Where’s the Grand Strategy?

Posted: August 8, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , ,

Does the administration have a grand strategy and if so, does it matter? Although there’s a sometimes befuddling cluster of definitions that blur vision, policy, strategy, ways, ends, means, and the likes, Daniel Drenzer, writing at Foreign Affairs suggests that grand strategy is

…a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them.  Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence.  Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones. 

Why is grand strategy important?  Because, as Drenzer offers in his pre-article summary, “In uncertain times, grand strategies are important because they help others interpret a country’s behavior.”

Drenzer offers the administration actually has two grand strategies (1 and 1A, I suppose).  After all, why limit yourself to one grand strategy when you can have two?

GS1 as we will call it, is described as consisting of multilateral retrenchment, curtailing overseas commitments, restoring U.S. standing in the world, and getting “partners” to carry more of the security load.  Drenzer offers kudos to the administration for consistently articulating and pushing GS1, but how do the outcomes stand up to the harsh light of reality? 

Quite poorly, it seems.  With the arguable results of the ‘Russian reset’ (whose ability to further U.S. interests is far from proven), none of the goals have been close to being accomplished.  And then, consider this piece from the Daily Beast (emphasis and link in the original):

In an exclusive analysis, The Daily Beast combed through a decade of military deployment history, and found only a faint line between the Bush and Obama presidencies. The number of American troops abroad has dropped less than 1 percent under President Obama, buoyed by what appears to be a sharp rise in the number of clandestine assignments, and curious growth in the number of personnel at Guantanamo Bay. None of the robust deployment trends begun under Bush have significantly abated. And since World War II, only President Bush has scattered a greater proportion of American might overseas: 39.5, 42.8, and 39.1 percent of American troops were abroad between 2006 and 2008, compared to Obama’s 39.3 percent in 2009 and 38.2 percent as of December 2010, the most recent date for which worldwide data is available.

Beyond the faint line, is Europe carrying more of the NATO burden?  Not if you believe the recent speeches given by former Secretary of Defense Gates.  How about restoring our former glory?  The U.S. standing in the Arab world, is now actually lower than it was during the last year of the Bush administration.  

Drenzer offers that “Obama erred in believing that improved international standing would give the United States greater policy leverage.” Translated into the schoolyard vernacular, even if you think you’re a cool kid (which you may not be), that doesn’t mean others will give you their lunch money or do your homework.

GS1A, as it is offered, is counterpunching, and in this regard, Drenzer feels the effort has been quite successful, if understated (or better, unstated).  This can be seen not in the split-the-difference surge in Afghanistan, but rather in the sharply targeted UAV attacks (way up in number and effect from the Bush administration) and the recent bin Laden take-down.  But Drenzer points out the presence of GS1A can only be derived through observation; it hasn’t been articulated.  In fact, you could say it’s perhaps been in disguise.

And that’s an essential differentiation, for as John Mitchell might suggest, watch what we do and not what we say.  Countries pay more attention to what the United States does, and while having a coherent grand strategy (including consistent messaging that’s linked to consequential action) is desirable, it isn’t really essential.  Well, it isn’t normally really essential.

Drenzer says grand strategy really does matter because today is a period of “radical uncertainty,” of which grand strategy can “function as cognitive beacons, guiding counties to safety.”  So how is the cognitive beacon working?  Is anyone headed to safety?

Unfortunately for the administration’s domestic plans, it’s become totally obvious that a capitalist economy is incapable of supporting a European-style welfare state, let alone the additive burden of serving as the ‘world’s policeman.’ And as the President has acknowledged, the U.S. economy is the true source of our national power.  Domestic turmoil has weakened the ability to institute foreign policy improvement (versus mere change) and is made manifest by the recently revealed and Orwellian bumper sticker “leading from behind,” which is backed by not hard power or war, but rather, the occasional  “kinetic military action.”  The saying – doing disconnects, expressions of cognitive dissonance, seem quite large and substantive at this point.  

Will the counterpunching of GS1A have legs?  For the next one to three years, it appears likely.  In Afghanistan, with the absence of a challenger to seriously inhibit our air supremacy and intelligence efforts, progress (defined by decimating terrorism leadership and eventually suffocating their networks) is being made and we’re generally nimble enough to avoid most major punches (the recent and tragic loss of 30 U.S. troops and eight Afghanis excluded). 

However, the bigger issue is whether our presence in Afghanistan (or Iraq) is a core national interest to begin with.  The lesson, based on the announced withdrawal plans, seems to reflect that it isn’t.  Counterpunching against terrorism may work well enough but it requires that much of our military serve ‘over there.’  And while we’ve become pretty proficient at fighting terrorism, a conflict with a near-peer (or let’s say a ‘regional power,’ let alone one with nuclear weapons) would certainly introduce the need for Grand Strategy 2.0 and its intellectual heirs. 

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