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Grand Strategy in the Age of Hubris

Why America Needs a New Approach to Grand Strategy

Those who work in American foreign policy have been tasked with meeting threats to the liberal world order and America’s place within it一from the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the affliction of Vietnam, the 1997 financial breakdown, and September 11, 2001. America’s resilience has been astonishing, thanks to a dense network of alliances, a propitious geographic position, the strength of the U.S. dollar, and a relatively stable domestic political environment that balanced foreign policy objectives. This strategic combination and deployment of military assets, diplomacy, economics, and politics to advance a particular set of foreign policy goals is referred to as “grand strategy.” For decades, crafting a grand strategy to meet the seemingly endless list of threats has helped prevent the fall of the so-called American empire.

But times have changed, and the international order in which the United States operates differs markedly from that of previous administrations. From nuclear tensions with North Korea, to a more confrontational and strategic China, and meeting the Russian cyber challenge, American officials are contemplating whether or not a tailored strategy can effectively meet the novel and diverse threats faced by Americans today.

Staging an Intervention

In 2019, Daniel Drezner and Rebecca Friedman Lissner “staged an intervention” for the U.S. foreign policy establishment, as former Executive Editor of Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose, put it. In a post-Trumponian era, searching for a strategy to best preserve the international liberal world order and America’s place within it requires a dramatic shift away from the status quo. The U.S. is starting to show cracks with the ebbing of democratic guardrails that have checked the president’s domestic and international policy prerogatives. Systemic polarization continues to derail the execution of U.S. foreign policy and signal to America’s allies an unreliable partner. And illiberal powers, including Russia and China, are seeking to undermine the liberal world order while actively participating in it.

Drezner took a deeply pessimistic stance on the search for a robust strategy. He argued that the question at hand should not be what the United States can do following the conclusion of the Trump administration, but whether there exists a grand strategy strong enough to withstand deep political polarization and what he expected to be a revolving door of extreme ideologies shaping and executing foreign policy in radically different directions amid each new administration. In his mind, Trump was merely one factor in a long-standing myriad of problems degrading the American foundations undergirding the liberal international order. While future presidents will seek to revitalize the classical version of U.S. foreign policy, Drezner maintained the prospects of success are unlikely.

Lissner and her colleague Mira Rapp-Hooper took a cautiously optimistic stance, claiming liberal universalism will no longer be on the menu, but an ‘open strategy’ will be. This objective entails four pillars: mitigating closed regional spheres of influence, such as China’s dominance in the South China Sea; preserving global free access to the sea, air, and space; defending political independence, even if that means accepting an ideologically-antipodal state; and it would shelve the so-called handbook of liberalism that seeks to promote a tempered strategy of democratic support. To their eyes, the world is not witnessing a conclusion of American grand strategy, as Drezner has convincingly argued. Rather, America has a window of opportunity, though increasingly closing, to forge a new policy initiative that restabilizes its place in the liberal international order.

While Drezner, Lissner, and Rapp-Hooper ultimately come to different conclusions about the prospects of the U.S.-led world order, their arguments stem from the same theoretical presumption: the United States cannot continue down the same strategic path.


“The Vision Thing”

What do experts mean when they reference ‘grand strategy’? The term is centuries old, though its use has oscillated with frequency since World War II. This ambiguity was captured deftly by Peter Layton when he defined grand strategy using a line from Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Historical usages of ‘grand strategy’ revolved around military ambitions and operations, when today, experts deploy the term more broadly to demonstrate the ways that military, diplomacy, economics, and politics are used to advance a state’s national interests. Twentieth-century British grand strategy, for example, sought to expand imperial power and prevent political decline, whereas today, grand strategy involves the use of both soft and hard power to execute objectives like multilateral peace treaties. In recent years, the novelty of threats including cyberwarfare and global terrorism has left some in the foreign policy community to advocate for more ad hoc approaches rather than a unified—and to their mind, narrow—set of practices.

The complexity of grand strategy is heightened by the ever-evolving foreign policy environment which shapes and aligns a state’s goals. Lyndon B. Johnson’s foreign objectives were defined by Vietnam. George W. Bush was challenged with combatting terrorism, and so too was Barack Obama. And Biden’s foreign policy doctrine sees COVID-19 and great power competition with China at the forefront. Defining and executing grand strategy today is nothing like that of the past, nor should analysts treat it as such.

A Successful Foreign Policy Tale

The execution of U.S. foreign policy has never truly been defined as ‘successful’, with the exception of the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union, which American politicians ascribed to the peerless strength of the United States and the emerging liberal international order to which it was shaping. As Drezner alerted, there is a bottomless well of issues politicians address, even amid a seemingly stable and peaceful period. But over the past decade, these concerns  have been uniquely challenging, and America has seen a decline in its ability to effectively deploy both hard and soft power capabilities to oversee policy at home and abroad. The United States can no longer resume a role in which it exists as an unrivaled hegemon benignantly, though imperfectly, shaping a liberalizing world.

Michael Mandelbaum argues that there was an unusual and robust presence of three peace-promoting features that enabled an unprecedented twenty-five year period of peace following the opening of the Berlin Wall. First, while the U.S. had adversaries that were displeased with the prospects of a U.S.-led liberalizing world order, those countries did not dare to meaningfully challenge the United States because of its vigorous combination of military might and diplomacy, a rich and reliable network of alliances, and an advantageous geographic position. Second, the fall of the Soviet Union triggered increased economic openness in the form of trade and overseas investment, which in turn significantly raised the stakes of going to war. Lastly, the number of democratizing states reached its peak in the 1990s, and this pronounced presence of democracies promoted peace in both powerful and diverse ways. Popular sovereignty allows for free, fair, and regular elections, which offers citizens a level of control over their leaders. Liberty in the form of economic, religious, and political freedoms likewise supports a more empowered population. And this system increases the prospects of peacefully resolving disputes at home, which Mandelbaum argues leads to a more peaceful foreign policy agenda. It was during this period that the United States asserted unrivaled power over a democratizing world.

Taken together, these three features, though important, do not guarantee peace. This is chiefly because a framework does not exist that assures cordial relations among adversaries while  decreasing the prospects of war. Theoretically, if these three peace-promoting features did guarantee peace, the United States would still be in grave trouble.

A Decade of Decline

It is no longer the case that America will enjoy unrivaled power over a liberalizing world. The global financial crisis of 2008 besmirched the liberal economic order, and missteps in the Middle East exposed a great weakness in America’s military approach──that is, when a group strikes Washington, Washington strikes back twice as hard, even if it is to the country’s ultimate detriment. Today, two obvious factors contributing to America’s decline come from the more overt exercise of power  from China and a resurgent Russia.

In the past decade, there has been general bipartisan consensus that America needs to toughen its stance on China in order to preserve an open and stable international system. 

From China’s maritime and territorial claims, to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is far more direct in delineating and pursuing its objectives. However, confrontation with the Chinese Comunist Party is challenging in that most approaches will not involve direct combat, but will see the use of grey zone operations or irregular warfare. The former refers to confrontation that occurs just below the threshold of war, a strategy that the People’s Liberation Army is becoming increasingly masterful at. The latter can be described as a shadowed approach to military affairs undertaken by intelligence operatives, hackers, or special operations forces. These same approaches will be seen amid escalations with Russia.

Competition with Moscow will not occur at the theater level, but will be indirect through cyber hacks or coercion. Presently, American forces are severely under-prepared to engage in unconventional warfare due to an acute focus on nuclear escalations and traditional warfare at major flashpoints, including Taiwan, the Baltics, and the South China Sea. This deficiency will require America to preserve and strengthen relations with key states in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, though many of those alliances were tested and strained during the previous administration, including former President Trump levying steel tariffs on European allies while engaging in a trade war with China. Meanwhile, Russia’s economic standing is nothing to fret about, but their nuclear forces, cyber dominance, and their integration of military and civilian spheres comprise a meaningful challenge to an open and liberalizing world order. The advancement of artificial intelligence is threatening to lower the cost of conflict by reducing military forces and by more effectively striking targets, which is expected to encourage more aggressive and nimble escalations. President Joe Biden has to act cautiously in order to prevent what is becoming a stronger Russian-Sino strategic partnership, which challenges  America’s attempts to minimize security threats through enacting a trade war or issuing sanctions.

Division & Disease

One of the most damaging challenges to an effective foreign policy agenda is domestic polarization, which makes shaping and executing goals lengthy and often inconsequential. The belief that the opposition party assuming power will deteriorate important pillars of American democracy and decrease the chances of one’s own party from effectively competing and winning in future elections gives rise to two issues: a lack of institutional forbearance and mutual distrust. The former refers to officials, such as the president, imposing self-restrictions on their authority in the name of preserving democratic  norms. The president may have the legal right to pack the Supreme Court, for instance, but it would be considered as challenging the spirit of the Constitution. The same is said for government shutdowns and partisan impeachments. American democracy has additionally descended into dysfunction through significant distrust for members of the opposing party, the consequences of which included the dramatic effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A strong grand strategy requires a shared understanding of a nation’s goals and objectives that lasts beyond presidential administrations. Having a continuous exchange of drastically different political ideologies not only decreases the prospects of reaching a consensus on foreign policy, but it signals to America’s allies an unstable and unreliable partner.

That considered, the year of 2020 became even more exigent with the onset of COVID-19. Lockdowns and business foreclosures exacerbated pre-existing conditions that have decelerated and more recently created a drop in the degree of international trade, including a rise in protectionist policies both in the U.S. and abroad. COVID-19 dealt a blow to the already-wounded World Trade Organization, which has seen historic trade imbalances favoring America and the European Union. However, China, India, and Brazil have remarkably challenged America’s preeminence in the WTO and signaled to other states that confronting the U.S.-EU economic alliance is both plausible and can yield meaningful changes. Most recently, President Xi Jinping has embraced America’s strategies to bolster economic authority by using protectionist policies, such as levying subsidies or decreasing foreign direct investment. The degree of economic disintegration through a rise in protectionism and the erosion of an effective body to enforce benign competition and trade is challenging the prospects of maintaining strategic relations that offer both prosperous and unique benefits for the U.S., particularly with China.

An Open World

It has become mainstream to believe that the conclusion of the Trump era will mark a return to classical American foreign policy. The liberal international order will once again thrive, and the United States will enjoy a return to a tightly-knit network of alliances securing a liberal world order. But Lissner and Rapp-Hooper argue quite the contrary, and instead of supporting a return to the principles of liberal universalism, they offer a new approach to grand strategy to meet the challenge of an entropic world: an openness-based order.

To Lissner and Rapp-Hooper’s minds, America cannot, nor should not, confront every problem thrown against the liberal order. Seeking to contain authoritarian states, for example, has had the reverse effect of creating authoritarian spheres of influence. Decoupling from China with the aim of minimizing its increasing command of trade and growing political authority has instead inflicted harm on America’s economy and strained its partnership with important states. Lissner and Rapp-Hooper believe America should instead offer leadership in achieving the only realistic goal of preserving the openness and freedom of the international system. In doing so, the U.S. would address illiberal states by impelling them to accept the principles of independence and openness inherent to the liberal order. Applied to Iranian nuclear proliferation, an openness strategy would accept the Iranian regime instead of seeking to alter it, and America would address the security threat through multilateral efforts, such as the JCPOA. This approach should not be taken as yielding to security threats. On the contrary, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper contend that the United States must maintain a robust military in order to deter aggression and prevent the emergence of closed spheres of influence.

This more modest approach to grand strategy would place an emphasis on preventing an adversary or bloc from controlling areas of interest through a closed sphere of influence. The looming issue is that of the Indo-Pacific, which is home to major flashpoints including the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Korean peninsula. If China were to dominate the Indo-Pacific, it would pose a great threat to American national security by way of China coercing potential partners and blocking navigation as well as strengthening Chinese military mobility. The effort to preserve access to the global commons can create a more vigorous and unified approach to addressing possible contingencies in these areas, and it would offer new avenues for cooperation with both American allies and adversaries, including trade, addressing climate change, and minimizing arms races.

Approaching Russia using this strategy would allow the United States to more effectively address a state that is willing to expend considerable resources and tolerate high levels of risk to materialize principal interests. Russia is unlike the Soviet Union in that it actively participates in the liberal world order and simultaneously benefits from it. President Biden might find strength in pressuring Russia to adhere to the institutions and values that comprise liberal internationalism, including crafting multilateral arms reductions treaties, by threatening to upend the areas in which Russia sees considerable gains from the liberal world order. Expanding the UN Security Council to include Germany and Japan would be an example.

The United States cannot shoulder the weight of regime change. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are a case in point. While the U.S. would be wise to maintain data-gathering facilities and basing arrangements in the region to prevent a need to return, maintaining military presence in the region with the hopes of enacting regime change has proven to be too burdensome on the country and, in many ways, incredibly destabilizing for the host-country. Under this framework, the U.S. would assist countries that are seeking to uphold standards of democracy and human rights, but would not go so far as to initiate regime change.

This strategy, while imperfect, provides a more realistic approach to U.S. grand strategy than that of previous administrations. As the endless list of worries continues to grow, President Biden must depart from conventional approaches to grand strategy to meet a unique and evolving world order, one in which America’s seemingly perpetual authority is seeing its dusk.




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By Taylor Fairless

Taylor graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 2021 with a degree in History and a minor in Global Studies. Her principal focuses are on international security in Asia and Europe. She is pursuing a career in arms control and international security.

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