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Published on: December 2, 2013
Grand Strategy
The End of History Ends

For the first time since the Cold War, the United States is going to have to adopt a coherent Eurasian strategy that integrates European, Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian policy into a comprehensive design.

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  • Maynerd

    Once again the “elites” fail the country:

    The financial meltdown of 2008, trillion dollar deficits & quantitative easing til the end of time, Obama’s feckless foreign policy, health care “reform”, & of course immigration “reform” (thankfully pending).

    It’s all rather depressing. Back to ESPN I go.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    Not this president. Furthermore, considering our financial weakness, perhaps no president ever again.

    • Jim__L

      We’re still dealing with yesteryear’s political conventional wisdom. The “Imperial Overstretch” thesis is dead. What kills Great Powers nowadays is Domestic Overstretch — an over-ambitious welfare state that bankrupts the nation. Worse, Domestic Overstretch makes a deliberate effort to destroy people’s self-reliance, hamstringing attempts to turn things around.

      That’s our challenge for this generation — effectively combat Domestic Overstretch. It’s not going to be easy, S.C., but hopefully it isn’t impossible. This article hints at the stakes. We can’t afford to lose.

  • rheddles

    A really smart guy thought up a short hand to help abbreviate this type of discussion. In this case, When the Wilsonians get the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians on their side America gets screwed until the Jacksonians wake up. So the Chicom, Ayatollah and Putin axis has three years to run wild.

    Obama has chosen dishonor.

    • Brendan Doran

      America isn’t getting screwed by Iran, China, Russia. America is getting screwed by an insane Wilson, a bankrupt Hamilton, a Jefferson steeped in Vice.

      And we’re awake.

      • TokyoTengu

        Not sufficiently at this point, but I will grant that more people seem to be waking up.

    • Jim__L

      Bluntly, we’re seeing what happens when you slash the defense budget for the sake of domestic priorities.

      We need another Reagan. Or, considering the problem is our Credentialed Elites, another Andrew Jackson.

  • Anthony

    This is a superficially interesting essay. It lacks any clear prescriptions. The only implicit point seems to be that we need to invade Syria. Does Professor Mead really believe that invading Syria would somehow deter China? Dream on.

    Since he wants foreign policy makers to get serious, here is an interesting question that Mead should chew on. What happens if China seeks to take Taiwan by force? Jacksonians will undoubtedly call for war to defend the honor of the nation, but the business community will counsel non interference.

    • Anthony

      Here is a more interesting essay from Pat Buchanan, a person I usually have little in common with. Elites in America continue to believe that a richer China will be a more peaceful China in spite of growing evidence that this is not going to be the case.

      “Does America fear facing down China because a political and economic collision with Beijing would entail an admission by the United States that our vision of a world of democratic nations all engaged in peaceful free trade under a rules-based regime was a willful act of self-delusion?”

      “Stop Feeding the Tiger.”

      http://buchanan.org/blog/time-to-stop-feeding-the-tiger-5605

      • AD_Rtr_OS

        “…a world of democratic nations all engaged in peaceful free trade under a rules-based regime…”

        Since China is neither democratic, or observant of those rules, we have only conflict to look forward to.

      • circleglider

        You’ve answered your question.

        Professor Mead will never allow himself or his ideas to be associated with Pat Buchanan. Look for many, many more posts that fail to reach any clear conclusions.

      • Jim__L

        Having read some of WRM’s books — and many of his posts here, on Iran / Russia / China — the “vision of a world of democratic nations all in engaged in peaceful free trade under a rules-based regime” is not so much a “willful act of self-delusion” but a goal known to be difficult to achieve, and to be planned out and fought for to the utmost of our abilities.

        • Anthony

          It looks like China isn’t getting more peaceful. This is what realists have been predicting for years, but commercial elites haven’t wanted to hear the message. They still don’t

          • Jim__L

            The idea that getting them started on peaceful trade would automatically make them peaceful was a fantasy, only made reality by the circumstances of the US’s overwhelming military advantages.

            Those advantages are being deliberately and systematically wiped out by a feckless administration. I suspect that if we can change Congress in 2014 and the White House in 2016, we’ll be able to pull it out. If not, my generation may find that the disappearance of Medicare is the least of our worries…

  • Anthony

    WRM, incisive and comprehensive overview of probabilities, options, actions, and geopolitical realities (I am still digesting essay’s thrust).

    • catorenasci

      But he supported Obama….

  • Palinurus

    As is most evident in the comments about Kennan and Kissinger, this essay, while a brilliant discussion of virtues of a realism-inflected grand theory, underestimates the enduring obstacles to its realization.

    While the Whiggism deplored by Kennan and Kissinger might be uniquely American, a penchant for moralism and legalism in foreign policy is not. These reflexes flow instead from the ambiguous, troubling nature of power: its zero-sum, cut-throat fierceness; its roots in crime, brutality, and cynical compromises, and the need for more of the same in its exercise and preservation; and its need to navigate a world of trade offs, unintended consequences, and unpredictable circumstances. One exercising power quickly finds himself in a moral and historical no-mans land, tasked with finding his way through a stormy and trackless sea.

    What is needed is a sort of Keatsian negative capability: the capability of being in moral and intellectual uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, and even damnation, without any irritable reaching for or despairing of salvation or simplicity. What happens instead, as Machiavelli taught, is that most men grasp for the direction, certainty, and moral affirmation offered by rules, both moral and legal. Unless properly formulated, grand strategy runs the risk of offering an illusion of coherence, certainty, and justification no less blinding than those of legal or moral principles. Ironically, if memory serves, WRM has in other posts made this very charge against the grand theory he teased out of Obama’s foreign policy.

    What the examples of Kennan and Kissinger show is the need for deftly giving due deference to moralism and legalism even as one avoids their dangers. Foreign policy must be run through large bureaucracies; these institutions require rules and guidelines to function. One of Kennan’s major failings was his inability or unwillingness to make his theories of containment, not just academically brilliant, but also bureaucracy-friendly.

    Kissinger’s example is a reminder that foreign policy is ultimately subject to domestic policy. The American people will demand at least the appearance in any grand theory of a certain degree of justice and comprehensibility (i.e., simplicity and short-term gains). Kissinger was comfortable with the moral ambiguity of power and the three-dimensional chess of geopolitics; the American people — his boss, or his boss’s boss — were not. And his example shows that you flout the sensibilities of the American people at your peril. Kissinger’s unabashedly realistic grand theory got him labelled a war criminal by the left, and an appeaser by the right.

    • Anthony

      Palinurus, excellent brief and reference to John Keats’ negative capability as part of any policy strategy is advise to the wise.

    • Man pippy

      Philosopher kings are fanciful and 95% of the U.S population believes in magic. Clearly strategy from the U.S bureaucracy is limited and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

  • qet

    It cannot be said too often: our current foreign policy brain trust’s horizon extends no farther than the door to the university lecture hall. Spengler knew well their predecessors in 1922: “Their success means the historical abdication of the nation in favor, not of everlasting peace, but of another nation. World peace is always a one-sided affair.”

    And once more the immortal words of that Bismarck of our time–Samantha Power–bear repeating, as an object lesson and cautionary tale for future generations: “Our judgment was: Brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work.”

  • keithpridgeon

    5 to 7 years before we are engaged in a major war with China and Iran.Russia still has enough internal strife to keep it out of the conflict.If we still have a weak willed appeasement minded president and give them 10 years or more we have lost as they will have gained the high ground (space) and we will most likely be defeated.

  • bscook111

    In the thirties Germany was a weak opportunistic feeder also. Great Britain acted then toward Germany as we are now with Iran, and much for the same reasons, and much with the same weasly rhetoric. WWI began in a not too different manner. It seems history teaches that political weaselry comes at a very high price. Our last three decades of small time low grade conflicts ought not to be confused with the major conflagration in the offing in Asia.

    • Micha_Elyi

      I disagree with your claim about WWI.

  • Guest

    Excellent essay. However, I would like to add that some neo-isolationists on the right realize withdrawal will not permit the United States to “safeguard its essential interests at low cost.” Unfortunately, withdrawal is unavoidable. The American left has created facts on the ground domestically which effectively marginalize conservatives as part of the “transformation of America.” There is a much darker view which requires acknowledgment that our energies must be focused on the internal struggle between the American left and the American right.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “The Central Powers have been punching above their weight, largely as a result of the absence of a serious counter-policy by the United States.”

    They wouldn’t be able to do this if the Obama Administration wasn’t so weak and incompetent.

  • Anthony

    “Sometime in 2013, we reached a new stage in world history…call the challengers the Central Powers; they hate and fear one another as much as they loathe the current geopolitical order… For a full generation we have not had to think too much about whether something done or undone in foreign policy promotes or endangers our vital interests and the security and prosperity of the American people.”

    Changing dynamic/configuration (Central Powers) and United States strategic response thereto seems to be core of essay’s thrust; realism, accepting outside world as it is sans moral and legal philosophical underpinning, complements essay’s premise. WRM seems to imply that Wilsonianism (activist U.S. role in world to spread American values of Democracy and Human Rights) must now in 2013 be reevaluated vis-a-vis foreign policy execution. Yet our history is replete with both personalities and policies reflective of U.S. reexamination regarding matters beyond our shores since and before Monroe Doctrine.

    Then as now, geopolitics connotes hard power, concerned as it is with the struggle over control of geographic space (Maritime Powers – Central Powers). Essay implies going forward, U.S. foreign policy cannot be centered on (if it ever has been) humanistic/legalistic principles but contextually aligned with National geopolitical interests especially given power drives of Central Powers. Further, essay infers current U.S. administration lacks a grand strategy in geopolitical context, instead focusing on every issue separately as it pivots east (what Adam Garfinkle calls juke and jive foreign policy design). Nevertheless, unsaid but definitely an implication is that power is neither created or destroyed; power is transformed and transferred. The Central Powers (as WRM describes them) apparently understand this and, when opportunity avails, grab power from those with more as well as grab from those with less (Syria, Ukraine, China Seas).

    The end of history remains a part of the evolving whole as specific mores constitute the playing field of power. Summarily, “A rudderless US foreign policy is no response to a resurgent and neo-authoritarian Russia flexing its geopolitical muscle” and a rising China in the Pacific as well as a surging regional Iran – that essentially is WRM advocacy.

  • Nick Bidler

    Shorter version: ‘world peace’ only exists as long as one actor can force all others to do as it wants. As soon as Victory is declared, a new war is started between the old champion and a different set of players.

    even shorter: the sword of Damocles remains.

  • Brendan Doran

    We had a compelling interest the first half of the 20th century in preventing the fall of Great Britain and Europe, Asia to the Central Powers and Fascism. We had a compelling interest in the second half in preventing the fall of the world to communism. What is our compelling interest now in being the Global Slumlord?

    I am one of those Jacksonians, you remember we do the heavy lifting. If the professoriate wishes to play Game of Thrones they can form Zouave regiments of their debt serf students and go forth. General Jellybelly can lead them into the Levant, I’ve been in that neighborhood repeatedly, do enjoy.

    We have a compelling interest in getting America solvent and well governed, mostly less governed. We have a compelling interest in rebuilding our manufacturing base. We seem to be meeting enormous obstacles in accomplishing this, the very people who drove us into penury in the first place. But they always have time for wars, as long as they don’t have to fight.

    And above all we have a compelling interest in removing the yoke of insane academic pyschopaths who think America is both a test bed and a tool for them to test their models.

    I would hazard that soon enough you’ll be hearing from Jacksonian America, but not as willing cannon fodder.

  • Jim

    Summary – Obama is stupid, pathetic, and weak. The wolves are coming

    • TokyoTengu

      Succinctly put. You win the Internet.

  • justin bristow

    This essay is outstanding. Brilliant from beginning to end.

    If more US students of foreign policy were proficient in Russian and Chinese and drew their material from Russian and Chinese think tanks all of this would be self evident to them. Why? The Russian and Chinese foreign policy establishments have wholeheartedly embraced geopolitics as the essence and purpose of foreign policy.

    Too often American students of foreign policystudy the languages of allies or rely on English language or West friendly news sources for their interpretation of international relations. They end up seeing the world they created reflected back to them and use it to justify their pre-conceived perceptions.

    Commenters here lament the lack of policy prescriptions but thats not the problem. Policy prescriptions already exist but the American public and elite do not accept them because they do not see the world the way our adversaries see it.

    The best analogy here is France vs. Germany 1919-1940. The problem for France was immediately apparent to observers at the time in 1940. France didn’t lack for instruments of power. In fact, during the vast majority of those 21 years France was stronger or equal to Germany in almost every conceivable strategic area from diplomacy to economy, to military forces and technology. Yet those raw measures of power were upended and obliterated in the span of just 4 years from 1936 to 1940. The writers at the time knew why- lack of national will. The French were too focused on domestic politics and scared to death of war, which they considered only wasteful.

    Looking at the comments hereis depressing. It is clear that our national will to play the game has been sapped just as China and Russia are rip roaring and ready to go.

    The world turns, and history waits for no nation to build the perfect society government etc. before rudely intervening.

  • John Morris

    And again the true depth of the problem is willfully looked away from.

    The problem isn’t that Obama is out of his depth. Or incompetent. Or stupid. He is intentionally weakening America by strengthening our enemies. Because he believes, despite our electing him (because he knows it was a con), that America is irredeemably wicked and tainted, and therefore must be removed from the world stage.

  • Jim__L

    Please dig in a little deeper to the role of Leaks in the damage America has taken this year. Our enemies know more than ever about what we know and how we know it, and how to hide from us what they don’t want us to know.

    Add to this an administration that likes to think, consider, ponder, ruminate, analyze, ad infinitum before making anything remotely resembling a decision (oh, the horrors of shooting from the hip like Bush!), and consider how that approach is complicated by a degradation in our capacity to detect early signs (or any sign at all!) of important developments.

  • Charles Austin

    Clear thinking and prudent action… I’m sorry, but didn’t you vote for this guy? Twice?

  • Homple

    “As the End of History Ends, Strategy Must Return”

    It would be nice to hear from the learned among us the details of the strategy that must return.

    • catorenasci

      The Balance of Power
      The Eastern Question
      The Great Game
      Naval Supremacy

      • Homple

        Could you provide a little bit more detail about items 1-3? I thought The Great Game stopped about the time Kipling did.

        As for item 4, we have naval supremacy right now and are absolutely incapable of doing anything with it.

        • catorenasci

          A little bit of an ‘inside historical’ reference to the pillars of British Imperial foreign policy: the balance of power was the notion that no nation could dominate the European land mass (and subsidiarily – known as the Mouth of the Scheldt question – no great power could control the low countries); the Eastern Question referred to the dying Ottman Emprire and the control of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus – meaning keeping same out of Russian hands; the Great Game refers – as you note – to the issue of Russian expansion into Southwest Asia, which, most decidedly did not end at the beginning of the 20th century and was a lively one in the late 20th with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; Naval Supremacy – also known as freedom of the seas – was the fundamental British policy that the Royal Navy must be twice as large as the next two naval power combined, which could not be achieved after the introduction of the Dreadnought.

  • Mike55_Mahoney

    I would not normally challenge WRM. Crow with mud isn’t on my staple list of edibles. However, he wants his audience to get all worked up over some rocks and an outhouse pit. These so called Central Powers can have them. Japan and China have this save face game they play in their cultures that leads to bloodshed over hurt feelings. I say as long as these rocks aren’t militarized or used as gateways to formerly international sea traffic, who cares? As for the outhouse pit in the middle east, as long as they don’t go monkey on anyone and fling it, who cares? And don’t tell me ignoring these places will lead to war. ANY response we make has that potential.

  • elHombre

    This is an excellent piece. I fear, however, that WRM is slightly delusional about America’s preeminence. The combination of the Obama/Clinton/Kerry ineptitude in geopolitics and the perpetuation of our economic woes suggest that we are washed up as THE superpower.

  • xbox361

    Foreign policy is hard!
    Looks like the smartest guy in the room is not the wisest.

    Mr. Mead, America has not a care in the world. That’s why we can vote for a community organizer with a cool name.
    Sure hope it works out well.

  • teapartydoc

    If there’s on thing to be learned from reading Algernon Sidney, it is that any form of government is capable of producing imbecilic leadership. Need I say more?

  • Bankotsu

    “…the absence of a serious counter-policy by the United States…”

    I thought U.S. already had a strategy with NATO expansion, ABM system and pivot to asia?

    War on terror, invasion of Iraq, getting rid of regimes like Libya etc, all were part of the U.S. strategy of primacy.

  • Anthony

    Changing dynamic/configuration (Central Powers) and United States response thereto seems to be core of essay’s thrust; realist view of geopolitics, accepting outside world and its power drives and interests as fact sans moral and legal philosophical underpinning, complements essay’s premise. WRM seems to imply that Wilsonianism (activist U.S. role in world to spread American values of Democracy and Human Rights) must now in 2013 be reevaluated vis-a-vis foreign policy execution. Yet our history is replete with both personalities and policies reflective of U.S. reexamination regarding matters beyond our shores since and before the Monroe Doctrine.

    Then as now, geopolitics connotes hard power, concerned as it is with the struggle over control of geographic space )Maritime Powers – Central Powers). Essay implies going forward, U.S. foreign policy cannot be centered on (if it ever has been) humanistic/legalistic principles but contextually aligned with National geopolitical interests especially given power drives of Central Powers. Further, essay infers current U.S. administration lacks a grand strategy in geopolitical context, instead focusing on every issue separately as it pivots east (what Adam Garfinkle calls juke and jive foreign policy design). Nevertheless, unsaid but definitely an implication is that power is neither created nor destroyed; power is transformed and transferred. The Central Powers (as WRM describes them) apparently understand this and, when opportunity avails, grab power from those with more as well as grab from those with less (i.e. Syria, Ukraine, South China Sea).

    The end of history remains a part of the evolving whole as specific mores constitute the playing field of power. Power as in a breeder reactor churns centripetally as ends pursued forge new means; and means available fission new ends. In connection, a National will must not be misdirected vis-a-vis importance of geopolitical power dynamics. Summarily, “a rudderless US foreign policy is no response to a resurgent and neo-authoritarian Russia flexing its geopolitical muscle” and a rising China in the Pacific as well as a surging regional Iran – that essentially is essay’s tthrust.

  • stevewfromford

    Deeply debt ridden countries make poor warriors.

  • hariknaidu

    Zero-Sum game belonged to the post-1945 Cold War period. Your basic assumptions are false and contradictory, and history will tell actually how wrong your thinking is, in fact.
    Now @ +75, I’ve dealt with old Sino-Soviet and Sino-Indian Conflict paradigm which, as you notice today, has shifted markedly.
    US foreign policy, if that’s what your are complaining about, can best be understood (even) today by diligently reading the Report of the Viet Nam War Hearings by Senator Fulbright. It’s quite relevant today!
    The current non-WASP Blackman in WH doesn’t come with the baggage of former Waspish Anglo-American leaders. The current thrust of his policy framework is the economic and social inequality in America – which btw is getting worse since the financial meltdown, in 2008.
    Contradictions in society, as you must understand, are the genesis of conflict and revolution. Mainland China was a good example under Kuomintang and Czarist Russia prior to Russian Revolution.
    America has changed inordinately towards worst-case inequality, and, if current socio-economic developments are allowed to get worse, the scenario will finally emerge when demographic changes will inevitably thwart – arrest – not only US power abroad but also at home.

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