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Does grand strategy mean a strategy of grandeur?

March 30, 2011

It would be a mistake to assume Libya was the moment of a redefinition of American strategy. Other commentators, such as Galrahn at Information Dissemination, have done a good job of placing Obama’s actions and rhetoric on Libya in the context of his National Security Strategy and his previous speeches. However, Michael Hirsh, noting the absence of a complete grand strategy in Obama’s address approvingly, goes on to make two points: that Obama has no grand strategy, and that the ideas of grand strategies in general are necessarily exceptionalist and expensive.

The first point is frustrating because it asserts that Libya proves there is no doctrine, which is about as foolish as saying that Libya defines one’s doctrine. It also assumes that officials necessarily roll out their grand strategies in very public and easily accessible speeches, and if they do not, that such a doctrine may not exist. However, even a brief perusal would indicate that however unsatisfactory and unsound one might think Obama’s National Security Strategy is, it does constitute a comprehensive attempt at formulating and implementing a grand strategic vision.

Perhaps Hirsh thinks Obama has no grand strategy because Hirsh seems to think the concept inappropriate for our present circumstances:

But more than anything else, Obama’s no-doctrine approach is a measure of these budget-straitened times. The real question is, can the United States afford a grand, strategic doctrine any longer, for the Middle East or any place else? Or is Obama simply forced to speak, as he seemed to on Monday, in the fainter voice of an economically fading superpower?

Hirsh thinks that the “grand” in the phrase “grand strategy” refers to the idea of the size or majesty. That is not actually what the word “grand” refers to: it means it is the highest in rank, the political-military-economic strategy which guides all elements of national power towards a country’s ends, and subordinates the military strategy of its actions. This is misconception deeply wounds his closing argument. His emphasis on the majestic aspect of grand strategy or “grand doctrines” further undermines his closing argument:

Grand doctrines go with the notion of American exceptionalism, but they are also invariably expensive. The Monroe Doctrine, which warned Europe to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, led to wars in Latin America. The Truman Doctrine, which sought to identify U.S. interests with movements aligned against the Soviet Union, and its successor, containment, arguably cost a lot more in American military commitments during the Cold War than some prominent critics believed was necessary (Walter Lippman called the policy a “strategic monstrosity”). It may have even drawn us into Vietnam.

Grand strategies do not imply American exceptionalism any more than military strategy implies a cult of the offensive. Some variant of American exceptionalism may have animated every iteration of grand strategy in America, but I suspect the grand strategic theorists of say, Britain, among other states, would beg to differ that a grand strategy necessarily involves American exceptionalism, as if nobody else does grand strategy. Seeking to point out US-centric thought, Hirsh demonstrates it in his own writing.

Grand strategies are not “invariably expensive.” The idea that the Monroe Doctrine was costly is, well, folly. Consider that early US wars against Latin American states, namely those against Mexico in the first half of the 19th century, were enormously profitable. Meanwhile, most of the financial burden of excluding colonial powers from the Western Hemisphere fell to Great Britain, which was perfectly happy to weaken its great power rivals and had little to fear from its distant and relatively weak ex-colony. But I assume Hirsh is referring to the interventions which increased in tempo in the Caribbean, Central and South America during the latter half of the 19th century and early half of the 20th. Yet this remains ridiculous: US imperialism was not a drain on American finances, but symptomatic of the expansion and health of the US economy. America’s navy grew in line with the increasing size and needs of its economy, as did its interventions. The interventions it conducted in Latin America were not very expensive. The Spanish-American War hardly compares to Vietnam in its cost (and its most expensive, long-term cost, that of fighting in the Philippines, fell outside the Monroe Doctrine) nor do the American interventions in Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine avoided the US need for a heavy investment in land power, and instead contributed to the development of sea power and its accoutrements, which Alfred Thayer Mahan correctly identified as, at the very least, benign to the economy if not helpful to its expansion at the time. Brief American intervention in Colombia yielded the enormously valuable Panama Canal, and its interventions in Latin America tended to further US business rather than drain its treasury, since they were brief and had little land footprint.

Similarly, invoking the Truman Doctrine and containment as unnecessarily expensive does not prove that all grand strategies must be. Indeed, Kennan’s original vision of containment was very focused on leveraging US economic strength over the long-term to overcome the Soviet Union. Containment was limited to keeping the Soviet Union out of key industrial centers to that the US and its allies would retain their economic edge and keep the Soviet Union’s ambitions frustrated.

Now, while policymakers’ application of containment expanded rapidly beyond Kennan’s original vision, this does not mean any US grand strategy during the Cold War would have been invariably expensive. Hirsh’s brief quote from Walter Lippmann is proof of this: Lippmann called containment a “strategic monstrosity” precisely because he thought grand strategic thought had value. Anyone who has read Lippmann’s US War Aims or US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic would know that Lippmann had a clear strategic vision of the post-war era. Contrary to thinking any grand strategy was a ticket to bankruptcy, Lippmann saw a well-crafted foreign policy doctrine as a way to bring a country’s “commitments and power… into balance” and create geopolitical “solvency.” Grandeur need not be part of grand strategy, and this bringing into balance of power and commitments is far closer to the essence of grand strategy than the profligacy that Hirsh describes.

Hirsh seems to think Obama’s lack of grand strategic doctrine is part of his pragmatism (and at this point it should be clear Obama does have a grand strategy), and what is worst is that he assumes a lack of grand strategy is what will keep America geopolitically solvent. He assumes arbitrary interventions made without reference to interests or an over-arching foreign policy vision are the path to retrenchment for an “economically fading superpower.”

What Hirsh does not realize is that grand strategies, when well implemented, constrain foreign policies as much as they animate them, rather than simply driving them into unsustainable commitment. A grand strategy shepherds limited resources towards fulfilling a country’s most vital ends, whether that means continental isolationism or global hegemony. Without grand strategy, interventions may be arbitrary and circumstantial, driven by short-term pressures and sloppy thinking rather than as ends to long-term goals. When commitments are made without reference to power available to enforce them, or power is exercised without regard to commitments, that is where the path to insolvency, both political and economic, begins.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 7:51 pm

    You’re right of course about what ‘grand strategy’ means, and Hirsh’s apparent misunderstanding.

    The post comes off as a bit too celebratory of late 19th-cent. US imperialism for my taste — the occupation of the Philippines was definitely costly for the Filipinos, and also took American lives — but I understand you are rebutting Hirsh’s ‘costly’ line.

    Re what drove US imperialism: Zakaria, in From Wealth to Power, argues that US interests overseas in late 19th cent. expanded in sync with the growth of the federal gov’t and central state apparatus. (Economic motives and the cultural/intellectual climate of the time also doubtless played a part.)

    • March 30, 2011 8:07 pm

      I agree it was somewhat glib about US imperialism, but Hirsh was seemingly focused on the primacy of economic efficiency over moral designs, so I addressed that. If he had chosen to talk about moral costs, I would have agreed, but I think to compare US interventions in Latin America to Vietnam is pretty misleading.

      Hm, I can understand the argument about central government power and imperialism (after all it would make rather a lot of sense given the changes in the federal government’s role the Civil War allowed. Economic motives definitely weren’t the sole cause, and certainly imperialism with a weaker central government played out differently before the Civil War.

  2. Commonsensefp permalink
    April 2, 2011 2:45 am

    Interesting post here I’d just note that I think the more frequent flaw in U.S. pundits who dismiss grand strategy is not to take a U.S. centric view of the subject, but the even narrower cold war-centric view. I’ve come across a few pieces on the Libya speech this week that put forth the same tired criticism of grand strategy that it was was only possible during cold war because of the more simple bipolar int’l system and today “the world’s too complex” for U.S. to have grand strategy; as if Kennan invented the concept of grand strategy. Thus, essentially the same point you make but slightly different.

    I would also note with regard to Zakari’s From Wealth to Power that although LFC accurately summaries how Zakari defines his state centered realism, I’ve always felt the Zakari’s actual case study contained a subtle difference from this definition. Specifically, U.S. interests did expand in synch with its national power (not state power as he suggests) but the initial weak central govt and strong Congress prevented U.S. statesman like Steward from also expanding scope of foreign policy according. Economic growth eventually strengthened central gov’t and more expansive policies followed. Again this is a subtle but somewhat important distinction; state growth did not cause expansion in US interests and drove need for imperialism, other factors like economic growth. Weak state power just initially acted as a constraint on policy; while later facilitating it.

    • April 4, 2011 12:39 am

      Thanks for the reply, and yes, the historical distortion is quite troubling as well. Particularly when commentators argue that the present age indicates that we no longer even need a grand strategy, because these complex systems are self-sustaining, inevitable processes which need only occasional guidance or opportunistic acceleration – in other words, without an existential threat, a grand strategy isn’t really necessary, and the Cold War was a sort of “end of strategic history” as well.

  3. April 4, 2011 9:05 pm

    Briefly w/r/t Zakaria’s ‘From Wealth to Power’: I am not sure I agree with commonsensefp that Z’s case study does not support his theoretical argument. However, assuming commonsensefp is right, Zakaria would not be the first IR scholar who claimed his case study showed something other than what it actually showed. (Plus I’ve never really understood why Z. chose the subtitle he did, but that’s a minor point.)

    Of course, after publishing ‘From Wealth to Power’, which was his Ph.D. dissertation, Zakaria went into high-level journalism and punditry rather than academia, and his subsequent books, which for the most part I haven’t read, are aimed at general audiences. So he no longer has to worry, in the way many academic political scientists do, about methodology, theory, case selection, and all that stuff. (Lucky guy, some would say.)

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