Defining Ideas

A Foreign Policy for the Future

Wednesday, November 20, 2013
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Grand strategy has always been seductive because it promises policy coherence in the face of complexity. Yet the sorry truth is that American grand strategies are usually alluring but elusive. Containment during the Cold War, the most often cited example of grand strategy success, is a recent lonely exception that has driven political scientists and policy makers to keep hope alive. That hope is misguided. In the post-9/11 world, forging a successful grand strategy is unlikely and dangerous.

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Grand strategies must be grand. That is, they must be able to anticipate and articulate a compelling future state of the world and galvanize the development of policies, institutions, and capabilities at the domestic and international level to get us there. That’s hard enough. A second challenge is the strategic interaction part of grand strategy, which requires predicting, evading, blocking, and otherwise adjusting to the countermoves of principal adversaries. Grand strategy is not a game of solitaire, where we come up with all the moves and the cards just sit there. It’s not all about us and our big ideas. Instead, grand strategy is a multi-player game with powerful adversaries who are seeking their own future state of the world to serve their own interests. Successful grand strategy, then, hinges on knowing the number and identities of these key adversaries, what they want, how they operate, and what damage they can inflict.

Seen in this light, containment was a comparatively easy grand strategy to develop. I don’t mean to take anything away from George Kennan, who brilliantly articulated many of containment’s cornerstone ideas. But I do mean to suggest that nobody has since repeated Kennan’s feat for a reason. From the earliest days of the Cold War, American leaders knew full well that there would be only one principal adversary. They knew exactly who it was, where it was, and had pretty good ideas about Soviet interests and ideas. They also knew the threat to American lives and interests was existential. The number and targets of Soviet nuclear missiles left little doubt.

The post-9/11 threat environment is vastly different. Today, the number, identity, and magnitude of dangers threatening American interests are all wildly uncertain. Exactly how many principal adversaries does the United States have? Who are they and what do they want? What could they do to us? These first-order questions are hotly debated by academics and policymakers alike. Is the terrorist threat increasing, decreasing, or plateauing? What exactly does “the terrorist threat” or the Obama administration’s favorite catchall, “al Qaeda and its associated forces” encompass anyway? Is China a rising great power rival or a responsible stakeholder? Where do Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia rank on the adversaries list? Then there is the magnitude issue: How likely is a “digital Pearl Harbor” that disables U.S. strategic nuclear forces or brings down U.S. financial institutions, power systems, and other critical infrastructures? What is the probability and potential toll of a biological attack by a state or non-state actor? A nuclear strike? Nobody really knows. President Obama’s 2010 nuclear posture review concluded that the risk of a global nuclear war has declined, but the risk of any other kind of nuclear attack has increased. Eliminating the possibility of Armageddon still leaves plenty of room to wonder about how bad all these other threats could be.

To be sure, uncertainty is a fact of life in international politics. Wars have always occurred because both sides see advantages to fighting and at least one of them is wrong. But there’s uncertainty and then there’s uncertainty. Each day, it seems, we are told to be very afraid about something different and vaguely sinister. In the past five years alone, the Director of National Intelligence has declared three #1 threats to U.S. national security: terrorism, the global economic crisis, and cyber vulnerabilities. The Cold War this isn’t. We live in a hazy threat du jour world. This is too much complexity and uncertainty for grand strategy to handle.

Grand strategy requires a second key ingredient: the ability to forge domestic and international institutions that galvanize people’s talents and move policy forward. Here, too, complexity is overwhelming capacity. In the Cold War, the United States had the advantage of building new international and domestic organizational arrangements—the United Nations, NATO, the Bretton Woods system, the Department of Defense, CIA, and the National Security Council system—on an almost entirely blank slate. That is no longer the case. Instead, new organizations are springing up alongside creaky old ones, creating a dense thicket of obsolete, overlapping, and overspecialized arrangements that make policy coherence and coordination all the more difficult.

Before 9/11, for example, there were twelve major federal U.S. intelligence agencies. Now there are 17, plus a hundred FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces and 70-plus interagency “fusion centers” across the country. In the State Department and White House, scores of coordinators, czars, and special envoys have been created, all operating with, against, and beside the existing bureaucracy. “What would Moscow think?” has been replaced by “We need a special coordinator for that.” This organizational geometry is not good: When policy coordination and coherence are so important, creating more offices to coordinate is not a winning plan.

These same strains can be seen in the international organizational landscape. The United Nations and International Monetary Fund are showing their age, mired in outdated governance systems that are out of whack with current power realities. NATO is struggling to find relevance while the European Union continues to struggle in the aftermath of the great recession. Meanwhile new international arrangements are proliferating—the G-20, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Proliferation Security Initiative, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, to name just a few—with varying gaps between aspirations and capabilities. The upshot of all this is that rationalizing and modernizing institutional arrangements, both domestically and internationally, will grow harder by the day. Grand strategy requires the ability to forge effective organizations, and the prospect of forging effective organizations is not looking so good.

If grand strategy is too grand an ambition in the current threat environment and organizational landscape, what can be done?

The first step is obvious but important: Give up on grand strategy. We should strive for what Stephen Krasner calls “orienting principles”—policy ideas that lie between ad hoc reactions to the day’s events and grand visions of how the future should unfold. Orienting principles aren’t glamorous, but they hold out the prospect of something better than foreign policy a la carte or a grand strategy that mis-estimates the threat environment and misunderstands the organizational requirements for success. In a world of rampant complexity, this is the best we can do.