by Observer R for the Saker Blog
Foreign Affairs published an article by Daniel Drezner, Ronald Krebs, and Randall Schweller (“The End of Grand Strategy,” (May/June 2020) that brought forth a rejoinder in opposition by Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg (“Foreign Policy Needs a Road Map,” (July/August 2020) and a reply by Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller in the same issue. After reading both sides of the controversy, one could make a case that the authors of the articles on both sides of the grand strategy debate are correct — or at least partially correct. The first article is on firm ground when pointing out that a grand strategy is probably impossible for the US to arrive at due to the change in the world situation and the fractious nature of American politics. However, the second article is also correct, that leaving strategy up to field officials would hardly ensure any coordinated actions at all and they could end up working at cross purposes.
It might be helpful to step back and leave grand strategy for a moment and talk about “semi-grand” strategy instead. For example, the US has a de facto strategy of containment in dealing with Russia—basically a re-invention of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. This has been going on in some fashion ever since the end of the Soviet Union. Currently it involves Belarus, Ukraine, NATO expansion, Nordstream 2, Georgia, sanctions, and Syria, among other skirmishes. One might say that the Cold War never ended, based on the refusal by the US to dissolve NATO at the same time that the Warsaw Pact came to an end. This is “semi-grand” because the US is now ginning up a de facto containment strategy against China. This one involves the Pivot to Asia, support for Taiwan, the “umbrella” effort in Hong Kong, opposition to the New Silk roads, contesting the South China Sea, sanctions, and the Indo-Pacific effort, which all amount to at least a “semi-grand” also. The reason they are both “semi-grand” is that a grand strategy would have planned how to keep Russia and China from joining forces in response to the dual containment policies of the US. The fractious politics in the US, where one party was more hawkish on Russia (witness RussiaGate) and the other party was more hawkish on China (witness the Trade War), meant that no real discussion or analysis was completed before decisions were made which resulted in trying dual containment of two major powers at the same time. The US is belatedly trying to round up partners to stop China, but having very little success. Even Australia, one of the supposed Quad members of the Indo-Pacific push, just stated its lack of enthusiasm to sign up with the US plan. Looking back almost ten years, there was an interesting attempt to craft a positive and peaceful strategy for relations between the US and China, but it did not get very far (“China US Grand Strategy Proposal,” Thomas P.M. Barnett, John Milligan-Whyte & Dai Min, Foreign Affairs, 2011).
So the two semi-grand strategies have resulted in China and Russia joining forces to oppose the US actions. A grand strategy would have gone for a divide-and-conquer effort or at least taken them on one at a time. As it is, the two countries are working to overcome containment and have a combined advantage in real estate, population, energy, factories, weapons, economy and 5G. An alternative grand strategy would be to harmonize the semi-grands into a plausible overarching concept that might work. So far, the most effort along this line has been in articles hoping to show that both China and Russia have inherent internal defects that will eventually result in their demise. Skeptics could point out that the US also has a slew of internal defects, and that it is a race to see who reaches bottom first. However, a recent statement by some retired US officials indicates a belief that ostracizing Russia was maybe not the best foreign policy maneuver and that a re-thinking is in process (“It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy,” Rose Gottemoeller, et al – signed by 103 former officials, Politico, August 5, 2020). On the other hand, this statement elicited a vigorous rejoinder which opposed any re-thinking (“No, Now Is Not the Time for Another Russia Reset,” David J. Kramer–signed by 33 former officials, Politico, August 11, 2020). These articles illustrate a wide gap in foreign policy thinking within the US expert community.
The pursuit of the Monroe Doctrine could be considered a very early grand strategy, but its recent re-emphasis has had both success and failure. Other previous grand strategies could be considered to be the Opening to China (Nixon & Kissinger) and the Grand Chessboard (Brzezinski). However, the US strategy toward China since the Pivot to Asia has negated the Opening, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Iran nuclear agreement will negate the Chessboard. Other strategies included “Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look” (Ralph Peters, Armed Forces Journal, 2006), which proposed a plan to redraw the borders throughout the region to better align with the ethnic and religious distribution; “Imagining a Remapped Middle East” (Robin Wright, New York Times, 2013), which showed how 5 countries could be divided to become 14 countries; “Why the Pentagon Changes Its Maps” (Thomas P.M. Barnett, Esquire, September 10, 2016/originally published March 2003); and the Arab Spring (Obama administration). All these proposals and actions involved vast disruptions, regime changes, and attempts to refashion boundaries in North Africa and the Middle East. There has been little official change in borders so far, however, several countries have divided war zones and attempts at separation. These other strategies could be considered semi-grand and have shown the difficulties in implementing even a limited form of overall strategy. It is obvious that the US has little benefit to show for all the blood and treasure spent in the Middle East and Africa, unless the creation of “failed states” qualifies as a plus.
Additional semi-grand strategies can be observed in other parts of the world. The US has somewhere around 800 military bases spread about on all the continents. This is a very expensive proposition and has several different rationales to support it: being the world policeman, preventing nuclear proliferation, solving the problems of the Middle East, stopping terrorism, bringing democracy and human rights to distant lands, increasing weapons spending, creating chaos, and so forth. Another actual semi-grand strategy might be the promotion of regime change by color revolution, legal or military coups, electioneering tactics, and proxy fighters. Pretty much the same rationales apply here as for the military web of bases, as they can be used together in difficult cases. Viewed from a higher theoretical level, however, they are part of the broad range of implements in the hegemony toolbox.
From this higher angle then, the extensive military bases and the regime change semi-grands can be added together to form one sort of a grand strategy called the “pursuit of hegemony.” There have certainly been enough articles in Foreign Affairs over the years to indicate the importance of hegemony for US foreign policy. In fact, the magazine published an issue (January/February 2019) with “Who Will Run the World” on the cover and four articles inside on the featured theme. One article argued that the liberal international order could possibly be saved, while the other articles were dubious and generally claimed that the order could not be restarted or revived. This pessimistic outlook was followed by another set of articles in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020) with “Come Home, America?” on the cover and six articles inside on the featured theme. Once again, the first article was in favor of continuing current world-wide policies, while the next two articles were arguments for retrenchment. The last three articles were dubious about much success from continuing current policies. Careful reading of the first article, however, shows that it begins to waffle toward the end and is only half-hearted in support of continuing the current global role due to the many factors working against it. On a scorecard, the result of these debates in Foreign Affairs would be a lopsided defeat for the hegemonic pursuit grand strategy side.
There is possibly a significant faction within the Council on Foreign Relations that is skeptical about the future prospects for the US “running the world.” Otherwise, the Foreign Affairs articles would likely not have been published. Likewise, many of the articles were written by academics and similarly show a difference of opinion among the professors. However, little of this newly published skepticism has made its way into general public discourse. The few politicians expressing a skeptical view have been marginalized or excluded in the debates and subjected to very adverse publicity in the mass media. One reason for this could be the relative lack of published grand strategies for US foreign policy in a post-hegemonic world. The “retrenchment” proposals are essentially semi-grand in that they are mostly negative in tone and do not give a compelling description of life after the imperial sunset. It is common for textbooks to note that when the British Empire went into decline, the baton was passed to the Americans, albeit with continual British influence and participation. It is also a common comment that the Americans have no one to pass the baton to.
So, are the skeptics right or wrong? The US current foreign and military policy is certainly going forward on all fronts in an attempt to continue running the world and to prevent any obstruction to its exceptional and unipolar situation. Attempts at retrenchment are furiously beaten down, and there seem to be little slackening of regime change efforts. This makes sense if the US role is sustainable at its current level and the skeptics are generally wrong. On the other hand, perhaps the current effort is a last ditch “Hail Mary” pass before the clock runs out. In any event, just in case the skeptics are right, it might well be useful to draw up some comprehensive scenarios for life in a post-hegemonic world, as well as how to decline gracefully and make the best of the new situation.
In summary, the grand strategies of the past have either been discarded (Opening to China) or are in serious trouble with a doubtful future (Grand Chessboard). More recent strategic attempts to deal with Russia did not get anywhere (Reset) and those dealing with China failed to get much traction either (Pivot, TPP). It is certainly questionable whether the War on Terror achieved any significant reduction in terrorism around the world. The semi-grand strategies appear to have resulted in the US getting bogged down in various quagmires. The current grand strategy of the US government appears to be an effort to use any means possible to keep “running the world.” If articles published in Foreign Affairs are any indication, however, it would seem that the scholarly community and many former officials possess a very pessimistic view of the US pursuing hegemony. By extension, this pessimism could also apply to some members of the Council on Foreign Relations. To date, however, the experts appear to be hard pressed to create a positive-sounding and marketable alternative. As a result, politicians, mainstream media, and the public are seemingly unaware of the potential for a major crisis. A hard landing for the Yankee Empire is not a welcome prospect.