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Do We Need a Grand Strategy?

The conversation that Zenpundit started on grand strategy continues. Fear and Loathing in Georgetown (best blog name, I wish I had come up with it myself) answers the question I posed in my earlier post on grand strategy:

“The simple answer is the the United States lacks even a close military competitor, and forget an existential military threat. al-Qaeda is, from a strategic perspective, a minor nuisance. ..[W]e don’t need a grand strategy right now and so we don’t have one. Now, it would be nice to have one because then we could proceed in some sort of rational manner. However, we have the luxury of being so superior militarily to every other country in the world that the lack of a grand strategy is something we can afford.”

      Obviously, people can and will disagree about the US’s conventional military superiority relative to other states or the impact that changing state forms have on the ability of the United States to project power. But the fact remains that there is nothing close to the former Soviet Union around today. FLG raises the most important “red-team” question of all in the grand strategy debate–is a grand strategy necessary to begin with for America? His entry highlights a crucial point that so far has gone unaddressed. Most discussions of grand strategy, such as the Center for a New American Security‘s Solarium debate, proceed with the automatic assumption that a grand strategy is necessary.
      To justify the importance of grand strategy, I return to Zenpundit’s original blog post on the “Kilcullen Doctrine.” Even in the absence of a military threat, states still do need grand strategies to provide a framework to the operational and tactical missions they perform. Without it, Zenpundit argued, operational doctrine is “untethered. It will float like a balloon in a political wind. It is crisis management without a destination or sufficient justification for expenditure of blood and treasure. If these blanks are not filled in, they will be filled in by others.” Steve Metz’s dissent on Small Wars Journal blog illustrates a good example of what happens when the blanks are not filled in:

“I was aghast when people talked about future missions like controlling the vast slums of Lagos or Karachi, both because I don’t think those who made this point understood the magnitude of such a task, and because I don’t think doing so would promote American security. None of the architects or implementers of 9/11 were motivated by the lack of jobs or emerged from a teeming slum. On 9/11 we were attacked by a dispersed, non-state entity but in a perfect illustration of the idea that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, we did what we knew how to do: we overthrew two national governments. But–and this is the important part—because there were no subsequent successful attacks on the United States, we assumed this was the right approach. I non-concur.”

      Of course, FLG is correct that we haven’t suffered as much from our poverty of grand strategy as, say, Philip II of Hapsburg Spain. But I would argue that in this case America’s compelling enemy is not so much a looming adversary as the entirely human tendency states have to make poor decisions regarding the use of force, the expenditure of resources, and our strategic elites’ perception of political, economic, and cultural trends. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we need a hegemonic concept like containment–I felt that Joseph Fouche did a good job of arguing that a nation is better served by multiple grand strategies. But states do need larger guidance as to how they use resources–both human and material–to achieve strategic ends.
      Most importantly, the debate over form and grand strategy is, as FLG argues, exceedingly meta. But understanding form and structure, however abstract, is a necessary step for evaluating historical results of strategy and policy–as well as the expectations we should have about our own capacity for strategic decisionmaking. Of course, we don’t want to sit around debating how many John Boyds can dance on a pin, and FLG’s criticism is useful in alerting us to the meta-quality of the debate. But abstraction in and of itself is of no harm as long as it retains an intimate connection to real world issues and outcomes. Abstraction is unfortunately necessary in order to compress the complexity of the outside world into a knowledge framework, even if it can be admittedly ridiculous. I think Steve Walt’s posts on international relations theory and romance and child-rearing are useful precisely because they poke fun at the overly dense and sometimes self-important world of theory. The comments section of Abu Muquwama also brings the COIN world down to Earth with raucous inside jokes and self-parody. FLG does that in a slightly less family-friendly fashion, but it’s hilarious and valuable all the same.
       Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that two prominent foreign policy theorists think that the US has essentially employed the same grand strategy for 200 years. The New America Foundation’s Michael Lind argues in The American Way of Strategy that the US has always sought to prevent a hegemonic power from emerging that would force us to become a garrison state in order to counter it. Lind sees US policy since the Cold War as a troubling shift away from this basic strategy. Robert Kagan, on the other hand, argues in Dangerous Nation that the recent push for primacy is old hat: America has always been an aggressively expansionist state and should continue doing so. Whatever their differences, Lind and Kagan both agree that the US has one set grand strategy that it has followed more or less consistently–a conclusion that does not seem to be shared by some in the blogospheric grand strategy debate.