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 Sustainment. 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.
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.