Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press, explains the issue.
The contemporary theory and practice of grand strategy by the United States can be summarized in the sound byte uttered in 2001 by President George W. Bush shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Bush did not invent this conception of “grand strategy”. His sound byte was simply a variation of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s triumphalist theory that America had become the world’s “essential power” with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that Bush’s assertion of unilateral prerogative blew back on itself to create all sorts of problems at home and abroad. It is also clear that, notwithstanding the blowback, his coercive grand strategic outlook became more entrenched and ossified during the Presidential tenure of Barack Obama.
This is evident in Obama’s unilateral escalation of drone attacks; his fatally flawed Afghan “surge” decision; the foreign and domestic spying by the NSA, which included tapping the cell phones of close allies like German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. This is also evident in his administration’s aggressive meddling in Ukraine, together with the demonization of Vladimir Putin that is now well on the way to starting an unnecessary new cold war with Russia; and also in Obama’s so-called strategic pivot to the East China Sea to contain China.
Surely, the art of “grand strategy” is more subtle than a bipartisan theory of coercive diplomacy grounded on an assertion of a unilateral military prerogative. Surely, there is more to the art of grand strategy than the notion of coercion embodied in the question Secretary of State Albright’s posed to General Colin Powell during a debate over whether or not to intervene in the Balkans, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” America’s descent into a state of perpetual war ought to suggest it is time to rethink the approach to grand strategy.
So, how do we define grand strategy? More to the point of this essay, “what considerations make up a constructive grand strategy?”
Obviously, it is difficult to construct policies that conform to or reinforce all the criteria at the same time. This challenge is particularly difficult in the case of the unilateral military strategies and the coercive foreign policies so popular with the foreign policy elites on both sides of the political aisle in the United States. Military operations and political coercion are usually destructive in the short term, and their destructive strategic effects can be in natural tension with the aims of grand strategy, which should be constructive over the long term. History is littered with failures to reconcile the natural tension between military strategy and grand strategy.
Moreover, the more powerful a country becomes, the harder it is to combine these often conflicting criteria into a sensible grand strategy. The possession of overwhelming power breeds hubris and arrogance that tempts leaders to use their power coercively and excessively. But lording over or dictating one’s will to others breeds lasting resentment. Thus, paradoxically, the possession of overwhelming power increases the danger of going astray grand strategically over the long term.
That danger becomes particularly acute and difficult to control when aggressive external actions, policies, and rhetoric are used to prop up or increase internal cohesion for domestic political reasons, such as the goal of winning an election. Very often, the effects of military strategies or coercive foreign policies that are perceived as to be useful in terms of strengthening domestic political cohesion backfire at the grand-strategic level, because they strengthen the adversaries’ will to resist and push the allies into a neutral or even an adversarial corner, and/or drive away the uncommitted. This taken together, can set the stage for growing isolation and continuing conflict, which eventually blows back on itself to erode cohesion at home.
Today, a 101 years after the start of World War I, the world is still paying a price for Germany’s grand-strategic blunder in 1914 and the Allies ruthless exploitation of that blunder at the Versailles Peace Conference — the problems in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Russian heartland, and the Caucasus, to name a few. They have roots reaching back to destruction of world order that flowed from the invasion of 1914, the vengeance of 1919, and the violent aftermath of that vengeance.
So, the important lesson of this German case study is this: It is very dangerous to allow military strategy to trump grand strategy. Whenever a great power fails to adequately consider the criteria shaping a sensible grand strategy, painful unintended consequences can metastasize and then linger for a very long time.
Today America’s central foreign policy problem and the problem of American militarism can be simply stated: Military strategy is trumping “grand strategy”. The result is not only a state of perpetual war, but as the emerging Ukraine and China policies show, it is one of an expanding confrontation that can lead to even more war and more blowback.
That, in a nut shell, is why it is time to do a grand-strategic evaluation of the coercive unilateralism that is evident in America’s ever-mutating war on the so-called terror, its meddling in Ukraine, and its so-called strategic pivot into China’s backyard to threaten China’s sea lines of communication and “contain” China, whatever that means. The time is ripe for a substantive political debate on a real issue.
The Presidential campaign will move into high gear on the day after Labor Day. But as it now stands, the American people are about to be inundated with speeches and debating points over why it is time to rebuild America’s defenses, with most of the candidates beating their breasts in an effort to out-tough each other.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if at least one candidate stopped beating his or her breasts and spoke thoughtfully to the importance of moving their country onto a pathway away from blind militarism toward a more sensible grand strategy?
Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen; in America, all foreign policy is local in the sense that it is shaped by domestic politics. And in the United States, too many people in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex on both sides of the aisle are becoming rich and powerful by feeding off America’s self-referencing politics of unilateralism, fear, and perpetual war. Does anyone on both sides of the aisle mind the real term of grand strategy? Do they care about peace and stability for all in the world, including the Americans? Apparently, not. What is happening in the Middle East?