America's Non-Grand Strategy

In the decade since September 2001, why is the U.S. still reacting to events rather than planning ahead, separating challenges instead of connecting them, and pretending we'll live in a unipolar world forever?

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To understand 21st century geopolitics, think of the global capitalist system: it is a marketplace, not a monopoly. In this diffuse network of nodes and connections, stronger and weaker ties, interdependencies and feedback loops, bad decisions are punished almost as quickly as the stock market punishes bad business models. We have just lived through the inaugural cycle of this geopolitical marketplace. Two decades ago, president George H.W. Bush proclaimed a "New World Order" at the United Nations General Assembly, yet today's world is multipolar and leaderless. It is a Gaullist world: no allies, only interests. The difference between alliance and dalliance is just one letter.

It is in this context of realities too complex for sound bites that we must formulate grand strategy. Sadly, though this imperative has been especially clear since the September 2001 attacks, rather than focusing on meaningful strategy, Washington's policy elites appear to have spent the past decade obsessed with finding a winning narrative. Like a high school debate competition, style seems to matter more than substance. Absent a coherent grand strategy to guide them, debates about national security spending and defense budget cuts quickly devolve into turf wars, ultimately decided by patronage rather than national interest. Graduating from the hard-versus-soft power divide and embracing "smart power" is considered a great intellectual stride. Jargon swamps strategy.

9-11 Ten Years LaterGrand strategy should be about connecting ends and means on a global scale that transcends administrations and their peculiar obsessions and preoccupations, whether it be Iraq, Afghanistan, or China. It is about more than reacting to immediate events. In the age of globalization, grand strategy must take into account the financial crisis, Middle Eastern instability, Asia's hunger for commodities, nuclear proliferation, technological disruptions, and trans-regional terrorist networks -- all at the same time. Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy over the last two decades has been characterized more by, to borrow the great historian Arnold Toynbee's terms, alarmism and reactiveness than the necessary foresight and adaptation. From Afghanistan to Iraq to the Arab Spring, the U.S. has been either over-confident, caught off guard, or behind the curve. In all cases, it still lacks a coherent vision grounded in a realistic grand strategy.

Washington elites have spent more time debating their neologisms than building a useable inventory of "all the elements of national power," a phrase on which all sides have approvingly converged. Both liberals and conservatives separate out foreign policy categories that can be ticked off like a to-do-list without appreciating how they inter-relate: China, promoting democracy, the "broader Middle East," terrorism, "the Muslim world." But grand strategy is not just about prioritizing, it is about connecting. How do these valid concerns relate to each other so that we can find points of leverage and efficiently achieve our goals?

George Kennan's containment doctrine lasted over a generation, carried forward by a succession of presidents. Whatever you think of its merits, it was surely a grand strategy in scope and vision. But since the end of the Cold War, a succession of piecemeal doctrines named for Weinberger, Powell, Bush, Rumsfeld, and other figures have substituted for a genuine long-term grand strategy. In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Drezner argues that Obama has already had two grand strategies -- in just his first term! The first, which he calls multilateral retrenchment, focused on burden-sharing with allies while beginning a clean up at home, and the second he dubs counter-punching, re-assuring Pacific allies about China's growing assertiveness and stepping into gaps such as Libya. All of these are sensible ingredients to a single integrated grand strategy that could last longer than two years -- if ever such a strategy existed.

During the Clinton administration, Henry Kissinger quipped about then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, "You can't expect a trade lawyer to be a grand strategist." Today again, foreign policy is overseen by lawyers such as Tom Donilon and Hillary Clinton who give advice on specific events and problems but not guidance on the bigger picture. As a result, Obama's speeches remain mellifluous but no longer really register abroad, other than to frustrate for their lack of clear purpose. As Kissinger wrote, "A statesman's job is to resolve complexity, not just contemplate it."

Presented by

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order and How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance.

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