Revisiting Grand Strategy

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 5, May 2020

John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.,  Professor of Military History
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

The General Board of the U.S. Navy meets in 1932 in Washington D.C. This board existed as an advisory body to the Secretary of the Navy from 1900-1950, and was involved in long range strategic planning focused on the maritime security component of U.S. grand strategy. Its members included the Chief of Naval Operations, President of the Naval War College, Commandant of the Marine Corps and head of naval intelligence. Source: Naval Historical Center.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Daniel W. Drezner, Ronald R. Krebs, and Randall Schweller hoisted the white flag: “The End of Grand Strategy: America Must Think Small.”   The article implies that an American attempt to develop a grand strategy, or to support the current grand strategy in vogue, are both vain pursuits.

One reaction to prescriptions of this sort, or rather proscriptions, is to examine what the authors mean exactly by “grand strategy,” what is their definition?

Perhaps their definition is so different from other accepted definitions of this concept that there is no need to worry, maybe they are talking about something else.  After all, this author wrote on the topic ten years ago, bemoaning that the problem was rooted in, although not limited to, a general lack of understanding of the meaning of the term, especially by military professionals in the nation’s service and war colleges.   It might be useful to compare my definition with that consigned to the dust bin by the FA authors.

Carl von Clausewitz has written that as military campaigns proceed, the war as a whole replaces the campaign, and the whole country the theater of operations. In other words, grand strategy is “the next stage,” which encompasses the strategic considerations for “the whole country.”

But the authors argue that, “A grand strategy is a road map for how to match means with ends.”

That settles nothing, although I prefer mine to theirs, which could apply at just about any level of conflict, from a platoon fight in Helmand Province to a 40-year Cold War.  So what do the authors think the “wrong” grand strategy — or whatever it is the US executes as policy—might be?  The authors characterize the current American grand strategy as to “…sustain and expand a global order that promoted open markets, open polities, and multilateral institutions.”   These flowery words have been characterized by MIT political scientist Barry Posen as “liberal hegemony.”  Hegemony infers a hegemon, and that hegemon, of course, is supposedly the United States—the actor employing the verbs of this approach. The authors’ real complaint is with that grand strategy—liberal hegemony—and its state of disrepair under the current administration of the United States.

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Canary In The Coal Mine: The US Navy’s Dilemmas As An Indication Of A Culminating Point In National Grand Strategy

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2020

By Captain Robert C. Rubel USN (Ret)


June 20, 2000 – The U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln Battle Group and ships from Australia, Chile, Japan, Canada, and Korea steam alongside one another for a Carrier Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. US Navy.

From a resource point of view, the US Navy has not been doing well lately, its program to expand fleet size to 355 ships, a number that seems to be accepted by the Administration and Congress, has been suffering a series of setbacks.  Whether being raided for money to build a border wall, forced to fund the replacement ballistic missile submarine program or constricted due to the need to bolster current readiness, the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is under tremendous pressure, and Congress, despite a desire for a bigger fleet, has not increased the Navy’s top line sufficiently to accelerate ship construction.  Moreover, and perhaps worse, the Navy has been unable to produce a fleet structure assessment (FSA) that passes muster with the Secretary of Defense, who doubts the validity of a key assumption that underpins the study.[1]

Many, including a number of my colleagues, feel that the answer is a significantly increased Navy budget, as if the only problem is money.  While there is no doubt that a bigger budget would lubricate shipbuilding, it would not necessarily solve the bigger problem of fleet structure analysis and fleet design; how many of what kinds of ships should the Navy have in the future and the uses of each kind.  But more money does not seem to be in the cards, and correcting assumptions about the effectiveness of the Navy’s principal force generation process, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) does not bode well for what an adjusted FSA would reveal.  The Navy is facing a no-win situation, and to find a way out, we have to engage in a deeper strategic diagnosis of the problem. Continue reading

War In The Taiwan Strait Is Not Unthinkable: Some Will Lose More Than Others

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 11, November 2019

By Grant Newsham

Screen capture of Chinese state media video of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops training for an assault on Taiwan’s presidential office. Pictured is a mock building at the Zhurihe military base in China, that mimics the actual building in Taipei. The video aired July 5, 2015. CCTV via Apple Daily.

Whether anyone actually ‘wins’ a war is a philosophical debate.  The Germans and Japanese in 1945 might have thought wars do indeed have winners.  But perhaps it’s better said that in most conflicts some parties ‘lose more than others.’

Such would be the case if Beijing attempted to militarily subjugate Taiwan.  And Xi Jinping just might do so.  He declared in a January 2019 speech that “we (China) do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures (to take Taiwan.)”[1]

The Battle for Taiwan would have truly global consequences, akin to the invasion of Poland by the Soviets and Germans in 1939.

However, much of the debate over a Taiwan Strait conflict focuses on preparation for and conduct of the PRC’s attack: whether Beijing will or won’t attack, what an attack might look like and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, whether the US will or should get involved and whether it ought to sell Taiwan ‘this or that’ weapon.  Such discussion is useful, but the actual consequences and longer-term ripple effects of a fight over Taiwan deserve much more attention.[2]

This paper examines key aspects of what happens once the shooting starts, and the follow-on global economic and political effects.  The envisioned scenario is a full-scale PLA assault against Taiwan, but it’s worth noting that even a ‘limited’ assault–such as against one of Taiwan’s offshore islands–may not stay limited for very long: given Beijing’s oft-stated determination to take all of Taiwan, an off-shore island assault would only constitute a tactical objective in the march on Taipei, and would also have serious and wide-ranging political and economic consequences.

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China and the War of Shipyards and Factories

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 10, October 2019

By William R. Hawkins

Chinese aircraft carrier group, including J-15 fighters and helicopters, trains in the South China Sea in late December, 2016. Visual China Group via Getty Images.

Satellite images show that China is making rapid progress in building its new Type 02 aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The Type 02 is a larger design than Beijing’s first two carriers which were based on Soviet-era light carriers of about 67,000 tons and which lacked catapults for launching first-rate fighters. They used “ski jumps” to put planes into the air, limiting them to the small, short-range J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter-bombers. The Russian-built/China modified Type 01 can only carry 24 of these warbirds, though the China-built 01A, which is about to deploy, may be able to carry a few more. The Type 02 is a much larger design more in line with American carriers. At an estimated 80,000+ tons, it will be able to carry 40+ fighters as well as supporting aircraft such as early warning and control planes. In comparison, the typical U.S. Navy carrier has 60+ fighters along with other support aircraft. They are also nuclear-powered which the Chinese carriers are not. This does not mean, however, that American naval-air superiority is assured. Continue reading

Arctic Enterprise: The China Dream Goes North

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 9, September 2019

By Jonathan Hall

Arctic Ocean, ship on Barents Sea. Getty.

Until recent years, harsh weather and unmanageable navigation routes have precluded all but the most determined crews from venturing through the Arctic. As climate change continues to take effect, however, warming temperatures are opening up the region to new opportunities. In 2017, for example, merchant ships were able to pass through a shipping lane, known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), for the first time without icebreaker escort.

The NSR has since been discussed as a logistical windfall that will revolutionize the world of international shipping. The often-cited reasoning is the potential 5,000 mi (8,000 km), or 10-15 days saved in transit, as compared to more traditionally used routes such as the Strait of Malacca, or the Suez Canal. While the NSR is only open three months per year, climatologists predict it will be traversable for 9 months out of the year by 2030, and completely ice free within the next two decades. As these changes are coming into effect, no state seems to understand the geopolitical advantage a strong presence in the Arctic will bring more so than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Continue reading

What The Philippines Must Do To Defend Itself From China

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 9, September 2019

By Sannie Evan Malala

A Philippine flag flutters as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is seen anchored off Manila bay on June 26, 2018. – A US aircraft carrier visited the Philippines on June 26, the third such call in four months, as its admiral hailed America’s “enduring presence” in a region where China’s military build-up had raised tensions. Ted Aljibe / AFP / Getty Images.

The Philippines is strategically located in Southeast Asia, at the fault-line between Communist China and the democratic nations of the Americas and Europe. In the north is East Asia, full of wealthy market democracies in increasing conflict with China. To the southwest are countries seeking to defend their exclusive economic zones from China, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. As China’s power grows, the fault-line is widening and trying to straddle the middle will only result in our falling into the chasm. The Philippines must choose a side – subservience to China or joining a coalition of the willing in defense of each country’s independence and democracy from the Chinese hegemon. The Philippines has yet to take advantage of its full potential and has become economically poor and militarily weak, primarily due to corruption, internal armed struggle, and its growing relationship with China. For the Philippines to avoid being a satellite of China, this is what we must do. Continue reading

Nasif Ahmed: Hong Kong Independence

“Hong Kong Independence”, by Nasif Ahmed.

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Democratizing China Should Be The U.S. Priority

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 7, July 2019

By Anders Corr

Protestors hold placards and illuminated smartphones beside a large banner calling for democracy during a protest in Hong Kong, China, on June 26, 2019. Some protesters held signs calling on U.S. President Donald Trump to save Hong Kong. Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. goals in relation to China, our biggest national security threat, tend to array along three main axes: military, diplomatic, and economic. But in deference to the failed strategy of engagement, we don’t use the significant normative and ideological power of democratization as a multiplier on these battlefields, nor does the prospect of democratizing China factor sufficiently in our cost-benefit analyses.

Militarily, we prioritize defense from China, but other than ongoing military support to Taiwan and the Tibet campaign of 1957-72,[1] we have not used our substantial military resources to promote democracy in China, for example in the rebellious zones of Xinjiang or Hong Kong. Economically, we prioritize U.S. market share in China, IP protection, and beating China’s GDP, technology and industrial strength. But we don’t condition our China trade on our lowest priorities, human rights and democracy.

In the short term our military and economic priorities are correct, but given the Chinese Communist Party’s growing strength globally, we must increase the prioritization of democracy as a long-term end goal in China, and we need to reevaluate opportunities to use our still substantial but relatively diminishing military and economic power to bring democracy to China. Continue reading

Celebrating Independence In Al Anbar, Iraq

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 7, July 2019

By Heath Hansen

Al Anbar Province, Iraq, in Summer 2007. Photo: Heath Hansen.

Even though it was only 0500, the heat was already approaching the high 90’s and I could feel my sticky uniform only too well, sandwiched between skin and body armor. The Humvee engines were idling and the smell of JP-8 fuel stung my nostrils. “Hansen, 2nd platoon’s electronic warfare vehicle is down. We’ll need you in the lead element for the mission. You’re truck commander.”

“Roger, sir,” I replied to my platoon leader, “My truck’s ready, I’ll let the crew know.” More than four years had passed since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and we were still trying to secure independence for this country. It was the summer of 2007, in Anbar Province, and my company was headed out for another assignment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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Geopolitics and the Western Pacific: An Interview with Leszek Buszynski

The book cover of Geopolitics and the Western Pacific: China, Japan and the US, by Dr. Leszek Buszynski. Routledge, 2019.

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 6, June 2019

This interview with Dr. Leszek Buszynski, author of Geopolitics and the Western Pacific: China, Japan and the U.S. (Routledge, 2019), took place by email with Dr. Anders Corr between May 31 and June 12.

Anders: What are some of your recommendations in the book?

Leszek: The recommendations are in the final chapter and have been written from the perspective of Australia as a a middle power and ally of the US.  Basically, the U.S. relies excessively on military power to counter China but this is creating the fear of a US-China clash in the region from which China benefits, particularly within ASEAN.  Scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a mistake because it is a way of bringing together the states of the region into cooperation with the U.S., Japan and Australia in a way which would offset Chinese influence.

Anders: Don’t you think that China is also creating fear with its military buildup? Wouldn’t countries like Japan and South Korea be even more fearful if they did not have the U.S. military there to protect them?

Leszek: This is not the issue, the answer is of course. But without a broader US presence in the region, one that is not just military based, regional countries such as those in ASEAN would feel the pressure to gravitate to China.  China has a way of undermining the U.S. presence and its alliance system by playing on regional fears of conflict and instability, the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte is a case in point. America has to counteract that. Continue reading