It is tempting for members of the so-called American foreign policy blob—thank you Messrs. Obama and Rhodes for the felicitous term—to think about foreign and national security policy from a fairly close-up perspective. Indeed, if you are a blobber as a day jobber, to coin a phrase, you almost have no choice because following the daily and weekly action is what keeps you busy enough to justify your paycheck.
And that can be a problem. I wish I had a nickel for every punditry session I’ve attended over the years, here in Washington and elsewhere, where the level of analysis was so down in the weeds that the discussion was obsolete before the luncheon leftovers were cleared away.
Not all such discussions are the same in this way. Discussions about the Middle East or East Asia usually feel normal compared to those on Europe. When one sits with Europeans and U.S. blobber experts on Europe, discussions usually tend to the schizophrenic. Complementing the down-in-the weeds discussion about who did or said what to whom last Tuesday is usually a stratospheric discussion so abstract and nakedly moral as to be almost lighter than air. What goes missing most of the time is any sort of practical strategic thinking somewhere in between these two layers.
Speaking of going missing, for quite a while the entire domain of grand strategic thinking went missing here in the United States, at least outside of cloistered academic circles with reality and levels-of-analysis challenges of their own. In general terms, I would date its absence from a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall until maybe a year or three ago. And the reasons for the temporary absence, I think, are fairly clear.
Between the triumphalism of liberalism vindicated and the press of suddenly obvious domestic political dysfunctionality, spending time on grand strategic thinking seemed either unnecessary or a luxury, depending on your point of view. We should add, probably, the fact that we suddenly lacked a single, ideologically defined adversary made the whole business much more complicated and difficult for even well-educated Americans to get their heads around. And it is human nature that the difficult tends to be avoided.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 seemed to promise for a short moment to restore focus to U.S. strategic thinking, but ultimately that did not happen, for two reasons. First, the actual source of the problem evaded the understanding of the political elite of both major parties, leading to all sorts of policy errors both major and minor—and cleaning up after those errors took most of the oxygen out of the relevant rooms. Second, the danger actually posed by salafi terrorism failed to live up to the level of paranoia we generated for ourselves in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
The sum total of that experience served only to further disorient our sense of strategic thinking, and only the so-called return of geopolitics—said geopolitics never having left in the first place, of course—got our attention once again. Once it did, thanks largely to Russian efforts, the number of projects on grand strategy multiplied like grasshoppers in midsummer.
All began with the premise that we had regrettably failed to do this kind of thinking in recent years, which was true. But most ended with committee reports, which were something less than scintillating and analytically compelling. But at least we were trying again. We need to try harder, however, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment.
Today, much if not most up-close blob commentary on foreign and national security policy comes down to a debate about the character of the decision-making process, such as it is, that we behold from time to time. Supporters of the Trump Administration, as well as those willing to give it the benefit of much doubt, see careful deliberation in what it does. They take at face value the claim that the President is a master negotiator who may stake out extreme, even outrageous, opening positions, knowing full well that these positions will be yanked back to practical outcomes—regression to the norm, as social scientists call it—once the intended targets have been softened up and rendered ready for negotiating harvest.
This is the way some observers have interpreted policy toward North Korea. This is the way other observers have interpreted policy toward NATO and Europe. Tough talk is how the President got the Europeans to press the Iranians to get us a better nuclear deal than the one Barack Obama left us with. And one can go on, notably with respect to the policy domain the President claims to care most about—trade—although if there are any negotiating successes in this domain thus far, I can’t find them.
Of course there is precedent for this sort of thinking in real existing history. Plenty of Americans and Europeans were sure that Ronald Reagan was going to start World War III during the Euromissile crisis of the early 1980s, but instead Reagan’s posture in facing down the nuclear freeze movement and the cascade of anti-nuclear “peace” demonstrations in Europe resulted in the INF agreement, which not only eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, but also paved the way for what amounted to, but was never called, détente 2.0. So I would not be the least bit surprised if before long we had articulated for us a Trump Doctrine based on these principles, radically thin though they be, with a nod to Ronald Reagan as a selling point.
Other observers, however, do not see it this way. Several commentators have suggested that the President’s rhetoric—which is mainly to say his tweets—have very little to do with foreign policy despite the apparent subjects at hand.1 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.
In other words, he has no strategy or plan, just some instincts, mainly about domestic politics. His is a populist convolution of emotions and paragraph-length slogans masquerading as a foreign and national security policy strategy that amounts to making things up as he goes along. That leaves the rest of us to hope that his more experienced staff will save him, and us with him, from the consequences of any truly enormous seat-of-the-pants blunders.
So who is correct? Not being privy to the internal discussions of the National Security Council, I don’t know. The first argument may be accurate from time to time, at least as far as first instincts go, but I suspect that the skeptics of strategic coherence make the better case overall.
But whoever turns out to be correct, this is not a debate at the level of grand strategy. It does not step back and look broadly at the circumstances the United States finds itself in, circumstances that invariably shape all we do and the consequences of all we do. In other words, this kind of analysis is completely within the guardrails of conventional blob thinking, and so its utility is limited.
If we do step back, what do we see? It seems to me that the only sensible way to come to an answer is to review briefly a bit of history for context.
As I have argued in greater detail,2 the United States has only ever had two grand strategies, and both have been more or less informal since we never have really had a grand strategy tradition of the sort that European and Asian empires of old had.
The first, which had taken at least inchoate shape even before the Revolution and lasted until around the Spanish-American War, was very simple: Seize and hold as much of the North American continent as possible. We did that. Then came Alfred Thayer Mahan, and we created the second grand strategy in our history: Prevent the rise of a hegemon in either Europe or East Asia.
Before World War II, we tried to do that by riding the coattails of the British Navy and by means of self-help, like the building of the Panama Canal, which was a naval toggle switch between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This effort collapsed, of course, in hegemonic war. After World War II, we found ourselves relatively very powerful and forward deployed on the brackets of Eurasia. So as leader in place of a depleted Britain we adopted a forward-deployed method of doing the same thing that Mahan had advised. The only main change, aside from the implications of nuclear weapons, was that before long we added the Middle East as an instrumental area critical to the defense of East Asia and Europe.
The result of this American strategy hitched to its enormous power is that we today have inherited a world based on the implementation of this twin anti-hegemon strategy over a long time—more than 70 years. We are still forward deployed, and we still want to prevent the rise of hegemonic powers (aside, of course, from our own in the Western Hemisphere). So we still want to suppress regional security competitions, limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and generally supply global common security goods for both noble and selfish purposes.
The current American political class, however, may not realize that this is what we are doing, because few of our leaders in recent years have been able or have bothered to articulate it. But the habits of the institutions that conduct this strategy, and the budgets that go along with them, testify to the basic consistency of our objectives.
That said, we have acquired several problems as we have continued to implement this strategy in the post-Cold War era. First, consistency without a conscious reason for it asks for trouble. The sleepwalking mode with which the American elite has conducted strategy in recent years was bound to hemorrhage public support. Most people don’t ask why we do the things we do in the world unless or until something goes wrong to bring U.S. actions into problematic focus. But eventually something always goes wrong, even if it is a fairly minor thing; and sometimes, of course, it is not so minor at all, as with the screw-ups of Iraq, Libya, and I think one could fairly add Syria. The result is that an accumulation of querulous attention untethered to any broader understanding of strategy ultimately undermines political support for the strategy.
It did not take the Trump Administration’s advent to make this clear; the erosion of support for an internationalist foreign policy along the lines described above has been ongoing for some time. This is why the observation that many of the current Administration’s policies don’t differ much from those of the previous Administration, except in body language and tone, is correct. But the change in tone is important, because it indicates out loud, so to speak, the lack of support for the strategy on the basis of the earlier rationale.
Second, we have a kind of psychological math problem. Today, the revisionist threats to the mainly made-in-the-USA world order come from three countries, not mainly one, and the threats are not really ideological in nature. This, too, makes it hard to define simply for the American people what it is we are trying to do. We are an ideological people, and if we cannot define the enemy as a singular enemy in ideological terms, it’s tough to get through.3 It would be easier if we could conjure some argument in which China, Russia, and Iran could all be boiled down into the same basic abstract challenge, but no one has figured out how to do that—at least not yet—because it would require a Procrustean logic of prodigious strength.
Third, it is intrinsically harder to deal with threats to the order when the threats are diffuse; there is more uncertainty, there is more expense involved in spreading out one’s assets, and there is more risk precisely because one’s assets are spread out. Diffusion also tends to magnify disagreement over what is a first-tier concern and what is not, and so it makes the attainment of tactical consensus more difficult within the government and among allies. And it should probably go without saying, but I will say it anyway: When there are more moving parts to managing policy, a more subtle and nuanced approach is required to get it right. The need for diplomatic triage and triangulation is baked into the circumstances. Alas, an ideological people does not so readily produce leaders who excel at subtlety and nuance.
Fourth, we are living at a time when we think we are resource poor for the purpose, which is very different from how things felt 30 or 40 years ago. So not only is the strategy harder to explain and get political support for, and more expensive and uncertain, it also tends to be under- and mis-funded (not just in DOD, but also at the State Department and in the intelligence community), which makes all the other problems worse.
Finally, in this regard, during its duration one could at least imagine the Cold War ending—as it happily did—simply because even the barely tutored person realizes that all empires based on conquest, coercion, and brawn eventually fall. But it is very hard to imagine the “return of geopolitics” in its current diffuse form ever ending. And Americans do not like stories without endings, happy endings if at all possible. LBJ said it best at a November 1967 press conference: “Our American people, when we get into a contest of any kind—whether it is a war, an election, a football game or whatever it is—wanted it decided and decided quickly; get in or get out.” That is not the sort of national temperament best suited for doing geopolitics, which Lord Vansittart described aptly as “an endless game played for joyless victory.”
We have now had two Presidents in a row who display no enthusiasm, apparently and to put it mildly, for the post-World War II grand strategy. President Obama seems to have understood the strategy, and the problems with continuing to implement it. He was never so interested in the subject to formulate a viable alternative, caring vastly more about domestic political issues; so his default approach to strategy was a risk-averse, least-cost, don’t ask-don’t tell one. President Trump does not understand the strategy, for it abides in a positive-sum conceptual universe in which doing good and doing well are compatible goals; his pre-Enlightenment zero-sum “big brain” just can’t get there. These differences, however, matter less than the collective optic they have generated both out into the world and refracted back into the American body politic. The fact that these two Presidents have come from two different places along the American political spectrum suggests that they may well represent a new normal. I hope not, because without American power being put to good but measured purposes, the world of the future is likely to be a far nastier and more brutish place than most of us can imagine today—for very fortunate reasons, we Americans tend to lack a sense of historical tragedy comparable to that of Europeans, Asians, and others. And it would be a world we will not be able to hide from very effectively, or for very long.
One final question begs asking, for now: Is the current acute indeterminacy of American strategy, owing to the novel difficulties attending it, solely a consequence of changes in the world that have made the old ways obsolete or too difficult to maintain, or is there something internal to our society that we need to consider as well as part of the explanation?
I think the answer is clear: The changes within are more important even than the changes without.4 Suffice it to say that no great power succumbs to external challenges alone. Yes, the current President and the one just before him appear not to endorse the strategy that has held us in such good stead since the end of the Second World War; but more important is the fact that neither affirms American exceptionalism, as each and every one of their predecessors did. A people, and especially an elite, that no longer believes in its own virtue (yes, yes, of course it’s a mythic postulate, but they all are in every nation because they have to be) will surely be unable to persuade itself that it has any special role in history, hence in the world—let alone a role that demands exertion, discipline, patience, and studied flexibility.
And without that belief, American foreign policy—whether in its various inward-looking or outward-looking modes over the past two centuries—is truly in uncharted waters. If indeterminacy beyond the blob is truly the watchword of the day, then the sound making of strategy may have become a vision too far.
3 I explain what I mean by Americans being an ideological people in “The Anglo-Protestant Basis of U.S. Foreign Policy: Examples and Evidence,” Orbis (Winter 2017-18).
4 I have written about this already, and I don’t wish to repeat myself here. So see “The Nadir of Modernity,” The American Interest Online, August 5, 2016 (“Framing the Issues”), August 10 (“Liberalism and Modernity”), August 12 (“The State of the State”), and August 16 (“Anti-Modernity Within and Without”).