This is part one of a mini-series attempting to grapple with US grand strategy and the potential need for its re-assessment. The goal of this series is to introduce readers to grand strategy, ideally prompting more to grapple with US grand strategy and grand strategy more broadly. The author is fleshing out their own ideas, so don’t take the work as gospel, but rather as a starting point for your own journey.

In part one, an overview of the current state of US grand strategy is given. In part two, grand strategy is defined as a concept, a more detailed argument for the need of reassessment is put forth, and resources on grand strategy are listed for interested readers. In part three, four typologies of US grand strategic thought are summarized and contrasted with what US grand strategy has arguably been since the end of WWII. In part four, some general thoughts on the means and ends of reassessing US grand strategy will be described. Additional articles on grand strategy may appear over time.

US Grand Strategy: Primacy

When the US emerged from WWII as the most powerful nation on earth, it chose a radically new grand strategy based upon gaining and maintaining global leadership through hegemony and primacy, as largely laid out in one of the most influential US strategic documents to date: NSC 68.  As this consensus solidified by the 1960s, the grand strategy of primacy had become manifest in, “four interlocking parts”.

Specifically, “to be militarily preponderant; to reassure and contain allies; to integrate other states into U.S.-designed institutions and markets; and to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons”. As Dr. Patrick Porter details, this was pushed for and maintained by the foreign policy establishment, composed of academics, civil servants, and industrialists, creating an orthodoxy of thought and action ever since that has seldom been challenged at the grand strategic level.

Porter states that, “the foreign policy establishment is not monolithic”, at least not quite as much as it once was demographically, but its debates are still, “below the grand strategy level”, not questioning the wisdom of primacy, focusing instead on select means and ends of maintaining primacy. Accordingly, the scope and composition of its discourse have remained narrow, self-selecting, and self-reproducing. This has resulted in relative inflexibility of thought and behavior, and, more strikingly, in the lack of a conscious and coherent reassessment of the grand strategy since the end of the Cold War. Instead we have relied primarily on a habituated range of “common sense”, in the form of received knowledge and unexamined assumptions of foreign policy.

The “Unipolar Moment”

If the end of WWII was the beginning of US economic primacy and a bi-polar world, the end of the Cold War was the beginning of US political and military primacy and a triumph of its vision of empire over that of the Soviet Union’s. With the Cold War’s end, the US unipolar moment began, if only in the rhetoric, emotions, and the logic driving its foreign policies. Running on this high, and turbocharged by 9/11, US foreign policy debates and actions suffered from triumphalism and a focus on hard, particularly resource and military based conceptualizations of power, embodying a failed power conversion strategy. At the height of the unipolar moment, the international liberal world order was effectively its own state, and a failed one at that, containing the seeds of its own destruction.

Throughout history, and particularly over the last 20 years, US foreign policy has ignored or under-utilized other forms of power, particularly soft and smart power, and what would later be termed “just” power. Its leaders have also ignored their own advice concerning humility and overextension. This avoidable imbalance has decreased US power in relative and absolute terms, and undermined its four grand strategy objectives. Further, this has left the world, the US particularly, vulnerable to great power competition via sharp power, authoritarian backsliding (see: 1 and 2), and negative reactions to free trade policies (see: 1, 2, and 3).

What Reassessment Requires

Eisenhower and George W. Bush alike recognized the detrimental impacts overzealous and militarized foreign policy could have. The US has also long minimized warnings concerning the impacts of the Washington Consensus driven inequality. Too often the US has chosen to support illiberal regimes over democracy and human rights. For too long the US has ignored long lasting threats such as climate change. Most importantly, the US has failed to ensure the security, liberty, and prosperity of US and global citizens alike – forgetting that these are the foundations of US primacy and thus should underlay ways, means, and ends of US foreign policy.

The US had and has the knowledge and ability to avoid these pitfalls while investing our soft, sharp, smart, just, and hard powers much more efficiently and effectively in either context. Failing to critically re-examine US grand strategy, in terms of its four traditional goals, as well as in terms of the threats posed by climate change, emerging technologies, and the international political economy, threatens not just US primacy, but also its very nature and existence. In short, though the creation and maintenance of this world-state and its sub-states have significantly benefited the US, its costs have intensified the odds of the US becoming a weak or failed state itself (see: 1, 2, 3, and 4).  

The world has changed significantly since the US conceived of its post-WWII grand strategy. As Dr. Hal Brand and others have emphasized, for a state, particularly a great power, to avoid confusion and overextension, it must periodically reassess at least the sub-components of its grand strategy, if not the grand strategy itself. As Porter demonstrates, the US has not meaningfully done this, and, as a result, since the Cold War it has increasingly fell victim to a combination of overly ambitious, short sighted, and contradictory pursuits. If the US is to avoid this fate, the US must reassess if it will continue pursuing its grand strategy of primacy. If it chooses to continue, it must holistically reassess its ways, means, and ends of doing so.

Edited by Sam Fenton

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