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June 27, 2008

More Fun With Grand Strategy
Posted by David Shorr

Okay, I can try to keep the grand strategy discussion going. I like Ilan's focus on the value of the international system itself and Shawn's invocation of the idea of global public goods. But while there's not much in their approaches I'd disagree with, I don't think either is really pointing toward worthy ultimate objectives or giving a strategy with the kind of heart and soul with which we can inspire a nation. Whatever the strategy, it needs to help guide policy, provide a basis for decisions/commitments/resources, and also strike a resonant chord with the voting public so that there's a sense of mandate and political support. Ilan and Shawn are both correct in some of the links they make to positive traditions in US foreign policy, but they way they do so leaves me kind of cold.

We are indeed reorienting America from being a revolutionary power toward being a status quo power, and properly so. The last several years have been nothing if not a reminder of the hazards and unintended consequences of major disruptions toward the status quo. Much of Ilan's argument, though, lays such a stress on stability that it leaves little room for change or, um, progress. (We're the progressives, after all.) So what kind of guidelines would help wrestle with the central dilemmas of foreign policy and animate it with the right sense of purpose?

Instead of international system, I like to talk about the rules-based international order. Alternatively, you could say "healthy international community," but the point is that it's a social order, a global social contract. It's not merely stable, but a consensual society; its health depends both on the broad acceptance of agreed rules and confidence in basic equity and justice. When it comes down to it, there needs to be a general belief that there's something in it for everyone, most everyone at least. In other words, we're all in it together. This is still a bit dry, but it starts to show how you can look at the value of the "system" as something of actual normative value.

I'm also a fan of Richard Haass. I think the key text is his book, The Opportunity, which hasn't been surpassed as a strategic or doctrinal statement since it came out three years ago. His central point is that most of the world wants the same things America wants, so the fundamental task is to build stronger collective efforts to achieve them -- in other words, a healthier international community that produces gobal public goods. But if you're looking for a concise, plainspoken formulation for the campaign trail, you probably can't do much better than this line from Sen. Obama:

...rally the world against the common threats of the 21st century -- terrorism and nuclear weapons, climate change and poverty, genocide and disease.

So that's a strategic vision with a little bit of soul. How are we going to wrestle with those tensions and dilemmas?

National Security / National Interests. The American national interest is not identical with the greater global interest. But it is not separate from the greater global interest. But it is not identical... Hmm, sounds like a dilemma. The question here is how to maximize the extent to which these two things are a both/and proposition.

There's no pretending that the United States doesn't have particular, often selfish, interests that it will jealously promote. This is a necessary, but completely insufficient condition of a successful foreign and national security policy. Haass' The Opportunity contains the truest line of the decade about foreign policy: "The United States does not need the world's permission to act, but it does need the world's support to succeed." It's all about interdependence. The grand strategic key is twofold. Work hard enough at helping build the supply of global public goods and meeting the interests and concerns of others to earn lattitude for US self-interests. And try not to be so jealous about self-interests that you completely overdo it (see treatment, detainee; invasion, Iraq). I'l make just one more plug for this bipartisan statement I facilitated last fall, which does a pretty good job with this second issue.

Threats v. Opportunities. Returning to the idea of necessary-but-insufficient elements of foreign policy. Protecting Americans from harm is the uppermost duty of our national security apparatus. But is that where the task of our stance toward the world ends or begins? Earlier this year, I published an op-ed that asked how Americans would feel if we succeeded in fending off further terrorist attacks, but let every other international problem get worse? Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a post saying that progressives have to figure out how to talk about our stake in overall world conditions, which is the underlying pathology for how many threats we confront. The point for grand strategic purposes being that we have to pursue progress in the world just as energetically as we defend ourselves. 

The International Security Public Commons. If we look at the whole ledger of global public goods, the United States deserves some credit for serving as the offshore balancer in Northeast Asia and keeping the international sea lanes free and open. Someone's got to do it, and for the time being, we have the job. American military predominance serves national and global purposes, but there is a set of challenges similar to the points above. If you over do predominance, you spur build-ups, arms races, counterbalancing, even wars. All of our wonkish readers recognize this as the classic security dilemma. So as with so many contemporary issues of legitimacy, the burden of proof is on us to provide reassurance of non-aggressive intentions. From the public good side of the ledger, if a marginal portion of our primacy is truly for broader international security, then we should ultimately be happy to eventually have some of that provided by others. And lest we forget, of course, that the natural environment and an unmilitarized outer space are also part of the global public commons.

So, Ilan, Shawn, me. Who's next?


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I hope to have time over the weekend to give David Shorr's comments the time the deserve. For now, I'd just draw attention to his yearning for "...a strategy with the kind of heart and soul with which we can inspire a nation."

Presumably he means this nation, the United States. The last two major iterations of American grand strategy, in the late 1940s and early 1970s respectively, gave a great deal of comfort and even inspiration to other nations. There were also sponsored by administrations that ended their tenure less popular than any before the one we have now. The great "heart and soul" days of Democratic foreign policy were a full decade after its greatest achievements. So, too, the triumphant and acclaimed negotiations with Gorbachev in the late 1980s were long preceeded by a reorientation of America's relationship to the Soviet Union that was much less popular, and that didn't inspire anybody.

Heart, soul and inspiration are what I look for in a date, not a foreign policy. I expect a foreign policy to be about a calculation of American interests that extends well beyond the public's immediate concerns, and recognize the necessary dependence of any such policy on a grant of trust by the public to an administration, not on the public's prior approval of what that administration plans to do. Any major change in the direction of American foreign policy will encounter fierce criticism; it is not only possible but likely that the administration responsible will go through long periods during which more Americans disapprove than approve of what it is trying to do. Will the next administration be prepared for that? Or will it follow the instincts drilled into longtime toilers in the permanent campaign, and shrink from anything that is not inspirational, soulful -- and popular?

If China does try to expand its naval power in Northest Asia , the United States does not need to gain predominance, but rather work closely with the emerging naval powers such as Japan, South Korea, India, and in some cases even Russia. Also the United States should probably keep out of nation building efforts such as those in Iraq, except in extreme cases such as Afghanistan in which the United States has no choice but to intervene, and in those cases it must work not alone but in conjunction with its NATO allies and regional actors such as Iran and India.

So far, we have asked how ideas about grand strategy relate to the questions of who gets to devise it, how it gets implemented, and , and whether an administration attempting to do so needs public enthusiasm for what it does or only public confidence that it knows what it is doing. We have also pointed out that while even a very unpopular administration can sustain a constructive foreign policy, an administration unwilling to brave unpopularity probably can't.

I suppose we ought also to consider how "grand" grand strategy needs to be. One of the nice things about the national interest is that it forms a useful, easily understood context for relations between the United States and individual countries. We know that trade and immigration are at the top of our list of priorities when we have to deal with Mexico, nuclear proliferation when dealing with North Korea, oil and terrorism when dealing with Saudi Arabia. We could progress markedly on issues like this in the absence of a grand strategy -- every administration, even this one, has done so at some time, somewhere. I wonder whether an administration enamored of the idea of grand strategy might be tempted to pursue it at the expense of the more limited but still necessary objectives American national interests call for us to pursue in our relations with individual states.

Of course the Bush administration actually has done something rather like this, neglecting large areas of the world as it focuses on Iraq. For purposes of this discussion it is the neglect, rather than the reason for it, that concerns me. I don't assume that if the next administration comes into office with all the right, worthy beliefs about the "global commons" or the "rules-based international order" it will naturally know what to do about Doha or how to manage the rise of Brazil as a major regional and economic power. I don't assume either that a new administration will necessarily screw issues like this up, though the prospect of a new President -- our third in a row -- coming into office as a foreign policy novice with bold ideas as to his ability to change the world is not encouraging.

I suppose part of my reluctance to embrace the idea of grand strategy stems from my sense of how much has changed about America's position in the world since the early 1990s. Some of that change reflects the passage of time only. Having ignored warnings dating back to the Nixon administration that it could not count indefinitely on cheap, abundant petroleum as the foundation of its industrial and transportation sectors, the United States is now presented with the bill for that choice; many millions of Americans in their peak income-earning years a decade and a half ago are now approaching retirement, and there's a big bill to be paid for that as well. It is also true, though, that the American government has sustained serious, self-inflicted damage recently that will have to be repaired to restore some freedom of movement in our foreign policy -- most obviously the commitment in Iraq, but also the badly weakened condition of the State Department relative to the Pentagon with respect to the making of foreign policy, the disarray within the intelligence community, and the decay in foreign confidence that American foreign policy is predictable and reliably based on reasons that can be understood. Strange as it may seem to say it, the crippled state of the Congress is not helpful in this area either.

In this situation, the twin tasks of shedding commitments we cannot sustain and rebuilding a policymaking process in which the American public and foreign governments alike can have confidence are likely to absorb so much of a new administration's time that more ambitious objectives will have to be approached with considerable caution. And this would all be true even if the American economy were in good shape. It isn't. In the past, this has tended to weaken the focus of American administrations on foreign policy and to dramatically reduce the American public's interest in that subject. We haven't had a serious recession in this country for some time, but if we did even those in search of a new grand strategy for foreign policy might need to content themselves with the patient pursuit of less lofty-sounding goals.

I accept that as a generally fair and accurate rendering of the (daunting) challenges and agenda. Our topic today, though, is the utility of a grand strategy. In that regard, I have to say that my grand strategic approach would indeed offer policy guidance on two of the very issues you raise: Doha and Brazil. Trade measures that support development are absolutely critical for the sense of equity and credibility in the international system. What that tells me is that progressives need to fortify the social safety net -- universal health, unemployment benefits, minimum wage, right to organize -- to bolster american workers' sense of security and then help more of the developing world share in the benefits of globalization.

Brazil. I happen to think that revising the membership of the UN Security Council is too big a diplomatic task for the short term, given other FP priorities. If we're not going to take that on, however, it's all the more urgent that we build up another intergovernmental forum where rising powers can be fully engaged in helping lead the international system and cooperate on the major challenges of these times.

Again, the point here is whether a grand strategy like Haass' concept of integration (my favorite) puts a solid foundation under policy. I believe it does.

"We are indeed reorienting America from being a revolutionary power toward being a status quo power, and properly so."

Our society impacts the world in such an enormous range of ways, from security and trade to higher education and popular culture, that it may not be possible to limit the ways in which our civilization is disruptive to the world. The most important kinds of disruption (and the things that most vex our adversaries) proceed from what we are and not from what we do. To a major degree a liberal world order is an extension of America's own society and is itself a revolutionary change for much of the world, even though I would agree that most of the world seems to be in favor of it.

"Much of Ilan's argument, though, lays such a stress on stability that it leaves little room for change or, um, progress. (We're the progressives, after all.) So what kind of guidelines would help wrestle with the central dilemmas of foreign policy and animate it with the right sense of purpose?"

What all of you set forth does allow for change; the problem is that what you emphasize is essentially procedural. This is reinforced by the quotation of Senator Obama below:

"...rally the world against the common threats of the 21st century -- terrorism and nuclear weapons, climate change and poverty, genocide and disease."

which isn't a strategic vision, in the sense of a path to an outcome, but a statement of the problems. What you articulate, in other words, are the need for a new set of norms for the conduct of US policy and a short list of the problems that US policy needs to address. An approach defined in this way runs two risks.

The first is opportunity cost. The next administration does not want to leave the country and the world vulnerable to events that could induce a future President to radicalize US foreign policy again. We need to anticipate what might be done either to reduce this risk or to respond in the event disaster strikes. To focus on building a better and more inclusive international system is surely part of this contingency planning but thinking about what could go wrong must also be part of it.

The second risk is setting too high a standard. Procedural change is actually more difficult to achieve and sustain than one-off accomplishments. It could set us up for a fall if we declare a new rules-based era only to fall back on arbitrary national power in situations where consensus fails.

Instead of trying to begin with a general notion of conduct intended to subsume policies to deal with particularly intractable problems, it might be more useful to adopt two concurrent levels of effort, one to address particular problems directly and the other to work for more inclusive international institutions. This is more likely to minimize the two risks and will give any overall strategic coherence that emerges a stronger foundation.

David Billington's last point overlaps with one I've been making, a point David Shorr underlines himself, though perhaps without meaning to.

I mentioned Doha and Brazil upthread as issues chosen more or less at random out of the many that the next administration's foreign policy team will need to deal with. I'll note for the record that Shorr's response doesn't say anything about Doha -- other than to note the importance of an agreement to development (presumably, this means development in other countries) -- instead dwelling on an extensive domestic policy agenda that an Obama administration at least would pursue for other reasons anyway, and that does not bear at all on such an administration's willingness to, for example, make concessions on farm subsidies or demand them in services or other areas. And these are the substance of the choices that will have to be made.

As to Brazil, I would have thought the preferred intergovernmental forum for interacting with that country's government was the intersection of our State Department and Brazil's Ministry of External Relations. International institutions in which both countries participate are certainly important, but assigning them pride of place as Shorr does confuses things he might like to do with things we need to do.

I've already suggested my reasons for distrusting doctrinal statements, especially statements that purport to guide all American policy everywhere. Difficult policy choices such as those that will need to be made to conclude a multilateral trade liberalization agreement along the lines of Doha can't just be sidestepped by dwelling on unrelated issues that don't pose the same political risks, not once the campaign ends anyway. Nor in our present situation can we neglect bilateral relations with other states, now as ever the core component of our foreign relations, in the pursuit of grand designs for international institutions. I don't really think great ambitions in this area do the international institutions we have now any favors, actually, since one proven way to bring any institution into disrepute is to create expectations of it that cannot be fulfilled.

But the difference of opinion on the main point ought to be clear enough by now. Shorr thinks of a grand strategy as a foundation for policy; I see it more as a product of policy, a means of reconciling the choices earlier administrations have made and those the next administration will make (in that order) in a way that provides guidance for the future. History will not begin again next January 20; we would make a mistake in thinking a new administration could proceed toward remaking a world order as if this were still 1993. This reconciliation will therefore need to wait until the acute infirmities of America's present international situation and policymaking process have been addressed.

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