Is Grand Strategy is soooo last millennium? In the post-9/11 world, are the days of an American “grand strategy” totally over?
Grand strategy has always been seductive because it promises policy coherence in the face of complexity. Yet the sorry truth is that American grand strategies are usually alluring but elusive. Containment during the Cold War, the most often cited example of grand strategy success, is a recent lonely exception that has driven political scientists and policy makers to keep hope alive. That hope is misguided. In the post-9/11 world, forging a successful grand strategy is unlikely and dangerous.
Grand strategies must be grand. That is, they must be able to anticipate and articulate a compelling future state of the world and galvanize the development of policies, institutions, and capabilities at the domestic and international level to get us there. That’s hard enough. A second challenge is the strategic interaction part of grand strategy, which requires predicting, evading, blocking, and otherwise adjusting to the countermoves of principal adversaries. Grand strategy is not a game of solitaire, where we come up with all the moves and the cards just sit there. It’s not all about us and our big ideas.
Instead, grand strategy is a multi-player game with powerful adversaries who are seeking their own future state of the world to serve their own interests. Successful grand strategy, then, hinges on knowing the number and identities of these key adversaries, what they want, how they operate, and what damage they can inflict.
In Cold Warsaw Pact Time - that was pretty easy
From the earliest days of the Cold War, American leaders knew full well that there would be only one principal adversary. They knew exactly who it was, where it was, and had pretty good ideas about Soviet interests and ideas. They also knew the threat to American lives and interests was existential. The number and targets of Soviet nuclear missiles left little doubt.
"Cept in the New Millennium...
The post-9/11 threat environment is vastly different. Today, the number, identity, and magnitude of dangers threatening American interests are all wildly uncertain. Exactly how many principal adversaries does Great Satan have? Who are they and what do they want? What could they do to us? These first-order questions are hotly debated by academics and policymakers alike. Is the terrorist threat increasing, decreasing, or plateauing?
What exactly does “the terrorist threat” or the administration’s favorite catchall, “al Qaeda and its associated forces” encompass anyway?
Is China a rising great power rival or a responsible stakeholder?
Where do Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia rank on the adversaries list?
Then there is the magnitude issue: How likely is a “digital Pearl Harbor” that disables strategic nuclear forces or brings down financial institutions, power systems, and other critical infrastructures? What is the probability and potential toll of a biological attack by a state or non-state actor? A nuclear strike?
Nobody really knows. 44's 2010 nuclear posture review concluded that the risk of a global nuclear war has declined, but the risk of any other kind of nuclear attack has increased. Eliminating the possibility of Armageddon still leaves plenty of room to wonder about how bad all these other threats could be.
In the past five years alone, the Director of National Intelligence has declared three #1 threats toGrea Satan's national security: terrorism, the global economic crisis, and cyber vulnerabilities. The Cold War this isn’t. We live in a hazy threat du jour world. This is too much complexity and uncertainty for grand strategy to handle.
If grand strategy is too grand an ambition in the current threat environment and organizational landscape, what can be done?
The first step is obvious but important: Give up on grand strategy. We should strive for what Stephen Krasner calls “orienting principles” - policy ideas that lie between ad hoc reactions to the day’s events and grand visions of how the future should unfold. Orienting principles aren’t glamorous, but they hold out the prospect of something better than foreign policy a la carte or a grand strategy that mis-estimates the threat environment and misunderstands the organizational requirements for success.
In a world of rampant complexity, this is the best we can do.Pic - "Actually, there is a Grand Strategy available..."