Why the United States Needs a Grand Strategy

The country must choose a foreign-policy before someone forces one on us

The consensus amongst most observers is that US foreign policy is in disarray. Detractors of the current administration lay blame squarely on a what they characterize as chaotic leadership, inconsistent decision-making, and ineffective policy application by the president. His supporters however point to what they see as significant errors by previous administrations, proof that the President inherited ‘damaged goods’ when he took office. Both sides are correct. In fact, since 9/11 there really has been no foundation or grand strategy guiding US foreign-policy at all.

Policy mistakes have certainly been made over the last two decades, but they are more the result of the lack of a grand strategy than shortcomings of individual administrations. The need to develop a post-Cold War strategic vision was clearly understood during the 1990s as a variety of actors debated between neo-isolationism, internationalism, and primacy as the appropriate US grand strategy. 9/11 put that debate on hold however, wrongly convincing many that the only focus of US grand strategy was to pursue defeat of extremist terrorism. The reality is that as we approach the 30-year anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall the US continues to lack a clear vision and purpose for its post-Cold War foreign-policy.

A major reason for US success in the Cold War was the continuity of its foreign policy. The consistency of focus and effort came from the strategy of containment that aimed at resisting the expansion of both the Soviet Union and international communism. Policy implementation included numerous errors and mistakes not the least of which being the Vietnam War. But the overall strategy led to the creation of NATO and everyone’s acceptance of US leadership in international security. This strategic component, combined with the economic and diplomatic systems developed to complement containment (e.g. the UN, WTO, etc.), laid the foundation for a new US post-Cold War grand strategy. Four general options were considered during the 1990s: neo-isolationism, selective engagement, internationalism, and primacy. Each offered advantages and disadvantages depending on where you stood on the political spectrum, but the debate itself did not break down strictly along party lines. Instead, the 1990s were typified by both Republican and Democratic foreign-policy decisions that cut across all four strategic options.

The 1991 Gulf War for instance was the high-water mark of US internationalism. Despite the success of collective security as the basis for the war, Somalia and the “Black Hawk Down” incident two years later would be the beginning of the end of America’s engagement with internationalism. The failure of the operation combined with a steadily devolving security environment in the Middle East served to all but eliminate it as an option for US grand strategy. Isolationism in some form has always been a component of the political culture of the United States. But Presidents Truman and Roosevelt, in combination with the unavoidable realities of the World Wars, diminished its influence relative to US strategic and foreign policies. It has now reemerged in the form of the neo-isolationist mantra ‘America First’ following a decade and a half of the War on Terror, and growing questions as to ‘what’s next?’ In conjunction with the recent wave of national populism in the United States neo-isolationism is in fact a more significant consideration than at any time since the 1930s.

Disagreement with allies, friction with Russia, and brutal human rights violations complicate US involvement in the Bosnian war

A renewed confidence in free-market liberalism, democratization, and benign US hegemony continued to lean the country towards internationalism as America’s grand strategy. But messy engagements such as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as the growing threat from both extremist and cyber threats, increasingly made selective engagement the default foundation for decision-making. This option seemed to allow the United States to maximize its foreign-policy “wins” while minimizing its potential “losses”. The problem was the word ‘selective’ and the specific conditions or criteria that were being seen as necessary for a US intervention or engagement. While a policy of primacy or hegemony was attractive to some of the Cold War ‘hawks’, it was considered impractical as the basis for US foreign policy for two primary reasons: price and perception. Most believed that it was impractical and perhaps infeasible to maintain the military levels necessary for US global primacy. Post-Cold War era Washington also sought to avoid being perceived as a bully, or at least as a unilateral actor resistant to global opinion.

So, throughout the 1990s there was an ongoing debate regarding which of these grand strategies was most appropriate for a post-Cold War America? Which would maximize the benefits of US leadership, while also increasing its security and ability to counter future hegemons? Unfortunately, before these questions could be answered 9/11 happened and everything changed. Prior to the 2001 terror attacks there was a vibrant national discussion regarding what the US role in the world should be. There were numerous events and developments during the 1990s that represented any one of the strategic visions being considered. For many however, 9/11 answered all the key questions definitively and there was no debate moving forward as to what our strategic vision should be. It clearly had to be an aggressive combination of primacy and isolationism that created an offense-defense strategy that would come to be known as the War on Terror.

There could be no other strategic consideration than the defeat of religious extremism as a source of terrorist attacks against America and its interests. In some ways 9/11 rejuvenated Cold War perspectives and strategies in so much as the fight had to be even more dedicated and uncompromising than the battle against international communism. Second, the role of the nation-state and the international system in general was less important to US strategic thought than it had been during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War and into the 1990s the international system was a key tool for US foreign policy. Development of international systems for diplomacy and economics were essential to supporting the broader strategic policy of containment. In the new fight however the message was simple: “you’re either with us or against us.” In terms of grand strategy this meant that there was no longer a concern over the negative perceptions of unilateralism on the part of America. Key liberal components of US foreign policy such as the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights and international law, and leadership in global environmentalism, all became secondary to combating global terrorism.

While many of these sacrifices and choices seemed necessary at the time, we are now facing an international environment in which the US is demonstrating weakness across key issues and entire regions. The United States has ceded leadership in numerous areas, many traditionally considered essential to the US role in international politics, be it one of primacy or benign hegemon. The United States is now watching China take the lead as an innovator in new energy technologies, Europe move forward as the steward of The Paris Agreement, and all as democracy is in retreat around the world. US influence in the Middle East has declined leading to increased roles for both Russia and Iran as destabilizing influences. Africa continues to be ignored despite mounting evidence suggesting it could be the next battlefield against extremist terrorism, and US influence in Latin America and Southeast Asia are at low points relative to the relationships that existed at the end of the Cold War. All these changes have taken place in the context of even broader retreats from the US protection of human rights and the global environment.

President Trump with foreign leaders at the G7 Summit, June 2018

It is now time for the United States to reengage the debate that was left unfinished in the 1990s. The goal here is not to suggest one specific strategy over another, that will be left for another commentary. Rather, the United States must begin by recognizing the need to consider and perhaps reassess some of the key points of the original debate. What are the United States vital versus ‘merely important’ national interests, and how should we differentiate responses to threats against each? What role does the United States see for key components of the international system in its own foreign-policy (e.g. the UN)? How should the United States promote democratization and respect for human rights as a component of international conflict resolution while avoiding the quagmire of ‘nation-building’? And most importantly, will the United States be a benign hegemon that serves as a catalyst for global progress and advancement, or should we focus more narrowly on guaranteeing our own position of primacy within the international system? None of these questions are any easier to answer now than they were during the 1990s, and in fact they may be more difficult. But the longer the US operates without a clear geostrategy to guide policy, the more likely it is that the states like China and Russia will seize the initiative.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

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