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Slouching towards grand strategy (II)

March 3, 2011

Part II in a continuing series.


Before diving into questions of whether US leadership, hegemony, retrenchment, or any other approaches constitute the best form of grand strategy, we must identify what interests a grand strategy for the United States is supposed to advance in the first place. Doing so is necessary to avoid the circular and convoluted sort of grand strategy that Ink Spots’ Gulliver so ably demolished in May.

What are American interests? First and most obviously, they include preservation of US territorial integrity and security from foreign coercion.  Protection of American trade, and US access to the global commons generally, is another historically-persistent interest. Another enduring interest is the ability to protect US citizens overseas, though the extent and circumstances of said operations obviously fluctuate. Generally, US grand strategy must also consider the economic interests and political interests of the United States, which will vary more than these other two goals. The US has a national interest in ensuring access to raw materials and resources necessary for economic activity, maintaining  communications, and, to a certain extent, stabilizing international finances and markets. As for political interests, the US, broadly speaking, should to be free enough from foreign coercion and influence that it can uphold the US Constitution and allow for the self-determination of its own domestic policies to the broadest possible extent, and fulfill the basic Hobbesian liberal duty of maintaining a monopoly on force and minimizing foreign coercion from influencing the ability of American citizens from making their own choices.

Given the range of interests here, and the relative weight of moral factors in our foreign and defense policymaking, we must recognize that not just the friction of the real geopolitical environment but the inherent tension between our desired goals necessitates, given limited resources, requires American policymakers to rank them, and not assume they are all equally compatible and mutually reinforcing. This is still abstraction, however. What do these interests mean concretely for US foreign policy?


Excluding a rival great power from the Americas is a prerequisite to the enormous security the United States enjoys. Students and practitioners of international politics in the United States have long recognized the benefits of having a hegemonic status in one’s own region. Even when world primacy is impossible, primacy within one’s own continental system goes a long way towards furthering a great number of American interests. Alexander Hamilton, as Publius, pointed out that just as English liberties owed something to being of Europe rather than in it, the American republics, united under one flag, would have even greater insulation from the demands of a continental balance of power system.

The debates over the vulnerability of America’s expansive borders with Canada and Mexico, and consequently, over the potential costs of securing them from unwanted entry, are minute in comparison with their potential vulnerability and costs if the US did not enjoy a hegemonic position in its own neighborhood. The fact that the US need not maintain heavy formations along its thousands of miles of border with Canada and Mexico is a blessing that cannot be understated.

Fortunately for the United States, this favorable geopolitical environment is unlikely to alter for the worse. Only Brazil seems to have any great power ambitions, but the United States need not fear it. Despite Brazilian naval coöperation with China, an aim towards developing SSNs, and flirtation with nuclear armament, past and present, Brazil has little interest in external balancing against the United States, and will likely use its navy for prestige and defense of its trade. While Brazil may influence US grand strategy in other ways, it will not fundamentally change US preponderance in its own hemisphere.


Geography has made maintaining this form of regional hegemony relatively easy for the United States. The Atlantic and Pacific shield it from invasion and any aircraft except strategic bombers and carrier-borne warplanes. So, for any sort of strategy with its basis in survival and political realism, why go beyond neo-isolationism and a minimal defense posture?

Historically, America’s so-called isolationism was adherence to the Monroe Doctrine. America simply chose to isolate itself in military affairs from Europe, it did not isolate itself economically – nor did it shirk from intervening in Latin America, opening Japan, or expanding American trade into Asia across the Pacific. America’s isolation from the European continental geopolitical system came not simply from any principled refusal to intervene in European politics, but an understanding with the British fleet to keep its continental foes out of the Americas. However, the decline of Britain’s naval mastery raised the specter of rival European imperial powers choosing to pursue their economic and political interests in the Americas. Halford Mackinder accurately grasped that major continental powers were about to economically outstrip smaller European states, giving them the opportunity to not simply challenge insular states’ fleets but to defeat them, provided their strategy allowed them to develop resource and economic bases defensible from naval power projection as well as controlling coastal areas from which to deploy their own fleets more freely and deny access more effectively to their rivals. Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, though they might have differed in their relative emphasis over Eurasia’s inland fortress “heartland” or its more developed “rimland” for such a continental empire, are probably correct in their assessment of the potential power of a polity which has hegemony over both a significant part of the Eurasian rim and the Eurasian heartland simultaneously.

The US thus has a vital interest in preventing the collapse of Eurasian order and the rise of a state which could dominate enough of the landmass to develop enough industrial and military potential to make sustained incursions into either American continent. Merely preventing the rise of such a power does not call for a constant presence, but, as in the case where a state sought to achieve such goals (as during World War II) or threatened to (the Cold War), intervention is certainly prudent.


At a minimum, the United States must offshore balance, but most offshore balancers significantly overstate the costs and understate the benefits of a more active posture, even if we simply concern ourselves with power politics. The chief realist argument against a search for global or extra-regional hegemony, or provocation of rival great powers generally, is that primacy inevitably triggers a balancing coalition against the hegemonic threat. However, Levy and Thompson explain a sound theory, and significant empirical data, suggesting that different dynamics operate in continental systems than the global maritime system.

The security dilemma and perceptions of threat simply do not work the same way for continental and maritime powers. The loss-of-strength gradient means that when a continental power builds up for war, its neighbors are more likely to balance against it than bandwagon with it. Viewed in a wider context taking offshore powers into account, this means that by some measures, continental powers balancing against the hegemonic aspirant might still seek to bandwagon with a much stronger, even hegemonic, maritime power. Generally, even focusing one’s military modernization and force structure on increasingly maritime technologies might be insufficient to convince a neighboring state one’s intentions are to deter or defend against the maritime hegemon. After all, those maritime forces might serve to deny the hegemon access to the continent while the continental power engulfs its weaker neighbors.


Similarly, access to the global commons requires assertive, though not necessarily inflexible, arrangements for power projection overseas. Although the majority of the ocean is beyond sovereignty, the sea lines of communication necessary for global economic and military circulation are not always so. There remain critical naval choke-points whose access, or, in the case of a hostile offensive, whose denial, an over-the-horizon presence, no matter how technologically advanced, cannot automatically ensure. Although missiles and carriers have vastly increased the inland striking power of modern fleets, diffusion of and innovation in military technologies and doctrine is making anti-access, area denial an increasingly viable option even for lesser powers such as Iran. A geographically proximate state, with enough money and institutional capacity, can adopt a number of techniques and technologies – such as the use of quiet diesel-electric attack subs, improved anti-ship missiles, or even irregular swarming tactics in confined waterways, to significantly raise the cost of taking and holding naval choke-points from offshore.

The Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, and Suez Canal (along with the Sumed pipeline) remain important for Eurasian great power geopolitics and international trade in the Middle East. The Straits of Gibraltar and Bosporous also choke off Mediterranean access, though NATO and the debellicization of Europe has diminished their importance. The Straits of Malacca and Lombok, however, are likely to prove the vital maritime choke-points of the 21st century, as the center of political and economic gravity shifts from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.

Of course, new foci may emerge. Chinese interest in a canal across the Kra peninsula may alter the geostrategic distribution of power in the Indian Ocean. The decline of Arctic Sea ice, however, will make the Arctic Circle increasingly accessible and open new lines of communication – and thus, new choke-points – for international commerce and strategy.

Similarly, some degree of forward deployment remains important for defending overseas interests. While the degree of forward deployment of facilities, logistics, and forces should always be subordinate to the strategic importance of the relevant area, Kieran Webb’s research demonstrates the continued advantages of forward deployment for overcoming the loss-of-strength gradient. Contrary to Kenneth Boulding, the concept’s very author, new technology has not yet revolutionized offshore powers’ ability to overcome distance. Where fighting involves sustained deployment or conflict on land, the pre-positioning of things like fuel, arms and spare parts makes a serious difference to an offshore power’s combat effectiveness, particularly if it hopes to wage land campaigns.


Overseas presence, as opposed to over-the-horizon capabilities, thus significantly ameliorates the potential costs and risks of a conflict on another continent for the United States. However, it is far from inexpensive. Similarly, the more the US employs overseas basing and pre-positioning, the more interlinked its strategy becomes with other nations, the more entangled it becomes in regional affairs. Thus, the US quickly finds a host state’s problems become its own problems, or worse, that the host state decides to cut its investment in its own defense capabilities out of knowledge the US relies on it for some critical aspect of its security strategy, even if the primary threat the partner country faces is only of tangential relevance to the United States. Global, unlimited basing in and of itself is expensive, but the added political, economic, and military costs of the ensuing security commitments the US makes to overcome the abandonment-entrapment dilemma can become enormous and severely limit American freedom of action.

Thus, the weight of US forward deployment strategy must align with a region’s importance to the United States. It cannot support a global commitment. Some key criteria should decide which regions and commitments are important to American interests, and which we can safely draw down or withdraw from. As Gulliver paraphrases the current NSS in his above-mentioned post, America’s priorities, determining its security commitments, are:

pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation’s sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and tis neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of “universal values” (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order “capable of addressing the problems of our time.”

This was probably not a surprise for the strategically minded. Stephen Walt, in 2009, during Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings, noted similar problems with the administration’s substitution of laundry lists for grand strategy. Going through that Clinton list at the time, I counted nearly 40 “priorities” that necessitated engaging about 70 countries, excluding “global” priorities which would probably need to involve more.

Actually prioritizing our interests both among categories of interests and geographically, should allow the US to significantly reduce its overseas posture without having to retreat to offshore balancing. It will, however, require giving up the illusory pursuit of truly global primacy. While the United States will continue to enjoy significant advantages and remain the only truly global power, it will have to chasten its unilateral and hegemonic role. A deeper discussion of where, on what, and how the US should prioritize its interests will be the subject of the next post.

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