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Do grand enemies make strategy? Or should grand strategy choose our enemies?

January 5, 2011

Over at Ink Spots, there’s a fascinating and continuing discussion about the relationship between grand strategy and grand enemies. Jason Fritz, citing Churchill’s famous distillation of Britain’s offshore balancing strategy, asked if it was “grand enemies” – the Louis XIVs, Napoleons, Kaiser Wilhelm IIs, and Hitlers of history, which drive grand strategy – and wondered if the lack of such a menacing threat on today’s international horizon is the reason the US has struggled to come up with a coherent grand strategy since the end of the Cold War.

What strikes me, though, is that British grand strategy actually became so well articulated as to give the criteria for the enemy, rather than needing to seek one. Certainly, it evolved historically along with the threats Britain faced, but what is remarkable about British grand strategy is that we can describe it without reference to any particular country, threat or time period. Channeling Colin Gray (and with him Mackinder, Mahan and Spykman), we might distill British grand strategy, as Churchill presents it, to this concept:

Britain is secure and prosperous so long as it rules the seas, which protects its home islands from invasion and links it to the colonies and markets which give it wealth and sustain its power. Therefore, Britain should maintain its sea power and prevent the emergence of a dominant rival which might seek to invade it. However, should a continental power emerge vast enough to secure its borders against land invasion and refocus its conquered wealth into fleet building, that power could imperil Britain’s security and prosperity by challenging its fleet. Therefore, Britain should not simply maintain a strong fleet, but intervene and balance against the strongest or most threatening continental power in Europe.

This actually does not define the grand enemy per se – it defines Britain’s interests, and then uses them to identify possible threats, mainly rival sea powers, and then a way to respond, with an emphasis on the most threatening rival sea power, that of a European continental hegemon. It is not hard to imagine, in an alternate history where Germany remained fragmented and France instead became the most powerful continental state in Western Europe, Britain siding with the German states against it, as it did in so many previous wars. Britain’s grand strategy may have originated with the threat of Philip II, but obviously it secularized these principles from their original historical context – and despite all the national rivalries between Britain and any other state, what remains stronger is the idea of “Perfidious Albion,” which switched grand enemies depending on who fit the criteria its grand strategy laid out.

Of course, I might be missing the point here, since Jason talks about the probability of a threat as well. I think there is a difference, though – if Britain had defined its interests differently, the threats would have been different too. If Britain had decided to couch its interests in terms of ideology, or a different colonial policy, or some other factor, we would have seen different choices of British enemies. What seems important to me  is that Britain’s interests were driving its grand strategy, not necessarily its enemies.

The best grand strategies look beyond the immediate threat of the day, or at least, they come to once that threat ends. Consider US grand strategy during and after WWII. For Roosevelt and many of the Democrats, the grand strategy was not laid out merely as “defeat the current hegemonic European powers which might muster the resources of Eurasia to invade the US and close world markets,” it was to defeat fascism and militarism and build an open liberal regime of collective security with an inchoate world federation in its stead. When Americans such as Spykman and Walter Lippmann attempted to present US aims in terms of offshore balancing, many administration officials and other public intellectuals found it revolting, even if their material arguments were strong.

The problem was, of course, that the fascist states were not the only polities which might threaten American interests, as the behavior of the USSR proved not long after the war. America’s WWII grand strategy was initially obsessed with defeating Germany, Japan, and everything they stood for. But when the war ended and the dust began to clear, the strategy of the “grand enemy” was useless, and needed updating – only to replace it with another grand enemy, and a grand strategy built around defeating communism.

So yes, grand enemies do create grand strategies, but not necessarily the best ones. When one thinks about grand strategy solely in terms of its contemporary foe, you create a grand strategy with an expiration date, one which becomes useless and leaves your foreign policy establishment adrift when the foe is gone – as America has been since the Cold War’s conclusion. Unfortunately, when one becomes used to a grand strategy which focuses solely on threats, you create the conditions for massive threat inflation and grand strategic error once the foe is gone – because this is how your decision-makers and defense/foreign policy apparatus gets used to producing political and bureaucratic results, and because strategies which focus on the hated foe produce the sort of ideological climate where we are accustomed to identifying threats based on our values, which have no territorial orientation, rather than our interests, which do.

Of course, what if one’s grand strategy no longer can find a grand foe? In the case of offshore balancing, this would mean some degree of retrenchment or recovery, where your economy can reap the peace dividend and save up for a rainy geopolitical day. It might also mean diverting some resources to confront lower-tier threats to one’s interests.

None of this, of course, is to imply that offshore balancing is, by the very criteria of what defines grand strategy, the best grand strategy, although it does help explain why it has endured for so long. Other schools of realist, liberal, neoconservative, and isolationist grand strategies exist (describing and evaluating them deserves a book, let alone another post). The key criteria, however, is orienting one’s grand strategy towards concrete interests – whether they are political, military, or economic. Then, might that invigorating grand enemy become clear?

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