I had the good fortune recently to participate in a conference at Duke University sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies. Each of the five sessions featured a paper on the reassessments of U.S. grand strategy that occurred in the aftermath of one of America’s wars from World War II to the present–World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the second Iraq War (not yet over, of course, but already generating much in the way of reassessment). Each of the presenters was to suggest parallels with and lessons for the present. Since four of the five presenters were historians, one might have expected some reticence in complying with the latter part of the assignment, but with one exception (not yours truly) that turned out not to be the case. In any event, the audience, which included such luminaries of grand stategic thought as John Lewis Gaddis (the keynote speaker), Richard Betts, Robert Jervis, Walter McDougall, Stephen Krasner, Stephen Biddle, and Peter Feaver, was anything but shy about making connections between past and present and identifying key issues for the United States in moving along the difficult road ahead. What follows is what one participant culled from the process, which included writing a paper on the reassessment of U.S. strategy produced by the Korean War.
Grand strategy is all about a nation’s leaders defining the ends it desires and then determining, broadly speaking, the means by which those ends are most likely to be achieved. In the case of a stable country such as the United States, the ends are not all that difficult to define. We want to protect our way of life, which means in the most general terms a market system economically and a democratic system politically, with all the individual freedoms that those systems entail and the physical security that they require. If those ends don’t change much over time, the means by which we seek to attain them do. Even here, though, it is fair to say that the strategic reassessments that have occurred since the 1947-1948 period, when the broad outlines of U.S. cold war strategy were first set, have produced limited change, certainly far more limited than might have been anticipated from the campaign rhetoric in such presidential election years as 1952, 1960, 1976, 1980, and, yes, perhaps even 2008.
That said, what major objectives can we identify in looking forward as means to the ends identified above? How do these objectives compare with those of the past? Here again, the task does not seem all that difficult. The maintenance (or reestablishment) of a prosperous economy clearly stands at the top of the list, but there are several others that do not require a rocket scientist to detect. One is to repair, maintain, and hopefully even strengthen our alliances. Perhaps we needed a few years under an administration with unilateralist tendencies to drill home the virtues of multilateralism to the densest among us, but even the putative head of that regime appears to have gotten the point before he left office. What’s more, he may have developed a smidgen of an inkling that moving toward energy independence wasn’t a bad idea either. And even he was sufficiently astute from the start to understand that managing the rise of China by integrating it into multilateral institutions and nudging it toward the acceptance of international norms of behavior was worth some effort. Finally, the desirability of containing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction–and especially preventing them from falling into the hands of non-state actors–combined with the elimination of failed states as breeding grounds of terrorists occurred to our dearly departed, if only through a tutorial of fire.
Of the objectives identified above, two, maintenance of a prosperous economy and multilateralism were “present at the creation” of American strategy in the Cold War. One of the numerous things that the Truman administration got right was the connection between the two, the understanding that sustaining a sound economy required playing well with others and getting them to play well with us. The degree of continuity that has existed on these two objectives and their interconnection suggest that they are fundamental to American success and that the protectionist rantings of some congressional Democrats are unlikely to gain a hold.
The objective of managing China’s rise, of integrating the world’s most populous nation into an evolving international order, has been with us at least since the late 1960s and was fundamental in the Western victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Its integral relationship with the first two objectives is a reminder not only of its importance but of the difference between the Cold War and post-Cold War worlds. That is, in the former the rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union was grounded at least in part in systemic differences that precluded cooperation on most economic issues; this is much less so with the developing Sino-American strategic rivalry, and it bodes well for managing the relationship down the road.
The objective of energy independence has had an erratic history since it first appeared in a major way in the Carter administration. The Reagan, Clinton, and two Bush administrations never made it a priority and, insofar as the second Bush had it on his agenda at all, the road to accomplishment was limited to opening up restricted areas at home to drilling for fossil fuels, at best a partial solution. Indeed, one of the contemporary criticisms of George W. Bush that is likely to endure in future assessments by historians is that he did not use the political climate following 9/11 to lead the nation toward energy independence, but it is likely to be applied as well to the other post-Cold War presidents. Obama shows every indication of taking the objective seriously, in part because it is closely related to the well-being of the American economy, to saving the environment, and to managing our relationship with distasteful and dysfunctional regimes abroad.
That last task, of course, is closely tied to the objectives of containing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the activities of terrorists. As Fareed Zakaria and others have pointed out, the possession of massive oil wealth within a nation’s boundaries often translates into poor governance, and poor governance often engenders the rise of extremist groups. Such groups need targets, and too often in recent decades the United States has been one of them, especially among Middle Eastern extremists. The heavy American footprint in the Middle East has provided a boon to recruitment, and that footprint is as weighty as it is in large part because of the dependence of ourselves and our allies on oil in the region. Thus lightening our presence, especially in the military sphere, would appear to be one method of reducing over time the focus of terrorists on the United States, if not their actual numbers. Another obvious method would be to move toward a more balanced position between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Such moves would not necessarily prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but they might well produce conditions in which the implications of that result to the United States would be reduced.
This brief discussion of the broader elements of American grand strategy since 1945 suggest that the biggest challenges tend to rest in deciding on the specifics of policy rather than on the desirable ends and general means, and then in gaining and sustaining public support for them. Probably the biggest failure of the United States regarding those broader elements has been in the area of energy. It is excusable that presidents prior to the 1970s failed to identify energy independence as a priority; it is far less so for presidents since then. The one president not lacking in vision, Jimmy Carter, lacked the political acuity–and perhaps the circumstances–to make his vision stick. There is hope, based on the beginnings of the Obama administration, that its leader possesses an abundance of good judgment on the specifics of policy, of political skill, and of “the vision thing.” Given the lack thereof of his immediate predecessor, and the general recognition of that fact, it is reasonable to anticipate more change in the implementation of grand strategy than at any time at least since Reagan assumed office in 1981, and possibly even since World War II. Yet the focus of President Obama on the well-being of the American economy provides a strong linkage with the past and suggests that he might consider dusting off for future use the winning soundbite of the 1992 presidential campaign. It might even serve to relieve some of Bill Clinton’s pain.