Sometime last year I stumbled across a series of 500 word think pieces written by various professors of international relations, senior fellows housed in foreign policy think tanks, and other eminent experts on all matter of topics related to security studies. From what I could tell the series was a weekly affair; every week a new topic would be proposed and interested experts would write a reply, send it in, and have it published as the week closed. The week I stumbled upon the site was was unique, however: the topic chosen had received so many responses that the editors deemed it necessary to extend the discussion over two weeks. The topic that swamped them?
“What should be America’s grand strategy?”
Unfortunately, I did not bother to save the url of the series and have been unable to find it since.* The loss is not too great, however; the series’ pattern was tragically familiar. Indeed, not a year goes by that we do not see it repeated in the publishing houses and public policy journals of America.
Treatise after treatise was sent in, each painting its own picture of the perfect strategic outlook, an optimal configuration of alliances worth forging and enemies worth engaging, and an idealized list of national interests whose pursuit would surely secure American supremacy and security in the future. Like most works of this type, I had trouble taking any of them too seriously – every American with a passing interest in international affairs seems to have an opinion on matters of grand strategy, but few have had the experience necessary to make these opinions worth hearing. Most books and articles on the subject are simply dressed up wishlists, ultimately saying more about the author’s political fancies than America’s strategic realities. Not surprisingly, these books have no lasting permanence. Each is published, lauded by the foreign policy literati, and then abandoned as the next batch of strategic self-help books comes hot off the press.
Why is this? What accounts for America’s ever-growing graveyard of unused grand strategies? Ambition plays a part, I am sure. Kennan’s legacy is a siren’s call for experts and analysts more confident than they have reason to be. However, I think the problem is more fundamental than this. The grand strategists of our age have built their policies upon a dangerously flawed foundation. Again and again they try to graft their strategies onto the Republic and are forced to watch as America rejects every one of them. They fail to realize what they are constructing is incompatible with the nature of the ground upon which they build.
In the Spring 1995 volume of International Security, Josef Joffe
(now a fellow at the Hoover Institute, then a professor of political science at Harvard) published an article titled “Bismarck” or “Britain”? Toward an American Grand Strategy after Bipolarity”
. As the title of the article would suggest, Joffe compares the grand strategies of Britain, the famous ‘offshore balancer’, and Bismark, the ‘spoke of Europe’, as possible models for America to follow in the post Cold War world. Joffe comes down decisively on the side of Bismark, arguing persuasively that the United States will be more successful if America becomes the ‘spoke’ every country must work through to achieve its goals than it will ever be as a reactive balancer scrambling about from continent to continent trying to build coalitions in face of every regional power house. For the reigning superpower it is better to bandwagon than it is to balance.
On the face of things this seems quite sensible. Indeed, I cannot dispute the general argument Joffe makes, and enthusiastically recommend the essay to all who claim that America should play the part of Britain in the coming century. However, like most of its type, his essay suffers from a glaring omission. Never explained is why the United States should become the new Bismark. Yes, doing so will preserve the United States hegemonic status – but what is the point? For what reason does the United States wish to have this status? Why is it in in our interests to make the choice between Bismark and Britain in the first place?
For Joffe these questions can be safely ignored, as they have already been answered. Scholars of the realist school addressed them long ago. In terms of interests, states have but one – survival. The key to survival in a world full of states desperate to survive is power and influence. The state with the most power and influence has the best chance of surviving. Thus it is in the interest of the United States of America to attain as much power and influence as possible – which presently means the maintenance of American hegemony across the globe. Grand strategies are the game plans statesmen use to guide their efforts to do just this.
This was a simplification, but not by much. Indeed, while not all would-be strategist are of the realist school, a consensus has formed around the basic idea: a grand strategy is a state’s road map for survival and security.
This consensus is the first source of America’s crisis in strategy.
I often find historian Carroll Quigley
‘s theory of institutional decay
to be quite useful when thinking about realist conceptions of the state. According to Quiggley, all organizations are formed as a means to accomplishing a stated goal. These organizations are thus instruments
whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. Over time these instruments tend to denigrate into institutions
– organizations that exist for their own sake, devoting resources to protecting their position instead of directing resources towards the fulfillment of their designed role. When this happens they cease to be of use to those who created them.
Institutional decay applies to all organizations made by the hands of men – religious congregations, businesses, bureaucracies, NGOs, and civic societies can all fall prey to its grasp. As a creation of men, states are not exempt from this rule. Indeed, as the realists see it, they have all fallen prey to it. The realist state is an organization that decayed beyond usefulness from the moment of its birth. Such a state, existing solely for survival, is not a tool in the hands of its citizens; all benefits provided by the Leviathan are simply lucky side effects of the Hobbesian contest for survival.
This vision is an egregious misinterpretation of the state and its purpose. As do all organizations, states have the capacity to be instruments in the hands of those who use them. This is particularly true for those governments not founded by “accident and force“, but “by reflection and choice” (Hamilton, Alexander. Federalist No. 1) – that is to say, states whose existence is explicitly instrumental in nature. If an instrument is to fulfill its role as an instrument it must survive. But survival itself is not the point. It is merely a prerequisite for the instrument’s use.
All strategists who forget the instrumental nature of the United States inadvertently sabotage their own strategies. From the get go their project is set up to answer the wrong questions. “What are the greatest threats to the United States?” “How can the United States maintain its hegemony?” “How can the United States best leverage its power?” These are all good questions – but they are the wrong ones. They view the Republic as an institution, not an instrument. Those willing to use the government of the United States as an instrument must begin with a rather different set of questions. A superb post
over at the Committee of Public Safety states perfectly what these questions must be:
American strategy… can only be successful if enough Americans come to an agreement on the answers to these two questions:
- What is America?
- What is America for?
In Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History
Frederick Merk states that the defining feature of the American polity has been its “sense of mission.”
Americans, says he, have always been invested in the idea that their Republic served a great purpose. They could never delegate their destiny to the realpoliticking of the upper echelons of power. In times of crisis it is this sense of of purpose that has sustained the Republic, and in achieving national goals it is this sense of purpose that has acted as the unconscious guide of American statesmen and citizens alike. Strip away America’s mission, and you have stripped away America. And in doing so you have stripped away our grand strategy as well.
You will be hard pressed to find a strategy articulated and pursued by American statesmen that was not embedded in a larger sense of American purpose. The isolationism of the early 1800s was rooted in the conviction that America was creating “an Empire of Liberty”, untouched by the despotism of the old world. 50 years later the nation fulfilled its “Manifest Destiny” to “Extend the Area of Freedom” by expanding to the Pacific coast. Before Roosevelt could put “Germany First”, he needed to declare that his country was “The Arsenal of Democracy”. Kennan’s policy of containment was reliant on the assurance that America was the true and only “Leader of the Free World.”
Phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “Arsenal of Democracy” were not merely the rhetorical flourish used by canny politicians to justify the exercise of power. They were the reason power was exercised in the first place. These phrases were, in essence, bit-sized distillations of the mission and purpose Americans claimed for their nation. Containment only worked because the American populace believed that it was America’s mission to act as the Leader of the Free World. Cold War grand strategy was an outgrowth of this mission – a means to maintaining the mission’s end.
Purpose provides America with a vision. It prioritizes our interests, informs us of our enemies, and tells us what position we seek to hold on the international scene. A nation without a purpose is a nation without a grand strategy to achieve it.
And it is in exactly this situation that America has found herself.
“Better one bad strategy consistently pursued than two good strategies inconsistently pursued.”
I submit that is half right. The problem is not that America’s strategy is a changling, constantly mutating from one form to another. Our strategy is a inconsistent, but this is nothing new. Even containment, that most famous of grand strategies, varied wildly in form and flavor as it was handed from one generation to the next. The policies made famous by Truman, Kissinger, and Reagan were radically different from each other. Yet however different the roars of Reagan and the whispers of Kissinger may have been, in one aspect they were unquestionably united: both were devoted to the same mission. The Cold Warriors may have varied in the strategies they proposed, but their strategies were all directed towards the same end.
The same cannot be said of the grand strategists of today. America’s problem is not that she has too many strategies, but that she has too many purposes. There is no consensus as to what America means or why America exists. There is no commonly held sense of purpose to unite the citizens of the Republic. And absence this sense of purpose, our strategists have no foundation upon which to build.
I do not imagine this will change anytime soon. Unlike strategy, purpose is not the province of brilliant men. There can be no Long Telegrams or Albert Wedemeyers for America’s sense of mission. Our purpose is just as much a feeling as it is a nuanced thought process; it is decided not by the brilliance of an essay or a memo, but by the collective hopes, fears, and experiences of the entire nation. It is something we all take part in, and it is something we will all help create.
This assumes, however, that Americans still have the capacity to create such a national ethos, that we possess the will to forge a consensus on our national purpose. Evidence suggests that we cannot. National ethos is dependent on national identity. And as a previous post on this topic
has shown, this is something Americans do not have. One fourth of all Americans believe that our nation is divided to the point where a common identity is impossible. At the same time, American participation in civic and community institutions has fallen drastically. As this previous post concludes: “Modern America is a country bereft of social capital.** Exceeding the bounds of individualism, our tieless masses are a race of aliens. They breath the same air, live in the same space, but are aliens to each other nonetheless.”
A country of aliens has no sense of purpose. Without common experiences, ideals, beliefs, or identity, there is no cohesive whole to attach ‘purpose’ to. A whole that does not exist can have no driving mission. And no strategy can serve a mission not yet called into being. In the end, our strategy is only as strong as the nation it is built upon.
Every armchair general dreams of being the one who ends the crisis in grand strategy. To meet their goal these men must dig deeper. It is not the crisis of grand strategy in want of solutions, but the crisis of American civilization itself.
EDIT (31/08/2010): I direct any readers of this post to my “Addendum to Dreaming Grand Strategy”.