Grand Strategy Is Bunk
Since the 1990s, the teaching and advocacy of “grand strategy” has become something of a cottage industry. Degree programs and courses are on offer at Duke, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the City University of New York, Temple University, Columbia University, Bard College, MIT, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The country’s leading grand-strategy program, Yale University’s, is supported by a $17.5 million endowment and has received generous backing from the legendary financier Roger M. Hertog.
Yale’s program is apparently so well-heeled that in recent years it has been able to recruit such luminaries as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Henry Kissinger, and New York Times columnist David Brooks to hold forth on the wisdom and rightness of America’s foreign-policy master plans.
In his unimaginatively titled 2010 book, Grand Strategies, Yale’s Charles Hill, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State George Shultz, sought to subordinate the Western literary canon to the service of an interpretive history of interstate politics. The phenomenon of intellectuals who deploy higher (artistic) means to serve base (political) ends is not a new one. As the Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky noted, “Soviet literature of the twenties and thirties reveals an odd and unusual friendship between writers and Chekists.”
That aside, grand strategy has a pedigree that reaches as far back as the fin de siècle—around the time, not coincidentally, that America emerged as a world power in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. That year, while visiting his friend John Hay—soon to be secretary of state—Henry Adams recalled in his characteristic third-person prose: “listening to any member of the British Cabinet, for all were alike now, discuss the Philippines as a question of balance of power in the East he could see that the family work of a hundred and fifty years fell at once into the grand perspective of true empire-building.”
Was this the first insider account of the nascent art of Anglo-American grand strategizing? Perhaps. But Henry Adams was too wise to give it overmuch thought. The grand-strategy enthusiast in the family was his younger brother, Brooks. In 1900, Brooks Adams released his book America’s Economic Supremacy in eager anticipation of the time—soon, in his telling—when the British would be obliged to pass the torch of world leadership to their former colonial subjects. According to Brooks, in bumptious Teddy Roosevelt-like prose very much the opposite of his older brother’s, “America must fight her own battles whether she wills or no. From the inexorable decree of destiny she cannot escape. … All signs point to the approaching supremacy of the United States.”
And so from the very start there has been an almost teleological aspect to American grand strategy, that “inexorable decree of destiny.” But if Adams’s thinking showed signs of historical (and possibly divine) determinism, the grand strategy of Britain’s Alfred Mackinder was indicative of a mind held captive by the idea that geography is destiny. His 1904 essay “The Geographical Pivot of History” put forward the proposition—which would in some ways be echoed by V.I. Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917—that access to colonial markets was crucial to the health of the state, and imperial competition would lessen the chances of major class conflict at home. The fight over foreign markets would inevitably, in this telling, lead to interstate conflict.
In 1919, Mackinder published Democratic Ideals and Reality, in which he put forward his famous axiom that “He who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” In a sense, Mackinder’s ideas on the strategic primacy of Eastern Europe and the danger of Russian hegemony over Eurasia are similar to those that guide our newest generation of American Cold Warriors today.
While Mackinder stressed the primacy of land power and preventing Russia from gaining the great inland fortress of the “World-Island,” American grand strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan stressed the importance of maintaining military superiority upon the seas. In numerous books such as The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1783-1812, Mahan put forward the notion that an army could be forced into submission through the application of a naval blockade, which he called “the most striking and awful mark of sea power.”
By the late 1930s the forerunner to today’s grand-strategy courses was taking shape. According to the sociologist John Bellamy Foster, in 1939 the State Department joined forces with the Council on Foreign Relations to form a War and Peace Studies program, with the help of a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The program focused on a geographic region called the “Grand Area,” which according to Foster was seen to “constitute an informal empire, modeled after U.S. domination of Latin America, involving the free flow of capital, under the economic, political, and military hegemony of the United States.”
But it was after World War II, in 1947, that grand strategy really caught the imagination of American policymakers. That year George F. Kennan, elaborating upon the ideas of Mackinder and the political scientist Nicholas John Spykman, laid out the first draft of what would become America’s strategy of containment vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It was with his “Long Telegram” that the concept of American grand strategy made its way from the academic periphery to becoming a central tenet in the Washington establishment’s conception of world leadership.
The results, by and large, have been abysmal. Kennan, realizing what he had wrought, spent the remainder of his long career trying in vain to undo the forces his dispatch helped unleash. After the containment strategy was enshrined as official policy by the NSC-68 report during the Truman administration, successive presidents would attempt to elaborate on the original directive by issuing addendums—commonly and pretentiously referred to as presidential “doctrines”—of one kind or another. These doctrines, particularly those promulgated during the last 40 years, reveal the shortcomings of grand strategy.
The Carter Doctrine, for instance, declared that the Persian Gulf was now a “vital interest of the United States of America” and that any attempt by an outside power to gain control of the region would “be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Thus began the country’s four-decade (and counting) commitment to the security of some the planet’s most noxious regimes. The Reagan Doctrine made even less strategic sense, pledging support for anti-communist insurgents wherever they might be, in places of such intrinsic strategic value as Nicaragua and Afghanistan. The fruits of this policy hardly need to be elaborated.
George H.W. Bush’s administration gave rise to a grand strategy that went on to serve as the template for American foreign policy until the Obama administration. The assumptions that underlie Bush the First’s “Defense Planning Guidance” of 1992 differ very little from those which animated the grand strategy put forward a decade later by George W. Bush. “The National Security Strategy of the United States” in 2002 stated, among other things, that the U.S. would act to preclude the emergence of a peer military competitor anywhere in the world.
Now consider: each one of these iterations of presidential grand strategy has resulted in an unarguable diminution of American power, prestige, and treasure. And while it is entirely possible that the strategies themselves were to blame, I suspect the true culprit is the concept. From the beginning, efforts to formulate a grand strategy have too often served to exacerbate an American tendency that some of our more thoughtful statesmen have been only too happy to discourage: a binary view of the world born of a sincerely held belief in the myth of our collective national innocence.
What rankles our modern-day grand strategists about President Obama is partly that he has failed to enunciate an Obama Doctrine. Yet worse, in their eyes, is that his hesitancy seems to be an implicit rejection of the claims of American exceptionalism—which, from the time of Brooks Adams onward, has been an integral assumption of American grand strategy.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.