U.S. Grand Strategy Options


By Richard Weitz

The fifth discussion panel at the April 2012 Army War College Annual Strategy Conference assessed the U.S. grand strategy option in coming years.

Nate Freier

Mr. Nate Freier of the National War College and the U.S. Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute opened the discussion by presenting the topic.

In his view, after eleven difficult years in the Middle East, policymakers are looking for a strategic alternative to the model, which the United States has pursued due to the enormous costs and scarce resources.

This is clear from Obama’s defense guidance remarks he made in January.

This new approach will focus on two pivots, China and Iran, hearkening back to more classical type of policy that emphasizes nation-states rather than non-state actors.

Freier tasked the panel with the question of how the United States might secure its core interests under a new set of inevitable limitations.

Dr. Steve Metz, chairman of the regional studies department at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, posited an evolutionary cycle in U.S. grand strategy.

For most of the time, an elite consensus exists on the major elements of U.S. strategy, but eventually these accepted premises and assumptions collapse due to changes in global or U.S. domestic politics. At these points, a debate ensues regarding major issues (such as the role of the military, the utility of alliances etc.), and a new strategy takes form. Metz sees such phases occurring at the end of the 1940s, at the end of the 1960s, at the end of the Vietnam War, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

According to Metz, we have now potentially entered one of those transformational phases again, brought on by two factors.

The first is the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a significant weakening of al-Qaeda, while the second is the economic crisis of the last few years.

Nonetheless, this window of opportunity for strategic change could close without major changes taking place since many constraints work against the advent of a new U.S. grand strategy.

One such constraint is the American intolerance for ambiguity and the desire to see everything in black and white. Another is Americans’ impatience. A third is the difficulty in understanding other cultures. Another constraint is Americans’ insecurity as a global power, which manifests itself as a desire to be liked and a difficulty in understanding that other countries find American power intimidating. In many places the United States is ironically a proxy of other countries rather than partner because of a misperception in determining to what extent allies’ interests are U.S. interests as well. Furthermore, while budgetary shortfalls are driving calls for a new U.S grand strategy, they are also working against it. A final constraint is the idea, stronger in the United States than any other nation, that the public should have a substantial voice in shaping U.S. strategy.

Given these constraints, Metz believed it likely that the United States would settle for some lesser or “easy” changes but eschew major or “hard” ones.

Hard changes to U.S. strategy would include shifting entirely toward an offshore balancing aimed at preventing adverse outcomes in foreign regions rather than shaping positive ones.

Metz believes it more likely that we will see both “loosening” and “tightening” of U.S. military partnerships. The United States will more likely refrain from dictating the manner in which its partners act (on human rights, etc.) while at the same time disengage from its “partners problems,” such as local partners who impede rather than assist in the realization of core U.S. goals (such as Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan).

Other “hard changes” in U.S. strategy could include a comprehensive U.S. military re-entrenchment that would involve explicitly writing off parts of the world, a less state-centric strategy that would focus more on international organizations and human security, and a focus on non-traditional security threats such as climate change and countering diseases.

The lessons Americans derive from their recent past will also help shape future U.S. strategy.

In response to their difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of both their direct and opportunity costs, Americans will likely reject the idea of using their military to achieve forceful regime change and instead rely more on standoff military power.

They will also rely more heavily on military coalitions.

Although this approach succeeded in the Libyan campaign, Metz cautioned that eventually the limits of this offshore balancing approach will be realized.

In Metz’ view, strategists must look beyond the easy changes and also debate and discuss the hard changes.

Nevertheless, because of the constraints mentioned above, these changes will probably not occur until there is another strategic shock such as 9/11.

Certain “black swans” that might change everything could come in the form of another major terrorist attack on Americans, especially one that employed WMDs, a global economic collapse, a transformative high-technology innovation, or a global pandemic.

Another possible strategic shock would be the emergence of a new hostile ideology, as threatening to U.S. global interests as was Soviet Communism, which could dispel the “end-of-ideology” thinking prevailing today and would lead Americans to question their core assumptions and result in a new grand strategy.

Dr. Christopher Preble, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO Institute, agreed with Metz that the United States is unlikely to make major changes in its global strategy, which he saw as providing security for other countries rather than expecting or allowing them to provide for their own security.

In addition to the reasons Metz gave, Preble insisted that there was no structural requirement forcing U.S. strategic retrenchment. Current U.S. foreign policy is not unsustainable, evidenced by what Preble saw as the U.S. pursuing such a strategy for such a long time. By definition something unsustainable must end.

But Preble does consider the current U.S. strategy flawed for mistakenly presuming that U.S-led unipolarity contributes to global security. The United States therefore typically discourages other countries from providing for their own defense. Preble considers it essential to be honest with the American people and bring this assumption out in the open, where it could be subjected to debate.

Preble saw four misconceptions emerging from the hegemonic argument:

  • Alliances distribute rather than augment U.S. military burdens
  • Security threats are imminent, requiring urgent attention and therefore a proximate global U.S. military presence
  • Primacy increases U.S. security
  • Terrorism requires counterinsurgency.

In contrast, Preble warned that acting as the world’s policeman leads U.S. allies to become “free-riders” and imparts a pervasive culture of weakness among them.

In the case of Libya, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted there was not an American national security interest at stake, but we intervened anyway due to European interests. There were also few concrete U.S. national interests at stake in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. The Obama Administration has continued to embrace the status quo as shown in its 2010 National Security Strategy.

In Preble’s view, recent U.S. strategy documents have failed to prioritize threats or optimize means.

The U.S. core interests are the security of the United States, the security of its citizens, and access to global markets, in that order.

The first goal is easy to achieve, and the United States has done better in this regard than perhaps any other country in history. The most problematic interest is maintaining access to global markets. Advocates of seeking primacy make the case that the United States role as the maintainer of the global economy justifies its position. Those advocates overstate the U.S ability to do this and give the United States too much credit for its role in this regard.

Globalization decreases vulnerability since there are more sources and markets, reducing monopoly and monopsony.

According to Preble, policy makers should more forthrightly acknowledge that these interests can conflict with each other, at least in terms of the policies designed to achieve them. The current U.S. National Security Strategy lists four objectives: pursuing the security of the United States and its allies, enhancing U.S. prosperity, upholding American values, and maintaining a favorable international order.

But it fails to acknowledge the frequent need for policies to make tradeoffs among these four objectives.

By investing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has limited the resources it can employ for other purposes.

Preble believes that a fundamental change in U.S. grand strategy would require that the United States decrease its military spending dramatically — the reduced U.S. capabilities would force the United State to restrain its foreign military involvement.

U.S. allies are now quite wealthy and having American taxpayers subsidize their defense is wrong. Although Preble insists that economics should not determine strategy, the United States can reduce its exertions and ambitions without endangering its security, thereby achieving the same ends with fewer means.

Dr. Bernard Finel of the National War College argued that, by accepting relatively small amounts of additional military and personnel risk, the United States could limit the need for hasty resource-driven retrenchment. He stressed that, when choosing between different types of options, strategists need to be clear about the tradeoffs among different types of risk.

For example, though acknowledging Preble’s arguments, Finel claimed that it needs to consider the risk of allowing allies more power, which raises the question of who are U.S. allies and whether they share the same objectives as the United States.

Some new U.S. military partners—such as Brazil, India, or Indonesia—may not share U.S. interests as much as the traditional U.S. allies in NATO.

Another geopolitical risk was that U.S. military retrenchment might embolden adversaries.

Nonetheless, Finel believed that the defense budget could be cut, as long as the various risks are understood.

He also argued that the precarious U.S. budget situation is due to self-inflicted wounds, such as its poor fiscal policy and overly generous social welfare spending, but these are not structural problems.

And unless the United States finds a way to curb its health spending, no changes to the U.S. military can keep the U.S. federal budget out of deficit.

In Finel’s view, cutting the size of the U.S. armored forces presents two risks.

The first is personnel risk due to the longer deployments.

Another is the military risk due to the increased difficulty in achieving U.S. objectives.

Primacy is valuable since it makes the leader less vulnerable to other states, but primacy has its limits, as shown in Afghanistan and Iraq, where even overwhelming U.S. military power could not suppress the insurgencies.

That said, Finel emphasized the extent of the U.S. military superiority today.

The United States faces no peer competitors. There are few if any plausible military missions that the United States is incapable of accomplishing quickly and at low cost in lives and equipment.

We could easily defeat potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

Finel made the risk tradeoff clearer by asking several concrete questions:

Do we really need to be able to invade a country in three weeks with only a hundred casualties?

Are we willing to have instead a three-month invasion with a thousand casualties?

In his view, the United States is currently seeking a 99.99% certainty in defeating potential adversaries.

The United States could make major cuts in its defense spending if it accepted a 95% risk scenario.

Finel wondered whether the United States was not overshooting risk mitigation, and was competing against itself rather than against a real adversary.

It looks like the United States still had a Cold War mindset where it is constantly racing to develop weapons better than the ones it possesses.

The commitment to across-the-board qualitative superiority is perhaps prohibitively expensive and is driving an out of control requirements spiral.

According to Finel, one potential adverse consequence of this overwhelming U.S. military dominance and ultra-low risk strategy is that encourages recklessness.

The decision to enter and remain in a war becomes easier for policymakers, and it keeps the Pentagon engaged in places like Iraq and Afghanistan whose GDP is miniscule compared to the U.S. defense budget.

In Finel’s view, the United States should not plan on dealing with worst case scenarios but instead with the more likely scenarios such as possible conflicts with Iran and North Korea, in which initial less capability is still acceptable in terms of risk given the weaknesses of potential adversaries and the U.S. ability to mobilize in case of major conflicts.

Finel downplayed the risks of a possible war with China by contrasting the PRC with the Soviet Union.

China is a much closer trading partner with the United States than the USSR. ever was, reducing the likelihood of conflict since, with the exception of 1914, countries that are close trading partners rarely go to war with one another.

Furthermore, the causes of conflict between the United States and China are limited and U.S. differences with China are smaller than those that existed between Washington and Moscow, and can therefore be solved by nonmilitary means.

For example, despite Chinese uneasy at the U.S naval domination, both China and the United States favor ensuring freedom of navigation on the high seas.

Even if the relationship between Washington and Beijing turns adversarial, Finel downplayed the notion that a war with China would require a large standing U.S. military.

Unlike a potential Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a large-scale conflict with China would not be determined within the first few weeks.

Such a conflict would instead likely resemble World War II. In these protracted conflicts, the amount of forces each side has at the start of the war would be insignificant to the forces they mobilize and develop during the war.

According to these calculations, the risk mitigated by creating a large U.S. military that could defeat China now is not worth the costs given the small probability and likely character of any such conflict.

Finel recalled that, when we look back on the rise of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we see that the U.S. rise and Britain’s decline were not as calm as often portrayed. During its ascent, the United States threatened to go to war with either the British or other countries on many occasions, something China has not yet done. Like China is doing now thanks to U.S. dominance of the global commons, the United State was free riding on British seapower, which kept international markets open. The British chose to accept this, and the rise of the United States, as producing net benefits for their security. U.S. policies will likewise help determine whether China’s rise is a smooth one.

Finel thought that the United States would have opportunities to position itself in coming years rather than to simply respond to threats.

Globalization, democratization, and the rise of new potential partners like India, Indonesia, and Brazil make plausible a U.S. posture based on enabling allies rather than providing public goods directly.

By pursuing a strategy of restraint, the United States will be able to midwife a new group of global partners into a benign world order.