We’ll start at the highest plane of strategy and work our way down. Since the “official posts” on this blog started with the political objectives of warmaking, grand strategy fits into that discussion naturally.
The grand strategy of any combatant includes the core interests and goals, which then guide the general thrust of what the government or group does as a whole. Grand strategy might sound like an extremely vague concept, but if you look at a few case studies, you can see that its contours are actually quite distinct.
Ancient Rome’s grand strategy, for example, consisted of the following components:
- Rome, either as an empire or a republic, saw itself surrounded by hostile powers, including some at an equivalent level of civilization, but also many barbarians.
- Rome could conquer its “great power” rivals, from the weak (Ptolemaic Egypt) to the strong (Carthage).
- Rome seized territories where barbarians were currently settled, but it could not eliminate the barbarian threat altogether (particularly given the frequent barbarian migrations from regions far out of Rome’s reach).
- In the process of making these conquests, Rome incorporated these new provinces into its political, administrative, economic, and even religious structures. From granting Roman citizenship to the elites of newly-conquered peoples to incorporating their gods into the list of officially recognized cults, the Romans gave their former enemies a stake in the defending the ever-growing Roman domain.
- Conquests provided the slaves needed to sustain the Roman economy, and many conquered territories, such as the grain-rich Nile valley, provided other economic benefits.
- The force needed to maintain security, the legions, could be deployed permanently on the borders, or held in reserve to react to any incursions by barbarians (like the Goths) or civilized rivals (like the Parthians). The legions were supplemented by auxiliary troops from conquered peoples (slingers from the Balaeric islands, cavalry from the Sarmatians, etc.), again integrating Rome’s conquest quickly into the imperium.
It was a brilliant formula that worked for centuries, until Rome reached the limits of its expansion. Rome depended on conquests for fresh supplies of slaves; otherwise, the cheap labor the slaves provided became increasingly expensive, upsetting the assumptions under which the entire Roman economy was based. In the late empire, this formula—Rome’s grand strategy—had to change. Rather than focusing on conquest, Rome instead pursued a new policy of turning control of its provinces over to the barbarian leaders oath-bound to Rome. Re-interpreted pieces of Roman law provided a sugar coating for this process of contraction and retrenchment.
The grand strategy of the United States during the Cold War was also easy to define. The mobilizations needed to fight the Axis powers gave both the United States and the Soviet Union new strength on the world stage. At the same time, the war created a European power vacuum previously filled by other great powers—England, France, and Germany—now devastated by the war. American and Soviet power filled that vacuum. According to many historians of the Cold War, the frictions of these two new superpowers were as natural as those between Athens and Sparta (as Thucydides observed, the inevitable rivalry between a great land power and a great sea power). The ideological conflict between democratic capitalism and totalitarian socialism deepened the conflict. The introduction of nuclear weapons made the mutual anxieties absolute.
The United States, therefore, had a clear grand strategy to pursue:
- Continue the traditional pursuit of American prosperity, liberty, and security.
- To protect security, the United States must prevent a nuclear war.
- To preserve prosperity and liberty, and to keep the balance of power from tipping in the wrong direction, the United States must contain Soviet political and military expansion. The Iron Curtain, therefore, could not move one inch further into Europe.
- As George Kennan famously argued in the X telegram, the United States then had to play the waiting game. Eventually, the Soviet Union would implode from its own “internal contradictions” (to borrow a bit of Marxist terminology), and the Cold War would come to an end.
Different presidents tinkered with the details of American containment strategy, and certainly they fought this conflict at the lower levels of strategy in different ways. However, policies as different as Eisenhower’s New Look and Kennedy’s flexible response differed never really challenged the grand strategy of containment.
Grand strategy for Rome explains how the Romans defined their interests and responded to threats. If you’re curious why the Romans bothered to invade the British Isles, but looking at the grand strategy of Rome, it made sense. Grand strategy for the United States during the Cold war helped the nation adapt to important changes like the Chinese Revolution, and then later, the Sino-Soviet split. Whatever happened in Asia, the same grand strategic principles applied.
As a vessel of important strategic decisions that needs to be filled, grand strategy has a definite shape and purpose. What may not be altogether clear, however, is if anyone has bothered to fill this vessel.
Many foreign policy analysts like John Lewis Gaddis and John Mearsheimer said, in the 1990s, that we would miss the Cold War. Given the constant nuclear threat under which Americans had lived for generations, that was a shocking statement to make. Their point, stated provocatively, was that Americans would miss the clarity of the Cold War. No one really struggled to understand the correct grand strategy for dealing with the Soviet threat; grand strategy in the new, post-Cold War age was a lot harder to figure out.
It might even be fair to say that, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States had no grand strategy. If we use the terms national security and grand strategy interchangeably, which would be fair to do, the national security policy of the Bush and Clinton presidencies didn’t clearly define what national security really meant. Both Administrations tried to sell a new national security policy to the American public, but it’d be hard to make a convincing case that they succeeded. (In fact, I’d argue that the lack of a national security policy helped Clinton win the 1992 election. Bush may have won the Gulf War, but it didn’t seem like a great victory in an even larger struggle.)
Events conspired against Bush and Clinton. After the recession of the early Nineties, the United States enjoyed a level of prosperity that didn’t inspire much insecurity. Neither did the minor conflicts in the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, and elsewhere. These seemed like the “little wars” of the 19th and early 20th centuries: however well or poorly we handled these affairs, they seemed clearly peripheral to us, easily kept at arms length from anything really vital. The one major conflict that did threaten our core interests, the war with Iraq, was such a seemingly easy victory for the United States and its allies that we believed we could rest on our superpower laurels, having established the supremacy of American military power. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center didn’t succeed, and two years later, the Oklahoma City bombing made terrorism seem like an unavoidable part of both international and domestic politics—worth policing, but not worth elevating to a higher level of threat. Until 9/11, terrorists did not replace the Soviets as the new enemy.
According to many analysts, 9/11 forced clarity on us. We suddenly realized our blind spot for a very serious threat. International terrorist groups like al Qaeda could hurt our core national interests, of which the security of life and limb was the most basic. At the same time, we breathed a collective sigh of relief that the attack wasn’t worse than it already was. Americans realized that hijackers could have hit a target of supreme economic, military, or political importance, such as the White House—and, if they had been even luckier, more people could have died.
As I’ve argued earlier, 9/11 made us angrier, but it didn’t necessarily make us smarter. Because we feel that 9/11 forces us to have a better grand strategy, doesn’t mean that we do. National security, as someone once famously observed, merely identifies what makes us feel insecure. We can easily misidentify the things that should inspire insecurity (as we did with terrorism), or we may feel too much or too little of this emotion.
Some consensus about the new American notion of national security has formed, and I do think it makes sense at its most basic level. This new grand strategy looks something like this:
- As we did at the beginning of the Cold War, we must continue our traditional quest for American prosperity, liberty, and security.
- Unfortunately, the very things that make modern societies like ours highly successful—openness, mobility, communications, interdependence—also make them vulnerable. Just as the New York blackout in the Seventies showed how the failure of one moving part, the electrical grid, could bring all the machinery of modern society to a standstill, a deliberate attack on some part could threaten everything and everyone.
- Anti-American terrorist groups seriously threaten us. They understand our vulnerabilities as well as we do.
- The very nature of these groups—tied to no place in particular, clever and ruthless, organized in ways that make it difficult to assault them root and branch—make it imperative that we devote more attention to them.
- Given the terrorists’ modus operandi, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t use “unconventional weapons”—nuclear, chemical, and biological—if possible. The Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on the Tokyo subway is, according to this view, the harbinger of worse things to come.
- Therefore, the United States needs to move quickly, not just to contain or eliminate terrorist groups. but to deprive them of these doomsday weapons.
We can debate all these points, but for sake of this discussion, I’m going to take them as a given. If these points define the new US grand strategy, whatever we do at the lower levels of strategy have to conform to these guidelines. Whether they do, of course, will be the subject of the next several postings.