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Slouching towards grand strategy

March 2, 2011

I write a lot about grand strategy, and make a lot of criticism of US foreign policy based on the lack of one. Because I am a student blogger, and not a policymaker, I can get away with this. While reading Tony Judt’s excellent The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, however, this sentence about Aron kept nagging me:

As he wrote of Max Weber, “He was prepared at any moment to answer the question that disconcerts all our amateur politicians: ‘What would you do if you were a Cabinet Minister?'”

Now, let’s be honest here: the burden of intellectual responsibility is at least partly a function of standing and influence. I already offer plenty of policy preferences on all manner of issues. However, in the effort to avoid simply using the term “grand strategy” and the charge of insufficient geopolitical concreteness as unthinking standbys in my foreign policy criticism, this post, probably the first in a series of many, will try to lay out not just principles of grand strategy in general, but of a geopolitically coherent one that puts some substance to its remarks. Being a student and commentator, the only penalty for my naming names and being specific is being wrong and receiving criticism; for policymakers, even being right in a specific public charge or statement of strategy can cause a minor diplomatic incident or worse. So, if there’s at least some debate, the worst that happens for me is I learn something. (I have nothing to lose but free time).

I’ve previously argued against liberal universalism, historicized moral determinism, and worldwide interventionism. I want to say upfront, though, that for those of you expecting a paean to either a paean to offshore balancing or, alternatively, Metternichian or Spenglerian tragic conservatism, I will try not want to simply rewrite, in more tired or unoriginal prose, what other political realists such as Kissinger, Posen, Mearsheimer, Layne, et. al. have written countless times over.

Instead of borrowing someone’s words to extol Metternich, I’ll borrow them to explain why Metternich should not be the philosophical inspiration for US grand strategy. Again, to quote Roberto Calasso’s Ruin of Kasch:

Metternich was the great curator of the museum of Europe, like every lucid conservative, he knew his work could last only a certain time. Talleyrand, on the contrary, aims at survival, moves from one temporary palace to another, regularly sees his books and precious objects sold at auction. He retains only his style, because he knows it is the only weapon for survival that can be trusted. Anyone who, in order to survive, succumbs to the moment and adopts its style will be killed by the moment that follows. Like a Taoist sage, Talleyrand is willing to admit that survival may be infinite. But if it is necessary to die, he knows he must accept this naturally. And even then he strives to hold on to his style, for the last time. “He died like someone who knows how to live,” one lady remarked. It has always been a premise of Talleyrand’s that the course of events is in itself murderous – and that the whole art of politics is henceforth the art of surviving the grip of circumstances. Thus his work is more lasting than Metternich’s: the legacy of the past is guaranteed not by its ability to be restored but by its ability to evade a condemnation already laid down, postponing death moment by moment.

Polities rise and fall. They do not live forever. But we cannot know when, only guess. To bind ourselves to the coming multipolar moment, with its unknown moral and geopolitical contours, is prelude, as Calasso puts it, to being “killed by the moment that follows” – or in this case, the actual moment after the current configuration of US hegemony, which has yet to come. Of course, the embrace of the present moment is hardly unique to the self-styled inheritors of Metternich. In our time as in his, embracing the moment variously condemns the left and right, republicans and imperialists.

If the liberal idealists and neoconservatives would do well to learn from Metternich and see some mortality and limits to their efforts, then commentators inclined towards realism might do well to learn from Talleyrand and see the merit in “evading condemnation” to continue into another historical moment. Pace Charles Krauthammer, decline is not a choice, but what it means obviously is. In the driest terms, relative power decline, based on the empirical historical record, does not mean the United States is in imminent danger of facing a balancing coalition against it and a reversal of its hegemony. More abstractly, it also does not mean the US can continue its liberal democratic hegemonic order indefinitely, nor that an affirmation of its strength or values makes that choice any more practical. To embrace the political style of our own hegemony is to embrace a moment, not a force of history.

I will do my best not to assume any theoretical model or deterministic philosophy of history is operating. If it is not already obvious, the foundation of this grand strategy will not be a supposedly objective material assessment or a check list of policy hotspots and my preferred outcomes. The first ignores the role that my own political values, stances, and understandings, however far I might try to detach them from partisanship, will play in my assessment. The second is not a strategy at all, and there’s plenty of boilerplate that covers that sort of thing. I will not, however, just make an abstract metaphysical or theoretical case. I’ll do my best to play by the standards of what Winterpool described as the “declining hegemon game.”

Despite the unipolar moment, the central problem of the United States’s previous post-Cold War strategy of liberal hegemony has been less the formation of an external balancing coalition, as most realists would predict, than the overextension of the United States – the stretching and straining of its power political means, its credibility to fulfill previous foreign policy obligations, its claims to the universality of its values and its efforts to institutionalize those claims in international institutions and norms. Like a python trying to swallow livestock, the US, and really, the post-WWII global order it created in general, gorged itself on victory and is now trying to digest the consequences of its good fortune. The challenges the US faces today – economic globalization, rising powers, resource dependency, terrorism, irregular warfare – are in many ways the fruits of the success of such policies as trade liberalization, Cold War balancing politics, economic growth, conventional military dominance and technological advancement.

The question is – does the US try to capitalize on its success? Are these just the last few pangs of trouble before the processes we initiated resolve themselves? For the US grand strategic optimists of various stripes, they will. Liberal democratic ideals will no longer pose regional instability when they finally take root. Modern technology will no longer serve to enrich dictators or empower terrorists when it finally ends resource dependency, enables better security, and provides more robust economic growth to integrate the dissatisfied. International trade and globalization will no longer shift the economic balance against the Western states which initiated its most modern form when it culminates in an interdependent economic system.

To recognize that good decisions in the past with enormously beneficial consequences for today and the future may now have unexpected, different, or outright negative consequences is not to reject them – only to say that we need to re-orient our policies to adapt to the differing geopolitical and normative context they have created. Too much US grand strategy makes the error of assuming the US ought to seek a culmination of its post-WWII grand strategies, as if the same geopolitical context and assumptions still reliably applied. This gives the illusion, again, of historical linearity – one where an end state is possible. Plenty of people have walked back from the caricatured “End of History” and “Last Man” arguments, but for many commentators on grand strategy, this is really only a tactical maneuver. The differences were on the timeline and how much capability and obligation policymakers had to act as a vanguard of these historical forces. So while people talk a lot more about the difficulties of democratic transitions, the problems of short-term economic or ideological changes, and the issues of dealing with rising powers, there is still that quiet assumption build into many strategies that, despite whatever we say said between now and the end, Western liberalism, in either its political or economic models, if not both, is still the last word in political theory, and worse, that their interaction with material and power politics constitutes a reversal, and not a wrinkle, on the course of geopolitics and great power interaction.

Essentially, this grand strategy goes beyond thinking about the complications of moral and material factors in the short term, in hopes of resolving them in a culminating historical moment – it assumes that moment will not come at all. With that out of the way, the next section will get more down to earth.

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