Between a Mirage and a Mistake: Correcting American Grand Strategy

“We the people of the United States” ordained and established the Constitution. The American people did this in their own name, without appealing to any higher power to authorize such an act. This was unprecedented, but is now commonplace. As it became commonplace, it created a world—in principle as well as in practice—in which self-authorizing nations inhabit the earth. The American people made themselves sovereign, in other words, and thereby found themselves in a world of sovereign powers, who are sovereign, as are Americans, because they recognize no higher authority than their own.

The Constitution also tells us that Americans adopted the Constitution “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” As is always the case, the aims we pursue through the Constitution, the goods we hope to achieve, are inherently contentious, not only among ourselves, but with the other nations of the earth. The welfare of Americans, for example, has not always seemed compatible with the welfare of other people or their leaders, who have different conceptions of justice or care less for the blessings of liberty.

Thus, to live in a world of sovereign powers is necessarily to live in a world of contending powers. One might try to live haphazardly in such a world, hoping for the best and trusting in God, but the blessings of liberty are more likely to be secure if some forethought is given to how we might best secure them. Strategy is an element of this forethought.

Our Government Cannot Integrate Its Own Activities

If you must have a strategy, you might as well have a grand one. At least this seems to be the thinking of the experts. Most discussions of grand strategy start by defining it as the integration of a nation’s political, economic, military, and, more recently, informational means or power to achieve America’s objectives in a world of sovereign powers. Grand strategy is thus held to be something more than integrating military operations to win a war or even, which is more difficult, integrating diplomacy and military force to attain the most from victory. But this broader integration of the so-called elements of national power is, thankfully, impossible in the United States. The government established by the Constitution, even with its current informally enlarged capacities, is incapable of integrating its own activities, let alone those of the American economy and people.

The federal government cannot integrate its own activities because the executive branch consists of agencies and departments that are assigned specific and sometimes conflicting missions and tasks and often staffed with experts and specialists who lack the capacity to think in broad terms and who have no incentive to do so. No department or agency promotes its staffers based on someone’s demonstrated willingness to defer to the wishes of other agencies or departments. The National Security Council and the National Security Adviser may or may not be able to impose some order. This depends on the President’s preferences and on the relationships between the National Security Adviser and the Cabinet Secretaries.

Even under a President committed to White House leadership and a National Security Adviser capable of providing it, integration will always be a work in progress. Ultimately, the President is the single point of integration, and no President can integrate the varied activities of the government over which he presides, except perhaps occasionally in one or two key initiatives.

The executive branch, of course, is only part of the U.S. government. The other powers of government, famously, are separated from it and lodged in Congress and the judiciary, and checked and balanced by them, as they are by it. And the U.S. government is part of a federal system, sharing power with states. Beyond the federal and state governments are the people themselves, individually or organized as corporations and in other ways, whose political, economic and informational power is happily largely beyond the reach of government. The U.S. government cannot integrate the elements of national power, and the Executive branch may not even be able to integrate diplomatic and military power, because the Constitution did not give it the sole authority to do so.

Grand strategy, as dreamed of by experts, is not a possibility for the United States. If it were, the United States would enjoy the blessings of liberty less, and at the extreme be indistinguishable from the authoritarian regimes that are its greatest enemies. The dream recurs, however.

Recently, for example, from somewhere in the government came the idea that the best way to respond to the technological threat from China was to have the government take over the development and deployment of new fifth generation wireless networks. Similarly, in the early years of the Cold War, in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, proposals were made to increase the ability of the government to “integrate” various aspects of American life. The power of government also increased again in certain ways after the 9/11 attacks. Still, as Aaron Friedberg argued in the Cold War case, these efforts fail because of a constitutional order and its supporting public opinion that remains hostile to the power of government, even if less so now than before.

For the United States, then, grand strategy is not the integration of all elements of national power but the use of the limited means available to the U.S. government to provide for the common defense and secure our freedom, while doing as little damage as possible to our unity, welfare, domestic tranquility, the establishment of justice, and our enjoyment of the blessings of liberty. In this sense, American grand strategy is a set of general guiding principles rather than a comprehensive plan. This limited strategic capacity should not be seen as a weakness, however, but as a strength. As Friedberg also argues, history shows that liberal states like the United States have repeatedly defeated authoritarian states. The dynamism, inventiveness, and wealth-creation of a liberal state are exceptional strengths, as is the cranky loyalty and devotion of its citizens, given in response to the blessings of liberty they enjoy.

Look to Jefferson

This was a point Jefferson made in his First Inaugural to explain why he thought the federal government not weak but “the strongest government on earth,” and “the world’s best hope.” This claim for the strength of liberal government will be put to the test again in the coming decades as China’s power grows. While past performance does not guarantee future success, we have no reason to despair of success, no reason for, and in any case, we hope, no possibility of pursuing an illiberal course.

The first principle of American grand strategy should be to preserve and strengthen America’s decentralized, dynamic, innovative liberal order. This means openness to people, ideas and trade. The first and third kinds of openness disturb some on the right, as the second and third disturb some on the left. With regard to immigration, openness does not mean open borders. There is nothing illiberal in restricting immigration to those most likely to promote the security and happiness of the United States, as long as the restrictions are not based on race, religion, or ethnicity. Restrictions on trade seem less acceptable, however, even if carried out in the name of national security, since they inevitably favor one set of economic actors at the expense of others, and thus disturb domestic tranquility, while ultimately leaving everyone worse off. Openness to new ideas—free speech—is the foundation and the ultimate objective of the liberal order. Curtailing it is thus most dangerous to both our security and happiness.

If America’s liberal order is so beneficial, might it not be good if the entire world enjoyed it? Would that not be better for Americans and everyone else?

Indeed, while some Americans have accepted the world of contending sovereigns, many have sought to create an alternative, something like an international version of the law-based freedom that Americans enjoy. The international trading regime is just one example of this. Presidents as different as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama desired to share the blessings of liberty with everyone. President Bush sought to remake the Middle East, as a first step toward making everyone free. President Obama, speaking in Cairo in 2009, toward the end of his long speech demanding that Arabs and Muslims share America’s liberal principles and preferences, said “I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country—you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.” When signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, President Clinton remarked “We have the opportunity to remake the world. For this new era, our national security we now know will be determined as much by our ability to pull down foreign trade barriers as by our ability to breach distant ramparts.”

Mixed Support Abroad for Democracy

The problem with spreading the blessings of liberty is that while it might be best for the United States if all the world were like America, other people around the world do not think it would be best for them. For self-interested and better reasons, they do not share, and do not want to share, America’s liberal preferences. Polling around the world shows mixed support for democracy. But even support for voting rights does not tell us if that support will endure or be effective beyond a first vote. It is day-to-day politics that tests the strength of liberal preferences, not occasional balloting.

It is true that we do not know where liberal democracy might take root, but this ignorance does not justify the effort to plant it everywhere. We have no evidence that persuasion will change minds on such fundamental matters, so establishing a world liberal order will require the violence it is meant to prevent (consider the barely sublimated violence even in Clinton’s description of free trade). Does the peaceful end justify these violent means? As a practical matter, American intervention in Iraq has persuaded people that it does not. As matter for reflection, both Iraq and Afghanistan suggest the unyielding character of human affairs and thus the virtue of modest ambitions.

We are stuck, then, with the world of contending sovereigns. What should our strategy be? As noted, first, we should strive to preserve and strengthen our liberal order, since doing so enhances our security and facilitates our pursuit of happiness. Doing so requires that we acknowledge that free trade, while good for all in the long term, harms some in the short term. That harm should be addressed as a matter of justice and thus as a way of strengthening public commitment to our liberal order.

Providing opportunities for training or retraining are important in this regard, as many have noted, but is largely in the hands of state and local governments. This frustrates anyone hoping for an integrated approach, as does the increasing involvement of business in filling in the educational shortfalls of their employees. States would be in a better position to fund retraining (community colleges are as important as they are critically underfunded) if they were not spending so much on Medicaid and pensions. The former expense involves the Federal government, of course, and raises the issue of national health insurance. This is not a right, but some such program, if politically, technically, and financially feasible, would not only help compensate those disadvantaged by free trade, but by breaking the link between a particular job and health insurance might help free up the labor market, strengthening our liberal order. Limiting occupational licensing laws might help as well.

The barrier to a grand strategy posed by our decentralized, liberal way of life appears again when we consider the other fundamental principle of American strategy—defend the country against attack. Our infrastructure is subject to cyber attack but, unlike our physical borders, the government does not control most of that infrastructure. It cannot integrate a defense, therefore. As it has been doing, it can provide information, suggest, and assist. Again, this may appear a weakness, but it should be seen as a strength. The more chaotic and inefficient from the viewpoint of a central planner our infrastructure looks, the harder it will be to attack. Redundancy and decentralization are virtues for defense in this view. That other places still have lights may not be a comfort to those sitting in the dark because of the take down of their electric supply, but from the viewpoint of the nation as a whole it will be.

Sabotage has always been possible and has sometimes occurred (the Germans carried it out in World War I and tried in World War II; the Soviets never implemented their plans), but the development of information technology as the nervous system of our economy has turned sabotage from a disconcerting but ineffective threat into a real concern. The point of it remains the same, however. The more problems at home, the less we can address what President Clinton called the distant ramparts. These ramparts are important not just because we may need to breach one on occasion, as in Afghanistan, but because, more generally, we should deal with problems, and when necessary fight our battles, as far from our borders as possible. That our borders be unproblematic is essential to acting on this strategic principle.

Be a Good Neighbor

The United States has benefited enormously from having unusually peaceful relations with its immediate neighbors. Everything should be done to keep those relations as peaceful and cooperative as possible. Even if it were the case, which it is not, that Canada and Mexico get a greater advantage from our mutual trade than we do, that should be seen as a small price to pay for their good will. This argument should be particularly persuasive to those concerned about terrorists and weapons of mass destruction crossing these borders.

One way that the United States has sought to deal with distant ramparts is to seek the cooperation of other nations in their upkeep. The rationale for these formal and informal alliances, like any alliance, is that they reduce the cost both of keeping our enemies at a distance and, when necessary, fighting them there. As with any transaction, each party in an alliance seeks the greatest benefit at the lowest cost. Faced with the high cost of our alliances, critics wonder about the benefit they provide and, if they are so beneficial, why our allies are not willing to pay more for them.

With regard to cost, the question is not how much the Allies pay, but how much more we would have to pay in the absence of their contribution, as minimal as it seems to some. So far calculating costs versus benefits has kept America in NATO. For the future, it would be worth considering the threat of our growing national debt. Faced with that reality, it would be particularly foolish simultaneously to increase the debt and trash our alliances.

The costs of an alliance are not only financial. Any alliance requires compromise, living with political, strategic and operational constraints imposed by the domestic politics of our allies, as they must live with ours. In some cases, an alliance will even require accepting the illiberal practices of an ally. Compromises of various sorts are a cost but one outweighed by two benefits.

First, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—whether as military or terrorist weapons—is a threat that is best dealt with, perhaps can only be dealt with, multilaterally, through the cooperation of countries around the globe.

Second, since the late 19th century an important American strategic principle has been to join others to balance against the strongest Eurasian power. Alliances are how we have done this. Even the most liberal of liberal internationalist Presidents have followed this balancing principle, although they have sought to make amends by promising that this temporary embrace of balance of power politics will result in the formation of an international order making such politics unnecessary.

As we have argued, a liberal international order seems a mirage, but it is one that remains dear to a large number of Americans, as it has from the Founding of the republic. Today it is balanced by another long-beloved view summarized in the phrase “America first.” As noted, those who have argued that America should cultivate allies have understood themselves to be putting America first, because alliances served America’s interests; but they have thought it unnecessary and unhelpful to state the obvious. If “America First” means America alone, or American interests first always, it is the antithesis of a good strategy for the United States, given the importance of alliances. Considering our interests and our allies should also remind us of the paradoxical character of strategic thinking (for example, to secure peace, prepare for war). As a strategic principle, “America First” is likely to achieve its opposite.

Currently, we are caught between a mirage and a mistake, their harm compounded by the view on the Left that America should withdraw from the world because we are not good enough for it, and the view on the Right that we should build walls because the world is not good enough for us. The alternative principle to either of these extreme views—selective engagement—rests on an assessment more forgiving of both ourselves and the world. Together with a preference for openness, it might summarize a good strategy.

The passion is at the extremes, however. Whatever we might think is the best strategy for America, an effective strategy requires broad political support. To the extent that any American strategy can integrate the various elements of our power, it does so not through our institutions but through our politics. This is a final principle worth considering, as we Americans now appear to be duplicating among ourselves the disorder and fragmentation always evident in the world around us.