Wednesday , February 21 2024
Is grand strategy possible or are we living in too complex an international environment?

Book Review: ‘What Good is Grand Strategy?’ by Hal Brands

In her piece on grand strategy “A Foreign Policy For the Future”, Amy Zegart suggests that the grand strategy project is dead. The primary reason, according to Zegart, is the complexity of the world we now face: the Cold War offered an exceptional circumstance in which there was only one adversary for America, making American grand strategy a clear cut project. But we live in a world in which adversaries are harder to define. For Zegart, grand strategy “hinges on knowing the number and identities of these key adversaries, what they want, how they operate, and what damage they can inflict.” But who are America’s primary adversaries? What do they want? What are their capabilities? Is China’s rise a threat? What about Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia—where do these countries rank on the potential adversary list? Is terrorism a declining threat or will it evolve? What are the probabilities of a digital Pearl Harbor or a WMD attack by a non state actor? Zegart suggests that answers are too hard to find. Also implied in her stance and that of other grand strategy critics is a concert about the costs of a grand strategic project—any attempt to balance Russia and or China would require another Reagan Era-like defense buildup, or, worse, could lead to another Bush era failure of big vision.

grandstrategybrandsZegart is not the only policy scholar to question the feasibility of grand strategy. Even policy makers themselves have expressed skepticism toward the conceit that we can successfully make grand strategic plans. Bill Clinton dismissed the grand strategic project as an illusion created after the fact by scholars, memoirists and the “chattering classes.”

Is grand strategy an illusion? Or, is it possible for leaders to design and implement a successful grand strategy? To answer such questions, Hal Brands has written Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft From Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush.

Brand’s book is an argument for the possibility and necessity of grand strategy. He presents four case studies from the post-World War II of presidents who fashioned grand strategies in response to significant changes in the international environment: Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The goal of the analysis is to illuminate the issues and challenges leaders facing the challenge of formulating a grand strategy in a global world are likely to encounter and to gain an understanding of how the process of formulating a grand strategy equips leaders to deal with dilemmas of foreign policy.

One theme that interweaves through these case studies is that grand strategy is a complex policy process, a struggle of human reason and the impulse for coherence against the ever changing nature of the international system and the complex nature of reality. As such, it is never easy, or was ever easy. Critics like to point out, for example, that grand strategy was somehow easier during the Cold War. But even during that bipolar moment in world affairs complexity was everywhere. The first case study, which traces the origins of containment, proves that even then the Truman administration had to deal with the unexpected and failed on more than one occasion (when it neglected Europe’s security needs and miscalculated the importance of China) to grasp the complex reality it was faced with. To say that today’s world is more complex than the world of superpower struggle is to betray a naïve understanding of the struggles Cold War presidents had to face and to ignore the failures they encountered. The golden era was not a moment of plans popping up ready made but of continued reassessment and revision in the face of ever changing circumstances. The world is not more or less complex than it always was. Grand strategy is not only possible today, it is of vital American interest to engage in—the alternative is to let crises define policy, leading to exhaustion of national power.

In fact, Brands makes this point repeatedly—there is not alternative to planning. Indeed, it is the complexity of the international system that is the best argument for a grand strategy planning process. This process encourages learning and adaptation, both essential aspects of successful grand strategies. Without planning, crises can drain national power, leading to exhaustion of resources. Another point he makes is the need for clarity of goals and objectives. What is, in order words, most vital for America? Clarity of purpose defines priorities. In fact, the planing and clarification of principles will make adaptation easier because the various issues that might come up will have been analyzed. The planning process should include all stakeholders, especially those who will carry out the tasks. An inclusive grand strategy processes will help to create buy in among the bureaucracies involved and building institutional and even public consensus is crucial. The Nixon era showed that attempts streamline the process by leaving some bureaucracies out of the loop often leads to problems that can undermine the entire project. Although grand strategy is a future oriented project, it is informed by history. Brands reminds us that knowing the origins of the present international circumstances is an essential aspect of grand strategic analysis. Grand strategy requires a skilled combination of various aspects of state power—focus on any one form of power, such as military intervention, can lead to disasters that can drain national power without creating anything in return. Perhaps the biggest reason for planning is that it helps to keep things in perspective and expectations realistic. Grand strategy need not be grand in order to be effective. The question, Brands writes, is not whether American administrations will ever achieve a flawless strategic vision, but whether they will create a process that will generate enough policy coherence so that vital national interest will be protected and national power enhanced.

Reading the case studies, the answer seems uncertain. The Bush years showed that America’s grand strategy policy process can become profoundly dysfunctional, leading to the pursuit of strategies that exhaust national power. Then there is the issue of domestic or Innenpolitik influence on the grand strategic project.

As much as the geopolitical and external threats were variables that shaped Bush’s thinking about grand strategy, it was the domestic political dynamics that spurned Bush on both in his certitude and his boldness. If Bush did not act aggressively, he would have been painted as weak and ineffectual while America’s enemies were lose in the world. Being seen as timid was not a political option. On the other hand, America had no appetite for a long, costly project of rebuilding Iraq with hundreds of thousands of US troops staying there for a generation, a project that everyone knew would be required to stabilize the country after Saddam was removed from power. What else, then, but a bold vision on the cheap could have there been? In grand strategy, domestic political forces play as much a role as do geopolitical ones. In fact, geopolitical realities are relevant only to the extent that they affect interests of the domestic elites and power centers so that the international situation is distorted through the lens of domestic interests rather than perceived with some pristine objectivity. Indeed, another theme that obtains from the case studies is that of the significant limits on executive’s grand strategic vision imposed by an era’s domestic political realities. What realistic choices, for instance, did Truman have but to seek to balance Soviet power and well as to reanimate Europe’s economies? War and appeasement were non-options. A Europe wallowing in economic depression would not be a market for American goods. America needed to resurrect Germany and Japan not just to control the Eurasian landmass but to create markets for American goods. Military guarantees played into the Democratic party’s military Keynesianism. What choice did Nixon have but detente after the disaster in Vietnam? What else could Reagan run on but a platform that promised resurgence of American power? The alternatives are hard to imagine because grand strategies are not so much created as recognized as the only possible options given the particular context of an era’s  Innenpolitik. 

The process of grand strategy formulation, then, is successful when it leads a president to see the real critical points in America’s international situation, points to which American power can be profitably applied. A process that leads to the formulation of some heroic vision that depends on the imposition of various objectives through the means of national power is likely to fail. It is not that grand strategy’s problem is in being grand–it is that the process of its formulation must lead to the correct recognition of true opportunities and turning points in global politics to which already existing sources of American strategic advantage can best be applied. Both Truman and Reagan eras prove that such grand strategies can be successful.

About A. Jurek

A Jurek is a Blogcritics contributor.

Check Also

The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims.

Book Review: ‘The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims’ by Khaled A Beydoun

'The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Islam' by Khaled A Beydoun is a powerful and telling story of hate fuelled by policy.