November 23rd, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
The United States is currently experiencing a Grand Strategy Crisis — and the most powerful nation in the world since the Roman Empire better get it right.
Such a crisis typically comes along once a generation, when the nation drops its old grand strategy and selects a new one.
Unfortunately, this significant change, which has happened three times in U.S. history and will likely occur again in the next two decades, is hardly noticed by the large majority of the people.
It affects them in many ways, but most people don’t know about it until it’s too late to change.
For those who lead a nation, the grand strategy is more than a set of guidelines or even a list of goals or objectives.
The grand strategy is a vision of where a nation wants to go, of what it seeks to accomplish in the world — a vision shared by its decision-making elite.
A grand strategy is the guiding principle for foreign policy and nearly all international relations for a nation.
“How” to achieve the grand strategy is a subject of ongoing debate among the elites in any free nation, but “what” the strategy should be is only considered on those rare occasions when a nation decides to drastically shift gears.
In such times, big changes occur. In the United States we have shifted grand strategies three times:
- between 1776 and 1796, from the Revolutionary War through the ratification of the Constitution;
- between 1856 and 1876, from the rise of Lincoln through the Civil War and into Reconstruction;
- and again from 1929 to 1949 during the Great Depression and World War II.
Past Grand Strategies
In each case, once a grand strategy was adopted, national leaders pursued it until world events required significant changes.
The American Founding generation rejected the Royalist grand strategy of increasing the power, wealth and empire of the Crown, and instead adopted a grand strategy of Constitutionalism, also known as Republicanism or Manifest Destiny.
This grand strategy held two major themes: First, the founders expected the United States to expand naturally and spread the new American system of free, limited, representative government from the Atlantic states all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Secondly, through example, they wanted the nations of the world to see the success of this free model and embrace it.
This grand strategy was not always implemented perfectly, but it guided American policy.
After the Civil War, U.S. leaders adopted a strategy of Nationalism: the focus shifted to increasing American national strength and status in the world.
Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were among those who helped pursue this strategic vision.
“America must take its place as a leader of nations,” became the sometimes spoken but always central focus of the U.S. policy elite.
At the end of two devastating world wars and a bleak depression, U.S. decision makers again adopted a new grand strategy — Internationalism.
The focus of this grand strategy was simple: use international organizations, treaties, international diplomacy, conferences and cooperative arrangements to make the world safe for democracy and capitalism.
The idea was to contain communism, keep it from spreading, and simultaneously support the spread of democracy and capitalism as far and wide as possible.
Hopefully, if the strategy worked, communism would not only stop growing but its support around the world would begin to diminish, to be replaced by democratic-capitalism.
In short, the foreign policy history of the United States might be summed up as Constitutionalism, then Nationalism, and finally Internationalism.
Internationalism became woefully outdated in the early 1990s — and the world found out just how outdated on September 11, 2001.
Proposed Grand Strategies
Amazingly, however, few have engaged the current vital discussion about America’s new 21st Century grand strategy.
This is partly because the grand strategy is considered and chosen by the intelligentsia — the average American doesn’t even know what the phrase means.
Another reason the grand strategy is little discussed now is that the electronic media has made any controversial policy a point of major political, partisan and societal conflict.
Few politicians today want to engage the firestorm of announcing a new grand American direction. Still, more of us need to be involved in the conversations that are occurring.
At least five proposals, some explicit and others more informal, have been made which purport to be new grand strategy proposals, but three of them are more tactical than strategic.
First, though it was informally introduced as a strategy, George Bush may have been outlining a grand strategy change in his “Axis of Evil” speech.
Certainly the full eradication of terror is a change in tactics, but to what end? What is the goal of the ongoing war on terror?
If it is to make the world safe for democracy and the spread of capitalism, it is a new tactic for the old strategy of Internationalism.
Besides, to truly end terrorism would require using U.S. might to restructure and redirect the leading terrorist-funding and supporting states in the world, including possibly Saudi Arabia and nuclear powers China and Russia.
Nothing in the “Axis of Evil” speech or since seems to advocate such a strategy. Just beating up on the smallest terrorist states, as much as they may deserve it, leaves terrorism healthy and growing.
Unless the Axis of Evil includes China, Saudi Arabia, former states of the USSR Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and over 20 other nations, a few attacks on weak opponents hardly amounts to a moving, visionary national grand strategy.
And in any case, the Obama Administration has shown little inclination to continue this overarching policy.
A second proposal was outlined by Ambassador Mark Palmer in his book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil (affiliate link). Ambassador Palmer goes well beyond the Bush Administration and suggests that America adopt as its national purpose the ousting of all dictators in the world by 2025.
He argues that dictatorship is the true evil in the world, and that democratic nations led by the United States and its President should strategize and implement a plan to get rid of all dictators everywhere.
He even lists the dictators by name, and gives a suggested tactical approach to ousting each — some peacefully, others by sanction and pressure, still others by force.
This proposal is not really a new strategy, but simply the tactical application of Cold-War Internationalism to a different enemy — dictators instead of communists.
A third strategy was suggested by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He called it a “Strategy of Partnerships” and argued that the world should be kept basically the same as it is — the U.S. at the head with its allies, intervening “decisively to prevent regional conflicts,” and embracing Russia, China, and other powers in a world that increasingly adopts American values.
This would be accomplished by partnerships which put “us at odds with terrorists, tyrants, and others who wish us ill” and to whom “we will give no quarter.” At the same time, we will be “partners with all those who cherish freedom, human dignity, and peace.”
Powell’s “Foreign Affairs” article, published in January of 2004, leaves some glaring questions. The whole point of Internationalism was to encourage partnerships with those seeking freedom and peace.
But Powell said nothing about what the partnership would do, what their goals would be, except the same old Internationalism that we’ve been pursuing since 1945.
Powell’s argument, while claiming to explain the Bush strategy, was actually less of a change than Bush’s “Axis of Evil” or Palmer’s proposal to rid the world of dictators.
All three proposals have pros and cons. But none of them really proposed a new grand strategy for the United States—something at the level of change from Royalism to Constitutionalism, Constitutionalism to Nationalism, or Nationalism to Internationalism.
These first three proposals just redirect, rekindle and rehash (respectively) the grand strategy we’ve followed for 50 years — Internationalism.
Problems with Grand “Tactics”
To put this in context, each time a new grand strategy was needed in American history, many of the leading members of the establishment held on to the past strategy, just as the Clinton and Bush Administrations still pursued the status quo — an international world where the U.S. is top dog and capitalism keeps spreading new markets for U.S. companies.
The bad news is that no nation in history has ever maintained the status quo, even though big powers like Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, France, Spain and Britain all tried.
Nations become top powers by seeking either to change or to obtain something — not by trying to keep things the same.
Big powers only stay big powers when they remake themselves, when they adopt a new grand strategy as needed like Rome and later Britain did.
The U.S. has remade its strategy three times, and all of them came from dealing with the big challenges, not the minor nations.
Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” while there is some truth to its argument, doesn’t take nearly as much courage, grit or will as Reagan’s “evil empire,” FDR’s choice to beat Hitler, Wilson’s “world safe for democracy,” Lincoln’s decision to prove out the founder’s experiment with blood, or the Washington generation’s “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”
In short, statesmen are needed in the next decade to formulate and implement a grand strategy which requires virtue, wisdom, diplomacy and courage at Churchillesque, Ghandi-like and Jeffersonian proportions.
Two other proposals are more strategic, offering a truly new view of America’s future. Whether or not you like either of these strategies (and many people don’t) they are certainly a new take on things rather than the mere tactical changes of the first three proposals.
A fourth proposed new grand strategy came with the re-entry of Gary Hart into the elite dialogue. He suggested that the best way for America to impact the world, and to remain both free and prosperous, is for the United States to focus on its most primary foundation: being good and promoting the great ideals.
This argument has a long history among Democratic politicians, including perhaps most notably Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but it hasn’t led the conversation for Democratic presidential candidates since Carter. And among recent Republican presidential nominees only Reagan pushed this theme.
In some ways, this idea rekindles a thesis pushed by the American founding era. If we are a great example of freedom, prosperity and success at home, other nations will want to learn from our model — history shows that this is so.
As they do, the paradigms of freedom, justice, checks and balances and other constitutional ideals, and a sense of unity and liberty will spread.
Simultaneously, our own nation will — by focusing on the basics that truly work — increase our levels of freedom, prosperity, opportunity and wise leadership. We benefit, and so does the world.
Hart is adamant, and I agree with him, that without a refocus on the intangibles that make freedom work — the great ideals of true liberty and justice for all — America will not continue to lead the world because it won’t really deserve to lead.
This is a grand strategy indeed: Make the hard and vital changes to America that would make it truly the best it has ever been. The rest will naturally occur.
Of course, this is not a simple process, but neither is any grand strategy. Some will agree and disagree, as I do, with certain specifics in Hart’s ideas, but as a grand strategy this one has real merit.
A fifth, albeit informal, possible grand strategy seems to be gaining momentum in the Obama Administration. Such a strategy might be called the Atlantic strategy, because it entails making the United States more like the nations of the European Union.
Unlike NATO, which was built on the idea of American leadership with the U.S. and its allies guiding the world, the Atlantic strategy assumes that the parliamentary social-democracy system of Western Europe, especially France and Germany, is the model the United States and other allies of the EU should adopt.
In this view, our courts should build a common body of precedent with Europe and Canada, the focus should be on human rights rather than inalienable rights, and our constitution and institutions should evolve to be less rigidly separated, checked and balanced and more and more like the nations of Europe.
On economic matters, the government would abandon a free enterprise posture and become much more involved in regulating, running and owning businesses. Washington would adopt and run a nationwide industrial policy with the government in charge.
This would allow, the argument goes, the nations of Europe and North America to become more alike and increasingly cooperative.
Eventually, many elites hope, supra-national organizations might even take away some of the more “troubling” sovereign powers of individual nations.
Understandably, few politicians have come right out and suggested this direction. It would certainly cause a firestorm of political backlash.
Many Americans (myself included) would be strongly against this. But the policy and direction of the Obama Administration is definitely in line with such a course.
President Obama’s position on many issues — from health care and national security, the bailouts and stimulus, to financial and environmental policy — has toed this European line. At times it has seemed almost purposely designed to impress European sensibilities.
And, in terms of popularity, it has worked in Europe and much of the world. Indeed, this move toward Europeanism has been the inclination and open objective of many American elites for quite some time.
Unfortunately, in an economy desperately in need of innovation, initiative, leadership among the citizenry, and a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit (since these are the things which promote real and lasting freedom and prosperity), this “Atlantic” grand strategy seems destined, if adopted, to cause a significant American decline.
Finally, the great international-legal thinker Philip Bobbitt has suggested that the future of nations will likely de-emphasize national governments and put more focus on smaller, and possibly even virtual, economically-oriented governments that replace the traditional nation state.
If this does occur, it will not likely be a grand strategy for a long time. Bobbitt sees it growing in influence toward the 2050s, and indeed this may compete to be a future grand strategy shift in a later generation.
More immediately, in the years just ahead the United States will adopt a new Grand Strategy.
The old model of Internationalism, with the U.S. fighting to become and then acting as the world’s sole superpower, supported by its group of allies, is past.
Europe has moved on, and the U.S. and Europe have in many ways moved apart. Simultaneously, a number of places have become growing competitors to U.S. economic dominance, including China, the EU, Canada, Brazil, India, Japan, and others. (We should be carefully studying and considering the grand strategy of these places — perhaps especially China.)
To top off the challenges to Internationalism, the American economy is struggling and the individual states and many businesses are barely hanging on.
If the U.S. is to maintain its prosperity, it must adopt a powerful new grand strategy and then pursue it effectively and courageously. And if it is to maintain and even regain its freedoms, it must simultaneously adopt a good grand strategy and the right one.
I am not at all convinced that any of these five options, or anything else I’ve read on the topic, are the entire answer. I do believe that Hart’s strategy must be part of it.
In any case, it is time for statesmen (including the regular citizen-statesmen of our society) to begin to discover, present and promote the pros and cons of proposed and other possible grand strategies for the 21st Century.
If the patterns of history hold, we have less than 20 years to get the right ideas into the debate and influence the huge choice ahead.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.