Grand Strategy Absent Grand Ends

How can America craft a new grand strategy? The example of Jia Yi – a famous Chinese statesman and thinker who failed to convince his dynasty to adopt the strategy he proposed – can help us understand the central role that culture and a sense of national mission play in the creation of national strategy.

Jia Yi was a strategist born ahead of his time.

Jia Yi, statesman and poet 
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While not well known in the West, Jia Yi’s ideas, poems, and petitions would influence Chinese thought throughout the millennia that followed his short life. Were it not for the monumental efforts of his near contemporary Sima Qian, it is likely that he would be known as the greatest thinker of his age. His was a day of great opportunity. He rose to prominence during the reign of Emperor Wen, a time when the Han Dynasty was still very young and even the obscure could reach great heights had they talent and ambition to do so.

Jia Yi had both in spades; before his 22nd year the scholar had become part of the imperial court,  where he penned many influential petitions on urgent matters of state. Jia Yi approached this task with a Confucian education and outlook. His writings place him firmly in Xunzi’s “realist” branch of that tradition. [1] This made him an outlier in the Emperor’s court. The dominate philosophy of both the times and the court was Huang-Lao, a sort of ‘applied Daoism’ that counseled that “adaptation [should be] the guiding principle of the ruler” and emphasized restricting the scope of the imperial government and avoiding costly wars in order to bring about general prosperity. [2] Jia Yi rejected much of this; he was an avowed critic of both the Han’s foreign policy and the received wisdom it reflected. In a celebrated series of essays and memorials he would propose a set of policies designed to squelch internal dissension and assure the dynasty’s dominance of “anywhere that boat or chariot could attain.[3]  It would be fair to call this comprehensive set of proposals a “grand strategy.”

Strategy is often described as the task of balancing ways, ends, and means. The “grand” ends Jia Yi sought to attain were heavily influenced by his Confucian world view. [4] Nowhere is this more apparent than his discussion of the dynasty’s relationship with the nomadic empire to their north, the Xiongnu. When Jia Yi began his imperial career, the Han had made peace with the Xiongnu through a treaty arrangement known as the Heqin. Under this system the Emperor of the Han and the tribal leader (Chanyu) of the Xiongnu recognized each other as brothers. Whenever a new Chanyu was chosen, the Han would send a royal “princess” (usually a concubine from the Emperor’s harem) to be his wife, complimenting this endowment with annual “gifts” of treasure and silk. In return, the Xiongnu would not conduct armed forays into the empire.

Jia Yi expressed his disgust with this arrangement in the following terms:

The situation of the empire may be described just like a person hanging upside down. The Son of Heaven is the head of the empire. Why? Because he should remain on the top. The barbarians are the feet of the empire. Why? Because they should be placed at the bottom. Now, the Xiongnu are arrogant and insolent on the one hand, and invade and plunder us on the other hand, which must be considered an expression of extreme disrespect for us. And the harm they have been doing to the empire is extremely boundless. Yet each year the Han provides them with money, silk floss, and fabrics. To command the barbarian is the power vested in the emperor on the top, and, to present tribute to the Son of Heaven is a ritual to be performed by vassals at the bottom. Now the feet are put on the top and the head at the bottom!” [5]

Confucian emphasis on hierarchy can seem a bit silly to those living in the 21st century, but it fit nicely with the wider contours of Confucian thought. Jia Yi and other men trained in the Confucian classics recognized that cruelty and caprice would lead to despots to power, but they also argued that such means could never keep it. If a dynasty came to control “all under Heaven” it was because it could bring prosperity to and perfect the natures of all who dwelt there. Confucians believed ritual (li) (and the hierarchies it imposed) to be the surest way to reach such perfection. If the dynasty failed to uphold li it was shirking the main reason (a “grand end”, we could say) for its existence.

Jia Yi’s problem was that few others believed that this was a “grand end” worth pursuing. Most members of the court were not Confucians. They believed that the state which interfered the least governed best; their philosophy enshrined as sage those who adapted to the world’s imperfections, not those who attempt to perfect them. Jia Yi’s was a comprehensive plan to attain an ideal few others believed in; as a result his specific policy proposals (the “ways and means”) were ignored. The young scholar, assigned to an outer province when one of his rivals gained favor in the court, feared that his ideas would never gain influence and fell into despair. He committed suicide at the age of 33.

In later times Jia Yi would become the archetype of the talented scholar or statesmen whose brilliance was not appreciated until after his time. For Jia Yi this moment would come a generation later. By then the culture of the ruling class had changed considerably; both the reigning emperor and the majority of his court were adherents of Confucian thought. Under their lead the Han gave up on the traditional Heqin solution to the problem posed by the Xiongnu. The grand strategy they eventually adopted was quite different from the one proposed by Jia Yi, but their reasoning for changing course echoed the petitions he wrote a generation earlier. [6]


The sad tale of Jia Yi brings us straight us the heart of modern America’s strategic woes. In a thoughtful essay penned for the first 2013 issue of Infinity Journal Adam Elkus describes one of the main problems faced by modern statesmen and scholars hoping to craft their own grand strategy. A few quotes from the introduction and conclusion capture the thrust of his argument:

This essay submits that the concept of “grand strategy” in American policy discourse suffers from several major deficiencies. First, grand strategy is conceptualized as a dominant “big idea” instead of the steps that translate high concept into action. American grand strategy’s conceptualization of strategy is divorced from classical strategy’s instrumental focus on bridging violence and politics. American grand strategy’s present form simply adds a superficially strategic character to what is predominately ideological foregrounding to national policy….

A grand strategy thus cannot be about setting the grand idea. Rather, strategy must be about what—or more importantly, who stands in the way of the idea becoming reality and how he or she can be made to accept it. American grand strategy should be a technical and instrumental assessment of the gap between a presumed future vision of the ordering of the social world and the present. It would abdicate the normative content of setting national aspirations to politicians and polemicists.

Rather, the task of a grand strategist should be to delineate the ways and means necessary to use national power to accomplish the ideological consensus. The remit of the grand strategist’s reach would also be radically circumscribed. The problematic nature of the policy-strategy distinction means that a restrained grand strategy would still impinge on domestic politics. But its inherent clash with domestic politics would be nonetheless be substantially minimized down from the substantial domestic transformations American grand strategy demands today.

A hypothetical American grand strategist advising Thomas Jefferson would not draft a brilliant policy memo calling for the idea of an “Empire of Liberty.” Instead, he would tell Jefferson what kind of army such an Empire would necessitate, the political and social relationships to be leveraged, and the economic costs to be borne. He would analyze how British, Spanish, and French military forces on the continent would impede the realization of the Empire of Liberty and the steps that might be necessary to overawe them. [7]

I second Mr. Elkus’ conclusion. Grand strategy is not the same thing as a guiding “big idea”, and it is not the role of a grand strategists to provide America with one. However, I think Elkus understates just how important these ‘big ideas’ are in the process of crafting grand strategy. I touched on this theme several years ago in an essay titled “Dreaming Grand Strategy“:

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.” [8]

The hypothetical grand strategist in Mr. Elkus’ essay has an easier job than his latter day counterpart. Mr. Jefferson’s man knew what his grand end was. Notably, it was not a grand end created by a policy memo or even a shrewd politician. The words “empire of liberty” belonged to Thomas Jefferson, but the idea had much deeper roots. He created a phrase to encapsulate a widely held set of beliefs that sustained the actions and rhetoric of both American yeomen and the statesmen they elected for the duration of the antebellum period. [9] The big idea was already set in place. 21st century America is lacking any comparable sense of common mission, identity, or purpose. We have no grand end. As I wrote:

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.” [10]

As that last paragraph suggests, the folly with proposing ‘big ideas’ is not that they are unnecessary, for a sense of mission is prerequisite to the creation of any meaningful* grand strategy. Rather, the folly lies in the conceit that a policy wonk can dream up a national identity and then foist it upon the American people. Solidarity, purpose, identity are products of shared experience and shared narratives, not creations of upper class technocrats. Culture is molded, not created.

To craft grand strategy absent an underlying unifying “big idea” is to figure the ways and means without a clear end. But if the idea is the strategist’s alone, his designs will come to naught. This is the dilemma of American grand strategy. No American statesman or scholar can create a unifying sense of mission and purpose though his efforts alone, but until such a purpose is found no useful strategy can be made. Those who attempt otherwise will become an American Jia Yi.

*Meaningful here designates any strategy with a greater purpose than than a simple bid for survival.


[1] Charles Theodore Sanft. Rule: A Study of Jia Yi’s Xin Shu. (St. Paul, MN: self published). 2005. p. 12. e-book here.

[2] Trans. D.C Lau. Selections from Huananzi in Sources of the Chinese Tradition, Vol I: From Earliest Times to 1600. 2nd ed. compiled by WM Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1999. p. 270, 271

[3]  Charles Theodore Sanft. Rule: A Study of Jia Yi’s Xin Shu. p. 288.

[4] Jia Yi is unlikely to have called himself a “Confucian”, for this strand of thought was rarely recognized as a cohesive ideology that one could  ‘belongto’  before the “five Confucian classics” became the foundation of the official system of education and the state began to sponsor temples in Confucius’ name. However, everything from the sources he quotes to the arguments he employs rest squarely within this tradition.

[5] Quoted in Yingshi Yu. Trade and Expansion in Han China: A Study in Sino-Barbarian Relations. (Los Angles: University of California Press). 1969 p. 11

[6] I have treated this change from Daoism to Confucianism – and the corresponding shifts in the dynasty’s grand strategy – in a separate essay. Please see T. Greer. “Strategy is Who You Are.” The Scholar’s Stage.  27 February 2013.  I encourage those who would like to study this transition in more detail to consult the following sources:

Homer H. Dubs “The Victory of Han Confucianism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 58, No. 3 (Sep. 1938), pp. 435-46

Columbia University’s web-page “Confucius and the Confucian tradition” and University of Indiana’s History G380 online course material“The Fortunes of the Confucianism in the Early Han” are two public domain documents that readers may also found useful.

[7] Adam Elkus. “Must American Strategy Be Grand?Infinity Journal. Jan/Feb 2013. vol 1.

Readers may also be interested in Mr. Elkus blog, Rethinking Security.

[8] T. Greer. “Dreaming Grand Strategy.” The Scholar’s Stage. 12 May 2010.

[9] I present the evidence for this assertion in T. Greer. “Manifest Destiny: A Case Study in National Purpose” The Scholar’s Stage. 24 August 2010.

[10] T. Greer, “Dreaming Grand Strategy”

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This is quite interesting. I hadn't read the Elkus piece.

It might be enough if there were an agreed-on set of foreign policy priorities (e.g. betw the 2 major parties) but even that doesn't really exist. Instead what there seems to be is a debate betw. so-called 'retrenchers' and whatever the opposite is (liberal internationalists?), at least among the IR academics. And this is mirrored, though, imperfectly, by divisions among the politicians.

As to "there is no consensus as to what America means," didn't Obama's second inaugural address at least take a stab at that question?

Agreed, a shared set of foreign policy priorities would probably be sufficient. Examples to past eras are instructive in this regard – "grand strategy" during the cold war varied quite a bit administration to administration. What united the whole was a shared assumption that the U.S. and USSR were real competitors and that America needed to support free markets across the globe. How they did this changed drastically, but the same end was in sight. A similar point could be made for the antebellum – in many ways Whigs and Democrats had very different visions of what kind of Republic they wanted America to be, but they both agreed that she should face Westward, not Eastward, that it was her role to show the European masses how to do civilization right, and that maintaining a large standing military was contrary to these ends.

"didn't Obama's second inaugural address at least take a stab at that question?"

It was an excellent oratorical stab, but I wonder if his rhetoric matched reality. I saw more than a few people lampoon statements like this:

"We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

What the President is describing in his rhetoric does not match the actions of his administration. The connection between ideology and policy is very weak here.

(An interesting contrast could be made with Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream" speech earlier this month. His call for Chinese 'rejuvenation' on the international stage taps into key undercurrents of popular Chinese thought and is a fair description of the CCP's policy aims).