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June 23, 2008

My Attempt at Grand Strategy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Lately we’ve seen a slew of interesting writing on America’s role in the world and grand strategies for the 21st century (This seems to happen during election years).  Some of the best stuff I’ve seen lately includes:  A new CNAS Report (Shawn Brimley, Michelle Flournoy and Vikram Singh), Fareed Zakaria, Richard Hass, Matt Ygleisas, and Richard Betts.  Based on some of these writing and my own ideas, I thought I’d try my hand at what a new American strategy for the 21st century should look like.  This post is longer than usual, but it’s also been in my head for a while so please oblige me.

In terms of a word, I agree with the folks at CNAS that the overall strategy should be one of SustainmentThe goal of American foreign policy should be to sustain the international system that that has served the United States and mankind so well for the past 60 years. 

Two questions pop out from this basic statement.  Why should this be the goal of American foreign policy and how can it be accomplished.  So let me run through those.

The Why:  Basic assumptions about today’s world

1.  The United States is still the most powerful nation in the world and it’s hard to imagine that it will be overtaken in the near future.  By military measures this is obvious as the U.S. spends significantly more than the rest of the world combined and has a much greater ability to project power (Although that doesn’t mean it has unlimited power – i.e. Iraq).  It is also an economic power house and its ability to soak in talent from all over the world and keep its population young through immigration are huge advantages.

2.  While the U.S. will remain the most powerful actor for the foreseeable future, its relative share of power is declining as other countries catch up.   In many ways 1989 was an artificial peak with the fall of America’s greatest competitor, just as the years following World War II gave the United States an artificial period of economic dominance as the rest of Europe rebuilt.  But as Zakaria explains you’ve now had 20 years of pretty responsible economic policy around the world and that has led to dramatic economic growth and more evening out.

3.  The current international order has worked pretty well for the past 60 years.  It’s not perfect.  But generally speaking:  living standards have risen dramatically worldwide; more people are living in free and open societies than ever before; and we’ve avoided major catastrophic world wars.   The building blocks of the system are capitalist economic interdependence, the spread of democratic forms of government, and effective international institutions (Much ink has been spilled arguing which of these factors is most important.  But I tend to believe that they all play a role and reinforce each other).  For the first 40 years of its existence this system was underwritten by a stable bipolar military balance of power and the stabilizing nature of nuclear weapons and Mutually Assured Destruction.  The stable balance of power acted as training wheels allowing the self perpetuating liberal world order to develop, and when that balance of power disappeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s the system was able to perpetuate and reinforce itself.  Of course realists would say I’m totally wrong about this and that in the long run the current system is doomed without the stabilizing military balance that underwrote it.  They may very well be right but I don’t think that outcome is inevitable (Although it’s one likely outcome and if we continue down the path of the last eight years, that’s exactly where we are going). 

4. Change is dangerous and deadly.  Change in your everyday life can be new and exciting but in international politics it’s usually accompanied by catastrophic violence.  The changing power dynamics between Germany and England led to two horrific world wars.  The French Revolution changed nation states’ abilities to mobilize for war plunging Europe into a violent era.  The fall of the Roman Empire led into the Dark Ages.  The two greatest changes that could undermine the international system right now are:

  • The lack of a stable military balance of power.  It’s still unclear if the U.S. and China can work together to bring China into the current system as a partner, or whether insecurities will eventually cause the U.S. and China to view each other as competitors, eventually arming up against each other and causing China to try and develop a wholly alternative international system (A Russo-Chinese alliance is another possibility that gets thrown out there often).  People shouldn’t take this possibility for granted.  In fact, history tends to show that it’s probably the more likely outcome although by no means inevitable.
  • Outside transnational threats to the system.  Globalization is creating all kinds of new threats that could be so disruptive as to rupture the system.  The CNAS folks get to this threat as the need to protect the global commons – elements such as international airspace, waterways or cyberspace that is central for trade and communication.  Richard Haas refers to “Non polarity” and the empowerment of all kinds of new actors.  In some ways they’re both getting at the idea that something like nuclear terrorism, the breakdown of the non-proliferation regime, global epidemics, global warming that could create resource scarcity or persistent energy and food shortages could all contribute to breaking the system apart.  It’s happened before.  Remember that although there were many structural reasons for WWI the immediate fuse was an anarchist terrorist assassinating Archduke Ferdinand.  9/11 had a similar impact because it caused both strategic overreaction and strategic confusion. 

The How:  What the U.S. Should Do About It

1.  Pursue a policy of Liberal Internationalism.  Matt Yglesias is right to call for a return to Liberal Internationalism, which in my view means emphasizing capitalism, democracy and international institutions.  It was a policy that guided us well through the Cold War.  It means a greater dedication to working through international institutions and alliances such as the UN, NATO, the WTO, the ICC, etc…  It also means encouraging democracy promotion – not at the barrel of a gun which is costly deadly and ineffective but by helping other countries build the liberal institutions and civil society, which are the basis for liberal democracy.  Finally, it means a strong dedication to free trade and open economic policies. 

2. Accept that we will have to relinquish some power.  As the world catches the U.S. is going to have to accept that while it is still the most powerful nation on earth, its relative power will decrease.  If it relinquishes that power gracefully and accepts its place gracefully and plays by the rules of the system it has helped create and still leads then it will draw others to it.  But if it tries to remain the preeminent dominant power it will simply scare other countries away, causing them to ally against it (Zakaria’s Foreign Affairs Article gets into this in great detail and uses the British Empire as an interesting example).  Maintaining Preeminence has been in essence the Neocon strategy of the last eight years and it has failed spectacularly.

3. Protect from transnational threats to the system.  This means building a military, intelligence community and law enforcement capability more able to take on terrorism (BTW, I don’t think that requires hundreds of thousands of new troops for counterinsurgency operations).  It means taking global warming and our energy security problems seriously and working with the world to increase efficiency, reduce demand, and develop alternative environmentally friendly sources of energy.  It also means protecting what CNAS calls the “global commons” – international land, waterways, airspace and cyberspace that is crucial for sustaining the world economy and the international system as we know it.

4. Develop a reasonable military investment strategy that deters potential aggressors, maintains American supremacy but isn’t unnecessarily wasteful of American resources or overly provocative to potential competitors.  Since change is so destabilizing to the international system and since the U.S. has had the most powerful military in the world for the past 60 years, it makes sense for it to stay that way.  Major shifts in military power are usually accompanied by major wars.  But as Richard Betts points out there is no reason for the United States to be so dramatically outspending the entire world, while other priorities are ignored.  On top of that this type of spending acts as a self fulfilling prophecy, signaling to the Chinese that the U.S. is a threat, and guaranteeing that they will become a strategic competitor.  Betts argues instead for a mobilization strategy.  Continue to invest heavily in R&D and develop a mobilization strategy for moving to a wartime footing if necessary. There is enough time to mobilize later if the Chinese become a genuine threat.   But don’t spend billions now on a military that will only push the Chinese further towards strategic competition and that may be technologically obsolete in 15 or 20 years when China in fact may become a genuine strategic competitor. 

Anyway, this was fun.  Sort of an old school Democracy Arsenal Post for those longtime readers.


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I think energy independence and economic balance are missing from your strategy. The 'system of the last 60 years' has resulted in a mind-bogglingly large debt and trade deficit coupled with unstable power dynamics, both of which arguably are tied to America's reliance on oil and other fossil fuels.

America's economic might is waning. Japan will soon be home to the largest auto-maker in the world. China's economy has, despite free market conventional thinking, continued to grow at 8% per year. America needs to take the opportunity, before the rest of the world does it for us, to develope a new technology that will serve as a basis for continued economic growth for the 21st century.

The only problem is that Americans have a difficult time admitting that America is no longer the dominant military, economic, and increasingly cultural power in the world. It will be very difficult for the next politician to ween America off its unitlateralism and accept working in coaliton with other powers in Asia and Europe in which it is no longer the dominant voice. I personally believe that America needs to strengthen its ties with Japan and the European Union not to promote some sort of "League of Democracies," but work within a multilateral framework in which to solve problems such as global warming or the current instability in Central Asia. However to work with these advance industrailized nations the United States has to agree upon some concessions such as the signing of the Kyoto accords, abandon preepmtive war, and sign onto the international criminal court. However it will take enourmous political power to overide the nationalism of the American people in order to implement this practical grand strategy.

I would add one small piece that agrees with the general thrust of your post. We know that it's very likely that someday the US will be equaled or overtaken as the superpower of the world, so the smart thing to do would be to establish rules, norms and institutions now that would prevent any new superpower (or re-emergence of an old power) from abusing their role in the world (Russia, China, even India). A strong system of international law and a strong consensus for following good behavior among nations would go a long way to protect us from any rising power and help to protect the world from a re-emergence of conflict between superpowers that we saw in the Cold War (which lead to bad things like proxy wars and tolerance of terrible regimes).

Your strategy has muscle but lacks a heart; all power and no feeling.

Just as person's power in a community is measured not by his physical size and his finances, but by the results he achieves and the esteem in which he's held, so the national power of a country must be measured not by the size of its military and its economy but by the results it achieves on world and national issues, and its ability to work with other nations to achieve beneficial results.

On the other hand, while the big-spending neighborhood bully may appear to have power his inability to work constructively with others will eventually bring his downfall, one way or another.

But then, I'm no geo-strategist, and I think the America-centric "international system" sucks. It has systematically impoverished the third world while enriching the corporatists and bringing war, environmental degradation and economic exploitation. Sort of what "Liberal Internationalism" was set up to do, right?

I don't know about "old school," but it's a nice change from the recent torrent of DA posts that seem to assume neither Barack Obama's campaign or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have web sites of their own.

I'm not really sure where the idea that the postwar international system was "underwritten" by the Cold War originated. It is true that the Clinton administration (and for that matter the first Bush administration before it) was inclined to pretend that the long struggle between Communism and freedom was, you know, just a really big misunderstanding. In an odd kind of way this accomodated the growth in Russia of a view of Soviet foreign policy as something glorious, rather than as a malignant force that poisoned everything it touched. Certainly this is now the view of the Russian government.

While it was actually going on, the Cold War was a tremendous drain on international development as well as an ongoing threat to the international order. It helped keep hundreds of millions of people in poverty for decades; in 1962 and again in 1969 the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, countless guerrilla wars throughout Africa, the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict that endured in large part because Arab governments were encouraged to believe that help from the Soviet superpower would enable them to realize their maximum program...there was nothing "stabilizing" about the American-Soviet relationship during this period -- except in Western Europe, where fear of a Soviet invasion helped countries that had recently been at war invent a new political order under American protection. Western Europe, despite what some senior DA posters occasionally have seemed to think, is not the world.

The Cold War did not produce the belief that all governments allied with us -- and eventually, all governments everywhere -- had to be democracies along Western lines. That is a more modern invention. Yet the Cold War-era determination of the American government to keep countries outside the Communist bloc simply from having Communist governments may well have inhibited Americans from promoting liberal democracy in places where the culture and people were not capable of sustaining this very demanding form of government: the Arab countries, much of sub-Saharan Africa, and of course Russia itself. America's orientation during this period can be criticized, but it lacked the willful self-delusion about how easy democracy is that has figured so powerfully both in the Bush administration's foreign policy and in critiques of it by many of its liberal opponents. Willful self-delusion is no basis for a grand strategy.

Neither is neglect of economics, the driving force of both change and instability. There is a token nod in the post here to free trade and open economics -- by coincidence a phrase that describes policies favored by the Republican, not the Democratic, candidate in this year's Presidential election. But it stands to reason that societies in which vast numbers of people have only recently emerged from poverty will be prone to political instability if the economic growth that has made this possible abruptly slackens for some reason, as it is bound to eventually. America cannot prevent this from happening; strengthening the "global commons" will not prevent this from happening. What we have to do is determine how to secure American interests -- our security and that of our friends -- when it does happen.

We cannot control the economic future of other countries, but we have to regain some control of our own. This means ending the expensive and unprofitable commitment in Iraq -- not making it more sustainable, not engaging conditionally and reducing the yearly bill by a few billion -- but ending it. It means rationalizing military procurement and force structure. It has to mean reducing the projected cost of entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security. Finally, it has to mean official acceptance that energy prices will remain high from here on out; indeed, to reduce our still-excessive vulnerability to sudden oil price shocks, they may need to be made higher. We can't expect to navigate the future if we remain oblivious to all the ballast we are carrying, in the form of commitments we now insist we must meet but are unwilling to pay for.

The goals of American power are pretty much what they have always been: to preserve the possibilities of freedom, at home and -- to the extent we can -- abroad. This requires a lot more than steps to reinforce the international order, steps that any administration can take with a minimum of political discomfort. It requires that we bring our commitments in line with our resources.

I generally support the internationalist spirit behind your strategy statement, Ilan. But another word for "sustain" is "conserve". And from a progressive point of view, what is a bit off-putting about your chosen points of emphasis is that they turn your strategy statement into a very conservative proposal. The CNAS writers might just as well have eschewed the unattractive word "sustainment" said our overall strategy should be one of "conservation." To say "the goal of American foreign policy should be to sustain the international system that that has served the United States and mankind so well for the past 60 years" surely doesn't call up any vivid, or even vague, images of "change" or "progress", except for that very minimal form of progress that is involved in merely undoing recent mistakes.

Our admirable internationalist forbears, the ones who built some of the institutions of the international system you admire, didn't set out mainly to sustain an existing order, although there were some aspects of the existing international order that they did work to preserve. They envisioned a new and improved order, and energetically went to work creating it. We follow their legacy not simply by sustaining what is good about what already exists in the international system, but by being just as bold as they were about envisioning a better system, one that has never has existed, and then endeavoring to build it. Let your imagination go a bit. Surely there are some international institutions, so far non-existent, that you would like to see created. We need to think not just about which institutions we want to preserve, but which institutions do we want to strengthen, which institutions we want to jettison or replace, and which institutions we want to create from scratch.

Another concern: "Capitalism" is a vague term, and I assume you are using it to encompass everything from the United States to Sweden, and all systems in between. And I suppose in that broad sense, even a lot of people well to left of the center can support it. Nevertheless, it is hard to see progressives getting excited about your homage to capitalism, as such. For a lot of progressives older than those in your own generation, the word "capitalism" still has harsh and negative associations. At least have the decency to soften the blow for us old timers by using one of the standard euphemisms like "liberal economic order" or "market-based economy."

More seriously, a rather substantial portion of the the left - and I don't just mean the "far left" - has some very deep reservations about the global economic system that you want to sustain. Progressives don't tend to think that the past 60 years of the international order were so awesome that all we need worry about is sustaining that order. They think the existing global economic order perpetuates and exaggerates inequality; promotes and rewards exploitation and expropriation; fails to protect labor adequately; incentivizes environmental destruction; unduly valorizes individual acquisitiveness and greed over social commitment; drains the pool of wealth available for social investment, and leaves it in the hands of wasteful, purely self-regarding individuals; and places the vast power of states, and the military tools of states, in the hands of small minorities who are barely accountable to their fellow human beings. So maybe your strategy can gather the support of about half the Republicans in the country, and the unaffiliated Americans in the middle. But that's a center-right coalition, and you're throwing away about 35% of us, and probably the majority of the party to which you belong.

My sense is that progressive Americans want to be part of a progressive international movement for change, and the national strategy they would prefer is one that orients American policy to be part of such a movement. Your statement really makes no contact with those aspirations at all. You should read more about grass roots global progressive social and economic movements, and try to formulate a strategy proposal that is more responsive to them.

One still feels a crippling nostalgia in so many of these grand strategy documents from foreign policy professionals. The overwhelming sense one has is of grief or sadness over a grand old American era that is passing away. But there are people in America who are not perpetually sad and worried about the old world lost, but are excited about the new world to come. So far, it seems, few of these future-oriented optimists seem to hold a seat at the staid US foreign policy-making tables.

This unyielding, unending nostalgia and attachment to "the greatest generation" and the post-WWII order is, in my view, death for the intellectual life of the country, and is part of the reason that our contemporary culture abounds in apocalyptic and dystopian nightmares, and sees very view optimistic and utopian dreamworlds.

Ilan - This is the kind of topic for deeper discussion that this blog should raise more frequently. Some comments on each of your points (apologies for the length):

The Why

1. The United States will be preeminent in the near future...

Yes, by traditional measures of military power. But nations that can disable US satellites and carrier battle groups with volleys of cheap missiles may not need to match us system for system in order to pose a strategic threat fairly soon. Great power conflict can be asymmetric as well as conflict between great powers and insurgents.

2. ...but the rest of the world is catching up.

Yes, although to call responsible the economic policy of authoritarian states is a use of the term that might be questioned. However, these states may change more easily once they have a standard of living closer to our own. A deeper problem may be simply physical. China is following our example of resource-intensive growth. The most impressive thing we could do now would be to find a more sustainable path to continued growth.

3. The current world order has worked pretty well for sixty years...

I am certainly grateful for it. But whether one agrees or disagrees with your view of the Cold War, the last sixty years were a unique and probably non-recurring period. The basis for the stability and outcome of the period was the economic strength and global dominance of the United States and the economic stasis and then failure of its major adversary. I'm not sure this will happen again or will have as non-violent an outcome if it does.

4. ...but change is dangerous and deadly.

Whether the rise of the rest is dangerous will depend on how the rest of the world gets along with itself. The danger I foresee has less to do with the risks to America of relative US decline than with rising capabilities in other countries that deepen insecurities and exacerbate longstanding disputes that other countries have with each other. I'm not sure what influence we can bring to attenuate these if they become serious.

The How

1. Pursue a policy of liberal internationalism...

In the long-run, this is what we will do as long as the American electorate rejects a sharper turn to the left or right. But even from this middle ground, it can be noted that liberal internationalism and democracy do not necessarily lead to a stronger sense of common humanity. The mass participation of modern life has strengthened identity extremism as well as moderated it. The good news is that utility value and intrinsic value cannot be reduced one to the other. But liberals for that reason must be careful in arguing social philosophies that rest on utilitarian ethics as the answer to extremists who argue the need for intrinsic values (as they define them).

2. ...and accept that we will relinquish some power.

I believe it would serve your purpose better to use the term "share" rather than "relinquish" here. This is certainly what you mean.

On a side note: Zakaria should date the analogy of America today to the British Empire of the late 1870s, not 1908. We are still in the stage the British went through of fighting peripheral wars with the Islamic world (Afghan War, Mahdism) while other great powers industrialized. We may awaken to the urgency of new peer competitors at about the same time the British did, c. 1900 for them and 2030 for us.

3. Protect from transnational threats...

One question is whether the distinctions between foreign and domestic policy and between public and private sectors will still be relevant. In important ways, what we are likely to face will blur all of these boundaries. But I think you are on the right track if your point is the need for flexibility.

4. ...and develop a reasonable military investment strategy that deters potential aggressors, maintains American supremacy, and isn't overly wasteful.

You use the word "supremacy" but surely you mean "sufficiency" here. Our military will not maintain for the next sixty years the relative position that it has held for the last sixty, if the rest of the world catches up or overtakes us in engineering capabilities and translates these into greater military power. The real need is to have a sufficient defense to deter aggressors, defend our allies and friends, and protect other vital interests. I think such a defense should be possible.

On another side note: A strategy that relies on mobilization could be more dangerous than one that relies on standing forces, given what happened in 1914. A true dependence on reserve capabilities would incentivize an aggressor to strike before these capabilities can be fully mobilized. The need is for us to have a sufficient standing defense geared to vital needs and a vision of security that is sustainable in the long-term.

Grand strategy should be a set of aims that can be sustained as well as a set of aims that ought to be sustained. Global institutionalism of the kind you outline could grow if its goal is to give participation and influence to the rest of the world as something the world deserves and if the benefits and costs are fair to all. What we need is a vision of shared cost and benefit that demands of others what we are willing to demand of ourselves. How compelling that vision is will depend on how we see ourselves. I hope you persevere in trying to sort these things out.

Hi -

Your points 3 and 4 are the key to understanding what you're missing.

3) The current world order has worked well? The question is: for whom?

First of all, which current world order? The world order before the New World Order of Bush 41, or the world order that Bush 43 has helped create? The cold-war world order is gone, demolished and the remains sent to the Fishkill Landfill; I think that a very, very strong case can be made that the cold war world order was a house built on sand, where both sides subsidized third-party conflicts to keep the status quo alive, not solving them but merely postponing them. The breakup of Yugoslavia, for instance, is the direct result of Tito's adroit ability to enrage all ethnic groups in order to control them; the same can be said of many countries in the Third World, especially in Africa.

Problems that are plastered over fester and create larger and greater problems; progressives, I would think, would be more interested in solving the problems, rather than making them worse. The current world order isn't working well: while I am sure that it can be improved on, this will not come by pretending that everything is fine and dandy.

And this leads us directly to...

4) Change is Deadly and Dangerous

Good lord, can you really be this reactionary?

I think an excellent case can be made that both World Wars resulted because countries were unable to change their policies to adapt to changes, especially the WW1. The major powers knew that the last major war in Europe - Franco-Prussian War - was won by the side able to mobilize as quickly as possible, a lesson from the US Civil War. They based their war-fighting abilities on being able to mobilize as quickly as possible and completely lacked an alternative or a de-escalation policy. As a result, the greatest mistake of the 20th century took place, and the political leaders fell into war because they couldn't change things.

Change is only deadly and dangerous if your system cannot absorb it, cannot modify itself to continue to survive, if it cannot evolve to meet changes.

Unless you can reconcile these two positions, your "grand strategy" is doomed to fail, unless, of course, you succeed in creating a statist world that condemns literally billions to poverty and despair. This is a progressive standpoint?


David Billington, upthread, is absolutely right about the greater risk inherent in reliance on mobilization. Moreover, this idea fails to take into account the greater capital intensity of the modern military establishment, especially in the naval and airpower areas.

American defense spending is skewed upwards by the fact that no other country maintains a dozen aircraft carriers or their support ships and aircraft, as many nuclear submarines as we do, or as many combat aircraft as we do. We either keep all these on active service, or we lose them. There is no middle ground, as there was for the militaries of a century ago.

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