Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Grand Strategy

The notion of building a global grand strategy for the United States (or indeed for any country) is both inherently appealing and frighteningly daunting. Some modern equivalent to George Kennan’s famous article The Sources of Soviet Conduct, which provided the guiding framework for U.S. Cold War policy for the better part of four decades, is the Holy Grail of international relations scholarship. Far more qualified writers than I have felled forests in search of it, so it is with trepidation and a healthy dose of humility that I even approach the subject. With a bachelor’s degree and a blog read by few, I know that I am not likely to produce some great fountain of new insight; however, I do hope to provide what few readers venture here with some ideas to consider and questions to answer, with the aim of bringing our citizenry closer to consensus over a coherent, consistent and effective global posture.

On June 3rd, 1997, the founders of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) opened their statement of principles by stating that “American foreign and defense policy is adrift.” Though I absolutely deplore nearly every major initiative that this neo-conservative group has championed since that day, in that statement they they were (and continue to be) completely correct. With the Cold War now fifteen years behind us, U.S. policy makers lack a coherent vision of what role the United States should play in the world of the 21st Century, never mind how to play it. Should it be America’s goal to remain the center of a unipolar global order, keeping its status as the World’s sole superpower with all the expense, risk, responsibility and reward that such a stance entails? Should the United States retreat to a more isolationist position, forgoing concerns and entanglements halfway around the globe in favor of maintaining order and prosperity within its own borders? Should it adopt a ‘Western’ posture, increasing ties with nations (particularly in Europe) that share American cultural, economic and ideological affinities at the expense of other regional or civilizational blocs? Should America try to adopt a more institutionalized form of leadership, enmeshing friend and foe alike in constraining international economic and political arrangements while forgoing her military predominance?

Clearly, these questions only hint at the range of options available to American leaders in the coming decades; however, such queries are themselves premature absent an answer to some far more basic ones. They may seem almost absurdly obvious, but it strikes me that many disagreements over specific policy stem from these more basic disputes:

What ought America’s overriding goals be?
The answers to this question are far from self-evident. Across the ideological spectrum, many critiques of American policy stem from disputes over what the United States ought to try to accomplish in the World. Basic goals, such as ensuring security and reasonable prosperity for American citizens, are seldom seriously contested; however, other aims are more controversial. Should democracy promotion be a major American project, or is it a paternalistic, pseudo-imperial diversion from the nation's core interests? Should American leaders, in what W. Russell Mead terms "Hamiltonian" fashion, focus primarily on building a beneficial international economic regime to the exclusion of more overtly political crusades? Should America content herself to preserve her own security and freedom, absent any larger international mission? I offer no answers now, but only note that goals must be matched with absolute and relative capabilities.

What are the principal threats to those goals' achievement?
In times past, the answer to this question would have been obvious: other states. At least up until the Second World War, and perhaps for some time after that, the principal threat to the peace, prosperity, and international aims of most great powers were embodied in the military capacities of other powers. Foreign policy, for all its diplomatic complexities, consisted basically of making sure enough land, water, ships, tanks, guns and soldiers stood between one's country and the ships, tanks, guns and soldiers of everyone else's (I'm obviously oversimplifying a bit). With the exception of the occasional trans-border pandemic, the only significant threat to international harmony was inter-state warfare.

While a quick glance at the front page of any newspaper is enough to demonstrate that this threat has not disappeared, the late twenieth century has seen the emergence of new obstacles to the smooth functioning of the international system. The emergence of trans-national terrorism has the potential to seriously disrupt global economic and poilitical connectivity (see Global Guerillas for a running demonstration of this threat). The rapid movement of people, goods and information around the globe raises the risk of widespread death from explosive pandemics or proliferating WMDs. Perhaps most frighteningly, the anticipated effects of global warming - increased natural disasters, famine, climate readjustment, receding coastlines - have the potential to initiate a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions, precipitate widespread state collapse, emiserate hundreds of millions of people, and deal a crippling blow to any notions of development and progress. A responsible American approach to 21st Century foreign policy must take into account these changing circumstances.

What is the most effective strategy to overcome those threats?
The answer to this question is, of course, well beyond the scope of one post (or one book for that matter); however, any effective global strategy must meet three criteria. First, it must be integrated and holistic. American goals have too often been stymied by conflicting applications of different instruments of policy. If U.S. policy makers, for example, seek to liberalize global trade while at the same time using financial leverage to force foreign governments to curtail the social services that make such a trade regime politically possible, they work at cross purposes. Once threats have been identified, American military, diplomatic and economic resources must be coherently applied to overcome them.

Second, it must be reasonably flexible. The great advantage of Kennan's strategy of containment was its flexibility within the context of its guiding principles. Where U.S. Cold War policy went most dangerously adrift, it did so when such principles were either completely abandoned (as when supporting Augusto Pinochet) or too rigidly applied (as in Vietnam). Any grand strategy must provide a set of operating principles that set clear boundaries for American foreign policy, but also allow room to maneuver within those boundaries.

Third, a successful grand strategy must be politically solvent. Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz mention this in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Without endorsing or rejecting their larger argument, I note simply that the United States is a democracy, however imperfect it may be. Any foreign policy that imposes costs that the American people are unwilling to bear cannot be sustained for very long. As it is the essence of a grand strategy that it provide stable and durable guidance to policy makers over a period of many years, it will be of little use if it asks of the people more than they are willing to give. This may seem obvious, but the point is often lost on more traditional realists who look at America's latent economic and military assets and imagine that the U.S. can maintain global hegemony for years to come if it simply applies them vigorously. The fact is, few Americans have a taste for empire, and even fewer are willing to make significant sacrifices for it. On the other hand, Americans have shown a willingness to sacrifice for a policy the goals and methods of which they understand and support. A successful American strategy must involve the consistent informed consent of the American populace. Anything less is unworthy of the United States.

Readers will notice that I have put forth many more questions here than I have answers. In future posts, I may propose some, but I close with the hope that, going forward, America as a country, through the workings of its political process, will be able to construct a consistent and coherent strategy to confront the many serious but too often ignored crises of our age. If we cannot do that, we ought to abrogate global leadership, for we do not deserve it.

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