Revisiting Grand Strategy

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

By 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.

Barry Posen has also proposed an alternative grand strategy for the United States entitled “restraint,” which critics sometimes call “offshore balancing.” Its military component is something characterized as “command of the commons”—sea, air, space, and cyber. I like restraint as a nickname much better, starting with restraint of American hubris.  The abandon-grand-strategy authors, conversely, propose jettisoning a holistic national approach to long term security and prosperity challenges (see the preamble to the Constitution) because they cannot have the one they want, mostly because of the current US president.  Fair enough, but why not consider something else, e.g. restraint?  As the article highlights, they only offer readers one choice and because that choice is impossible, “illiberal hegemony” as Barry Posen has called it, they want to bury their heads in the sand, or the foreign policy equivalent thereof.

This is certainly no time to scale back efforts and abandon getting grand strategy both defined and right.   Nudging folks to think that anyone using that concept is “so last season” (itself an out of date phrase), is a mistake.  It means we can ignore the Posens, Stephen Walts, and Andrew Bacevichs of this world and apply a “new” non-linear approach to the small things, the short term things.  That is not grand strategy, that is a strategy of “just getting by.”  Just getting by is not what we need right now from the reputedly best and brightest minds in academia, government, and the corporate world.  Americans need to think bigger, while never ignoring the smaller strategic and tactical issues.

The idea that there are more tools in our American toolkit than what our military brings to table is nothing new.  This has been true ever since Korea. It is not grand strategy that needs purging, it is a-historical thinking.

Let us return to the seeming impotence of the military tool of national power as epitomized by the global war on terror. GWOT aftershocks are still settling, although clearly some folks are beyond learning those lessons.  It was easier to put a man on the Moon than to use the military to solve the problems of the Middle East and South Asia.  Time to develop and improve the other elements of American capacity as part of a coherent overall grand strategic blueprint.

Maybe what we need are more grand strategies–a medical grand strategy with domestic and international components, a climate grand strategy, and so on.  As a historian, I will have to wait, and those who follow me, for a more full understanding.   But waiting for history to unfold and actually acting in the present don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Drezner et al., in proposing that we abandon grand strategy remind one of the French in 1940; they have surrendered to the idea that no grand strategy formulation is possible in Washington DC. They might as well scuttle the preamble to the Constitution as well, which is the foundation for all US Grand Strategy.

The American response to COVID-19 highlights the need for more thought on the issue of systems, processes and structures for global security and health, not insular defeatism. COVID-19 might serve as America’s Syracuse expedition to some degree.  The Syracuse expedition, Thucydides tells us, was a disastrous multiyear Athenian operation to conquer Sicily 2500 years ago while they were the hegemons of the Greek world.  At the end of it (and the Athenians suffered plagues, too), the power of Athens was permanently crippled. We will see the extent of our own damage in the years to come, but right now is not the time to become faint of heart. The US policy community, and its allies in the national security systems of the US government, need to rethink the application of all the sources of American power, in order attempt to create a sustainable US state that contributes to global security while at the same time accomplishing the same for the nation.  As many have pointed out, the United States’ overemphasis on foreign military operations and a gigantic defense budget led to a myopia on the medical and health front.

Drezner et al. say we must turn from their own “linear” thinking, because nothing that happens in the political continuum is in a linear manner—as both Machiavelli and Clausewitz would attest.   Non-linear has been the name of the game since James Clerk Maxwell and his famous equations redefined physics and set the stage for Einstein and Werner Heisenberg.  In fact the thinking we absolutely want is that non-linear “hive mind” approach that places like the Sante Fe Institute set so much store by, or over at Princeton.  But such thinking must not aim for the easiest targets.

The COVID-19 virus is not linear.  And response to it thus must be non-linear and—gasp—involve international cooperation.  If we abandon grand strategy we return to an “every man” or rather “every nation” for itself dynamic.  Yes that might be the guiding ethos in the executive branch of the US government, but it need not be a template for a practical, and possible, grand strategy of restraint and cooperation. Abandoning grand strategy is 180 degrees the wrong way to go right now.

To misquote a movie, “Someday this presidency is going to end” (hint: Apocalypse Now), and when that happens, the United States is going to need a grand strategy that its leaders understand and even embrace.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC).  He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004, serving as a naval flight officer (NFO) flying land and carrier-based aircraft.  He has taught a variety of subjects, including military history, at the Army Command and General Staff College since 2000.  He authored Agents of Innovation (2008), A Military History of Japan:  From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century (2014), Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (2015), America’s First General Staff:  A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950  (2017), and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco as well as numerous articles and editorials. He was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011.  His latest book from ABC-CLIO is The 100 Worst Military Disasters  in History (2020), co-authored with David Holden. The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.