Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Debating Grand Strategy

The desire to author a new grand strategy is a longstanding and understandable tradition in American foreign policy. Indicative of the professional renown accorded to ostensible grand strategists, the contest to identify a post-Cold War successor to containment was glibly referred to as the “Kennan Sweepstakes.” Entries in the contest have thus proliferated ever since, and the contest continues today.

The United States clearly needs to rethink its foreign policy trajectory following two decades characterized by war, financial crisis, declining relative power, and emerging multipolarity. To facilitate such change, those who have lamented America’s foreign policy consensus are ready for a debate over competing grand strategy proposals to ensue. However, a grand strategy debate is more likely to prove a barrier to necessary changes rather than serve as the basis for them. Debating grand strategy is a bad idea.

A debate over American grand strategy assumes a robust marketplace of ideas, where a range of policy choices can be identified, evaluated, and selected. However, the existence of such a marketplace is dubious. Foreign policy debates are instead about competing sets of values and ideologies rather than deliberation over the strengths and weaknesses of strategic choices. A grand strategy debate is likely to degenerate into unproductive arguments. Grand strategy itself is poorly conceptualized, and few objective criteria are available to evaluate competing proposals. Moreover, little evidence exists that even a grand strategy debate that ends with a clear “winner” will produce foreign policy change. A debate over grand strategy will instead devolve into competing sets of value judgments with proponents of various strategies talking past one another. In today’s highly polarized political environment, such a debate is likely to preserve the status quo rather than forge a new way ahead.

A proper debate over grand strategy requires an understanding of what grand strategy is in order to identify a range of possible options. Yet grand strategy is a famously slippery and amorphous concept. Academics and policy analysts tend to agree on its broad outline as a framework for the integration of foreign policy goals with the means to achieve them in light of threats and available resources. Consensus on how to operationalize the concept breaks down there. As political scientist Rebecca Lissner notes, the concept is frequently employed instrumentally, with little agreement on how to measure it.

This lack of conceptual clarity has important implications for evaluating contending grand strategy proposals. Existing proposals tend to provide little indication whether, as political scientist Nina Silove writes, they refer to grand strategic principles or grand strategic plans. This distinction is crucial because principles and plans operate at different levels of abstraction. A grand strategic principle may be sound, but the grand strategic plan for achieving it may be flawed. And vice versa.

Yet, the problems of evaluating different grand strategy proposals run deeper. While it might be possible to evaluate the relative fit between the ends and means of any given grand strategy, the goals of competing grand strategies are frequently incommensurable. For example, Barry Posen’s proposed grand strategy of restraint is explicitly narrow in the goals it pursues. These ends amount to maintenance of America’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, purposely leaving aside economic and ideological goals. With these narrow goals in mind, the military force structure Posen prescribes should be amenable to evaluation based on its efficiency.

However, whether to narrowly construe the goals of a grand strategy is a value judgement at least as much as an analytical one. Territorial security is hardly an objective criterion. That America is secure in its sovereignty and territorial integrity says little about the quality of life within it or the larger international system. Liberal internationalists and advocates for “deep engagement” or “liberal hegemony” thus incorporate economic and ideological goals into their grand strategies. Some view nuclear nonproliferation as an important goal, while others view it as peripheral to American security. The worthiness of which goals to pursue is more a matter of political rather than analytical debate.  

There will always be enough ambiguity in the reasons for a grand strategy’s outputs to confound resolution these differences. Is the United States safe due to the inherent advantages of its two oceanic moats? Is the international system more peaceful due to American hegemony, or because of norms against the use of force and nuclear weapons, the spread of liberal democracy, international institutions, capitalism, or some combination thereof?

Even if these analytical dilemmas could be reconciled, there is little evidence that merely identifying a winning strategy would produce foreign policy change. If scholars cannot agree on how to conceptualize and evaluate grand strategy, it seems unlikely the average voter will be able to select the analytically superior choice. While it is certainly possible that a winning candidate for office could select a new grand strategy among various proposals, waiting for that to occur means the status quo will obtain in the interim. And even if it did happen, high levels of political polarization will likely thwart attempts to agree on proper allocation resources for any strategy—let alone the ends the strategy should serve.

Ironically though, the most vocal advocates of grand strategic change suggest political agency plays little to no role in it. As Lissner points out, the most frequent proponents for new grand strategies are academics from the realist school of international relations, but they are inconsistent with their theoretical commitments. Realism emphasizes the role of structural factors in shaping state behavior and suggests political agency is muted except maybe in the most favorable of international environments. Lissner sums up the issue succinctly: “The act of strategizing has no place in this view of grand strategy.” On the one hand, contending grand strategy proposals are irrelevant if grand strategic choices are merely a product of underlying systemic incentives rather than superior analysis. On the other hand, if a debate can produce grand strategic change, it invalidates the premises of some of the most prominent proposed alternatives.

In a classic essay on military strategy, political scientist Richard Betts explored the idea that various psychological, bureaucratic, and political barriers made the concept an illusion—with strategy hanging on by a thread in his estimation. Strategy in war though, as intractable as it is, aspires to lesser ambitions than grand strategy does. If a grand strategy debate is supposed to produce foreign policy change, it is likely to prove counterproductive. Given the lack of conceptual clarity, objective criteria for evaluation, and commensurable goals, a grand strategy debate is likely to resemble “Calvinball.”

In the midst of this ideological warfare over grand strategy, areas where agreement is possible are likely to be ignored. Instead of finding consensus on how best to contend with the rise of China without provoking military escalation, reforming NATO to improve burden sharing and penalize recalcitrant members, and ending counterproductive wars in the Middle East (and guarding against their recurrence), grand strategy debates are likely to devolve into zero sum battles. The incentive will be to eschew pragmatic positive steps in favor of ideological zeal.

If foreign policy change is desirable—and it is—a grand strategy debate is a bad idea.


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Matthew Fay, "Bad Idea: Debating Grand Strategy," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2019, last modified December 13, 2019, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-debating-grand-strategy/.