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October 26, 2005

Stepping Back to Look at the Big Picture
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

(apologies to our fans -- this is quickly-reconstructed from a post that typepad seems to have eaten last night)

While we wait to see whether Steve Clemons is right in predicting 1-5 Plamegate indictments, and Think Progress has CBS's John Roberts pointing to a "Mr. X," I've been trying to keep my head in somewhat more elevated precincts.

Steve, our own Lorelei Kelly and I represented the bloggers' corner last weekend at the Stanley Foundation's annual Strategy for Peace conference.  I am not an unalloyed fan of such events, as they can all too easily turn into self-congratulatory groupthink exercises.  I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a more-diverse-than-usual group of realists and idealists; military, academics and activists; CATO and types.

The worst news of the weekend came not from my own "Grand Strategy" working group, but from the Gulf experts group meeting simultaneously.  For months I have assumed, and even posted, that the frantic thrashing around for alternatives in Iraq was based at least in part on a lack of answers to some more-or-less factual questions about what Iraqis would do under various circumstances.  My mistake seems to have been to assume that we had access to those answers; as one academic expert said to me when I asked her about various civil war scenarios:  "Maybe Iranian intelligence could tell you that."

For a while I've wondered why the most prolific writing on options for Iraq comes from people who are not, um, the most expert in the region.  The answer seems to be that those in the know... feel that they don't know.

The discussion of a grand strategy in which I participated brought together a diverse group of people who did agree, at the broadest level, that the strategic underpinnings of US policy need to be more focused on integration -- while managing the pace of integration to protect our interests, and maintaining hedges against failure.

But when it comes to the question integration to what end, we didn't agree -- and that tells a great deal about our uncertain times. 

The question of the ultimate end of US grand strategy had a pretty clear answer in Cold War days, whether you liked it or not. 

1.  The purpose of US grand strategy today is to keep Americans as safe as possible, to live out our destinies as individuals and a nation as we choose. 

At one level, this is simple, understandable and easily communicable.  It can be argued progressively or conservatively, for that matter -- it can be argued in a globalizing world or an isolationist one.  A strategy that prizes physical safety above all else, though, is likely to end by prioritizing military tools -- or their opposite -- above all else.  What does it mean if the United States continues to see strategy through a military-power prism while others do not so much abandon that paradigm as comlicate it with an economic one?

A well-known realist academic pointed out that, throughout history, nations have strategized for their own survival and advancement, and not so much prizing the lives of individuals above the health of the nation.  As long as we still maintain a military whose members we send to die in our name, we believe this as well.  Moreover, "safety" in a world of global communications, globally-migrating disease, and globally-transiting weapons of mass destruction takes on an awfully broad tenor.

2.  An opposite possibility is to be quite explicit about just how interlinked we are, or are going to be, and say that the purpose of US grand strategy must be to lift the circumstances of people everywhere, with the ultimate end of all the world's people living at some rough parity of safety and welfare. 

This argument, interestingly, was not made explicitly at the conference -- but it is certainly the endpoint, spoken or implied, of much progressive and left rhetoric about globalization.  It is better, I believe, to be honest and get it out on the table:  can we mean what we say about "integration" if we intend for some people to be integrated at much lower levels than others?  On the other hand, this has serious implications for our own way of life, implications that most people, however altruistic they may be in their personal lives, have not signed up for.

later addition - however, if this view sounds like the province of naive one-worlders, check out Bill Gates' explanation of the goals of the Gates Foundation, as quoted in the October 24 New Yorker:

Until we reduce the burden on the poor so that there is no real gap between us and them, that [global health] will always be our priority.  I am not so foolish as to say that will happen.  But that's our goal.

3.  So what if we walk back to the realists and say, ok, grand strategy is about preserving the institutions and ideals (no, I'm not really much of a realist) of our nation?  Here you run into an interesting problem that is adjudicated only imperfectly by elections.  Once you get beyond the broadest formulation of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that one conference participant proposed, can we agree on what form of those institutions we are preserving?

My formulation would focus in on the unprecedented personal freedom and breadth of economic advancement that our structure of government has brought us.  It's not clear to me, though, that the folks in power care much about breadth of economic advancement as opposed to the extent of economic opportunity for a smaller group.  And that choice will lead to rather different economic, military and even foreign aid priorities.

My point in all of this?  Most of us went into foreign policy because we like to think about grand strategy as a global challenge, whether moving chess pieces like the realists or throwing off oppression like the idealists.  But in fact the conversation that needs to happen is one about our own country -- what it is, and what we might dare to imagine it can be in a globalized century.  Our biggest job as the national security community on challenge after challenge -- from reconstructing our military post-Iraq, to setting trade and economic policy, to getting our arms around challenges like global warming and bird flu -- is expanding the conversation to our national community.  That might sound ponderous, inexpert, even counter-productive.  But it's the only way to build any strategy that will stick.

We were reminded again and again that, when the Marshall Plan was put forward, it got 19% in public opinion polls.  Something to think about.


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Lorelei Kelly fans worldwide are interested in hearing her thoughts on these same issues.

Spoken like the true socialist at the core of every humanitarian. What we're really all talking about underneath the wonked vocabulary of diplomacy and development is the equitable redistribution of resources. Simple fact is that greedy, corporate swine generally fall into the GOP war-monger camp that fights to protect US economic interests above all else in the world. The US wouldn't be bogged down in the Middle East one iota if not for corporate avarice generated by a carefully nurtured and marketed addiction to oil.

"Our biggest job as the national security community on challenge after expanding the conversation to our national community. That might sound ponderous, inexpert, even counter-productive. But it's the only way to build any strategy that will stick."

Happily, there are some great resources out there for expanding the conversation on grand strategy to include the general public:

National Issues Forum discussion guide on America's role in the world:

Choices Education Project free discussion materials--focus on youth (who, after such deliberation, tend to lean toward supporting a more cooperative global system--at least that's what the balloting indicates).
(full disclosure: I had a hand in putting this together)

Both NIF and Choices take great pains to promote balanced, thoughtful discussion that gets to some of the roots of the issues--not easy to do with respect to grand strategy. Both also have written public/classroom discussion guides on a range of other current international issues. Worth giving a try with friends and family.

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