at the expense of systemic disorder. Most European states have had either a status quo or revolutionary tradition. Britain, for example, has generally had a strong preference for a stable status quo based on a balance of power on the Continent. Napoleonic France, however, was a revolutionary power whose policies sought to transform the European state system. This was true of Nazi Germany and, to a lesser extent, Soviet Russia. But the United States does not fit neatly into these categories. This second tradition is best described as a gradualism that highlights the principle of restraining, while rarely totally eliminating the sources of disorder and encouraging gradual change towards democracy and capitalism. This tradition is a reflection of America’s own revolutionary tradition, which was based on a largely conservative revolution, which did not seek to destroy the old ways so much as to reform and tailor them to suit a new set of political and economic imperatives. American revolutionaries were not fanatical or ideological, but some of the Founders did have a deep suspicion of democracy.

Finally, the third tradition of American foreign policy arose during the Nuclear Era. This tradition, as examined in Chapter 9, reflects the reinforcing value of using alliances and partnerships—both old and new—to confront global challenges with a sense of shared responsibility across states and societies. Containment is often held in high regard as an ideal grand strategy because it was clear, global in scale, operated on a long-term time horizon, and marshaled all the instruments of national power across the private and public sectors. What is rarely underscored is the fact that containment worked not only because of American leadership and power but also more importantly because of close diplomatic ties between U.S. allies and partners.

What also was unique about the evolution of American grand strategy in the Nuclear Era was the extent to which these weapons altered the logic by which states conducted foreign policy. Critically, the United States did not use its nuclear monopoly in the late 1940’s to coerce its enemies and prevent them from acquiring similar technology. The U.S. never sought to use its hegemony to radically and rapidly alter the system and its constituent states during the interval when it alone possessed atomic weapons.[5]

The last chapter of Part II (Chapter 10) concerned the evolution of post-Cold War grand strategy or what might more accurately be termed a regressive de-evolution of grand strategy. This recent history reveals two critical factors. First, the United States has become unmoored from the traditions in its grand strategy, and thus is struggling to define core principles to guide its foreign and domestic policies. Second, the absence of guiding principles has led to policies that lurch from one priority to another, often based primarily upon urgent, short-term concerns rather than on a coherent, long-term strategy of what best serves the nation’s overall interests. The absence of guiding principles in the face of current challenges provides the ingredients for a series of risky moments.

The Clinton administration was the first to project this imbalance as it focused heavily on domestic policy (i.e., the first principle) but with minimal cases of action guided by the second principle of restraining sources of disorder. His administration arguably was more successful with the third principle of building strong alliances (e.g., NATO expansion) but this policy saw multilateralism used as a catchphrase more than as an essential instrument for articulating and implementing a shared grand strategy, as we saw in the West during the Cold War. After 9/11, President Bush shifted to the second principle of confronting sources of disorder (i.e., terrorism). With his policies, he elevated the second principle of restraining sources of disorder above the other two principles—building foundations of power and sharing burdens with other states and institutions—while simultaneously calling for a crusade against the ideology of terrorism and tyranny rather than simply fighting against a specific enemy, Al Qaeda, and its direct sponsors. President Obama is once again shifting this balance, but the question is: Can he avoid the problem of over-correction? Will he swing back to the first principle by implementing a foreign policy that largely deemphasizes the necessity of the second and third principles?[6] A central argument in this study is that presidential administrations must balance between these principles but cannot run the risk of overemphasizing one principle over the others. The world is too complex and the relationship between domestic and foreign policy is too close for one principle to dominate to the exclusion of the others.

Moving from Traditions to Principles

These traditions in American grand strategy served the nation well in the past and should form the basis for principles that will help guide the next generation of U.S. policymakers.[7] Indeed, one challenge in the 21st century is how to build on these traditions in ways that make sense for the world that we confront today. We cannot throw out these traditions because they are too deeply embedded in our political culture, people, and institutions. Nor can we blindly follow them because they arose out of a different time. One question is how do we take what is best from these traditions so that they become an asset in American foreign policy decision-making, while another question is how do we discard what is outdated or reactionary.

These three traditions are embedded in what scholars define as American political culture, yet American grand strategists rarely articulate them explicitly.[8] This is the case for several reasons. First, tracing of the evolution of American grand strategy in Part II outlines the extent to which American grand strategy is not something created by a few select foreign policy elites behind closed doors. In American diplomatic history, we see that the nation’s grand strategy has been formed as much through, by, and for the people as it has been by Washington politicians. American grand strategy is a collective endeavor, a constant process of articulation and re-articulation as the American public senses what is consistent with its own values and traditions. Grand strategy is governed by the nation’s surrounding political culture, particularly in a democracy.

The second reason is that these traditions operate across multiple presidential administrations. No one president can articulate and implement a grand strategy. Containment, for example, was not solely a Truman, Eisenhower, or Johnson grand strategy, but it was a grand strategy that guided the deliberations of the eight Cold War presidents, from Truman to Reagan. One of its greatest strengths was providing specific and consistent guidance to inform the foreign policy of successive administrations, while also providing the flexibility to compensate for varying problems and shifting emphases policies that occurred across those administrations. Eisenhower emphasized the limits imposed by economic costs on national security policy, while Kennedy expanded the range of strategic tools available to respond to Soviet expansion, and Nixon moved to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. Each president had a different angle but they all worked toward the same goal. Grand strategy, then, is not something that can be found in one document drafted under one president, but it is, so to speak, a living document that is constantly evolving in response to events and personalities.

Lastly, the third reason these traditions are more implicit and unstated is historical in nature. The United States is still so young relative to many other great powers. Unlike states whose institutions and traditions trace back for centuries if not millennia, the United States is still in the throes of forming the traditions that will govern its grand strategy.

In practice, these implicit traditions should become conscious and explicit principles of American foreign policy because they are invaluable in forming the basis of a coherent grand strategy. For American policymakers to convert these traditions into principles, they must become more aware of and heed the lessons of American diplomatic history. They also must be willing to leave behind the ideal of emulating containment, which was and remains a grand strategy that remains, as a product of the Nuclear Era, largely a historical anomaly. At present, the structure of the international system is no longer bipolar while the threats do not connect in a pervasive or systematic sense to one adversary. In the history of American grand strategy, the threats are more often myriad in a largely multipolar world. The better model on which to guide the articulation and implementation of grand strategy may be to draw from the period between the founding of the republic in the late 18th century and the early 20th century.

As the United States looks to the future, a reevaluation of its grand strategy is in order. As these shifts in the global order continue to cascade upon each other, there are many questions that the society and its policymakers can no longer avoid. How should the United States move to articulate a grand strategy for managing a world that shows signs of increasing disorder? What choices should this society make in order to create order out of the emerging chaos? Answering these and other questions is the central challenge if today’s policymakers want to ensure peace, freedom, and security. Today, the United States lacks a strategic framework within which to answer these critical questions that, to cut to the heart of the matter, define its role in world, what the nation seeks to achieve, and how to bring that role into balance with the nation’s resources and public will. Above all else, American society needs to answer one basic question: what principles should govern U.S. policy in an increasingly unstable world? What, in effect, should America’s grand strategy be today?

But before turning to these questions, the next section discusses the evolution of grand strategy as America emerged from the Cold War, the very different world that we confront today, and the lack of solid principles to address effectively current threats to international peace and security. While the current void in American grand strategy is palpable, how to move forward with a new vision is an area marked by contending ideas among scholars and policymakers.          

Consensus on Problem, Disagreement on Solution

Demise of Containment

While grand strategy has undoubtedly required a makeover since the end of the Cold War, American grand strategy since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as examined in earlier chapters, is dramatically less coherent. The strategy of containment was replaced by a series of episodic and reactionary grand strategies as successive administrations attempted to develop compelling principles to guide American foreign policy. The Cold War period, as examined in this study, was atypical for the deep consensus in American society and among its allies on the overall direction of the nation’s grand strategy. Consequently, a defining feature of the Cold War was that the United States and its allies debated less about the ultimate ends of grand strategy and more about the details of implementation.

In the absence of clear and decisive threats along the lines that societies faced during the Cold War, the once-solid organizing principles of grand strategy simply are no longer relevant or useful. Policymakers now face a world characterized by vastly greater unpredictability, often colored by the false belief that the risks are so low and dispersed among many global actors that the world is somehow less dangerous.

The inescapable conclusion, however, is that the old grand strategy of containment no longer fits our world. Where it once worked, containment no longer aligns with how the modern world is organized politically and economically. Simply put, it no longer offers practical guidance in a highly interconnected global economy in which states do not face a singular ideological threat. What has replaced the clear-cut nuclear deterrence balance between countries is a wide range of inchoate and uncertain risks that emanate from both unstable states and non-state actors alike.

Despite the need for organized and coherent principles for confronting a rapidly changing world, there is no such consensus within the United States on the importance of thinking about grand strategy.[9] This is a dangerous development, given the sources of disorder in the world. The United States has adopted policies that rely on the residue of containment or on piecemeal and halfhearted responses to challenges, while the nation on occasion has a propensity to ignore challenges altogether. Take the war currently raging in Syria, or the rapidly evolving chaos of the Arab Spring movements, as prime examples. Now more than ever, if the nation is going to act decisively and effectively, American policymakers must develop coherent principles that provide guidance and consensus on the challenges posed by the modern world and how the nation should navigate in its foreign policy.

In direct contrast with the opposite viewpoint to which many policymakers have adhered since the end of the Cold War, a number of developments point to an increasingly unstable world. One source of the problem is systemic shifts in the geopolitical, social, and economic status quo, all of which defy comprehension, but require policymakers to adapt intellectually to these challenges. Part of the problem is the unwillingness of policymakers to adopt new forms of strategic thinking—a result, perhaps, of clinging stubbornly to familiar approaches despite overwhelming evidence that the world is gripped by profound uncertainties and growing disorder.

Current Sources of Disorder

While by no means a panacea, grand strategy will help the United States understand what threats are inevitable, which ones really matter, and how to deal with them. Where states once faced singular ideological, political, or military threats, today’s problems flow from complex and overlapping sources of disorder. Furthermore, modern threats and challenges, ranging from rising great powers to unpredictable non-state actors, do not lend themselves to the simple guidance offered by earlier grand strategies. The function of grand strategy, as studied in this book, is to organize foreign policy issues in a useful way for policymakers and their society. Facing global disorder, the United States has moved well beyond the point where policymakers can rely on old solutions to new problems. Rather than using the tired approaches of focusing on states, issues, and regions that threaten U.S. interests, this chapter outlines an alternative approach. The first step in articulating a grand strategy is to categorize the fragmented, fragile, and unstable world into “sources of disorder.”

The United States faces multiple sources of disorder, which fall into several categories. The foremost sources are challenges posed by resurgent great powers, destabilizing middle powers, a rising authoritarian axis, and less predictable non-state actors. Throughout America’s history, threats have emanated from these sources of disorder with varying degrees of frequency and emphasis on certain sources over the others. For example, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed a time of intense and protracted conflict that embroiled the great powers in two deadly and costly world wars. The second half of the twentieth century was characterized by an enduring cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

In today’s time, the United States faces challenges brought about by all of these sources of disorder, but by different methods and degrees than in the past. Therefore, America must develop a new strategy that incorporates action and engagement with each of them in order to maintain peace and security. The following section below includes descriptions of each source of disorder, and examples that illustrate their current state of play. While specific states and actors within these sources of disorder may change over time, this categorization is a useful tool for policymakers and students who are thinking critically about and developing a new American grand strategy.

The first category includes the challenges posed to American interests and security by resurgent great powers. The rise of China is a prominent example. Beijing’s growing economy, increasingly competent military, and assertive foreign policy signal China’s desire and ability to play a larger role in regional and global affairs. Engaging with China’s stronger regional presence requires America to reinforce both principles two and three of the grand strategy outlined here. These include reinforcing American leadership in the region and working closely with alliances and partners such as the ASEAN nations, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. If the U.S. strengthens its commitment to developing these principles, both the U.S. and its allies can effectively engage and cooperate with a stronger and more active China. However, if China’s resurgence continues in the face of American strategic drift, states in Asia will rightly worry about the territorial and security consequences of China’s rise.

Russia is another dominant example of a resurgent great power playing a more increased role in global affairs. Today, the world witnesses the Russian government’s inexorable creep toward what many see as rebirth of authoritarianism. This shift under President Vladimir Putin with his “cult of personality” has come to dominate Russian society and politics. Putin’s increasingly strident rhetoric toward the United States, past predatory energy policies towards Europe, and support for authoritarian governments in Iran and Syria are sources of growing concern for the United states and many of its allies in Eurasia. This source of disorder requires America to strengthen all three principles grand strategy. Effective engagement with Russia requires strong American leadership to pressure Russia to refrain from using its oil and natural gas as a weapon against its neighbors, including Ukraine and Georgia. Forming and bolstering alliances and partnerships with states along Russia’s border signals to Moscow that Washington will exercise leadership when Russia employs aggressive and intimidating tactics through its energy markets. Lastly, another way to effectively pressure Russia is to explore potential export markets in the United States and Eastern Europe while America’s develops its own increasing domestic sources of energy.

The second category or source of disorder includes the expected but nonetheless demanding challenge of destabilizing middle powers. Hardly a new problem, these smaller states are not simply proxies for larger adversaries, but represent powerful sources of disorder on their own that threaten to undermine peace and security. A prominent case today is Iran. Tehran’s nuclear weapon and missile programs and strident rhetoric pose, while softened by the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani, a threat to Israel and the United States. Worse, other states in the Middle East could be persuaded to develop their own nuclear deterrent. America now faces the delicate task of balancing between the West’s desire to maintain stability in the Middle East and preventing Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.

North Korea is the perpetually difficult case whose isolated and insular regime, inexperienced leader Kim Jong-un, active ballistic missile and nuclear weapon tests, moribund domestic economy, prolific international trade in illicit goods, and demonstrated aptitude for winning diplomatic concessions from the international community—all underscore Pyongyang’s ability to create disorder. In addition, the destabilizing middle powers include Afghanistan, which is slowly unraveling in the face of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, and Pakistan, which remains an immensely dangerous and nuclear source of disorder. The current worries include Pakistan’s instability, active support for extremist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, and its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of extremists. Lastly, the civil war in Syria, which increasingly threatens regional chaos involving Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, remains a powerful source of disorder. At this point, more than hundred thousand civilians have died, Syria’s government likely ordered the use of chemical weapons, and Russia protects President Bashar al-Assad’s government from U.S. military pressure and international diplomatic pressure. Despite a rapidly evolving situation, one enduring characteristic is that Syria sits astride a region with the potential to become a flashpoint for war.

A third source of disorder for American grand strategy is the rising “authoritarian axis.” This axis or bloc describes an imperfect but still tangible coordination between such great powers as China and Russia, and destabilizing middle powers including Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Its foremost members, China and Russia, continue to forge stronger bonds that strengthen their strategic partnership, while their support for nations like Iran and Syria constitutes a dangerous source of disorder. Iran is another case of a state that receives significant support from the axis powers, and remains a worrisome source of disorder and a potential flashpoint. As it moves closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, Iran’s enduring interest in acquiring such weapons given earlier threats to annihilate Israel, remains a subject of contentious debates in the West.

North Korea, under its leader Kim Jung-un, is a worrisome, if only slightly less dangerous, element of the authoritarian axis. It routinely threatens its neighbors with careless and reckless language, while its military and elite consume most of the nation’s scarce resources. North Korea’s principal benefactor is China, which provides significant economic support, but remains unwilling to rein in its provocative behavior. Pyongyang’s long-range ballistic missile and nuclear weapons make it clear that the “hermit kingdom,” with its past behavior of sharing such dangerous technologies with Syria and Iran, remains a source of instability in Asia.

The fourth category of sources of disorder is the eternally difficult problem of managing the less predictable non-state actors. Within this category exist several flashpoints for conflict that require increased American attention and engagement. Foremost is the resurgence of extremists in Afghanistan. With U.S. forces withdrawing and the Taliban’s power growing, Afghanistan risks sliding back into violence and repression. Accelerating its deterioration was the U.S. announcement that its forces would leave no later than 2014. Where once the Taliban believed they were losing, their resurgence is a stark reminder that they are seemingly biding their time until the U.S./NATO withdrawal. This is an illustrative example of the long-term objectives and methods employed by non-state actors who are driven by ideology. To effectively counter this source of disorder, America must continually re-evaluate and redefine new objectives and tactics in its overarching grand strategy.

Second, despite hopes for democracy in the Middle East, another is that the once promising Arab Spring shows signs of chaos and violence. Egypt continues to struggle through the transition to democracy as it witnesses once again the dominating control of the military. Continuing political confrontation will likely keep the country on the edge of civil war. Meanwhile, Libya is a breeding ground for extremists while events in Yemen point to the rise of al Qaeda. The civil war in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons, shows no signs of abating. While U.S. policy once rightly encouraged the democratic “spring,” Washington’s strategy remains unclear. This includes strengthening American leadership in the region in order to maintain stability, safeguarding national interests, and reinforcing our alliances with moderate nations and forces.

Global trade and rapid technological change continue to alter relationships among individuals, firms, and states. With globalization altering the nature and distribution of power, American policymakers need a grand strategy, using soft and hard power, to help them manage unexpected developments in the public and private sectors. American grand strategy must contend with the rise of new and unforeseen non-state actors whose ideologies mobilize followers. Beyond its military and economic might, America’s soft power permits it to help shape a global community based on shared interests, universal values, and ideals. In working with non-governmental and civil-society actors, the United States must effectively communicate what values shape its foreign policy.

Policymakers also face the truly modern challenge of cyber warfare in the hands of non-state actors. Never before have non-state actors, groups, and movements possessed an instrument capable of inflicting such immense harm. One element of American grand strategy must consider how to deal with groups that could attack the physical and economic infrastructure of American society. Policymakers worry that cyber hackers from an extremist organization might be able to cut off U.S. electric power during the winter or hack into the safety controls of a nuclear reactor. These new and unpredictable sources of disorder make the old grand strategy of containment passé in the face of modern foreign and domestic challenges.

Lastly, policymakers also must contemplate self-generated sources of disorder. The United States, whose current grand strategy is seen as adrift and disengaging, remains deeply divided politically. It faces the additional burden of operating without a positive, reassuring, and bipartisan strategy to guide its foreign policy. How can policymakers expend resources—the nation’s blood and treasure—when it is unclear why they are doing so and for what purposes? How can policymakers ask the public to support policies when people rightly wonder about the purpose and objectives of American foreign policy? Why should we, much less others, make sacrifices when the goals of American foreign policy are unknown? These are the fundamental questions that a new American grand strategy, when developed and implemented effectively, seeks to answer.

A decaying grand strategy or one that may be seen as disengaging despite powerful sources of global disorder presents a serious problem. The United States will struggle to manage challenges from resurgent great powers, destabilizing middle powers, a rising authoritarian axis, and less predictable non-state actors as long as the nation lacks a coherent, positive, and compelling vision for its grand strategy. Ultimately, the sources of disorder and the inevitable crises will compel the United States to formulate a new grand strategy—one better aligned and more precisely attuned to the risks and opportunities we face. As this book strongly promotes, it is far better to do so now than to wait until a crisis strikes. In the end, grand strategy is about much more than responding to problems. To be effective, it must embrace the fundamental reasons and motivations that shape how, why, and to what ends the United States engages in foreign policy.

Establishing the broad outlines of the problems with which American grand strategy must deal will help policymakers overcome the current confusion. Policymakers must ensure that grand strategy deals with complexities and provides clear guidance that helps them articulate policies for dealing with the sources of disorder. Such disorder has disoriented our vision of policy and demoralized the present generation of policymakers whose failure to define a coherent grand strategy for helping the state deal with the expected ebbs and flows in world politics remains an enduring problem. While such strategic shifts are routine, these have destabilizing consequences when policymakers do not remain mindful of the critical sources of disorder facing the nation.

Current Void in American Grand Strategy

By the beginning of the 20th century, with its resource-rich territory now stretching from coast to coast and its thriving industrial economy, the United States was poised to become a great power. Until then, American grand strategy had been focused inward, driven largely by the desire to build the nation’s territorial and economic foundations of power, and subsequently in the early twentieth century by a bout of isolationism. However, the outbreak of two world wars forced the United States off the sidelines and toward a more robust foreign policy. At the end of World War II, the United States claimed a new position of global leadership, as President Truman enjoyed the political license to articulate the more activist grand strategy of containment that was implemented through such policies as the Marshall Plan and documents as NSC-68.

More than four decades later, the end of the Cold War left America without a grand strategy to guide its foreign and domestic policies. While American leaders during the Cold War successfully marshaled the nation’s resources for the purpose of containing and perhaps defeating the Soviet Union, the United States today lacks a coherent and unified grand strategy. A nation without such a grand strategy is vulnerable to having policies that are shifting, erratic, and ineffective. This is an urgent issue because with signs of drift in American foreign policy, scholars are paying more attention to this void in grand strategy.[10] The increasing volume of literature devoted to U.S. grand strategy will be useful if it helps policymakers deal with the most enduring problems, rather than simply the most urgent priorities.

Ultimately, only grand strategy provides the broad vision that helps policymakers conduct foreign policy. Grand strategy encompasses the totality of the concepts upon which a state builds its policies, allowing it to guide its foreign, domestic, and economic policies towards agreed-upon and unified ends. In effect, no state can articulate and implement coherent and effective foreign and domestic policies unless these derive from a consistent set of principles. Without such principles, the state’s foreign policy will show signs of chaos and confusion. Scholars and policymakers must understand that they cannot articulate a coherent grand strategy without first achieving a consensus on the political goals that shape the state’s policies and allow policymakers to garner broad public support for that goal. For the United States, achieving this working consensus is more important than ever and yet so illusive.

When the state lacks a central adversary, its ability to prioritize interests is extremely difficult, particularly at a time when the nation confronts a complex mix of transnational problems. This includes, inter alia, terrorism, global economic crises, uncontrolled migration, world food shortages, narcotics trafficking, pollution, and climate change. The challenge for American grand strategy is to balance foreign and domestic priorities so that the nation can marshal the economic, military, and diplomatic clout necessary to maintain a world that contributes to peace, democracy, prosperity, and free markets. Failing to balance ends and means in the context of the principles governing American grand strategy puts at risk the nation’s substantial economic, military, and political advantages.

Although it is rare for a grand strategy to come to a formal end, this can occur when a major adversary is defeated or collapses. For example, what passes for American grand strategy today is influenced by the country’s experiences during the Cold War.[11] What shifted was the consensus following the 9/11 attacks about the nature of the threat posed by non-state armed groups. The United States now finds itself at another critical junction, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end, as the nation pivots east to Asia despite chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere.

One area of consensus in the current literature holds that grand strategy emerges when the state faces a period of great struggle or new threats. One consequence is that grand strategy, albeit misleadingly, can become too reactive. When societies to conduct foreign policy in the midst of disorder, taking actions without a coherent grand strategy, they naturally fall prey to difficulties and anxieties. How could citizens of states, which face an increasingly disordered world, and yet lack a grand strategy to guide their actions, feel or act otherwise? Disorder without strategy is a recipe for confusion and failure.

To start with, Americans generally want to exercise leadership, but it is unclear whether the United States is willing and able to provide that leadership. Worse, it is difficult to articulate a grand strategy when policymakers do not have a coherent framework that relates the arc of problems to core principles in that strategy. The United States will remain in intellectual limbo until policymakers come to grips with building a grand strategy that deals effectively with the sources of disorder. Beyond the usual domestic political differences, one source of political polarization in Washington is profound uncertainty about what really matters in foreign policy. Americans are especially vulnerable to weariness from the daily grind of foreign policy, particularly when their actions are not guided by a positive vision of foreign policy. Grand strategy, then, is essential for establishing a consensus on goals and maintaining domestic support for long-term foreign policies.

Yet, the United States has been dangerously adrift for more than two decades, operating without a positive and reassuring vision of its grand strategy. How can policymakers expend resources—“blood and treasure”—when it is not clear why they are doing so and for what purposes? Without clear objectives and goals in foreign policy—the Holy Grail of grand strategy—it is a virtual law of nature that societies will lose the sense of focus and purpose that give foreign policy strategic direction and momentum. What follows like an inexorable law of nature is perpetual drift, as a nation’s foreign policy swings from strong public support for fighting wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) to public opposition and then to indifference. For example, while the level of domestic support for the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was 90 percent,[12] a decade later 56 percent support the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014.[13]

Lastly, the failure to develop a grand strategy contributes to debates about America’s relative decline in power. The United States faces grinding wars without end, a deep economic crisis, the emergence of authoritarian powers such as China and Russia (perhaps as the leaders of an emerging authoritarian axis with Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela), deep worries about the future, and no clear sense of purpose. How could the society not worry about decline?

Faint Outlines of a Solution

As for a solution to this problem, it is useful to recognize where these scholars and practitioners agree and disagree. Differences exist in the various approaches to organizing a coherent set of principles around foreign policy. For some, the solution lies in organizing our thinking by focusing on the states that pose the greatest challenges. For others, however, the preferred approach entails thinking in terms of what we often call transnational issues—challenges, such as proliferation or extremism, which transcend individual states and regions. For others still, the best approach is to focus on regions, such as Asia and the Middle East.

There is broad agreement that grand strategy is more art than science. While each type of study of grand strategy—historical, social scientific, policy-oriented, and the military strategic—has its strengths and weaknesses, they all either implicitly or explicitly recognize that grand strategy is a highly subjective undertaking. It does not offer an objective, scientific, precise, or linear formula for determining what the state should do or what policies it should pursue. Furthermore, it is difficult to predict the “results” of a given grand strategy, because those often are based upon judgments about future trends and a complex array of political, economic, and social variables. However, for grand strategy to be effective, it is imperative for the state to clearly articulate the goals it intends to accomplish, and how these will be achieved.

What is equally clear is that grand strategy is a never-ending process, which must be constantly updated and adapted by scholars and policymakers to ensure that its ends and means are closely aligned. By articulating the goals for the world it seeks to build, the state addresses the real purpose of grand strategy, which is to express the principles that provide order to its beliefs and expectations about the world it wants to create and the domestic and foreign policies that it will pursue to accomplish that objective.

In essence, grand strategy is not governed by strict scientific laws but by rules of thumb or rough guidelines that allow policymakers to practice the art of making informed judgments about long-term trends and trade-offs. Finding the right balance between the three principles, then, is always going to have an irreducible degree of subjectivity and uncertainty. There will never be one, right answer to what a state’s grand strategy should be. Rather it is a matter of choosing between grand strategies that are better than others across a range of options. The issue of trade-offs is crucial, as George H. W. Bush wisely observed: “The essence of strategy is determining priorities” and then making “the hard choices.”[14] It is the trade-offs that make the choices “hard.” In effect, prioritizing one policy necessarily means de-prioritizing another, while emphasizing one principle necessarily means de-emphasizing another. The question is how to weigh these trade-offs in grand strategy over time, especially when those are complex and likely to occur and reoccur over decades. The rules of thumb outlined here offer broad guidance.

Three Rules of Thumb

Up to this point, our discussion has focused largely on the historical and analytical underpinnings that have shaped the evolution of grand strategy and the principles to guide foreign policy. For this book to remain relevant and contribute advice and strategic direction on America’s evolving role in the world, we must now look forward. The discussion since the end of the Cold War has proven particularly interesting, as both scholars and policymakers have struggled with developing a coherent American grand strategy that helps the nation deal with the modern world and offers recommendations for achieving such an objective. The remainder of this chapter is written as a contribution to the development of a more clear, confident, and optimistic trajectory for American grand strategy.

The first rule of thumb is that the U.S. cannot afford to have “domestic policy” or “foreign policy” presidents in the post-Cold War era. Bill Clinton’s agenda was heavily domestic policy oriented, while George W. Bush’s was heavily foreign policy oriented. Both left the United States vulnerable in the areas they neglected when they left office. Looking forward, the president’s policy agenda has to strike a careful balance among the three principles of grand strategy. So the first rule of thumb for balancing between the principles is to strike a delicate balance between the nation’s foreign and domestic policy agendas. The reality is that neither should dominate, and neither should be neglected. The United States cannot for long afford to get this balance wrong.

While in an earlier era the United States could afford to disregard foreign problems, it no longer has this option. States in Asia, for example, are deeply troubled at the thought of America’s withdrawal from the Pacific, particularly with China’s increasingly assertive and aggressive actions in its near abroad.[15] A domestically oriented U.S. would signal to the world that Washington is less interested in foreign policy, but which Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang likely would interpret as an invitation to operate more aggressively while expanding their reach. However, if the United States fails to devote significant political and economic attention and resources to rebuilding the domestic foundations of its national power, it will be increasingly difficult to compete in the world. The consequence will be the greater risk of an erosion of the American people’s willingness to support a leadership role for the U.S. The nation may be experiencing weariness in terms of supporting the costs and burdens of global leadership.

The second rule of thumb is that a president has to lead the American people but also respect their role as a check on idealism. Most American voters do not gravitate to Wilsonian or neoconservative ideals, but they have an innate sense of optimism about life in America, matched by a healthy skepticism about efforts to remake the world in America’s image. To be sure, there are numerous examples in which democratic societies are incited toward exuberance for war and the prospect for radical political change, but have a sense of costs and benefits that should be respected.[16] This does not mean the president should conduct foreign policy by poll, but it points strongly toward the principle that policymakers should show respect for the preference for gradualism that runs deeply in American politics. As Mead points out, the American people are woefully ignorant about foreign policy, world history, and basic geography.[17] It is equally true, however, American grand strategy derives largely from the people. The public has good instincts when they see a severe imbalance in foreign policy, and are instrumental in helping policymakers find exactly the right balance that accords with public sentiments.

The third rule of thumb is to have and put into practice policies that show a preference for gradualism. As discussed earlier, gradualism is the aspect of American foreign policy exceptionalism that sets it apart from both status quo and revolutionary powers. It rests on the idea that the United States has the power to change the world for the better, while noting that such change usually happens slowly and incrementally, rather than as a product of sudden and dramatic shifts. Grand strategies that call for defeating tyranny, terrorism, illegal drugs, state failure, poverty, or fighting a “war to end all wars” are largely inconsistent with American foreign policy principles and likely to fail. This is not to argue that we should acquiesce to these terrible conditions, but a prudent grand strategy, if practiced wisely, must reflect some self-awareness that we cannot solve problems quickly or solve them alone. Eras of great success in the conduct of American grand strategy were all marked by the combination of modest ambitions and the slow, incremental successes often produced by diplomacy and other instruments of policy. A crucial exception is the case of the Second World War but that victory was won as a result of strong alliances and close partnerships, and thus it remains the exception that proves the rule.

These three rules of thumb provide the basis for determining new principles to guide American grand strategy moving forward.

Three Guiding Principles for American Grand Strategy

If we are to stipulate that the United States has failed to develop a coherent and modern grand strategy, the first step in righting this problem is to reapply and reassert the three critical organizing principles that provide the foundations for a positive strategy to guide American foreign policy.

The First Principle: Rebuilding Domestic Foundations of Power

First, the United States can no longer postpone the moment when it must devote greater time, attention, and resources to rebuilding the domestic foundations of its national power. Beginning with World War II, the United States used its national power to engage globally on an unprecedented scale. Completing work begun in the 1930s, we built our world-class infrastructure—industry, roads, bridges, schools, energy, and so forth—during the decades after World War II.

Many observers, unfortunately, believe wrongly that grand strategy is largely about foreign and defense policy. But a cardinal principle of grand strategy is to rebuild the domestic foundations of America’s national power. This practice dating back to the administration of George Washington has been central to the deliberations that have governed the decisions of virtually every administration since then. Grand strategy rests on much more than foreign policy because its influence derives directly from the free market economic foundations of the nation’s power.

In determining if this principle is given due regard, one indicator is the state of the nation’s infrastructure. To be a global player, the United States must have world-class roads, bridges, electric power grids, national broadband, and mass transit systems, among other elements of domestic power. To compete economically, these will be as important instruments of national power as armies, navies, and air forces are for defending our interests. Nor can we forget the importance of education, healthcare, and retirement systems as instruments for ensuring broad opportunities for every American. Our grand strategy cannot be effective until we restore the infrastructure and social safety nets that assure all Americans of their opportunity to compete and succeed. All of this is as central to the successful conduct of foreign policy as anything the nation does.

Another indicator for determining if this principle is best served concerns the state and pace of innovation. The hallmarks of the U.S. economy’s strength are not only its size and growth rate but for future prosperity the level of innovation. If the United States is not leading in venture capital per person or number of NASDAQ corporations, for example, then its grand strategy will fail and its standing in the world will decline. Finally, growing numbers of jobs and a strong middle class are enduring indicators of the strength of the domestic foundations of American power.[18]

Just as U.S. grand strategy needs to look outward, it also must look inward to address the problems facing American society. For too long, scholars and policymakers preoccupied themselves with the foreign policy and national security elements of grand strategy. Sadly, most current thinking about foreign policy operates almost exclusively through the lens of security and military affairs. However, at this moment the “grand strategy imperative” calls for policymakers to define America’s roles and responsibilities in a less hegemonic and, perhaps more humble, demeanor. To reinforce American leadership abroad, the United States must demonstrate that its grand strategy is as much about devoting attention and resources to reinforcing the domestic foundations of power as it is to conducting foreign policy. Unfortunately, modern policymakers often forget this most basic of principles.

Policymakers and scholars must remember that grand strategy embraces vastly more than foreign policy. American influence derives precisely from the free-market economic underpinnings that give the nation such immense influence—often permitting it to marshal tremendous power when it is necessary to do so. If America is to remain a global leader, as many Americans and others globally believe it should, then it must recommit itself first to reinforcing the domestic foundations of America’s national power. To express this another way: When the nation ignores the domestic foundations of power, it will court disasters, often unfolding in slow motion, as the will of American society lags behind its commitments.

With global powers standing in ruins after World War II, the United States used its national power as the leading actor on an unprecedented scale to rebuild many of its closest allies today. Throughout the 20th century, America also built its own world-class infrastructure—a national network of industries, roads, bridges, schools, electric power grids, and energy infrastructure. Without that investment and the national consensus it symbolized, the United States could not have been such an effective force on the world stage.

Nor can policymakers and scholars forget the critical role of education, healthcare, and social safety systems for ensuring broad opportunities for all Americans. U.S. grand strategy cannot be effective until we restore the infrastructure and social safety nets that assure all Americans of the opportunity to compete and succeed. America's global role derives from the strength of its people, its ability to be innovative, and the entrepreneurial spirit that Americans harness to solve the most daunting challenges. This, however, is not a prescription for throwing “more money than god” at problems. Simply spending money is unlikely to reinforce the foundations of the nation’s power. For that, the nation needs a political consensus, largely absent from the national debate, and resources. To restore the nation’s grand strategy, it is time to rebuild the American spirit of innovation, hard work, ingenuity, and collective action.

Such considerations, while often subordinated or ignored altogether in the national debate, often fall by the wayside as debates about foreign policy and national security compete for policymakers’ time and attention. For the public, the daily onslaught of media reports—problems with Iran, Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Russia, China, European Union, energy, or the crisis of the moment—shift vital attention away from the domestic sources of power that define American influence and are central to its grand strategy. Rebuilding the national foundations of American power, on which grand strategy rests, is essential to dealing with a world whose innumerable risks and opportunities demand American leadership.

To be direct, emphasizing the domestic foundations of power is not a veiled call for the United States to withdraw from the world or see its leadership decline. On the contrary, it is a call for realigning the nation’s grand strategy to meet the challenges of the world as it is. With this realignment, American policymakers and the public once again can, strategically and effectively, rebalance how the nation allocates resources and attention to meet the demands imposed by foreign and domestic challenges and opportunities. This is the right time, as friends and allies urge the United States to maintain an active leadership role, for the American people and their policymakers to realign the nation’s policies with its interests and priorities.

The Second Principle: Exercising American leadership to restrain sources of disorder that present direct threats to U.S. vital interests

The palpable sense of drift in American foreign policy, which relates directly to the failure to define a grand strategy to guide the nation, is occurring at precisely the moment when the world faces increasingly dangerous sources of disorder. The rise of great powers, middle powers, authoritarianism, and unexpected sources of disorder undermine the peaceful and secure world that the United States historically seeks to build. These sources of disorder pose a direct challenge to American leadership.

Second, the United States must define its grand strategy to actively restrain the sources of disorder that contribute to insecurity and chaos in a world, which remains more dangerous and unstable than many observers anticipated.[19] Despite being mired in a painfully slow recovery from the "Great Recession," the time has come for the United States to exercise world leadership in contrast with the options of retrenching and withdrawing from the international arena. The problems generated by China, Russia, Iran, and Syria, among others in the highly unstable Middle East, call for more active and assertive leadership from Washington. As discussed, with no evident shortage of serious risks and problems, the United States can no longer afford the luxury of defining its foreign policy in terms of containment. This “old think,” as we have discovered, is worse than ineffectual. In this climate, the central imperative for Washington is to define its strategy not in terms of containing problems, but of restraining the forces that contribute to instability, chaos, and war.

One question that arises from the review of the evolution of American grand strategy is ‘How Can We Distinguish a Hitler from a Saddam?’ The Axis Powers were a threat that required American leadership as well as its military and economic power. It was worth a debt-to-GDP ratio that reached 118 percent by 1945. Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia were sources of disorder that required making them the highest priority and using military force on a global scale. Saddam Hussein in 2003 was likened to Hitler, but he did not reach the same level of threat because he lacked the capability to invade and occupy other countries. His military was weak by comparison to the militaries of Germany and Japan, and his economy was in shambles.

The Bush administration argued however that none of these indicators mattered. His potential to cause unimaginable disorder stemmed from his potential to develop and use weapons of mass destruction. Yet, this was a speculative and later disproven basis for perceiving him as a threat. Moreover, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 caused disorder itself because it created a power vacuum in Iraq that led to a civil war and insurgency. It alienated the international community and showed contempt for the United Nations and international law. While it might have eliminated a potential source of disorder, in practice it actually created greater disorder.

American grand strategy in the post-Cold War era has to show a strong commitment to international order and stability. This is not to argue that Washington should tolerate injustice, tyranny, and human rights atrocities, but that the exercise of American power should generally be governed by the desire to maintain order rather than live with disorder. This remains the fundamental difference between Hitler and Saddam. Hitler sought to destroy the old European order and remake it as the Third Reich, while the Allies stood for the idea of stopping this radical, violent change to the system. Saddam, by contrast, sought to stay in power but lacked the means to remake any significant political or economic aspect of the system. He was not a source of disorder because he preferred to maintain the status quo.

This leads us to the issue of authoritarian great powers. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a middle-tier regional power, which could pose a threat only if it possessed WMD, notably nuclear weapons. Russia, China, and to some extent Iran, are first-tier regional authoritarian powers, which have the capability to become major sources of disorder in their regions, if not the world. One indicator of whether the second principle is being applied is whether the authoritarian great powers are rising in power. Are their spheres of influence expanding or contracting? Are their militaries deploying farther afield and overseas? Are they coercing smaller, weaker neighbors, or supporting such states in ways that undermine security? If the answer to most or all of these questions is “yes,” then American grand strategy has to rebalance in favor of the second principle.

Building on the first principle, policymakers must contemplate defining American grand strategy in terms of actively restraining the forces, actions, and ideas that contribute to instability, insecurity, and chaos. Since the world remains dangerous and unpredictable, it is strategically necessary for the United States to remain engaged—to lead on occasion, so to speak, “from the front.” This principle of American grand strategy must rest on more than simple rhetoric. Its purpose should be to make the world safer, freer and more prosperous, and secure as Washington exudes strength, purpose, and commitment. By ‘strength,’ I do not mean in the classic military sense, but strength in the depth and extent of using all the nation’s tools—political, economic, technological, and diplomatic—to help defend the nation’s interest in building a peaceful and free world. For its grand strategy to succeed, the United States must demonstrate in word and deed a sense of vision as well as the judgment and power to use its strength to promote a just and peaceful world.

Simply put, America needs to stand for and defend principles that promote human rights and dignity, equality for all peoples—men and women—freedom of expression, free enterprise, and fair elections. These values are consistent with the historical principles that existed in American foreign policy well before the Cold War and will endure well beyond this and subsequent generations. This principle of America’s leadership role emphasizes just how essential it is to discourage states or actors from taking actions that harm the interests of the United States or other free societies. In promoting these values, American grand strategy has many tools at its disposal. It can withhold political or economic support from, use military power against or build alliances to confront, actors whose behaviors undermine peace, security, and prosperity.

The Third Principle: Forging alliances and partnerships to confront the most pressing threats to global stability

For political and economic reasons, this is precisely the moment when the United States faces a new imperative in its grand strategy. Its challenge is to articulate a grand strategy that reinforces the nation’s influence and ability to exercise a leadership role, but without going so far in the opposite direction that the nation effectively disengages from the world—or creates the impression that it is doing so. If its inaction creates a leadership vacuum, the United States will face all manner of risks, challenges, and dangerous outcomes. While some argue that the United States is in decline and must scale back its involvement, my own view is that an enduring element of American grand strategy must be to reinforce the role of alliances and partnerships. This powerful and enduringly positive principle should be central to and wholly enshrined in every facet of the nation’s grand strategy. The failure to do so encourages others to believe that the nation is in decline or that it is simply disinterested. Both conclusions will contribute to a more dangerous world.

A new American grand strategy must reinforce alliances and partnerships—both old and new—in order to confront global challenges with a sense of shared responsibility among nations. The nation’s grand strategy must proceed from the realization that Americans do not have unlimited power—the nation cannot do everything, and cannot be everywhere, all of the time, for the rest of the world. Americans willingly carried the mantle of global leadership for decades—from winning in World War II and the Cold War to strengthening security against extremism after 9/11. But they may be reluctant once again to carry that burden once again, especially considering the nation’s current economic difficulties. The baby boom generation has been as active as its predecessor—and as generous in spirit when asked to help.

The two extremes—where America engages less as expressed by “leading from behind,” or where America takes the lead on all issues—are unacceptable.[20] Now is the time for other states in the West to rise to the occasion and to share the burden of leadership rather than criticizing from the sidelines. We can hope for a new bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, but if Washington fails to lead, then it must be prepared for the consequences if other states, whose interests may be radically at odds with its own, take the lead. Consider the case of Syria’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013, when Britain voted against using force and Russia sided with Syria.[21]

The United States must also commit itself to building a world in which other states contribute to regional leadership, while working collaboratively toward common goals. These principles of reinforcing the domestic foundations of power, exercising strong leadership, and practicing greater collaboration often exist in tension. However, it is vital for the nation to develop a framework that guides how it deals with competing challenges at home and abroad. Neither the public nor their policymakers should assume that America’s supposed preeminence is guaranteed to exist in perpetuity. In the end, the United States needs a strategy that encourages positive American leadership and maintains security, while balancing the need for all states to work together to rebuild and reinforce the foundations of peace, security, and prosperity. It did so before, and can do so again.

Thus, one indicator of the strength of the third principle is whether the U.S. shares the burden with allies and partners. In Afghanistan, how much of the work of nation building is done by Afghans themselves? In principle, it should always be proportionally more than what America is doing because the United States cannot shoulder the full burden of developing a state economically, politically, and socially. Such an approach is both unrealistic and unwise. As for allies, the question is how capable are they of acting alongside the U.S.? The de-militarization of Europe is deeply problematic for U.S. grand strategy because this translates into a fundamentally weaker NATO. It also implies that the United States will have to pay the costs of military interventions. Over the long-term, this will lead to a decline in relative power, which suggests that it might be useful to consider a new Marshall Plan for the European global security capabilities. A similar proposal for a Marshall Plan for states in the Middle East was raised.[22]

The second indicator of the health of the third principle is America’s diplomatic standing. By diplomatic standing, I mean its ability to interact with key interlocutors in other states and societies and its ability to mediate conflicts. In the past, especially under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, America had the diplomatic standing to mediate great conflicts. For now, it seems to have lost that ability and image, while American embassies and consulates seem to be fortresses rather than places for the conduct of diplomacy. Dangerously, this practice continues to isolate the United States.

In practice, Washington’s credibility and influence increase when it willingly demonstrates its support and encouragement for other states to exercise leadership. Washington only gains when it shows greater support for multilateralism. It must learn to use existing international institutions, while building new ones, as part of its strategy for encouraging states and actors to work together to restrain the dangers to international security. One corollary to the principle of greater multilateralism in American grand strategy is that Washington should no longer view challenges as essentially “American problems.” The new lens through which to view American grand strategy is to strengthen alliances and partnerships so that more nations are helping to solve the world’s problems.

Policymakers know, if occasionally ignore, that American power is limited. Policymakers in Washington will learn that they can accomplish vastly more once they enshrine American grand strategy with the value of collaborating with states and institutions who share a commitment to building a peaceful, stable, and secure world. Whether diminishing nuclear proliferation, preventing genocide, providing humanitarian assistance, restraining extremism, or confronting economic policies that threaten the global economy, the United States and its allies will be better able to build a more secure and prosperous world when they work together. Policymakers and the public should not forget the eminently practical and straightforward reason for building stronger alliances and partnerships. In practice, it is no longer necessary or appropriate for Washington’s grand strategy to rely on diplomatic domination or play the role of referee of last resort.

In reality, the United States cannot afford to exempt itself from global leadership. The time has come, despite being mired in an anemic and slow recovery from the "Great Recession," for the United States to exercise greater world leadership. This is crucial when one looks at the challenges posed by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela—and increasingly Egypt and Syria in the highly unstable Middle East. However, the counterpoint to this principle of leadership is eminently practical: the United States does not have unlimited power everywhere, all of the time, for the rest of the world. Attempts to “do everything” only further erode the American public’s support, as the public asks why the nation is carrying the burden while other states apparently get a “free ride.”

The two extremes—one where America engages less and retrenches, or one where America takes the lead on all issues—are equally unacceptable and impractical. This is the right time, after nearly seven decades, for America to reinforce its alliances and partnerships—new and old—so that other states and institutions can rise to the occasion to share the responsibility and burden of leadership. While the United States rebuilt states and regions after World War II and protected them for fifty years, now is the time for those states to join in efforts to resolve global problems. The practical challenge for U.S. grand strategy is how to balance working in concert with others in the international community, while keeping one’s options open in those crucial moments when the United States might decide that it is necessary to act alone. Grand strategy, if it is to be effective, must use principles such as these to help build a world in which states are permitted and encouraged to pursue peace and prosperity.

Balancing Among Principles

To be successful, American grand strategy must embody positive principles that match the circumstances of the moment, build a world based on peace and security, and be guided broadly by the consent of the people. But simply having the right principles is only part of the equation. As most observers would expect, society and its policymakers must carefully balance how they put those principles into practice.

This balance applies with equal force to the principle of reinforcing the leadership role of the United States abroad. To build a secure and peaceful world, it is essential for the United States to play a leadership role. No other state can fill this role, while a world without American leadership is fraught with perils. Getting this principle right requires a particularly delicate balancing act. If the United States pursues a leadership role based on too much involvement, it will antagonize other states, which rightly would believe that America does not have the right or authority to dominate the globe. If it recedes into a foreign policy of minimalism, the sources of disorder will metastasize and grow—and create an unending series of foreign policy difficulties and challenges.

The principle of American grand strategy that calls for working more cooperatively and collaboratively with other states and institutions raises similar challenges. To ignore or merely pay lip service to this principle will suggest that the United States wants to “go it alone.” States will respond by isolating the United States or limiting their support for solving problems that require coordinated action among several nations.

What emerges is a cautionary note about American grand strategy. The unbalanced application of any one of these principles alone will inflict significant harm on U.S. priorities and those of its friends and allies. Worse, to put too much emphasis on any two principles also will undermine America’s grand strategy. For example, policies that emphasize rebuilding the domestic foundations of power and relying heavily on the role of cooperation will reinforce the impression that the United States is unwilling to lead in the current and future international system. States will see this as a strategy for gradually disengaging from the world—until the next crisis occurs.

A strategy that deemphasizes American global leadership and promotes cooperation will weaken the nation’s ability to promote global stability. Strictly speaking, this describes the state of American policy today. The inherent trap with grand strategy lies in how effectively it is implemented. Policymakers simply cannot pursue any or several principles to the exclusion of the others. To do so will be completely self-defeating. The only path to success is to implement these principles of grand strategy in a balanced and purposeful fashion. Any other approach will weaken the United States, embolden its adversaries, demoralize friends and allies, and eviscerate the world order that America seeks to build.

This survey of the areas of consensus and disagreement among these valuable contributions to the study of grand strategy returns us to the question of how, then does America articulate and implement a grand strategy for this post-Cold War era. One question is how can we think more systematically and rigorously about American grand strategy so we can evaluate these arguments and use them to improve American foreign policy over the long-term.

Ultimately, the central question is toward what ends should the United States rebuild the domestic foundations of its power, exercise stronger leadership, and collaborate with alliances and partnerships. Put another way, what is the fundamental goal for American grand strategy? When reflecting on American history, my strongest inclination is that the primary goals of American foreign policy are and always have been to build the foundations of peace and security. Such a world is the greatest legacy that the United States can aspire to achieve. This logic holds today more than ever. For now, however, the nation does not have the economic resources or domestic support to build democracy and freedom in other nations. This is especially true as America pivots away from the entangling nation-building episodes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since World War II, America has taken the lead in creating a more peaceful world order. One reason is selfish: a peaceful international system, which keeps threats and sources of disorder to a minimum, permits the United States to pursue its vital national interest in seeing democracies grow, prosper, and building a vibrant global order. Let us remember the world that FDR envisioned when he outlined his iconic four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In declaring freedom from fear to be a human right, FDR positioned the United States to lead in efforts to reduce armaments and dissuade aggressive nations from threatening and bringing harm to peaceful states. American political and economic power and diplomatic and military might are essential instruments in building the peace and security that must prevail if Americans and all states strive to live in a world, as FDR envisioned, free from fear.

For America, an Optimistic Grand Strategy

First, American policymakers must express, in words and actions, that it is and truly should be, supremely confident in its abilities and policies—largely because the force of history is on its side. Is anyone willing to argue that the repression of freedom, civil rights and expression—all values that the United States has resisted with rhetoric, policies, and force of arms—represent anything other than a failed past? America’s grand strategy should build from an inner sense of confidence, sadly somewhat lacking at the moment, that free societies and free markets are the wave of the future. While the West faces a stalled and anemic economic recovery with most of the European Union in recession, the cyclical nature of economics suggests that the West and its confidence will rebound. Eventually, the West will organize itself to exercise effective leadership in direct opposition to states that promote authoritarian values and predatory policies.

Second, America is the symbol in foreign policy of three powerful concepts, which historically have dominated its grand strategy. One is the role of freedom as a central organizing principle in the formation and conduct of civil society. Another is the role of free markets that embrace the importance of the private sector in the development of market-based societies, while the last is to promote the value of peace in the actions of the public sector. The confluence of these principles helps to endow the United States with a sense of confidence. The contrast with the authoritarian states could not be starker, as these states are unlikely to marshal the political and economic values that provide the wherewithal to be proponents of a peaceful, prosperous, and free international order.

Third, the West should not feel, much less show, any sense of weakness, indecision, or dithering. America’s grand strategy rests on freedom, while authoritarian states adhere slavishly to the failed logic of controlling all facets of life in their societies, as seen in North Korea and Syria as well as Russia and China. Put directly, the greatest risk for the future of America’s role in the world is a self-inflicted failure to adapt and to lead. Failing to articulate and implement a coherent and positive grand strategy is a sure way to undermine the foundations on which international security rests.

Policymakers must bear in mind, however, that the U.S. is advised to guard against the twin dangers of under- and over-reaction. There will always be authoritarian states and rogue non-state actors willing to use provocative language and actions to threaten the current world order. While threats to American security should be taken seriously, such provocative language does not mean that Washington should always reciprocate. However, failing to respond forcefully and patiently only emboldens those seeking to upend the status quo. In the end, the United States must marshal its self-confidence into a coherent strategy that empowers it to deal with current threats, anticipate new challenges, and embrace arising opportunities in a direct, measured, and statesmanlike fashion.

When policymakers step back from the details of its language and policies, the case for the United States to think carefully about its grand strategy is fundamentally simple. It is designed to meet serious threats while creating and taking advantage of strategic opportunities. To continue on the present course of "drifting" from crisis to crisis effectively invites powers to believe that America is in decline. Worse, Americans, too, might believe wrongly that the nation’s decline is inevitable, which in turn will make matters for difficult and dangerous for the West, at least for now.

A strategic weakness with American foreign policy is the deep and enduring political polarization in Washington that complicates, and often paralyzes, U.S. policymaking. While the United States once conducted its foreign policy on a largely bipartisan basis, we now see divisions in Washington on virtually all issues. The failure of policymakers in Washington to move beyond this polarized environment puts at risk the nation’s ability to act with one voice on foreign policy. Essentially, it puts at risk the entire enterprise of grand strategy because a deeply divided nation cannot implement policies to defend its interests that call for using its resources effectively and in a coordinated fashion.

By definition, American grand strategy demands that policymakers and politicians take the long view. While it is an eternal challenge for policymakers in Washington to look beyond the next election, the nation simply has no choice. It must build a grand strategy that addresses how the United States deals with the future that extends beyond coming months or years. Abroad, the nation must work with other states and institutions to shape the secure international order that all states desperately need. The alternative of a world marked by uncertainty, fear, and strife is one that no American policymaker can willingly countenance.

An enduring grand strategy must evoke a positive vision of the peace, security, and prosperity to which American policymakers should aspire and the public will energetically endorse. It should express, perhaps more than any other idea, the principles that Americans are more likely to embrace, and these historically have rested on democratic and shared values that are not unique to the United States.

To be successful, America’s grand strategy should demonstrate a sense of optimism that this state, while working with others, can build a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous world. This optimism is based on the simple, yet powerful, principle that all states need to work together to confront dangers in this world. These dangers call for reinforcing the foundations of American power, strengthening American leadership, and building strong and lasting alliances that can work cooperatively in promoting a better world.

A grand strategy must cultivate the resources, ingenuity, and tools of an irrepressibly innovative and dynamic society. As importantly, it gives policymakers and the public a positive notion of what American foreign policy seeks to accomplish. Lastly, it articulates a vision of the world that America wants to build and the risks it confronts, while reassuring the people that their nation’s foreign policy is organized on the basis of principles that call for the prudent exercise of power. With such principles, the nation can avoid the dual perils of drift and overreach or fixating on tired arguments about the nation’s inevitable decline.

If America is to assure its future security and prosperity, we need a new grand strategy that harnesses its peoples’ spirit, sense of optimism, and perseverance to help the nation meet the challenges and grasp the opportunities of this era. This remains the greatest challenge for contemporary scholars and policymakers, and is one that we cannot lose sight of if we are to build a stronger and enduring vision for American global leadership.

“The Making of a Future American Grand Strategy” in "Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice: The Need for an Effective American Foreign Policy” by William C. Martel.

Copyright © 2015 William C. Martel. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

[1] For example, see Terry L. Deibel, Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] William C. Martel, “Why America Needs a Grand Strategy,” The Diplomat, June 18, 2012, at

[3] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987).

[4] For the argument that the “relationship between ends and means is the all-important center, the iron linkage of [all] strategic thought,” see John Lewis Gaddis, “Containment and the Logic of Strategy,” The National Interest, Vol. 10 (Winter, 1987-88), p. 29.

[5] See John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 88, on the U.S. unwillingness to exploit its nuclear advantage.

[6] See Adam Quinn, "The Art of Declining Politely: Obama's Prudent Presidency and the Waning of American Power," International Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 4 (2011), pp. 803-824.

[7] On principles in American foreign policy, see George F. Kennan, "On American Principles," Foreign Affairs (1995), pp. 116-126.

[8] Political culture is defined as "the set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process and which provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behavior in the political system." On political culture, see Charles Andrain, Political Life and Social Change (Belmont, Calif.: Duxbury Press, 1974); Talcott Parsons, “Culture and Social Systems Revisited,” Social Sciences Quarterly 53 (September 1972), pp. 253-66; and Karl Deutsch, “Symbols of Political Community,” in Lyman Bryson et al., Symbols and Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1953).

[9] See William C. Martel, “Why America Needs a Grand Strategy,” The Diplomat, June 18, 2012, at

[10] See Peter Feaver, “Debating American Grand Strategy After Major War,” Orbis, Vol. 53, No. 4, Fall 2009, pp. 547-552; William C. Martel, “America’s Dangerous Drift,” The Diplomat, February 25, 2013, at; Jeremi Suri, ‘‘American Grand Strategy from the Cold War’s End to 9/11,’’ Orbis, Fall 2009, pp. 621–626.

[11] See William C. Martel, “Grand Strategy of the Authoritarian Axis,” The Diplomat, July 24, 2012, at

[12] See David W. Moore, “Public Overwhelmingly Backs Bush in Attacks on Afghanistan,” Gallup, October 8, 2001, at

[13] See “Most Favor Afghanistan Withdrawal by 2014 But Fear U.S. Will Stay Too Long,” Rasmussen Reports, May 4, 2013, at Cf., Richard C. Eichenberg, "Victory Has Many Friends: US Public Opinion and the Use of Military Force, 1981–2005," International Security, Vol. 30, No. 1 (2005), pp. 140-177.

[14] President George H.W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, March 1990, at

[15] See Kenneth Lieberthal, “The American Pivot to Asia: Why President Obama's turn to the East is easier said than done,” Foreign Policy, December 21, 2011; Mark E. Manyin, Pivot to the Pacific?: The Obama Administration's "Rebalancing Toward Asia (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2012).

[16] For analyses of the role of selective service in shared responsibility, see Dale R. Herspring, Civil-Military Relations and Shared Responsibility: A Four-Nation Study (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[17] Walter Russell Mead, Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York: Knopf, 2001), pp. 47-48.

[18] See Leslie H. Gelb, "GDP Now Matters More Than Force-A US Foreign Policy for the Age of Economic Power," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89 (November-December 2010), pp. 35-43.

[19] See Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest, Vol. 31, 1989, pp. 3-18.

[20] See Leslie H. Gelb, “In Defense of Leading from Behind: So What if it's a Terrible Slogan? It's Still the Right Strategy,” Foreign Policy, April 29, 2013, at

[21] See Michael R. Gordon, “Kerry Cites Clear Evidence of Chemical Weapon Use in Syria,” New York Times, August 26, 2013, at

[22] For example, see “Netanyahu Proposes New "Marshall Plan" for Egyptian Economy to Support Coup,” Middle East Monitor, July 26, 2013, at