The topic of grand strategy has become a cottage industry in US policy and academic circles the last 25 plus years. This shouldn’t be a surprise, actually.
For almost five decades, the cold war provided considerable structure for US foreign policy. It spawned a grand strategy—containment of Soviet power and influence—that organized why, how, where and when the US exercised its soft and hard power globally. But once the cold war was over, the main foreign policy mission of the US had also ended. So while the US won the cold war on its terms, and was now the undisputed sole superpower and global leader, it had work to do: it had to rediscover itself in a brand new world. This fact of life triggered a widespread macro foreign policy debate about America’s future role in the world. Put simply, what kind of grand strategy should the US pursue in the coming years?
In a sense, right from the beginning, the post-cold war grand strategy debate met a goldilocks dilemma: Is it better for the US to do too much or too little in the world? Or can the US strike just the right balance? So for instance, should the US attempt to take advantage of its new position in the world—perhaps by creating new institutions or exporting democracy? Or should it be picky about where and when it exercises its power abroad? Or maybe it should simply come back home and build a Fortress America, thereby insulating itself from the dangers and threats beyond its borders? In the end, vigorous internationalism won the day. But how we got there, and the specific contours of it, varied from president to president. Only with the arrival of Donald Trump have we found a full-throated questioning of the virtues of internationalism.
The 1990s were a period in which the US was finding its way in the world. The Clinton presidency placed international institutions and institution-building at the heart of US foreign policy, as NATO and EU expasion and the creation of the WTO were notable self-touted achievements. At the same time, however, Clinton muddled through much of the decade, reactively responding to brushfires in the Balkans and the Middle East, while regrettably doing little to nothing about a host of crises in Africa. In retrospect, given the gathering storm of Islamic terrorism that we now know festered on Clinton’s watch, his tenure reeks of fecklessness and incompetence on foreign policy matters. But even at the time, by the end of his presidency, conservatives viewed Clinton’s presidency as lost at sea morally and substantively. This perceived aimlessness created a sense of purpose for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush.
To correct the mistakes of Clinton, Bush entered office with a mission to lead the US in a new, well-defined direction. This didn’t take shape until 9/11. Prior to 9/11, Bush foreign embarked on a fuzzy-headed mission to harmonize US relations with Russia and China. After 9/11, Bush completely overhauled his foreign policy, turning toward a pro-democracy, nation building craze that led the US into a two-front war and occupation of two countries. What emerged from all this conflict and violence was what came be known as the Bush Doctrine, a series of policies and strategies that shaped and unified America's orientation toward the rest of the world.
At bottom, the Bush Doctrine outlined the necessity for the US to wage unilateral preventive foreign wars in the name of anti-terrorism and pro-democracy reform, and served as a comprehensive organizing force for US foreign policy. Either foreign nations were on board with the Bush Doctrine, willing to assist and work with the US, or they were against the US. Bush’s problem was that his grand strategy wasn’t the right one, for a number of reasons. His foreign policy led to two costly, disastrous wars—wars that hurt or killed thousands of Iraqis and Americans, divided America politically, wrecked America’s global standing, and abetted the rise of global rivals like Russia and China. Additionally, there were, and still are, scholars and intellectuals who see global terrorism as more of a policing issue than a strict foreign policy one. Moreover, while the dangers of terrorism to Americans are real, the probability of experiencing such an attack is extraordinary low. Americans are much more likely to die as a result of a lightning strike or by falling down in their bathtubs.
Discussion about US grand strategy remained a hot topic during the Obama years. After suffering through roughly seven years of a costly, expansionist grand strategy, hopes were high that Obama would offer a new foreign policy approach that scaled back US overseas commitments while also improving America’s image globally. Supporters of Obama wrote pieces spelling out what a potential Obama Doctrine might look like. But over time, those hopes were dashed, as Obama offered less a grand strategy than a general dictum for the US “not to do stupid stuff.” Obama’s risk averse foreign policy—aside from the catastrophic Libya intervention—bled into his handling of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Iran, among other cases. This relatively low-risk approach prevented the US from accruing massive costs in blood and treasure, in contrast to the Bush years, though it did feed the perception, in the US and beyond, that Obama was content with “leading from behind.” Which, in turn, arguably galvanized the avaricious ambitions of Moscow and Beijing to fill the power vacuums created by America’s reticence to involve itself in various global disputes and conflicts. Richard Haass used the term “reluctant sheriff” to describe the US during the Clinton presidency, though it probably applies much better to Obama’s America.
With the transition from Obama to Trump, the grand strategy debate has once again reared its head. Does Trump have a grand strategy? If not, what might a Trump grand strategy look like? Trump advocates claim that his America First platform is his administration’s foreign policy organizing principle. America First is fashioned as an anti-globalist program that is skeptical of trade deals, international institutions, and global elites. It defines the national interest very narrowly, as Trumpites prefer instead to erect barriers and walls to keep out bogeymen of various ethnic and national backgrounds. But on specific details, it's inchoate. The biggest problem is that America First doesn’t offer any guidelines as to how we can determine what’s in America’s best interests in each and every instance or event. America First is a foreign policy nugget—really, a slogan—in search of something larger, bigger to flesh it out and give it more meaning and substance.
One could argue that Trump’s National Security Strategy is his administration’s grand strategy. It’s supposed to be, but it’s not. It’s a document that has, in part, translated some of Trump’s tweets into foreign policy jargon and, in part, incorporated some of the contemporary thinking of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. This dual nature of the NSS makes for a jarring read, particularly the sections on Russia and China.
A smart-aleck could argue that Trump’s personality quirks prevent him from thinking strategically or in a long-term manner. But there really is something to this. Frankly, my biggest concern is that Trump, whether on television or in the White House, is notorious for not liking scripts—which is somewhat akin to how a grand strategy functions for leaders and their governments—but desperately needs one at all times. He sees them as too confining, believing that he’s better—in terms style and substance—when he’s able to improvise and rely on his instincts. Unfortunately, as we have seen, a freewheeling Trump is one who is prone to exaggeration, lying, boasting, and making all sorts of wild statements and accusations seemingly without much concern about the consequences—to him, to the US, to the world. Yes, he’s a bit stiffer and looks uncomfortable, but Trump does perform significantly better when he’s prepared, when he’s giving remarks that have been ruminated over and vetted for accuracy, clarity and coherence—which by themselves aren’t the same as grand strategy, but they are by-products of what a well-oiled White House team and a grand strategy can offer. An organized, detailed grand strategy would keep Trump more focused and on point, polish off some of his personal rough spots, and deliver a more consistently effective US foreign policy. Alas, this something we probably won’t see—in part because of Trump’s personal preferences and in part because there are no signs his team deems a foreign policy doctrine as especially important.
Fortunately, Trump foreign policy hasn’t led to any major calamities yet. However, he has committed a host of unforced errors—including the decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, station a permanent force in northern Syria, engage in name calling with Kim Jong Un, and act deferentially to Russia and China—which could well haunt the US down the line.