(Jason Smith/Getty Images)
Grand Strategy
Beyond the Blobbers

The chatter that passes for foreign policy debate these days is not happening at the level of grand strategy, and fails to look broadly at the circumstances the United States finds itself in.

Published on: February 28, 2018
Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.
show comments
  • KremlinKryptonite

    The blob, so called, is inevitably going to be limited in what It can accomplish for so many reasons. First and foremost, the US intelligence community itself has plenty of problems, particularly on the civilian side, so what can you possibly expect from some think tank scholar? The scholar may very well have three PhDs – so many degrees that you can call them Dr. Fahrenheit, yet they know little about anything because they’ve never served in the DoD-IC, perhaps they’ve never had a security clearance even on the civilian side, or if they did it was 20 years ago. The situation has changed a lot since they received their PhD in 1975, and it has even changed a lot since they left the IC, if they were even part of it, in 1995, or even 2005!

    Second, and a pretty close second, the conversation gets so muddled, or down in the weeds as Garfinkle might say, no thanks to lobbying and money being so intertwined with these think tanks and even with journalism. When I find the time I like to watch the conversations held by CFR, CSIS, Stratfor, and many others, on their YT channels, and I’m always disappointed. Sometimes, they have extremely knowledgeable and intelligent members of the service there to talk about what’s going on, or what the budgets will need to look like over the next few years, and why. But the line has to be straddled between getting so deep into the technical details that no one there really understands (and not saying anything classified!) that it’s usefulness is always limited for the general audience, and that includes the hosts at the think tank.

    An anecdote: I was back in DC in summer 2012 for a brief time. As luck would have it, I met someone fairly prominent from one of the think tanks listed above while drinking at an establishment in Dupont Circle. Nice place. This individual, upon learning what it is that I do, started asking, in fact almost badgering, me if I could pull any strings at all to get some information declassified about the exact cause of and nature of helicopter related deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. Turns out, they really wanted to use the information to hand off to some other third-party who will in turn lobby the Senate and House to spend money on new, more comfortable seats in the Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters. With a little more prodding, I come to find out that the real goal is to totally redesign the cockpit of the Blackhawk. Think about that. They don’t even know for sure what the information entails, but they’ve got a monied interest solution! Think about who’s going to make money off of that and how unscrupulous it was to ask me, or anyone, for help in achieving such a goal. That kind of shadiness is always lurking in the background at these think tanks.

    • Paul Lies

      That’s such an interesting and terrible story. My god can you imagine the wasted billion and wasted lives listening to these know-nothings? It was so refreshing to hear candidate trump say that he wouldn’t listen only to “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” and I’m not even an american

      • Pearline

        Google giving every one 97 US dollars per-hour to complete small jobs on the laptop .. Do job Some just few hours and fun greater time together with your own relatives … Anyone can also apply this offer!!!last Thursday I purchased a new McLaren F1 just after making $20400 this month .without any doubt it is the most comfortable work but you may not forgive yourself if you don’t look it.!qx71l:↹↹↹ http://GoogleMobileOnlinePartTimeJob/get/99$/eachhour ♥c♥g♥♥t♥u♥o♥♥v♥v♥♥♥x♥x♥f♥♥a♥♥k♥♥♥l♥r♥♥d♥♥a♥j♥♥♥f♥c♥♥♥h♥♥♥n♥♥♥l♥s♥♥♥d♥u:::!pe063r:wcjk

    • D4x

      Setting aside shadiness, and the age-old reality of ‘monied interest influence’, your story reveals a bigger problem. Why is there no internal process, where the Blackhawk/Apache pilots and crew after-action reports are core to continuous improvement and ergonomics in seat and cockpit design? and all other systems? I shall retain my belief that those processes are still primary.

      Continuous improvement, with practical ergonomics was how American industry achieved dominance by the late 1920’s. World War 2 production offered the scale, and time pressure, to design and make it right, and keep making it better. Japan knew how to seize the concepts and tools in the 1950’s. I attribute the muddle of America to the rise of the MBA in the late 1970’s, and then the lawyer cohort. Robert Reich’s 1991 book, “The Work of Nations: Preparing ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism”, and his subsequent tenure as Secretary of Labor cast the post-industrial symbolic-analysts as America’s new overlords.

      Yet another reason the post-WW2 ‘liberal international order’ that Adam idealizes, has failed. Too many symbolic-analysts disconnected from reality. Garfinkle is the poster child for post-modern S-As. The editor still needs an editor.

      I might come back and offer my synthesis of TeamTrump’s foreign policy strategy in action, my “argument in which China, Russia, and Iran could all be boiled down into the same basic abstract challenge” Been writing about it here for almost one year. Garfinkle is too full of his own hot gas to deign to read the dwindling TAI commentariat.

      • KremlinKryptonite

        There is indeed that sort of process already, and in fact the information they were seeking is classified, in part, so that no one can misuse it to push a selfish agenda, or take advantage of an often ignorant, although well-intentioned, public. Let’s elaborate. If you walk down the street and ask the average Joe or Sally, “hey, do you want America’s attack helicopter pilots to be as comfortable as possible while on the job?” they’ll probably think briefly and then say “oh yeah, why not. Of course.”
        “Great! Would you sign this petition so that we can deliver it to your congress persons’ office?!”
        “Sure!” And that’s that. Don’t want them to have some “ohh this is a declassified pentagon report [that we know you, Joe Sixpack, won’t even read] so we know our stuff!”

        In reality, ergonomic design is not the same thing as comfort. Ergonomic design is the concern, not necessarily comfort, and certainly not too much comfort. It depends on a lot of factors, especially what it is you’re doing. If you can combine the two very well into a finished product, then that’s fantastic most of the time. I’m sure whatever it is will fly off the shelves at Walmart.

        You don’t actually want combat pilots to be very comfortable. If the ergonomic design in the cockpit is such that they can do their job well even though they can only tolerate fewer hours of flying in a given day because it’s otherwise fairly uncomfortable, well that is a preferable situation to fitting a first-class airline seat complete with a butt massager in which they’re likely to succumb to the soldiers most devious enemies – daydreaming and even sleep. The answer is more pilots so each one can fly fewer hours, not buying new helicopters for the sake of comfort.

    • CheckYourself

      So what would your prescriptions be to help fix the issues in the IC and the think tanks? Or maybe you don’t believe the think tanks are salvageable ?

      • KremlinKryptonite

        Few people seem to know that the US has 17 intelligence agencies. Eight components of the IC are DoD, and nine are non-DoD. I’m not saying that we necessarily should cut the size of the non-DoD IC by eliminating a branch, but Central Intelligence should be DoD. Central intelligence has been failing the United States for some time, and perhaps it was doomed to fail. The requirements to work there are just unacceptably low for such an important function. Four year degree? Pulse? Foreign language ability is a plus! Welcome aboard! That’s really it. It’s harder to become a foreign service officer at State! These kids have no military experience, have never lived AND WORKED abroad, but perhaps theyve spent a year in [insert country] as a student and they took a lot of selfies and partied. They really haven’t done much of anything besides graduate from college. It ought to be staffed by those with some experience in the military, and specifically military intelligence, as well as some diplomats (with experience!) along with the required number of tech and scientific support, which it does have already. 20-somethings really have no business at CIA.

        Central Intelligence and sometimes the INR at State collate and put together all of the raw intelligence and very narrow, technical analyses coming from the DoD-IC, as well as any any intelligence of more use to the diplomats that military intel inadvertently gathers. Think of CIA as the ones reading scientific journals and dissertations, and they are the ones creating the textbook for the kids. The kids are Congress and POTUS. CIA delivers the PDB (presidential daily briefing), but they cannot possibly take on this role of educator and fulfill it well when they do not really understand some of the intelligence they receive from the other branches of the IC, particularly the DoD-IC.

        As far as think tanks go, they aren’t in the IC, and they have incomplete information by their very nature, and then there is the money influence. Think tanks can play a good role as educators to the general public, but just how many people are sitting down to watch a 1:30:00 panel discussion or debate at CSIS?

  • Gary Hemminger

    I love it. Garfinkle writes:

    “When the President appears to address foreign and national security
    policy issues, they say, what he’s really doing is signaling to his
    existing and potential domestic political base in accord with his
    relentless quest to realign American politics. He is posturing, as some
    would call it, in ad hoc Jacksonian mode, because that is where he thinks the torque points for realignment are located.”

    I mean wow, what a great thing I learned today. Politicians saying something for political reasons!! Why I never knew such things existed. Evidently never did before Trump. Can someone please write an article that doesn’t include Trump for god’s sakes?

  • Trajan Fanzine

    The last Grand Strategic decision we made resides in the top 3 of the worst for the last 150 years…invading Iraq. Not because we didn’t find WMD, but that we did it based on the neo-con fallacy that equated a devastated virtually unconditionally surrendered Japan and the Uncon surr. Germany with an Arab nation, (well patchwork quilt of arab tribes really) that is Iraq, Egypt being the only arab nation…The repercussion are, well, Yuuge;)

    And of course, any Grand Strat. re; China and Russia is hobbled due to the red herring ‘collusion’ business. Russia is the natural counter weight for us vis a vis China, and, we will pay for having wasted this time not pursing this avenue and in fact making it virtually impossible for the foreseeable future due to the new cold war.

    • AnonymoussSoldier

      That’s right, and really just up until a few years ago, Putin really wanted a place in the Western orbit. China and Russia aren’t fantastic friends. They have bad blood in their history, and they are strategic competitors, too. Seems likely the deeply corrupt, and deeply entrenched pro-CCP lobby in the US might have a stake in this farcical Russia business.

  • FriendlyGoat

    There is no grand strategy to talk about with respect to adversaries. China, Russia, Islam and even DPRK are real and not going away.
    We are not going to “defeat” any of them. We are going to live with and manage relationships with all of them. The real strategy is supposed to be about trade and world cooperation on substantive world issues, not helped by every important world leader knowing the American president lied to the American people on nearly every issue. They know he duped us and they have no intention of following suit.

    • AnonymoussSoldier

      I don’t know about Islam, but you might very well see one of, or all of, those three states collapsing, defeated, or otherwise dramatically changed. Do you think someone speculated in the 1930s “well, we are simply going to be dealing with Soviet Russia and a Nazi Germany in perpetuity” ? Even Garfinkle’s comment about Reagan and the 80s INF is moot now. Like KK says above, things change. The situation is simply different. New players. More players. China isn’t even a member of the INF, for example. Going to amend it to include them? Will they join? Nah. Dont bet on it. Should the US kneecap itself in a potential confrontation with China just to keep a 1980s Cold War agreement alive with Russia?

      • FriendlyGoat

        Obviously the least stable, formidable and predictable of those three is DPRK, which is more or less allied with China. And then there was Iran, which is more or less allied with Russia. You cannot fight conventional wars with these people because of nukes and you cannot fight nuclear wars with these people because of sense. Pentagon people like General Mattis know this, even though they cannot say it, and even though their life’s work is to maintain a state of readiness. Putin and Xi know it, Obama knew it and Trump has discovered it now that he has been briefed. It’s high-level chess, increasingly designed from all sides for agreed-in-advance stalemate. (Or, at least, everyone should hope so.)

        • AbleArcher

          Iran and Turkey? Turkey doesn’t like Iran, and it’s in NATO lol. It might care less about NATO these days, but it’s no partner with Iran. As far as not having a conventional war with a nuclear state, that’s entirely your speculation. Certainly they all prepare for it and train and have hardware for the occasion, or in the case of Russia the little green men and for China its the “coast guard” and the “Chinese fishermen” out there ramming Vietnamese ships etc.

          If they really believed there’s no way to have a confrontation with another nuclear state then why even have a conventional military at all? Why not just have all the nukes on hair trigger alert and say “if you so much as touch me I’m going to kill you and myself in a suicidal apocalyptic nuclear attack”. They don’t do that

          • FriendlyGoat

            I’m not discounting the seriousness of any of this. All states and militaries play the game out of both desire and necessity. All of them are responding to the march of technology and permanent race for new/better weapons as well. But the grand strategy of the top players has to be match, contain, shoot as little as possible and cooperate where possible.

            As for Turkey, under Erdogan it will probably be more with Russia than with the west in the future. The NATO aspect is now weird, as everyone seems to be noticing. The fact that Turkey and Iran are not friends will not keep them from aligning with Russia against us.
            We were not friends with Russia in WWII, but we found ourselves on the same side against Germany, no?

          • AbleArcher

            Stalin’s Russia was a partner with Hitlers Germany. They instigated WWII in Europe together per the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and both invaded Poland to slice and dice it up. Russia only became an ally when Hitler stabbed Stalin in the back which took Stalin completely by surprise. One of the great ironies of the last century was that Stalin looked at Hitler and saw a man he could work with. Hitler looked at Stalin and saw a man he couldn’t possibly work with, or at least not for long. I believe he said something to the effect of “Stalin’s a rabid dog whose teeth are getting sharper by the day. He must be put down”. Really, your example is a great one for how things can go terribly wrong and all in less than two years Sept 1939 – June 1941.

    • Micah718

      Duped us on what? Your TDS is showing.

  • Jonathan Dembo

    Mr. Garfinkle has identified what has to be America’s major foreign policy problem, when he points out that after World War II, the US found itself atop the international heap after its triumph, with widespread support for its leaders, its current foreign policy and its goals, and was easily able to pay the cost (then much cheaper). We need a new foreign policy strategy. But Garfinkle has failed to point to the necessary first step toward accomplishing that goal: a revival of the American economy. Today our policies have remained the same but we can back them by only a shadow of our former power and influence. In 1945, the US held 75% of international productive capacity; today we have only 25%. That won’t cut it in today’s world.

    Today, we find ourselves still atop the heap but not so far ahead of a growing number of rivals. Our economy is just beginning to revive after nearly two decades of terror, defeat, decline, stagnation, and slow growth domestically, and political crises multiplying in every direction; but lacking any recent great victories, lacking a foreign policy with wispread support, misusing our resources for foreign and military policy, and without sufficient means to continue either our traditional postwar policy concepts or develop a new policy. Today, the nation is worried, uncertain, hestitant, and knows that their leaders are no better off. Clearly, Trump has decided that his first priority is to rebuild and rejuvenate American economic and financial power before tackling foreign policy concerns. We cannot move in any direction, seriously, until we are again become the world’s economic power and have the means to finance a more expensive policy and until the American people can clearly see a prosperous future stretched out before them. When they have confidence, American foreign policy will have confidence no matter what the policy may be.

    I believe that Mr. Trump’s domestic and trade economic policies are the necessary precursors for a new foreign policy of any kind. Unless, Mr. Garfinkle wants to join the “blob” he — like all those interested in developing a new foreign policy — should be working on ways to get the US economy growing at 4-5% for an extended period of time. America’s growth in the 1980s was what undermined the confidence that the Soviets had had previously that the US was in its final decline. More than anything else it was their internal collapse of confidence that led to their ultimate collapse and dissolution. With greater American growth will come greater federal revenues, greater willingness to fund foreign and military policy, less need to cut costs, and more freedom to consider foreign policy alternates. If we grow, potential allies will come crawling out of the woodwork hoping to share the joy and less afraid that we will abandon them if the cost grows too high. And, with greater growth, we will find that our enemies (I mean “rivals”) will lose confidence, have fewer options, and become less threatening, and maybe even decide to trim their sails and adopt more modest policies. Don’t forget that the mullahs came to power in Iran only after the US defeat in Vietnam, and later in Cambodia, and after a decade of “stagflation” under Ford and Carter. Maybe a strong revival of US strength can help to reduce that threat before we even have to develop a new policy.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2018 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.