One cannot oneself create anything; one can only wait till one hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then leap forward and seize hold of the hem of his coat — that is all.

— Otto von Bismarck

Only policy makers in great-power nations can aspire to realize grand strategies. They rarely succeed. In the contemporary international environment, coherence is more likely to be achieved by aiming at something more modest, a principle around which foreign policy might be oriented. Responsible sovereignty is the most promising candidate. Responsible sovereignty focuses on the need to create states capable of governing effectively within their own borders and to realizing, where possible, mutually beneficial bargains with regard to global public goods. Irresponsible sovereigns and failing states threaten the well-being of their own populations and the security, domestic norms, and authority structures of even the world’s most powerful countries. There is no alternative to responsible sovereigns; no regional much less global authority structure can replace the state.

The elusive holy grail

A grand strategy is a conceptual framing that describes how the world is, envisions how it ought to be, and specifies a set of policies that can achieve that ordering. Grand strategies are designed to mold the international environment by regulating international regimes, influencing the foreign policy choices made by other states, and shaping or even determining the domestic regime characteristics of other countries. A successful grand strategy will have the support of some other major states. It will be heuristically powerful: able to guide policy across a wide range of issue areas. It will provide resources — diplomatic, bureaucratic, ideational, military, economic — for specific policies.

Most attempts at grand strategy fail: It is hard to align vision, policies, and resources. Some fail because they envision a world that cannot be realized. Others fail because resources cannot be aligned with policies because of institutional constraints or a lack of domestic or international political support.

Empirically, successful grand strategies have rarely started with a clearly articulated vision that was then implemented through targeted policies and associated resource allocations. The international environment with its multiple actors, conflicting interests, changing technological dynamics, and exposure to unexpected shocks is too complex for such a rational process. Rather, successful grand strategies are consolidated after a series of debates or missteps by linking polices and resources with an overarching vision.

Successful grand strategies are most likely when the two great defining variables of the international system — power and beliefs — cleave along the same lines. The clearest example of such a cleavage over the last two centuries was the division between the Soviet Union and the United States between 1945 and 1990, and the most successful grand strategy of the last two centuries was containment. Bismarck’s Dreikaiserbund, in contrast, was an impressive effort to solidify Germany’s gains after the Franco-Prussian War but ultimately foundered not just on the impulsiveness of Bismarck’s successors but also on the fact that while ideology united Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, power considerations divided them: Given Germany’s power, France and Russia would naturally be drawn to each other.

A successful grand strategy then requires:

  • an accurate understanding of the international environment;
  • a vision of what that environment might become by: shaping international regimes, altering the opportunity sets facing other states, and influencing domestic authority structures in other states;
  • a set of policies that can realize that vision;
  • heuristic power to define policies for unforeseen challenges;
  • an organizational structure within the state that can implement these policies;
  • resources, and hence domestic political support, to pay for these policies;
  • support from other actors in the international system who share the same vision and endorse the associated policies even if their material contributions are modest. Such support is more likely when power and ideology cleave along the same lines.

An alternative: Orienting principles

Most foreign policies most of the time have not been guided by a grand strategy. The most obvious alternative to grand strategy is no strategy at all. Policymakers attempt to maximize the two material interests of their states: economic and security. The environment — international regimes, the domestic authority structures of other states — is taken as given.

Reliance on one or more orienting principles is a second alternative to grand strategy. Orienting principles provide a description of some elements of the existing environment and a vision for how they might be transformed. A foreign policy based on an orienting principle differs from one motivated by a successful grand strategy in four ways. First, orienting principles focus on specific issue-areas. Second, there is no consensus, either domestically or internationally, about the extant situation or what it might become. Third, there is ongoing uncertainty about what policies might be most effective. Fourth, because of this uncertainty policies will not necessarily be adequately resourced. The reduction of greenhouse gases, financial sector stability, trade openness, and the responsibility to protect would all be examples of orienting principles.

A foreign policy based on an orienting principle is distinct from pure ad hocery. It aspires to something beyond specific short- or medium-term material interests. A policy that reflects the orienting principle will have a privileged position with regard to commanding resources. The orienting principle can be used to shift domestic political support even if it fails to create a domestic or international consensus.

Responsible sovereignty is a potential candidate for an orienting principle that could guide the policies of the United States and other major powers. The frame offered by responsible sovereignty is that effective sovereign states are a necessary condition for peace and prosperity both within and among countries. Only if individual states can regulate activities and provide public services within their own borders will it be possible to move towards greater international order and justice, both by controlling violence within states and concluding mutually beneficial agreements among them.

From grand strategy to orienting principle

After world war II, the United States developed a grand strategy, containment, that guided American foreign policy until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Containment fulfilled all of the criteria listed above. It offered a coherent and approximately accurate view of the world; provided policy guidance across a wide range of issue areas; dictated changes in organizational structures within the American government; mobilized domestic political resources; and was endorsed by allies around the world. Since 1990s, however, the United States has not had a successful grand strategy. The Clinton and Obama administrations have offered orienting principles, enlargement and engagement, but no grand strategy. The Bush administration aspired to a grand strategy based on preemption and democratization, but it failed with regard to conceptualization, resourcing, and international support. Responsible sovereignty is an orienting principle that the United States and others might successfully pursue.

Containment. During World War II, there was brutal debate in the United States about the shape of the postwar world. Roosevelt, whose health was failing by 1944, never reached a firm conclusion about Stalin and Soviet Russia. Truman assumed the presidency with no clear vision. Even after the announcements of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in 1947, debate about the character of the Soviet Union continued. The Soviet Union was, for instance, invited to participate in the Marshall Plan, an invitation (like a United Nations with the Soviets as a member of the Security Council) that was consistent with a strategy of coexistence and cooperation, but not with containment. Truman supported the creation of nato and the unification of the three western zones of Germany, but before 1950, means were not clearly related to ends, even as the primary objective, the containment of the Soviet Union, came into focus.

National Security Council Report 68, written in 1950, and not George Kennan’s 1947 “Mr. x” article, codified containment and became the guiding policy document for the United States. nsc-68 had all of the conceptual elements that have characterized successful grand strategies: a coherent view of the world and an effort to shape international regimes and to alter the incentives and domestic authority structures of other states. It stated that the Soviet Union was animated by “a new fanatic faith.” It contended that “The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.” Because of nuclear weapons, nsc-68 rejected a war with the Soviet Union. It called instead for reducing Soviet influence over the satellite states in Eastern Europe to the extent that they might become “independent of the ussr,” altering the attitudes of people within the Soviet Union with an eye to “modifying Soviet behavior,” and changing the incentives facing the ussr to demonstrate the “undesirability” of its policies. The document concluded:

In summary, we must, by means of a rapid and sustained buildup of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world, and by means of an affirmative program intended to wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union, confront it with convincing evidence of the determination and ability of the free world to frustrate the Kremlin design of a world dominated by its will. Such evidence is the only means short of war which eventually may force the Kremlin to abandon its present course of action and to negotiate acceptable agreements on issues of major importance.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, containment animated American policy. The organizational structure of the federal government was changed. The Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, both created in the late 1940s, were strengthened. The United States Information Agency was established in 1953; the Agency for International Development in 1961.

The United States initiated an ambitious set of policies designed to counter the ussr. Alliances were established in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America. European integration was supported. The Bretton Woods institutions, which the U.S. had mostly ignored in the 1940s, were strengthened. Foreign assistance became an instrument of foreign policy. The United Nations, an organization whose structure reflected Roosevelt’s vision of cooperation rather than containment, was largely sidelined, with the exception of the Security Council Resolutions (83 and 84) legitimating intervention in the Korean War, which passed only because the Soviet Union was boycotting the Council when the war broke out.

All of the interventions that the United States engaged in during the Cold War, both covert and overt, were motivated by anxiety about communist expansion. The two hot wars, Korea and Vietnam, were fought against communist oppositions. In every covert intervention undertaken by the United States — including Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Nicaragua, and Grenada — American leaders believed, sometimes inaccurately, that they were undermining a communist opponent or, at the very least, a leftist leader sympathetic to the Soviet Union. The only U.S. intervention through the 1980s that was not associated with anxiety about communism occurred in Panama in December 1989, by which time the Soviet Union was foundering.

Containment was generously resourced. Expenditures for national defense as a percentage of gdp increased from about five percent before the Korean War to thirteen percent during the war, remained between eight and ten percent until 1970, dropped in the wake of the Vietnam War to around five percent, and then increased again to around six percent during the 1980s. These figures were higher than at any time in American history with the exception of actual wartime. Containment also animated and legitimated American domestic policy. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which funded the interstate highway system in the U.S., was passed in 1956. The National Defense Education Act, catalyzed by the Soviet’s successful space program, was passed in 1958.

Policies reflecting containment did not always succeed. The Korean War ended in a stalemate. The idea of rollback was shown to be empty when the West failed to intervene in Hungary in 1956. Castro’s revolution in Cuba was not reversed. The U.S. was defeated in Vietnam. Nevertheless, in the end, containment was a triumph.

The idea of rollback was shown to be empty when the West failed to intervene in Hungary in 1956.

Engagement and Enlargement. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and of communism as a viable ideological challenge to the democratic West, meant the end of containment. In the 1990s, American foreign policy was informed by orienting principles, not a grand strategy. The Clinton administration’s first national security strategy was entitled “A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement.” It referred to the need to reframe international regimes, especially in the economic area; shape the incentives of other countries, particularly through the enlargement of nato and the European Union; and encourage democracy. Many global developments in the 1990s conformed with the concepts of engagement and enlargement. The wto and nafta were created. The number of democracies increased from about 60 to 80.

Enlargement and engagement, however, failed empirically by not recognizing the risk posed by transnational terrorism. As orienting principles, they failed to motivate the American public. The Clinton administration focused on domestic affairs. Clinton withdrew American troops from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” incident. The bombing campaign against Serbia was conducted from very high altitudes to minimize the chance of American casualties. Not surprisingly, national defense spending fell to three percent of gdp during the 1990s — the lowest level in 60 years. More indicative of the lack of resourcing was the decline in foreign aid, which fell to 0.22 percent of American gni, about two-thirds of what it had been in the 1980s.

Preemption and Democratization. The 9/11 attacks shattered American assumptions about the nature of the postwar world. The 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States” offered a coherent approach for addressing the threat of transnational terrorism. It identified “the crossroads of radicalism and technology” as the “gravest danger” to American security. It argued that the United States and its allies would have to redefine the conventional understanding of imminent threat and preemptive war because transnational terrorists would not engage in the “visible” mobilization of armed forces. President Bush wrote in his letter introducing the “Strategy” that “The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.” The Bush administration, like all of its predecessors, argued that the United States had to support freedom and democracy. It departed from its predecessors, however, in directly relating this support to American national security. Islamic radicalism was understood as a product of political repression, especially in the Arab world. In the long run it was a challenge that could be addressed only by the spread of democracy and freedom. The promotion of democracy as well as a redefinition of imminent threat was central to the Bush doctrine.

As a grand strategy the Bush administration’s policies failed in three ways. First, the concept of preventive preemption generated anxiety rather than support from other countries. Second, there was no agreement on the severity of the threat posed by transnational terrorism. Many policymakers in America’s traditional allies argued that terrorism ought to be understood as a crime that could be dealt with through the traditional criminal justice system rather than as a new kind of war that required unique institutional practices and legal structures like renditions and indefinite confinement. Third, the soaring rhetoric of Bush’s second inaugural (“So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”) proved to be very hard to realize in practice. The vividness of the “color revolutions” of 2005 had dimmed by 2007.

Domestic Revitalization and International Institutions. The May 2010 “National Security Strategy” of the Obama administration is more modest than those of its two predecessors. It is not a grand strategy. Written in the midst of a major economic recession and continued American involvement in, and uncertainty about, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the document stresses the importance of rebuilding America’s national strength by investing in critical domestic priorities such as health care, education, science, and technology. Its only orienting principle is the need for international institutions.

An orienting principle for global order

The modesty or failures of the recent efforts to craft a national security strategy for the United States reflects the difficulty of the challenge more than the capacity, or lack thereof, of three American administrations. Given the divisions and uncertainties of the contemporary environment, it is impossible to frame a successful grand strategy. The concept of responsible sovereignty could, however, be an effective orienting principle.

The principal security threat of the last several centuries — war among the major powers — is gone. The destruction that would result from nuclear war among countries with secure second-strike capability has eliminated any ambiguity about the cost of war. Poorly governed and weak states now present the greatest threat to the national security of the United States, the stability of the existing global order, and the vitality of the domestic orders of the major industrialized democracies.

Because of the nexus of transnational Islamic terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the security of even the most powerful nations might be threatened by irresponsible sovereigns and failing states. Of the fifteen states with the highest (worst) scores on Foreign Policy magazine’s 2010 Failed State Index, nine are majority-Muslim countries. Zimbabwe might be ignored; Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen cannot be. Terrorists may come from many different backgrounds: A grandchild of a Jewish doctor raised by hippie parents in Riverside County, west of Los Angeles, is now a spokesman for al Qaeda, and a college-educated American citizen of Pakistani origin tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square. But failing states with many alienated young men have been a fertile recruiting ground. Such states may also be hospitable environments for training camps, and trained terrorists are more likely to be successful. Attacks with weapons of mass destruction could result in large numbers of deaths. Biological weapons will become easier to fabricate. Nuclear weapons are not beyond the reach of al Qaeda or Hezbollah given the programs in Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere. Multiple attacks, even with conventional weapons (explosives, planes), resulting in large numbers of deaths, would lead to changes in social behavior, political sentiments, and legal structures in advanced societies. These changes would not further individual freedom.

A grandchild of a Jewish doctor raised by hippie parents in Riverside County, near Los Angeles, is now a spokesman for al Qaeda.

Despite this threat, there will be, for three reasons, no successful grand strategy in the contemporary international environment. First, the contours of power are dynamic and uncertain. By any measure the United States is more powerful today than any country has been over the last several centuries, but stagnation in Japan, slow economic growth in Europe, and especially the rise of China and India could dramatically alter this situation.

Second, the ideological predispositions of the major powers do not divide along any clear lines. The United States remains committed to a Lockean vision of individual freedom, democracy, and market-based economies, and, commensurate with its power, is willing to use military force to secure both its material and ideological objectives. The major European powers share America’s commitment to democracy, but they put more faith in international law and organizations and are more reluctant to use force. Russia has no clear foreign policy vision other than exercising a sphere of influence in its near abroad. India, or at least some Indian leaders, articulate a global vision based on India’s unique culture and a division between haves and have-nots, a division now as pronounced within India as between India and other countries. China, pursuing policies designed to maximize its short- and medium-term material interests, has shunned global responsibilities, and hardly shares European and American enthusiasms for democracy. Japan suffers not only from two decades of economic stagnation but also from being in a part of the world that has made it impossible to escape from heavy dependence on American tutelage.

Third, major powers do not have the same understanding of key elements in the international environment. In particular, there is disagreement about the threat posed by the nexus of transnational terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. That the threat exists is clear. What is not clear is the probability that that threat will be realized in the form of terrorist attacks that could kill thousands or tens of thousands. Is this probability vanishingly small? Is there a one percent chance of such attacks in the next ten years? A ten percent chance? Fifty percent? Related to different assessments of the threat are different views about how it should be addressed, ranging from complete reliance on existing criminal law to armed intervention and indefinite detention.

There is disagreement about the threat posed by the nexus of transnational terrorism and WMD.

Given these divisions and uncertainties, the challenge is to identify an orienting principle that could guide some policies, some of the time, rather than to aspire to a grand strategy that could align overarching goals, policies, resources, and domestic and international support. Responsible sovereignty offers the best available alternative. The key framing element of responsible sovereignty is that foreign policy ought to aim to create a world of effectively governed states. These states would be able to regulate activities within and across their own borders. They would provide their own citizens with reasonable levels of public service. They would conduct themselves in conformity with the principle that policies with international consequences ought to be reached through voluntary agreements among states, while accepting that such agreements will not always be possible.

Responsible sovereignty, at least rhetorically, will be attractive to political leaders in both badly governed and well-governed states: The weak want their autonomy and the strong would prefer not to intervene. Engagement and enlargement, the two shibboleths of the last twenty years, are impossible without reasonably well-functioning states.

As an orienting principle, rather than a grand strategy, responsible sovereignty would be able to focus some aspects of the foreign policy of the United States and other major countries, but not all. Even if there is general rhetorical agreement on the desirability of responsible sovereigns there is profound disagreement about how to promote them. There is no consensus on how to most effectively conduct state-building. Approaches include promoting economic growth, enhancing institutional capacity, and altering the incentives of local political leaders. As an interim measure, a number of observers have suggested the need for neo-trusteeships, independent service providers, or the contracting out of government services — all measures that are in tension with responsible sovereignty, which assumes states whose authority structures are free of external control. There may be no general formula; the efficacy of policies may be hostage to particular local conditions. There are examples of successful state-building (Colombia), but also of failure (Somalia). The United States and its allies have devoted substantial resources to the war in Afghanistan with uncertain results.

Given these realities — disagreements among the major powers, different ideological perspectives, dynamic power changes, uncertain policy options — no grand strategy is possible, even for the United States. Agreement on an orienting principle that could direct important aspects of foreign policy for the United States and other major powers is the best that can be hoped for. Responsible sovereignty would have rhetorical traction; would point to the goal toward which resources ought to be directed; could accept different views about the nature of threats to security, both local and international; and would accommodate different policies and different approaches to state-building. If it were successful, it would provide the foundation for a safer and more just world.

overlay image