What Good Is Grand Strategy?: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. BushCornell University Press, 288 pp., $29.95
Back in late fall of 2004, when I asked Thomas Shannon, then my boss at the National Security Council, whether the Bush Administration had developed a grand strategy, he responded with: “Grand strategy? Hell, when have you ever seen even strategy around here?” Presently the counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, Shannon did not mean to zing the Bush Administration; instead, he was pointing to the inescapable (and open) secret that even at the highest levels the day-to-day formulation of American foreign policy is often reactive and counterproductive. And as the young diplomatic historian Hal Brands shows in his excellent and timely book What Good is Grand Strategy?, while endemic in Washington yesterday and today, this sort of “ad hoc-ism” is the antithesis of grand strategy, or what he calls a country’s “intellectual architecture” integrating its interests, resources, threats, and policies.In a departure from what Henry Kissinger would like us to believe about a great nation’s master statesman who drives global events (or at least, about Kissinger himself), Brands writes that even the rarefied stratum of grand strategy involves a “potent mixture” of policymakers’ emotions, ideology, and past experience. Brands also refreshingly reminds us that grand strategy must be well developed, but not necessarily formalized or public, given that countries can have all sorts of reasons for keeping this consequential thinking hush-hush.The United States’ ostensible golden age of grand strategy began when the country found itself in an entirely different strategic posture after its military victory ended World War II and ushered in the atomic age. By early 1946, Harry Truman’s concern about the peace of the world became increasingly tied to his awareness that the Soviet Union represented an existential threat, most acutely in Europe. In the American President’s reckoning, “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language, another war is in the making…. I do not think we should play compromise any longer.” Brands rightly clarifies that, contrary to what is often remembered, the strategy of containment did not emerge fully developed from George Kennan’s imagination; it was an concept that had to be fleshed out amid a host of crises. The first of these came in 1947 when the prostrate Western Europe was, to quote Winston Churchill, a “rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate.” By 1948, the U.S.-led defense pact, the Marshall Plan, and the Berlin Airlift signaled Washington’s willingness to defend Western Europe “at the Rhine.”As Brands tells the story, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 solidified Truman’s belief that “communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now used armed invasion and war.” The global Cold War was on. Truman’s not-illogical conclusion was that the Korea debacle proved containment could not be done on the cheap. In fiscal year 1951, the final military budget of over $40 billion was more than double what had been initially requested. The following year it was $56.9 billion. Yet, Brands contends, while a muscular containment policy had its time and place, this same aggressive outlook led to the pursuit not only of real threats but also of imagined ones, such as the “dead-end colonial conflict” in Indochina. Even Truman came to see this, saying in 1952, “Our resources are not inexhaustible. We can’t go on like this.” Yet, as seen during the Vietnam War and in the military-industrial complex that continues in our national security state era, we very much continue to go on like this.Taking office in early 1969, President Nixon had the bad luck of governing at time when containment was in deep crisis. Most visibly and painfully demonstrated by the quagmire in Vietnam, America’s burgeoning number of internal divisions was undermining its postwar hegemony. In 1968 Kissinger acknowledged, “We require a new burst of creativity.” The former Harvard scholar served as Nixon’s national security advisor from 1969–1975 and as Secretary of State from 1973–77, serving under Ford after Nixon’s resignation. Both Nixon and his ubiquitous and controversial foreign policy advisor believed that the United States could transcend its relative decline by imposing its will on the world. Both men concluded that Lyndon Johnson had gambled American prestige on a “small peninsula on a major continent” in the mistaken belief that Washington should uphold an unbroken containment perimeter.Dismissive of the untidy democracy impeding their “long view” machinations, Nixon and Kissinger accumulated a sizable—and, to many, worrisome—concentration of power in the White House. Both men believed foreign policy was too critical to be left to a “self-interested bureaucracy” and that toughness and credibility were indispensible. Nonetheless, and of special significance for Brands’s story, they also acknowledged the boundaries of American power and influence. Likely the most self-aware practitioner of grand strategy of those profiled in the book, Kissinger was eager to “rescue an element of choice form the pressure of circumstance.”Using logic that underpinned a set of policies known as détente, Nixon and Kissinger’s central approach entailed a more “sustainable relationship” with its global rival the Soviet Union. Kissinger recalled, “We were determined to resist Soviet adventures; at the same time we were prepared to negotiate about a genuine ceasing of tensions….We would pursue a carrot-and-stick approach, ready to impose penalties for adventurism, willing to expand relations in the context of responsible behavior.” For all its failings, Brands argues, détente reduced friction between the superpowers and provided a “a much-needed breather for a [United States] suffering from strategic exhaustion.” Given that Washington in the 1960s had been “groaning under the weight of containing two powerful rivals,” Brands agrees that Sino-American rapprochement was a “grand strategic coup of the first order” that fundamentally shifted the Cold War lineup. Now it was the Soviets who had to bear the weight of two against one. Or, as Mao told Kissinger, “We can work together to commonly deal with a bastard.”Nixon and Kissinger’s grand strategy ran into a growing backlash against the imperial presidency that had started under Nixon’s Democratic predecessor. Liberals had turned more dovish amid the torment of Vietnam while conservatives and neoconservatives learned the opposite lesson and became more hawkish. By the time he was Ford’s Secretary of State, Kissinger’s cold-blooded realpolitik led him to tell an Argentine diplomat representing a junta in the beginnings of unleashing a dirty war against its own people, “I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported.” For Kissinger, repression was disagreeable, but instability was worse. Like Nixon, Kissinger considered human rights advocacy to be “sentimental nonsense” at a time when Moscow was gaining a strategic advantage. As he told Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s foreign minister, “The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry….Because there were not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State.”In 1976, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan also attacked détente. Yet unlike Jimmy Carter with his moral condemnation, Reagan believed the Kissinger’s approach abdicated America’s moral standing vis-à-vis an axiomatically evil foe. Brands claims that Reagan’s reputation for superficiality was itself superficial; the former governor of California had little sense for policy minutiae but possessed “sharp geopolitical instincts.” As one aide quipped, “He can sift out what matters from ten thousand bureaucratic details in a remarkable manner.”For Brands, Reagan’s grand strategy was based on one central premise: that the Russians were simultaneously strong militarily (in part due to détente-era naivety that saw Washington fall behind in the arms race) and weak economically and morally. In the President’s imagining, “The Soviet Union is economically on the ropes—they are selling rat meat on the market. This is the time to punish them.” Why, Reagan wondered, had the Soviets obtained Western loans and technology under détente but escaped censure for their “abhorrent internal practices”? As he put it, “Are we not helping a Godless tyranny maintain its hold on millions of helpless people? Wouldn’t those helpless victims have a better chance of becoming free if their slave masters’ regime collapsed economically?” Thus, given that its Cold War prospects had bottomed out and Soviet power was ascendant, the United States needed to up the (largely military) heat on its adversary. Reagan thus embarked upon a Truman-like military buildup: the defense budget leaped from $185 billion in 1980 to $320 billion a few years later.Reagan matched his material escalation with an equally aggressive and unapologetic moral war. The West would contain communism, he predicted, and moreover “it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to…denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” But according to Brands, Reagan was not eager to see the Cold War continue, despite his strident rhetoric and military buildup. In April 1981, for example, he lifted the grain embargo established after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.Brands is convinced that Reagan presided over a remarkable improvement in America’s “geopolitical fortunes.” At the end of his second term the Soviets were on the defensive, “retreating on virtually all fronts”, as both sides openly acknowledged the end of the Cold War. In a disinterested and nuanced analysis often lacking in the study of Reagan’s legacy, Brands speculates that Reagan’s grand strategy did not cause the Soviet crisis but did allow Washington to “exploit its geopolitical effects.”Brands adds that Reagan benefitted from the good fortune of being president at a time when the post-Vietnam American psyche had begun to heal, profound problems in the Soviet model had emerged, and an “entirely different sort of leader”, namely Gorbachev, had come to power in Moscow. Brands adds that Reagan’s sky-is-the-limit spending strategy no doubt succeeded in straining the Soviet economy but, when combined with domestic tax cuts, “exerted great pressure on American finances as well.”Given that foreign policy had become a secondary issue for most of the American public in the post-Cold War era, it was not especially surprising when Republican candidate George W. Bush promised he would take a modest approach to the world. The quiet and seemingly non-ideological decisions of the first months of his presidency suggested that Bush’s grand strategy was intentionally not very grand. Yet within days of September 11, the Bush Administration was talking about enduring military dominance, preemptive and unilateral strikes against “gathering threats,” and treating rogue states pursuing weapons of mass destruction “as no less a menace than terrorism.” For Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the post-September 11 moment offered the United States the “the kind of opportunities that World War II offered, to refashion much of the world.”For Brands, what this post-September 11 maximalist grand strategy entailed, however, was an “unapologetically hegemonic” approach to the world underpinned by a “boundless faith” in the U.S. military’s efficacy. The new, muscular Bush doctrine appeared to have started out stunningly well given the lightning operations that defeated the Taliban and dispersed al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the initial overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003.The linchpin of this strategy, of course, was the invasion of Iraq. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein recast the strategic outlook of the Middle East and beyond in one masterful stroke, “opening the door to a new era of global freedom and U.S. influence.” Brands points out that America’s invasion was not a “precooked conspiracy,” and moreover is not convinced that the democracy promotion element was solely “moralistic window dressing” for ulterior motives for invading Iraq. The problem, Brands believes, was the Bush team confused the beginning of democratization with the accomplishment of democratization.As is known to history, the revelation in the months following the invasion that Saddam Hussein’s WMD did not exist meant that the strategic rationale for the invasion had collapsed at the very time when Iraq began to unravel into sectarian violence and civil war. Bush did not fail to plan for the post-invasion, Brands posits, but rather his plans were “superficial and inadequate.” In 2003, White House budget chief Mitch Daniels predicted the war would cost $50 to $60 billion. By the end of Bush’s second term in early 2009, the price tag was $860 billion, and indirect costs totaled another $2-3 trillion. When adjusted for inflation, it was the second most expensive war in American history. It was an incredible sum for an “operation that was supposed to be quick and decisive, and it raised the question of how an administration so concerned with grand strategy could have gotten its centerpiece so terribly wrong.”Brands agrees with the conventional critique that the Iraq war wound up “reinvigorating global jihad” after Afghanistan, including providing a new generation of recruits in the heart of the Middle East. What is more, by 2008 once-successful Afghanistan was, according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “nearing catastrophic failure.” Rumsfeld had earlier convinced Bush to leave only 8,000 American troops in a country roughly the size of Texas. Brands believes that in the aftermath of Iraq, America power “seemed more beleaguered than any point since the Cold War.” Even for the mighty United States, it seemed, there was much danger in being too grand.In the end, do we have an answer to the question “What Good is Grand Strategy?”? While he does not make this point outright, the key lesson from Brands’s fine tome is that we might overly esteem the need for (big cap) Grand Strategy. Let others—both present and future—figure out what is grand and what is not (isn’t that the very reason for Kissinger’s memoirs?), but policymakers should simply stick to organizing its planning and implementation. It is also the case that many of those thinkers drawn to the realm of grand strategy are interested only in how it elevates their own intellectual egos—a sort of grand pretense.