Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Strategy That Explicitly Says What We Will Not Do

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

President Harry Truman with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, 1950

A common refrain heard about national security strategy is that its success should be measured by its boldness in declaring what the nation will not do.[1] Hard choices aren’t hard, conventional wisdom goes, if tradeoffs aren’t explicit. A similar refrain can be found in some business literature. One Harvard Business Review author urges that strategy should specify “actions that people in the organization should take (and not take) and the things they should prioritize (and not prioritize) to achieve desired goals.”[2] Yet in the national security field, history suggests that strategic pronouncements detailing what we don’t care about are a bad idea. In the fullness of time, they generally appear more rash than thoughtful, and more regrettable than admirable. They can lend rigidity to strategy, creating flat-footedness in the face of emergent challenges. A better yardstick for measuring a strategy’s quality is Clausewitz’s: matching purposes (ends) to resources (means) using approaches (ways) that maximize strategic agility.

Drawing geographic lines of disinterest is a particularly popular version of this bad idea. Consider three examples of its cringe-worthy history. In March 1949, General Douglas MacArthur told the press that U.S. strategy in the Pacific would be to form a defensive line, stretching from the Philippines to the Aleutian Islands, leaving out Korea.  Several months later, in a January 1950 speech at the National Press Club, Secretary of State Dean Acheson echoed the same contours of a definitive perimeter in the Pacific. Just over five months after that speech, on June 25, 1950, North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, initiating the Korean War.[3]  

In a 2012 presidential debate, President Obama criticized Mitt Romney for exaggerating the threat that Russia posed to the United States by memorably remarking, “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”[4]  During his second term in office, Russia proceeded to annex Crimea, invade Ukraine, and interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

And under the current administration, in late March of 2017, then U.S. Ambassador to the United States Nikki Haley stated: “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”[5] Only days later, the Assad regime launched a horrific chemical weapons attack against the city of Douma.[6]         

Another frequent clarion call for “hard choices” is to divest the Department of Defense (DoD) of entire missions. The track record for this approach to strategy is almost as poor as that of wholesale regional divestment. Secretary Cap Weinberger’s drive to keep the military out of counternarcotics during the Reagan administration gave way to congressional statute and associated mission pressure.[7] Efforts by defense leaders in the early 2000s to avoid sizable stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to focus on force transformation failed from faulty assumptions and a lack of substitutable civilian capacity. Although it makes sense to grow civilian capacity in key areas and then rely on it—the military should not be America’s security “Walmart”[8]—it’s unwise to assume away such missions in the absence of demonstrated commitment from political leaders to forgo the task or develop alternative civilian tools to accomplish it. This leap-without-a-look approach has generally resulted in the military being underprepared, with significant financial, operational, and strategic prices to be paid.

Our perennial search for rigidity in strategic choice—particularly regarding what we will not do and where we will not do it—risks leaving the United States vulnerable in the face of emergent challenges and shifts in American political winds. Creating rigid lists of what we will and will not do is the national security equivalent of investing only in single stock: it banks on a degree of certainty that history fails to support. Of course, we could be brilliant or get lucky. Perhaps our strategic choice will have been the equivalent of investing in Apple in 2002, which is today worth 130 times more.[9] However, our risks are magnified in a volatile environment, which today might be both the international and domestic landscapes. Moreover, the stakes in national security are high, certainly higher than for a risk-taking stock investor.

Likely for this reason, from the end of World War II to today, none of the major post-World War II strategy documents delineated “what we will not do.” (Please do check. We did.) The reality is that while a reader may prefer one or another strategy or believe one to be particularly successful, it can’t be attributed to a rigid call out of un-interest: none have done so.

A better explainer of success is the alignment of ends with appropriate means and demonstrated agility in keeping them aligned. As Rebecca Lissner argues, the “most effective U.S. grand strategies have combined bold strategic vision with careful attention to resources.”[10] The key ingredient in this winning formula is typically neither the goals nor the means themselves but the strategy’s emphasis on agility in executing foreign policy under conditions of uncertainty. Consider the consistency of flexibility as a critical force planning theme in U.S. national security strategy over the course of almost seventy years:

  • “…the best defense of the free world rests upon a deployment of U.S. forces which permits initiative, flexibility, and support…” (Eisenhower, NSC 162/2, 1953)
  • “Worldwide, U.S. general purpose forces must be strong and flexible enough to affect Soviet calculations in a wide variety of contingencies.” (Reagan, NSDD-75, 1983)
  • “DoD’s force planning stresses the importance of fielding forces that are versatile and that, in aggregate, can undertake missions across the full range of plausible challenges.” (Obama, QDR 2010)

Like savvy investors, good strategists have sought to maximize value and manage risk while being vigilant to changing market circumstances. Matching ends, ways, and means, and adjusting as needed, is critical. Focusing your public rhetoric or your backroom planning on a list of what you won’t do, is not. This bad idea is unlikely to generate better strategy and can lead to strategic remorse.



[1] See, for example, Mackenzie Eaglen, “Recommendations for a Future National Defense Strategy,” American Enterprise Institute, November 30, 2017, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Eaglen_11-30-17.pdf.

[2] Watkins, Michael, “Demystifying Strategy: The What, Who, How and Why,” Harvard Business Review, September 10, 2007, https://hbr.org/2007/09/demystifying-strategy-the-what.

[3] Green, Michael, By More Than Providence, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, 274.

[4] Kessler, Glenn, “Flashback: Obama’s debate zinger on Romney’s ‘1980s’ foreign policy,” The Washington Post, March 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/03/20/flashback-obamas-debate-zinger-on-romneys-1980s-foreign-policy/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.45cb6638f7ee.

[5] Nichols, Michelle, “U.S. priority on Syria no longer focused on ‘getting Assad out’: Haley,” Reuters, March 30, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa-haley-idUSKBN1712QL.

[6] Hubbard, Ben, “Dozens Suffocate in Syria as Government Is Accused of Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, April 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/middleeast/syria-chemical-attack-ghouta.html.

[7] The National Defense Authorization Act for 1982, Public Law 97-86, Section 908.

[8] A reference attributed to LTG David Barno (USA, Ret.) by Rosa Brooks. See Rosa Brooks, “How the Pentagon Became Walmart,” Foreign Policy, August 9, 2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/09/how-the-pentagon-became-walmart-how-everything-became-war/.

[9] J.B. Maverick, “If you Purchased $100 of Apple in 2002,” Investopia, April 14, 2019, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/markets/021316/if-you-had-purchased-100-apple-2002-aapl.asp.

[10] Lissner, Rebecca “The National Security Strategy Is Not a Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, December 19, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2017-12-19/national-security-strategy-not-strategy