August 1, 2007  

What’s America’s grand plan?

Earlier this year, Seth Cropsey, a regular contributor to AFJ and a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy, set in motion a round table discussion via e-mail with the question: Does America have a grand national strategy and, if so, what is it? Four eminent observers and shapers of U.S. policy from across the political spectrum took up the debate.

Francis Fukuyama: The Bush administration during its first term developed one of the most coherent national strategies of any administration in response to the attacks of Sept. 11. As laid out in a series of programmatic statements such as the first and second National Security Strategy documents and the president’s second inaugural, it consisted of (1) a pre-emptive approach to terrorism and (it turned out) the threat of rogue state terrorism; (2) working through “coalitions of the willing” rather than being bound by more structured international organizations; and (3) the use of democracy promotion as a means of addressing core security threats such as that posed by al-Qaida. Although not part of stated doctrine, the Bush administration also demonstrated a pronounced willingness to risk the use of force for ambitious transformative political ends, in response to what it regarded as the immensely more threatening post-Sept. 11 environment. All of these elements came together to explain and justify the Iraq war.

At this juncture, much of this strategy has been abandoned, partly in response to the reality of events that proved much less malleable than hoped, and partly as a result of strategic overstretch. The administration has pursued a more multilateral approach to both Iran and North Korea, working through the European contact group and Six Party framework, respectively. It has eschewed an early resort to force in both cases. The heavy emphasis on democratic reform in places such as Egypt and Palestine with which it began its second term has been muted in light of the electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. And after largely ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than five years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has re-engaged on the issue.

However, it would appear that many of the administration’s original instincts are still present. During the Lebanon war of July 2006, it gave strong support to Israel’s strategy of seeking to eliminate Hezbollah as a regional actor by deflecting international pressure for a cease-fire, on the grounds that its use of overwhelming force could “give birth to a new Middle East.” In Iraq, it doubled down its bet by opting for a troop surge in response to the election of the Democratic congress in November and calls for a phased withdrawal by the Iraq Study Group.

I have the feeling that the administration is simply coping from day to day rather than following anything that could be labeled a coherent strategy. The Iraq war and the broader war on terrorism have proven so costly that responses to North Korea or Iran involving the use of force are virtually foreclosed. They have drained resources and attention from other areas of foreign policy; strategies toward Latin America and East Asia have largely drifted over the past six years, with a default position that is more pragmatic than transformative. In the time remaining before the 2008 election, the U.S. will be preoccupied with the end game in Iraq, so the chance of a coherent grand strategy emerging before then is also low.

Stephen Rosen: The United States, in my view, has national objectives but does not have a national strategy. We do not have a national strategy because we do not have compatible objectives, and because we do not understand that other states will not necessarily respond to our policies in ways that lead us to the desired goal. Playing chess well and making strategy both require an effort to think through the interactive nature of the game and a realization that the other player will get to make his own moves.

In what ways does the United States suffer from having incompatible objectives? Some examples may be helpful. The U.S. wants to remain the dominant military power in East Asia because that dominance stabilizes the situation in the Taiwan Straits area and reassures Japan, which, in turn, helps to prevent an open Japanese-Chinese military competition. However, the U.S. does not want to increase its military spending even more than it has done to date, and so it is not spending the money on its maritime forces to maintain the current U.S. military position in waters close to China at a time when Chinese efforts to improve its submarine and other anti-carrier forces are clearly increasing. It may be reasonable to abandon the objective of remaining militarily predominant in the region, but as matters stand, there is an open contradiction in our objectives. The U.S. wants to withdraw from Iraq but also wants oil prices to remain stable, a goal it is unlikely to achieve if it withdraws from Iraq and internal and interstate violence in the region increases.

More fundamentally, the United States does not take into account the adaptive nature of other players, in China, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. In part, this is a result of the fact that the U.S. government now engages in crisis management and pays far less attention to long-term planning than it did, for example, in the Eisenhower administration. It is also the result of a willingness to understand that the mental orientation of other actors in the world may be, for good and proper reasons, fundamentally different from our own.

Tom Donnelly: The United States surely has a grand strategy, although it’s not always clearly articulated. One has to take into account our broader behavior, as well as formal documents, such as the National Security Strategy. But, basically, we do what we say: that is, to preserve the geopolitical primacy of the U.S. — or “hegemony” as those who don’t like it would say — and protect and promote representative forms of government. This is, I would argue, the essence of the Bush doctrine, but it also describes how the Clinton administration or the Bush 41 administration behaved.

I also expect that, no matter who occupies the White House come January 2009, and regardless of how Iraq policy is framed, that this basic strategy will endure. It reflects the realities of international politics in the early 21st century — that the United States is and remains history’s “sole superpower,” and the realities of what I can only call “American strategic culture” — that is, our peculiar and unique policymaking preferences, traditions and habits, particularly when it comes to the use of military force.

Power realities do much to explain and constrain American grand strategy. To begin with, the U.S. has achieved its position of primacy through its victories in the wars of the 20th century, the two world wars and the Cold War; the old European “Great Powers” and Imperial Japan no longer exist, even allowing for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Maintaining American primacy if China and India rise to great power status is a different but not impossible challenge. And the international state system is also under a kind of structural pressure, not only from the forces of globalization but also of nuclear proliferation; we are at an era where otherwise weak and volatile states — North Korea, Iran, Pakistan — or even nonstate actors such as terrorist organizations can confound traditional calculations of the balance of power. American primacy naturally makes its own discontents, but it has yet to spawn a real alternative. Even China, potentially the most dangerous of the discontents, has a large stake in the current system.

The realities of our political principles likewise explain and constrain our strategy making. No nation willingly sets aside its power advantages; it is all but impossible for one so profoundly ideological as the U.S. To be sure, the conduct of the war in Iraq and the mistakes of the Bush administration have given democracy promotion as bad name — the allegedly liberal John Kerry, without any apparent irony, campaigned in 2004 in the name of “stability” in the Middle East, and most of the prospective 2008 candidates, of both parties, talk of American interests rather than ideals. Yet I would be genuinely surprised if there were a thoroughgoing “realist” reorientation of American strategy. Our principles serve not only to make our exercise of power more palatable to others, but also to ourselves. Strategic culture can change, but not easily, radically, overnight.

Richard Danzig: An American security strategy should aim to keep us and our allies free to pursue our interests and values, to reduce the amount of armed conflict in the world and to protect our citizens as much as possible (both at home and abroad) from the conflict that exists. The means of accomplishing this are hugely varied. A core requirement is to build broadly capable, agile, adaptable and sustainable military forces. At this period in our history, a strategy should not over-design our military on the premise that a particular scenario, type of conflict or type of unit is the be-all and end-all. To the contrary, range, resiliency and diversity are critical. We should value our forces as we value money in the bank: They are a source of strength without our knowing how we will use them.

A second requirement is to complement our military power. Sustained security will not be achieved by the Department of Defense alone — it requires our whole government, societal resources outside of government, and the active support of other nations and international organizations.

A sustained strategy should not label nations, much less civilizations or religions, as enduring enemies or threats. Rather, our strategy should recognize that there are people and circumstances within all such entities that increase the likelihood of conflict with us and there are those who have the opposite, and for us far more desirable, influence. We cannot control which forces will prevail, but we can channel our words and actions so that they reinforce those who are most conciliatory toward us.

It is beneficial in this regard if our strategy is coolly realistic. Not all our goals are compatible, and we can have only one No. 1 priority in any given situation. Security enables us to pursue American ideals (freedom, democracy, a market system, literacy, etc.). In the long term, their spread is likely to diminish conflict. However, we should not expect that in the near term (over the next decade or so) these ends will enhance our security. When we intervene to prevent genocide, for example, we do it because we value the result, even if it diminishes our security. A grand security strategy will recognize that in some places and times, security is not always our highest priority.

Our security thinking in recent years deserves low marks against all these criteria. The Pentagon’s increased emphasis on capabilities to meet a broad range of scenarios is a step in the right direction, but the labeling (and then re-labeling) of China, “the axis of evil” and others has been confused and counterproductive; our integration of military and nonmilitary assets has been poor; we have often gratuitously undermined opportunities for international coordination; we have hopped on and off ideological hobby horses, promulgating priorities that we do not sustain. As our security has diminished, our rhetoric has redoubled. Our goals are now so conflated that both the left and the right label every desired thing (“democracy,” “human rights,” “increased aid,” etc.) as a means to security. The effect of most strategy pronouncements in recent time has been to make us less secure.

Donnelly: I am struck by the range of views expressed by my colleagues. Steve Rosen points out the incompatibility of many American objectives, while Frank Fukuyama describes the Bush administration as developing in its first term “one of the most coherent national strategies of any administration” and claims that many of these instincts are still present. It’s tough to reconcile such diverse analyses.

As to incompatible interests: It’s true that there are crosscutting impulses in American policy, but some of that I would attribute to a normal process of balancing risks and some to the peculiar nature of our democracy. In Steve’s example, I would rephrase his statement of our objectives in East Asia. What we really want is a region that’s reasonably stable and continues to prosper economically, and where democratic forms of government — a recent development — not only endure but also spread; our great hope is that as China rises, it also transforms itself politically. To be sure, U.S. military dominance has been the framework for all three of these current phenomena, and hedging against the newly modern capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army is necessary to achieve the goal of Chinese political liberalization. It is further true that the modernization of our own forces — air as well as naval — has not been as fast or as thoroughgoing as needed. But the Bush administration has taken a number of other steps that have advanced our strategy, such as shifting the balance of naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, creating new port and base facilities and beginning a series of multilateral exercises meant to improve upon the strictly bilateral alliances of the past. And there have been two profound changes: the revitalization of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the initiation of a broader strategic partnership with India. It’s not all that needs to be done to create and execute a coherent strategy, but these are significant steps, particularly given the overriding importance of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Long War for the future of the Middle East.

As to Frank’s comments, which focused in part on the question of the use of force, this is an issue where the idea of an American strategic culture or tradition is especially useful. To begin with, it’s surely true that the U.S. has long considered and continues to consider military force to be a legitimate tool of the state — the state, not “the international community.” Nor is there any reason to suppose that military pre-emption is, likewise, a legitimate use of force; John Quincy Adams regarded Spanish Florida as a “derelict” state, a sanctuary for Seminole raiders and British agents provocateurs and, therefore, approved of Andrew Jackson’s otherwise dubious campaign there. Many of the most bitter opponents of the Iraq war were enthusiastic advocates for pre-emption in the Balkans or now support intervention in Darfur. But, of course, the long-standing American propensity or preference for pre-emption, unilateralism and political transformation are not iron law; strategic culture is not strategic compulsion.

Danzig: I am more critical of the Bush administration efforts to impose a “coherent” view than Frank, more tolerant of the messiness of the world than Steve, but more idealistic than Tom.

Tom’s observations seem to be heavily descriptive and predictive: We will pursue the “geopolitical primacy of the U.S.” or, as he more baldly puts it, “hegemony,” because “no nation willingly sets aside its power advantages.” In his presentation, ideals are cloaks, but not motives: “Our principles serve not only to make our exercise of power more palatable to others, but also to ourselves.” I see more possibilities. In some eras and regions, hegemony may be the best route to peace and protection; in others it may be among the worst. Under any conditions, it is a means, not an end. I, therefore, am not attracted to a strategy that sets preserving our hegemony as its guide-star.

If I am more idealistic than Tom, I suspect I am less so than Steve, who calls for compatible objectives. I think incompatible second-order objectives are inherent in life: I want my kids to grow independent but to be rooted in our home; I want to maximize my savings but to enjoy my spending. The incompatibilities are even stronger in group activities and especially so in democracies, in which competing coalitions strike shifting compromises. They are strongest in international matters. Steve nicely says that “playing chess well and making strategy both require an effort to think through the interactive nature of the game.” I would go further, though, and say that this is chess where the game changes, the pieces are obscured and even our own pieces are hard to control — they sometimes move on their own, show unexpected weaknesses and strengths, and have an inertia that makes them hard to reform or to direct. (Our military, for example, is not easily modernized or our intelligence establishment reoriented.) As a result, we are condemned to a measure of incompatibility. Like Steve, I am all for reducing it, but I wouldn’t stress the point, and my focus lies elsewhere.

For similar reasons, I don’t find much attraction in Frank’s observation that the Bush administration “developed one of the most coherent national strategies” in its first term. It’s odd to call the strategy coherent when it was so obviously made up reactively and in increments (“pre-emption” came after we failed to “pre-empt” 9/11; the grand strategy of the Quadrennial Defense Review, announced on Sept. 10, 2001, was irrelevant the next day; etc.). It’s odd to call it coherent when central parts of it (for example, the push for democracy) were first pressed and then quickly abandoned (for example, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan). But most fundamentally, coherence — like Steve’s compatibility and Tom’s hegemony — is a means to an end. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as Frank’s account suggests, the results of the claimed “coherence” were awfully shabby.

A grand strategy is, in my view, necessarily schizophrenic. It establishes grand goals (I suggested my top three) and then recognizes that messiness, incoherence and incompatibility are inherent in the enterprise. Indeed, as I suggested at the end of my piece, sometimes some things are (and should be) more important to us than our security.

Rosen: Messiness and contradictory goals are, indeed, a part of family life and national strategy. But no country can maintain a dominant position in a region or functional area without a coherent set of objectives, coherently pursued. Eisenhower wanted the U.S. to be predominant in nuclear weapons and put 50 percent of the defense budget into the Air Force. Moreover, messiness is more tolerable when you are relatively wealthy. The U.S. could not get its Army and Navy to agree on a strategy in World War II, so it had two plans for getting to Japan. That was acceptable when Japan had 10 percent of the U.S.’ GDP. It will not be acceptable when facing a China that has a GDP equal to or as large as ours, plus a host of new nuclear powers. Finally, basing a strategy on multilateral partnerships with friendly countries is a good idea when they are economically healthy and politically united with the U.S. on basic goals. The United States, alas, is not likely to have such friends.

Donnelly: Rich Danzig finds me lacking in optimism about American prospects. That’s a separate issue, but I think this is the first time my writings have ever been so characterized.

As to my optimism about the prospects for the United States: Richard was right that I attempted to be more descriptive than prescriptive in my initial comments. But I do deeply believe, as a moral proposition, that the effects of American power on the world have been hugely beneficial. It is difficult to explain the spread of liberal democracy in the 20th century without taking into account the rise of the U.S. to its perch as “the sole superpower.” The causal link is complex, but the correlation is clear. And if we can articulate a strategy, devote sufficient resources and summon a modest amount of wisdom, we ought to be able to protect our interests and promulgate our principles in a new century characterized by the challenges of Islamic revolutionaries, China’s great-power rise, easier access to nuclear weaponry by weak states or terrorists, and uncertainty over Russia’s future. A tall task, yes, but not one beyond us.

Fukuyama: If I can shift from being descriptive to being prescriptive, it seems to me that there are two big challenges that American strategy faces in the medium-term future. The first is to properly assess the jihadist/terrorist threat. We Americans consistently overestimated the gravity of this threat from Sept. 11 onward, and President Bush continues to do this when he talks about our being involved in a “long war on terror” comparable to the world wars or the Cold War. The result has been overreactions such as pre-emptive invasions and the use of torture that have made the problem worse. I very much like Richard Danzig’s exhortation to be “coolly realistic,” which involves not labeling countries as enduring enemies. We face a serious terrorist threat that has a small probability of turning catastrophic. This is not World War IV; it is a problem that needs to be met by an ongoing global counterinsurgency strategy that would largely eschew overwhelming force in favor of a more nuanced strategy that is more political than military.

The second, and in the long run more important, issue will be to deal with China’s rise. The PRC is fast moving up on Japan as East Asia’s largest economic power; although it will not challenge U.S. military primacy anytime soon, its weight in a variety of arenas will grow steadily. Unlike Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union, it is not a locus of evil. The problem will go beyond the one of being able to spend enough on our military, as Steve Rosen suggests. We cannot prevent China’s rise and, therefore, will have to adjust our own policies to some extent (e.g., influence in international institutions, relations with other regional actors) to take account of the changing balance of power.

I agree with Tom that support for democracy around the world will continue to a component of American foreign policy. The Bush administration has instrumentalized as an element of U.S. grand strategy, however, in a way that is neither good for U.S. foreign policy (because it inevitably makes us look hypocritical) nor for the cause of democracy (because democratic reformers are targeted as tools of an unpopular administration in Washington). Restoring American credibility on this score is important but will take a very long time.


RICHARD DANZIG was a Clinton administration secretary of the Navy from November 1998 to January 2001. He was also undersecretary of the Navy from November 1993 to May 1997. Between these posts, he served in Asia and Europe as a traveling fellow for the Center for International Political Economy and as an adjunct professor at Maxwell’s School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He has co-authored a book on national service and written a book on contract law and articles on constitutional history, contracts, criminal procedure, and law and literature. He is on the boards of directors at National Semiconductor Corp. and Human Genome Sciences.

TOM DONNELLY is a defense and security policy analyst and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. From 1995 to 1999, he was policy group director and a professional staff member of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. He is a former editor of Armed Forces Journal, and his recent books include “The Military We Need” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom: A Strategic Assessment.” This year, he co-authored “Of Men and Material: The Crisis in Military Resources.”

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is professor of international political economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He has written widely on issues relating to questions concerning political and economic development and is author of “The End of History and the Last Man” and “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy.”

He is a former member of the State Department policy planning staff, specializing in Middle East affairs, and former State Department deputy director for European political-military affairs.

STEPHEN P. ROSEN is professor of national security and military affairs, director of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, and Master of Winthrop House, at Harvard University. He was the civilian assistant to the director, net assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the director of political-military affairs on the staff of the National Security Council; and a professor in the strategy department at the Naval War College. He was a consultant to the President’s Commission on Integrated Long Term Strategy and to the Gulf War Air Power Survey sponsored by the secretary of the Air Force, and was a secretary of the Navy fellow. He directs the Long Term Strategy Project focused on the cultural, anthropological and biological dimensions of current strategic problems.

His books include “Innovation and the Modern Military, Societies and Military Power: India and its Armies” and “War and Human Nature.”