There was a time when American foreign and defense policies had at least a semblance of an effective, coherent unifying strategy. Perhaps times of coherent strategies will come back under the Trump Administration, especially as a new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, puts his stamp on the nation’s foreign policy. That’s a hope about the future, however, because at present—as has been the case since the George W. Bush Administration—there is no discernible grand strategy.
Perhaps the last time Washington held a unified strategic vision came in the aftermath of World War II. During the Truman administration, American grand strategy was designed to assist in the rebuilding of post-war Europe, support democratic governance worldwide, and contain the threat of the Soviet Union. The twin pillars upon which this strategy was built included the Marshall Plan (also known as the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948) and the formation of NATO.
The policy of the United States via the Marshall Plan was designed “to sustain and strengthen principles of individual liberty, free institutions, and genuine independence in Europe through assistance to those countries of Europe which participate in a joint recovery program.”
President Truman said that by signing the NATO treaty, “we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.” Virtually every aspect of U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy for the next 50 years were based on these pillars.
The actions the government took in support of this foundation weren’t always the best, however. For example, “the Red scare” and fear of falling dominos spurred Washington to support the disastrous war in Vietnam and to make dreadful foreign policy decisions like approving the illegal coup of the legally elected government in Iran in 1953—and we’re still paying for the consequences for that miscarriage. For the most part, though, U.S. foreign policy remained coherently focused on defending democratic governments in Europe and maintaining a military capable of deterring the Soviet Union. That coherence came to an end with the dissolution of the USSR on Christmas Day in 1991. Shorn of the raison d’être for a coordinated foreign and defense policy, the drift began.
Freed from the need to consider how the Soviet Army might react to any policy choice and no longer needing to fund, equip, and train the U.S. military to deter the Warsaw Pact nations, the State Department and Pentagon began charting independent courses. 9/11 provided a unifying spark and for a brief moment foreign and military policies were again in sync. That moment, regrettably, dissolved quickly.
The threat of terrorism, however barbaric, didn’t represent an existential threat—as the USSR did—and policymakers throughout the government returned to making policies that reflected their vision, independent of what any other department might think. The absence of a powerful threat had an unexpected and adverse effect on decision-makers.
Prior to 1991, the U.S. had to weigh carefully how Moscow would view any deployment of lethal military force abroad before making decisions. Shorn of that concern, U.S. leaders began ordering troops overseas with increasing ease. Decisions were made in isolation. Diplomatic moves in one part of the world weren’t coordinated with actions in others. Military deployments often appeared divorced from any observable link to larger U.S. strategies. Instead, an impossible-to-accomplish school of thought drifted into existence and remains in effect as of this writing: liberal hegemony.
It doesn’t rise to the level of “strategy,” mainly because it is not a coherent, logical, and comprehensive set of beliefs that informs actions. Generally, however, liberal hegemony carries the idea that the United States “needs to” spread democracy around the world wherever possible, by military force if necessary. Such efforts have uniformly failed throughout the post-World War II era. That has not stopped both Republicans and Democrats from clinging to its never-realized ideal, however.
There are at least two overriding flaws in liberal hegemony. First, it virtually cannot succeed because it seeks to impose American values, culture, and history onto societies that usually don’t want it—and in most cases didn’t ask for it. Secondly, it elevates the perceived needs of other peoples and nations above the needs of the U.S. At its heart, liberal hegemony has supplanted global interests above what used to be the key driver of foreign policy: America’s vital national interests. Based on recent public announcements, global interests are still ascendant.
In recent months the Pentagon or White House have announced the deployment of U.S. warfighters (or the expansion of troops) to Poland, Somalia, Norway, Germany, Romania, and Iraq. Just in the last few weeks, troops were sent to Central Africa as the Secretary of Defense was recommending thousands more troops should be deployed to Syria and Afghanistan.
Answers to key questions are almost uniformly missing from the announcements of each of these missions. What is their purpose? What are they supposed to accomplish? What national objectives are the military missions designed to attain?
Military strategist Douglas Macgregor explained in an April 2009 Armed Forces Journal article the danger that accrues to nations that fail to answer these basic questions before actions are ordered. He wrote that “when national military strategy fails to answer the questions of purpose, method and end-state, military power becomes an engine of destruction not just for its intended enemies, but for its supporting society and economy, too.” His words have proven prophetic in the eight years since.
Where the U.S. has used lethal military power in the past 20 years—without a powerful national security interest or strategic outcome in mind—conditions have not improved. Whether it was Special Forces, secret drone strikes, overt airstrikes, the deployment of combat advisors, or direct ground combat troops, the net effect has been either neutral or negative:
- Libya remains locked in a civil war with competing governments each claiming legitimacy.
- Somalia and Africa more broadly are as racked by violence as they were in the 1990s when President Clinton first sent troops there.
- The war in Yemen is as violent and insoluble as ever.
- Now, senior American generals say they need thousands more troops to return to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—where we’ve been fighting without result, in part, since 2001.
President Trump hasn’t even unpacked all his belongings in the White House, but his administration must give the highest priority to rolling back the incoherent military and international actions of past presidents. “Liberal hegemony” defines the status quo, and a look at the current situation shows what a fantastical, failed notion it truly is. U.S. national security has suffered from the policy chaos. Hopefully the new leaders the president has installed at the State Department, the intelligence agencies, and the Pentagon will devise a new, logical, and coordinated grand strategy. We can’t afford any more drift.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.