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January 24, 2012

Step One to “Grand Strategy”: Break a Contract

by Mike M

So we have yet another demand for a new grand strategy.  This is, one has to say, beginning to get tiresome.  What, after all, is keeping us from the goal?  That we don’t actually need one?  That we have one already?  That no state really has a valid grand strategy, as the “pundits” define it?

Whatever the answers to those questions, one broad truth—one could say the primary “grand strategic” truth—about America’s security posture is now obvious enough.  Dealing with it will be the pivot point of anything that claims the status of a grand strategy.  And there’s no evidence so far that anyone has the guts to do it.

Reading John Ikenberry on the post-war “liberal international order”—you know, the thing that emerged when everybody looked around, said “Moscow scares us, economic chaos looms and we need someone to run the show”—is a helpful reminder of the Basic Postwar Bargain.  “In effect,” Ikenberry explains, “the world ‘contracted out’ to the United States to provide global governance.”

We now know that the foundational beginning point of any new American grand strategy—or any global strategic assessment—must be that this paradigm is coming to an end.  As with most homeowners who do long-term work with a contractor, the world has tired of our whining, our tardiness, our tantrums, our cost overruns, our occasional bouts of drunken fury.  And as for us—well, we want out of the contracting business altogether, what with the low margins, bothersome and overpriced subcontractors, tantrum-throwing clients, and a stack of long-term home improvement projects of our own crying out for attention.

Fractures in the Basic Postwar Bargain are evident in the Middle East, where old-style pro-American autocrats have been heaved overboard and American post-Iraq credibility is shot; and so Arab states are not waiting on Washington to deal with the Syrian instability, but developing their own policies.  Brazil and Turkey moved to develop their own model for a solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff.  Many states in Asia, from India to Vietnam to Japan, are conducting their own energetic multilateral strategizing vis-à-vis China.  And from our end of the telescope, budget crises, debt, income inequality, and an exhausted military add up to a country ready to decline the offer to run the world as it has been doing.

(This is different, by the way, from arguing that America is in “decline.”  America indeed has huge residual strengths and the next decade is likely to witness relative U.S. gains vis-à-vis China in economic and social terms.  But U.S. economic competitiveness and the global bargain are separable; the end of the contract is not based on absolute U.S. decline, but on a collection of intersecting trends.)

So Point One of any new grand strategy:  End the Postwar Bargain.

Except that it won’t happen in the near term, and here’s why:  Nobody has the guts to say this in a political context—except for Ron Paul, and he says it in a way that’s excessive, and foolish.  Surely there’s a happy medium between Oldthink and isolationism; but nobody else on the political landscape (as opposed to the scholarly-punditry landscape) will begin to poke around for that middle ground, because anyone that does so gets beaten around the head and shoulders with the Defeatist Unpatriotic Troop-Hating Appeaser stick.  (All Republican presidential candidates are required to have one easy to hand; often it’s kept safely on their campaign buses, right next to their Socialist Job-Killer Tax-Lover bat.)  Plus one has the sense that Conventional Wisdoms are so deeply ground into our collective consciousness that a serious course correction really does strike most “practical” people as “off the reservation.”

Barack Obama has fully armored himself against these charges by essentially governing as a moderate Republican foreign policy president.  And still Republicans work feverishly to depict him as generally feckless and weak on issues like Iran.  In so doing, they play to a now-well-established, though in historical terms pretty fresh, American self-image as The Honorable Global Policeman.

Hence our predicament.  No new grand strategy of the name will begin to respond to the changing security environment if it does not recalibrate American ambitions and power on the assumption that the Basic Postwar Bargain has been, in effect, vitiated.  This is not to say an important role for America doesn’t still exist.  Indeed figuring out what it needs to be, post-contracting, is precisely the point.  But we can’t begin that process until we admit that the contracting is over.  And we are constitutionally, politically and temperamentally blocked from doing so.

This process is on display all throughout American foreign and defense policy debates.  (Cut fifteen percent from our defense posture?  My God, man!  The Earth would cease to spin on its axis.)  To get a very particular but still symptomatic example, look no further than the new Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC).  This is a Pentagon term for the following notion:  “Countries like China are acquiring anti-access and area-denial technologies and techniques that make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for us to project power into certain areas.  However, projecting power is what we do.  Therefore, this development cannot exist, given our assumptions about the requirements of American power.  And so we have developed a doctrine to generate a counter-reality to this reality.”

The JOAC is filled with lots of neat phrases, at the apex of which resides “cross-domain synergy.”  We will overcome anti-access capabilities with this:

[T]he complementary vice merely additive employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of the others—to establish superiority in some combination of domains that will provide the freedom of action required by the mission.

… which I’m sure has a lot of Chinese planners scrambling for their Pentagonese decoder rings.  One would have thought, in the era of “networked networks” and so forth, that our elite defense establishment was already trying to make all U.S. capabilities work together in this way.  And if merely synergizing existing capabilities could overcome opposing anti-access technologies, it isn’t clear why they were causing such a fuss in the first place.

So with all due apologies to the folks stuck with drafting this thing in some windowless bastion of stale coffee, fraying motivational posters and fluorescence in the basement of the B ring, it has all the hallmarks of an effort to generate really cool-sounding concepts that make it sound like what we already have can resolve irresolvable dilemmas.  What’s serious about this is the fact that the U.S. national security establishment is clinging desperately to its old missions—its old identity—and won’t let go.  (“You can have my global role when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”)  But the world doesn’t care; it’s moving on.  And when a paradigm gets stuck but the world doesn’t, the end result usually isn’t pretty.

So, do we need a new grand strategy?  We need, at a minimum, a reframed strategic concept for a constructive U.S. global role that promotes key objectives and interests in a fashion that matches emerging truths and perceptions rather than fading ones.  Are we likely to get it?  Sure, but it all depends on how.  We can arrive there by design, through pragmatism and courageous dialogue with the American people.  Or we can get there by default, after our obsolete ways of doing business have created so many errors, failures and outright tragedies that the American people finally say, “Enough.

(A follow-up post will soon offer some thoughts on what such a reframed global role and posture would look like.)

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