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Wanted: A grand strategy

In search of a cohesive foreign policy plan for America

Greg Klee/Globe Staff photo illustration

President Obama campaigned on the promise of change, and ended up with a world much fuller of it than he and his advisers expected. In the three years since he was elected, the foreign-policy landscape has shifted dramatically, not least because the financial crisis has spread worldwide and the Arab world has risen up against its autocratic rulers.

-Greg Klee/Globe Staff photo illustration/-

When the unexpected occurs in the realm of foreign policy--like this year’s Arab revolts, or a hypothetical military crisis in Asia--the nation’s leaders don’t always have ready-made plans on the shelf, and don’t have the luxury of time to start crafting a policy from scratch. What they can rely on, however, is what’s known as a grand strategy. A term from academia, “grand strategy” describes the real-world framework of basic aims, ideals, and priorities that govern a nation’s approach to the rest of the world. In short, a grand strategy lays out the national interest, in a leader’s eyes, and says what a state will be willing to do to advance it. A grand strategy doesn’t prescribe detailed solutions to every problem, but it gives a powerful nation a blueprint for how to act, and brings a measure of order to the rest of the world by making its expectations more clear.

The current changes have hit us at a time when America demonstrably lacks a clear or compelling grand strategy, and in the past year the country’s foreign-policy brain trust has been galvanized by the notion of trying to articulate one that suits the moment. The last White House policy that was widely recognized as a grand strategy was George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which aimed to spread democracy and embraced a controversial doctrine of preemptive war--and which Bush essentially repudiated in his second term. Ever since, America has confronted a rapidly changing world with a basket of tactics, a few medium-sized ideas, and improvised responses to unexpected crises like the eurozone tumult and the Arab awakening. The current administration has articulated some major goals, including the restoration of America’s international relationships and the recalibration of its global footprint; within foreign policy circles, there’s been a heated debate about the larger strategy behind those goals, or whether a larger strategy exists at all.


In the absence of a clear road map for how, and why, America should be engaging with the world, a number of big-picture thinkers have recently rushed into the gap, filling the pages of the most prominent journals in the field and putting grand strategy at the center of the conversation at influential institutions from the National Defense University to America’s top policy schools.


What are the competing visions for an American grand strategy for the 21st century? All the proposed new strategies try to deal with a world in which America still holds the preponderance of power, but can no longer dominate the entire globe. The two-way Cold War contest is over, but it will be some time before another pretender to power--whether China, Russia, India, or the European Union--becomes a meaningful rival. One simple version has America stepping back from the world, husbanding its resources by projecting power at an imperial remove rather through attempts to micromanage the affairs of far-flung foreign nations. Another has it acting more like a multinational corporation, delegating authority to allies most of the time, but involving itself deeply and decisively wherever its interests are threatened. And some unapologetic America-firsters argue the United States can do better by openly trying to dominate the world, rather than by negotiating with it.


Whatever grand strategy emerges to guide 21st century America, the answer is likely to grow out of America’s history, rather than markedly depart from it. All successful American grand strategies--manifest destiny, Wilsonian idealism and self-determination, Cold War-era containment--were driven in part by a sense of American exceptionalism, the notion that America “stands tall” and acts as a beacon in the world. But they also included a dose of Machiavelli as well, nakedly seeking to contain security threats against America, while using international allies to further American interests.

One influential strain of thinking about grand strategy comes from the realm of small-l liberal realism. Liberal realists are unsentimental in their desire to see America maximize its power, but also restrained about how much America should get involved. They want America to reap more and spend less, in both financial and military terms. Their ideas tend to dominate at policy schools, where much of the applied thinking about foreign affairs comes from, and seem to be getting a thorough hearing within Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State Department.

As a potential grand strategy, the front-runner emerging from these realist thinkers is off-shore balancing. Essentially, it advocates keeping America strong by keeping the rest of the world off balance. Military intervention, in this line of thinking, should always be a last resort rather than a first move; America’s military should lurk over the horizon, more powerful if it’s on the minds of its rivals rather than their territory. This grand strategy prescribes a “divide and conquer” approach, advocating that Washington use its diplomatic and commercial power to balance rising powers against one another, so that none can dominate a single region and proceed to threaten America. A prominent group of theorists has embraced this idea, including John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.


“Our first recourse should be to have local allies uphold the balance of power, out of their own self-interest,” Walt wrote in the most recent edition of The National Interest. “Rather than letting them free ride on us, we should free ride on them as much as we can, intervening with ground and air forces only when a single power threatens to dominate some critical region.”

A slightly different version could be called “internationalist tinkering”: It argues that America should focus on rebuilding its international relationships and coalitions, while reserving America’s right on occasion to act decisively and alone. Writing this summer in Foreign Affairs, another Boston-area political scientist, Daniel W. Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, argued that America can quite effectively maintain its international power by relying on cooperation and gentle persuasion most of the time, and force when challenged by other countries. This approach, Drezner believes, will have the result of “reassuring allies and signaling resolve to rivals.” An example is America’s investment in closer relations with Asian states, putting China on notice and forcing it to adjust its expansionist foreign policy. Drezner argues that although Obama might not have articulated it well, he is already driven by this approach, which Drezner calls “counterpunching.”


Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry makes a similar argument in his latest book, “Liberal Leviathan.” America, he argues, can and should police the world order so long as it abides by the same rules as other nations. As a sort of first among equals, America holds the balance of power but cannot overtly dominate the world. It’s a position that demands considerable care to maintain, and requires investment in alliances, institutions like the UN, and international regimes like the ones that govern trade and certain types of crime.

Another line of thinking comes from scholars and writers who are more pessimistic about America’s prospects; they see an empire at the beginning of a long period of decline, and believe America needs to dramatically curtail its international engagements and get its own house in order first. It could be called the school of empire in eclipse, and its proponents have been labeled declinists. In effect, they argue that America’s economy and domestic infrastructure are collapsing, and the nation’s global influence will follow, unless America concentrates its resources on rebuilding at home. Many of the most influential thinkers in this strain aren’t against a robust foreign policy, but they argue that it’s impractical to worry too much about the rest of the world until we address the problems at home. The late historian Tony Judt was the one of the leading exponents of this view, and the writer George Packer has taken up many of the same themes. A folk version of this thinking drives much of Thomas Friedman’s writing, and underpins his most recent book, “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back,” which he wrote with Michael Mandelbaum, an American foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, neo-imperialism holds that America’s grand strategy needs only be more brash and more demanding. (Neo-imperialist thinkers are often called “global dominators” as well.) The recent mistake, in this view, is that America asks too little of the world, and thereby invites frustrating challenges. Mitt Romney’s claim that he “won’t apologize for America” reflects this view, which has its intellectual underpinnings in the writings of conservatives such as Robert Kagan, Niall Ferguson, Robert Kaplan, and Charles Krauthammer. Ferguson, a British historian, has made the provocative suggestion that America should pick up where the British Empire left off, directly managing the entire world’s affairs. In this view, even long and expensive entanglements like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t major setbacks: Militarism, these expansionists argue, has propelled American economic growth and international influence for centuries, and has a long future as long as we aren’t shy about using the force we have.

A grand strategy has to match means with goals; it can’t merely assert American power, but needs to account for America’s own depth of resources. The precarious state of America’s economy and the wear and tear on its military suggest that any successful new strategy would allow for a modest period of retrenchment, one in which America continues to fancy itself the world’s leader but adopts the tone of a hard-boiled CEO rather than a field marshal--Jack Welch rather than George Patton.

Bush’s strategy foundered for those reasons; he boldly and clearly asserted that America would secure itself through preemptive war and the spread of democracy, but found that he simply didn’t have the resources to deliver--and that the world didn’t respond as he hoped to our prodding and aspirations.

America’s limits have grown apparent as it has discovered a surprising shortage of leverage, even over close allies. The liberal grand strategists are feeding into a process already underway in the Obama administration to systematize foreign policy into a coherent framework, something more akin to a grand strategy than the jumble of policies that has marked America’s foreign policy for the least three years. The conservatives, meanwhile, are looking for intellectual toeholds among the Republican presidential contenders.

Earlier this year a top Obama aide seemed to belittle the very idea of a grand strategy as a simplistic “bumper sticker,” something that reduced the world’s complexity to a slogan. But, in a sense, that’s exactly the point of having one. To be truly helpful in time of crisis, a grand strategy must be based on incredibly thorough and detailed thinking about how America will rank its competing interests, and what tools it might use to project power in the rest of the world. But it also demands simplicity: a principle, even a simple sentence, reflecting our values as well as our interests, based on right as well as might, and as clear to America’s enemies as it is to the American electorate.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.