US Grand Strategy & Leadership in the World
Norwich University Center for War & Peace Conference
October 7-8, 2014
Given the current state of public discourse, if our goal were to get ourselves on television, we would say that we can’t figure out what the current US Grand Strategy is, but whatever it is, we don’t like it.
The scope of our commitments confounds our ability to contextualize threats, prioritize interests and forecast beyond the crisis de jour.
The truth is that the representatives from think tanks, business, Wall Street and the academies of all three military service branches, as well as our own faculty, who gathered on the campus of Norwich University, were not quite so snarkily perplexed by Washington’s chaotic post-Post-Cold War era foreign policy. We were perfectly able to parse out the current strategy’s desired end state: a world in which the US way of life remains free from foreign coercion.
We were equally clear on what we don’t like. That, in this historical moment when America is at a crossroads in terms of its position in the world, the scope of our commitments confounds our ability to contextualize threats, prioritize interests and forecast beyond the crisis de jour. As a result, America’s current Grand Strategy is failing.
Some might have taken such a conclusion as a source of discouragement. But since most of us were Americans and therefore ever the optimists, we took it as a challenge and moved on. Over the course of our time together, we endeavored to develop constructive suggestions for a Grand Strategy that is based on knowing ourselves, our friends, our competitors and our enemies, as well as the desired end state–specifically, an end state with a clear political objective that balances the need to promote our values with the need to further our interests.
We’re Americans. We think we can do anything, and not without reason. … Yet, there was a cross-current in the proceedings that warned we’re also exceptional in our limitations.
We did this even as we acknowledged that a preoccupation with one “Grand Strategy for Everything” is nowadays a very American point of view, driven by a uniquely American drive to engage with the whole world. (Though, as one of our historically enlightened delegates pointed out, once upon a time it was a European dream.) Rightly or wrongly, our national history has led us to see ourselves as the hero in the white hat who rides in, saves the town and rides off into the sunset. Much of the rest of the world sees us that way, too. For whenever a problem arises, the global 911 rings in the Pentagon–although many would substitute the word “cowboy” for “hero,” and some of us thought the cowboy has been doing less of riding off into the sunset and more putting down roots in far-away lands.
Despite that ringing of the global 911, we must have a healthy sense of our own limitations regarding what we can accomplish in the world. But we’re Americans. We think we can do anything, and not without reason. American exceptionalism can be found in our emphasis on human rights, individualism, capitalism and our creation of the most powerful military the world has ever seen. It can be found in the leading role we’ve taken in maintaining a relatively stable, peaceful international environment in which people can move about freely and conduct business.
Yet, there was a cross-current in the proceedings that warned we’re also exceptional in our limitations, as the past thirteen years of war and seven years of economic struggle have all too painfully demonstrated. We are coming to know ourselves better than we might like to.
We embraced the concept of benevolent American hegemony.
Many in the room felt knowing our enemy is ever more difficult, perhaps because the threats and challenges we face seem endless. Extremist ideology that embraces violence and is resistant to intervention by international organizations understandably has a tendency to grab us by the throat and demand our attention. Political instability also poses a threat, as do irrational, illegal, criminal states or non-state actors who don’t follow universal values and have a toxic effect on the states around them. The rise of peer competitor states, water shortages and drought will need to be factored into a Grand Strategy for the future as well.
Given the nature of the threats, and the incessant ringing of that international 911 line, this conclusion came up again and again in our discussions: America cannot escape its destiny of benevolent global hegemonic leadership, no matter how reluctant a hegemon it may be. In addition, many of us felt it is neither possible nor desirable to deal with threats, such as extremist ideology or challenges, such as the rise of China, by adopting an isolationist stance. So rather than beat our heads against that reality, we embraced the concept of benevolent American hegemony and allowed it to inform the end state that our proposed U.S. Grand Strategy would strive to achieve.
US Political Influence and Military Power
Our Grand Strategy recommends an agile military force with a spectrum of capabilities and resources to effectively wage interstate war while also credibly reinforcing the diplomatic, informational and economic instruments of American power. At the same time, other US government institutions must be enabled to take on those threats and challenges, primarily political, that fall outside the military’s core mission. The goal is to address threats more surgically, using the best tools.
In lieu of mole whacking, we suggest nurturing democratic states that follow universal values.
While epic operations like D-Day have come to define war for many Americans, this form of “traditional war” by the US military has been a relatively rare event. Looking back, for most of our country’s history, our military has performed constabulary functions, be they in American political development, the extension of the continental frontier or in post-war reconstruction roles. Looking ahead, future wars—whether involving insurgencies, non-state actors or interstate conflict—will all require positive engagement with civilian populations, a constabulary function. As well, the force must remain professional if we are to field the necessary twenty-first century technology and capabilities whenever and wherever they are needed.
As we better align the State Department with the tasks of diplomacy, however, we must take care not to militarize it.
What the military cannot do is solve political problems. Clausewitz called war a continuation of politics by other means, not a solution. However, the military is the only US institution with the ability to project power worldwide and therefore the easiest tool to throw at problems that are far away. This has resulted in the “whack-a-mole” military approach to threats. While domestic affairs make it more politically viable than nation-building, seeing a threat and attacking it without a coherent, long-term strategy has been proven ineffective.
In lieu of mole whacking, we suggest nurturing democratic states that follow universal values. Almost all of us felt this may be the best and most enduring solution to many of the threats we face; and such a solution requires expertise beyond that of the Pentagon. We must equip institutions such as the State Department with the personnel and deployment capability necessary to take on threats that are not and never will be responsive to military force.
As we better align the State Department with the tasks of diplomacy, however, we must take care not to militarize it, nor ask it to take on missions that are alien to its nature. The greater challenge, however, is that Congress in its wisdom has shown little interest in funding non-military institutions at anywhere near the same level as the military. As one delegate reminded us, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has observed that the US has more military musicians than it has diplomats.
In the process of developing any Grand Strategy, we must avoid the risk of losing sight of localities. As legendary Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously said, all politics is local. There appeared a strong feeling in the group that the US must pay much more attention to local politics and rivalries before intervening either militarily or politically. In Asia, we are losing sight of the long-term (some felt it might go on for decades) competition and conflict with China over the South and East China Seas, even though we have interests on all sides. The Ukraine situation caught us by surprise. Going forward, knowing the inner dynamics of relationships like the one between Russia and Ukraine will be crucial. Therefore, some of us warned that before we wind up with too grand a strategy, we must make sure we know what we’re getting into.
There appeared a strong feeling in the group that the US must pay much more attention to local politics and rivalries before intervening either militarily or politically.
In addition, while local, focused tactics have shown promise in combating terrorism, we need to reframe reference points toward more strategic local improvement of life, so as to prevent the rise of terrorism in the first place. Grand Strategy opens the doorway for how we deal with those localities, but one strategy will not work everywhere. This theme was to recur throughout our deliberations. We were reminded, for instance, that US interests may not permit consistency when it comes to relying on autocratic regional powers that are effective at suppressing terrorism. Such an approach might offer long-term viability and flexibility, even as it frustrates our allies and other actors while running counter to our own values.
US Foreign Policy Priorities
Recognizing that our Grand Strategy is based on the assumption that foreign policy starts with domestic policy and is inseparable from economic strength and other tools of soft power, we put forth this: In the foreign policy arena, we recommend benevolent hegemonic leadership based on transparently stated US interests, not values. Rather, we believe that our values should be implicit in how we operate instead of serving as an explicit goal.
We recommend benevolent hegemonic leadership based on transparently stated US interests, not values.
The US “owns” a particular notion of democracy, human rights and individualism. This country was founded on the principle of the rule of law, a universal value, and is usually the first country that speaks out forcefully when mass killings and other outrages occur. We can be justifiably proud of this and are in fact much admired for it. An immigrant among us expressed a preference for this earnest but imperfect American track record over European cynicism, saying the US at least has a vision.
We discussed this notion and came to a conclusion that the US must do what it takes to preserve and renew this “American brand.” As an approach to policy, it could be an effective alternative to military intervention–but only if we refrain from making ad hoc claims that we are promoting American or universal values while clearly acting in our own self-interest. Many of us felt our lapses into inauthenticity and hypocrisy have undermined our ability to be effective. Nobody likes or even fears a hypocrite.
Some among us asserted that those who owe others money cannot be free.
All that discussion led us to recommend that US foreign policy begin at home, by focusing on the domestic foundations of American greatness. We must strengthen our human capital, rebuild critical infrastructure, revitalize the industrial base, reform the National Security Council system, and–here is where we really let ourselves dream big, given our broken political system–develop political consensus on national priorities. If we concentrate on building the “shining city on a hill,” we won’t have to sell it.
The challenges to getting this done are great. Some among us asserted that those who owe others money cannot be free. Others pointed out that while the US is deeply in debt to China, China is in this boat with us. If we sink, they sink. Similarly, corporations and markets, both legitimate and criminal, are now intertwined in complex ways, which undermines the idea of nation versus nation as a defining paradigm. Yet another consideration: In order to be a constructive economic hegemon, the US must be dedicated to free trade; must import a lot, possibly to the detriment of our own industry, in order to maintain international liquidity; and therefore necessarily must not save very much. If we continue to underwrite the world, our level of debt will always be high as long as the dollar remains the world’s anchor currency. Taxation, too, plays a role. If we want to be a hegemon, we must be willing to tax ourselves. However, the current political climate does not inspire confidence that these crucial issues will be addressed.
Industrial espionage and potential sabotage also put American economic power at risk. The critical infrastructure that underlies normal life (transportation, communications, power, etc.), depend on software programs that were designed, pre-Internet, to sit disconnected alone in a room. They have since been connected to the Internet for efficiency, but without security, and remain largely unprotected to this day. We are setting ourselves up by not mandating security standards. In the meantime, the Chinese are focused on ramping up production without spending the money on R&D. As well, US doctrine now states that a cyber-attack is an act of war. Yet there is no doctrine on how to respond to an attack when the attacker cannot be clearly identified, as is frequently the case in the cyber world. This led us to the conclusion that it is past time for standards and doctrine to catch up with the real world.
And yet, despite the negatives, as a group we were not pessimistic. We are not alone in our bullishness. The New York Stock Exchange is the real place where people vote on America every weekday. A strong voice amongst us pointed out that when companies go public, they list it here, not Switzerland. Comparative statistics that paint the US as a loser stand in contrast to the reality that our economy leads the world. Non-Americans are attracted to America’s stable financial system, rule of law, property rights, entrepreneurial spirit, optimism, innovation and sophistication. The perception among many non-Americans is that they have a better chance in the US than anywhere else.
But our sunny optimism elicited a strongly felt caution that to be a genuine role model, we in the US must be better at governing ourselves than everybody else. Currently, threatening to refuse to pay our debts makes us look unpredictable and shutting down our government outright foolish. While such markers as wasteful government spending, debt/GDP ratio, budget balance, health, education and inequality put us in the company of a great many less developed nations. If we are honest, we must admit we owe a debt of gratitude to Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and to China for its bullying behavior in Asia. Such missteps increase the perception that there is no viable alternative to the US.
But we seemed unanimous in feeling that going forward, we need policies that will ensure that the reality of America as the land of opportunity matches the perception, keeping in mind that some of the best forms of soft power are not state directed, to include cultural elements and the work of non-governmental organizations. Soft power invites people to imagine an alternate reality, to try on other models. While the US has a real monopoly on soft power, we cannot take it for granted, especially our cultural dominance. In a world where anyone can create professional-looking media products and distribute them worldwide online (IS or ISIS being the latest case in point), we are no longer the sole vector of everything interesting and new.
The second foreign policy priority should be the rise of peer competitors. In cases where these competitors follow international rules and norms, our natural competitive advantages may well necessitate no extra effort on our part, beyond ensuring that we ourselves follow the rules we co-created. Other cases, however, will benefit from a certain amount of management. We call this management effort “smart multipolarity”: Using international organizations to socialize rivals into playing by the rules while the benevolent hegemon (namely, the US) serves as referee. We were so pleased with ourselves for coming up with this sexy new term of art that we pretended for a moment that smart multipolarity is not doomed to be stillborn without that aforementioned (and in the near term unlikely) political consensus.
The stress on rules and norms is not new. What is new is the idea that global order can be built through greater adherence to rules and norms, rather than by relying on moral terms like “axis of evil.” Rules and norms can be used to confront China, for example, through organizations such as ASEAN, which offers the hope of establishing an Asian order of expectations. Supporting ASEAN in a meaningful way and playing our cards right in the negotiations process is more likely to produce a result we can live with than saber-rattling.
If the US harbors grand goals of ensuring security, order and prosperity, the US must have a consistent, effective Grand Strategy. We must find a balance within the spectrum of the realist approach, which is focused solely on our interests, and the values-oriented idealist approach, which is focused on a multi-connected world.
America’s role as the world’s benevolent hegemon is undermined by our political class.
Even as many of us were basking in the joy of ending on a harmonious note, there were those who still felt the shadow of the single biggest rain cloud that had hung over our proceedings; namely, the current toxic gridlock of the American political system, which will likely derail even the most comprehensive and well-thought, well-articulated Grand Strategy. In addition, the news cycle and the overwhelming flood of money into the political process distract and make it difficult to maintain focus on the priorities.
America’s role as the world’s benevolent hegemon is undermined by our political class; in other words, our international leadership is undermined by our domestic leadership. We need leaders who recognize that politics is pragmatic and choices must be made. They should make the necessary choices, while making sure our conscience is clear about how and why we are doing it.
We ended our deliberations thus heartened and chastened in equal measure. Looking ahead, we are invigorated by recalling the Chinese saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Surely, even in today’s political climate, we can manage that much.
Sarwar A. Kashmeri is a professor of political science at Norwich University and a fellow with the Foreign Policy Association. He is the author of two books and is a current affairs commentator who writes regular columns and makes frequent media appearances. He is recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as a specialist on US–European relations and NATO. A former international businessman, he brings a global business perspective to his work in US foreign policy and national security strategy. He was responsible for organizing Norwich University’s 2014 US Grand Strategy Conference: The Future of American Leadership in the World and served as its chairman.
Kristin Henderson is an author and journalist, whose coverage includes reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. Her work earned the Military Reporters & Editors Association’s large market newspaper/magazine awards for domestic and overseas coverage. She is the author of three books, including While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, and her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine and Military.com, among other outlets. Media appearances include NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, NBC’s Weekend Today Show, C-SPAN and the BBC.