ERIC DRAPER / WHITE HOUSE / GETTY IMAGES Strategery: President George W. Bush with his foreign policy advisers, September 2001.

Delusions of 
Grand Strategy

The Problem With Washington’s Planning Obsession

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In February 2015, when U.S. President Barack Obama released his second and final National Security Strategy—a formal outline of the administration’s foreign policy—it was met with the usual fanfare. Critics and defenders debated its principles and priorities. Prospective presidential candidates piggybacked off the release to highlight their own security agendas, hoping to score political points and broadcast their resolve. Others were simply relieved that the president, who often seemed allergic to explaining his grand strategy, had given voice to one.

The periodic production of a national security strategy has been an American ritual since 1986, when the Goldwater-Nichols Act required the president to submit an annual report to Congress. In theory, strategizing is supposed to make the country safer. As officials debate competing strategies, the poorest policy options should fall by the wayside. The public debate following the final document’s release should bring democratic transparency to a discussion of the country’s strategic priorities and how they are to be pursued. The production of an explicit strategy is meant to hold leaders accountable to the citizenry at large and to signal Washington’s global intentions to allies and adversaries, alleviating the uncertainty that bedevils international politics.

Since 1986, critics have suggested numerous procedural tweaks to encourage real creativity in U.S. strategic planning. But the problem lies not in the design of the process but in Washington’s misplaced faith in strategizing. Indeed, strategizing turns out to have few benefits. The most powerful voices tend to dominate the discussion, regardless of the merits of their ideas. It is nearly impossible for the public to hold leaders accountable for poor strategic choices. And worst of all, the ritual itself is dangerous, launching a search for threats that scares both officials and the public and results in self-fulfilling prophecies of conflict. Rather than laying the foundation for national security, in other words, the strategizing ritual contributes to an overwhelming sense of insecurity. The country would be better off without it.

THE ILLUSION OF STRATEGY

It makes sense to put stock in strategy if the state has consistent preferences, if it can assess the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action (and make decisions more or less rationally), and if it has the capacity to follow through on its strategic choices. But none of this is possible, and thus strategy is an illusion, as the scholar Richard Betts has powerfully argued. In the complex and highly uncertain world of international politics, it is all but impossible to identify the ideal strategy ahead of time. The United States lacks full knowledge about the threats it confronts, in part because adversaries act deceptively and in part because their interests change over time. As a result, the consequences of foreign policy are consistently unpredictable.

The strategizing ritual contributes to an overwhelming sense of insecurity. Psychological blinders, moreover, make strategizing still more difficult. People suffer from all sorts of cognitive limitations that hinder decision-making—in particular, a tendency to rationalize. Instead of acting on the basis of our beliefs, we revise our beliefs to make sense of our improvisations. We avoid identifying priorities and the tradeoffs among them. Moreover, states are not unitary actors, and bureaucratic battles impede strategic planning and consistency. These shortcomings were highlighted in a 2010 report by an independent panel that Congress had tasked with evaluating the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which is charged with assessing the threat environment and rebalancing the Pentagon’s “strategies, capabilities, and forces to address today’s conflicts and tomorrow’s threats.” The panel concluded, “Instead of unconstrained, long term analysis by planners who were encouraged to challenge preexisting thinking, the QDRs became explanations and justifications, often with marginal changes, of established decisions and plans.”

Finally, even if a strategy could be consistently implemented, there are no clear metrics to assess the costs and benefits of a particular course of action, even in retrospect. Strategic outcomes that appear poorly calculated to one analyst may seem sensible to another with different goals and ambitions. In addition, strategies that offer short-term rewards may sometimes prove unwise over a longer period.

This is not to say that U.S. foreign policy simply shifts with the winds. Indeed, the United States has acted as a liberal hegemon, more or less coherently, ever since World War II. But this is less the product of a formal grand strategy than the result of enduring structural features of the international and domestic landscape: the United States’ material preponderance, the powerful corporate interests that profit from global integration, the dominance of core liberal tenets in American political culture. To detect actual strategy in the U.S. government’s diverse initiatives over the decades is to confuse cause with after-the-fact rationalization and requires sweeping aside countless deviations from that supposedly carefully charted course.

The National Security Strategy typically lays out a laundry list of threats and challenges so long and varied that leaders can always point to some success or deflect some blame after the fact. Even if strategy is flawed, however, few politicians and analysts seem prepared to dispense with the process of strategizing. Yet its supposed virtues are also illusory. Its defenders argue that institutionalized debates about strategy help weed out the worst policy options. Yet this assumes the existence of an open marketplace of ideas, in which all strategic options compete on a level playing field. In reality, the playing field is skewed, dominated by powerful, mainstream voices. Meanwhile, publics often demand not just reasoned arguments but also narratives that make sense of confusing and often unsettling global events. Policy options that do not fit neatly into an established story are treated as beyond the pale, rarely heard and easily dismissed. As a result, the strategizing ritual yields thin deliberation, paving the way for poor policy. Consider the 2002 National Security Strategy, which provided the rationale for the subsequent Iraq war. The dominant post-9/11 narrative silenced leading Democrats, who might have vocally opposed the war, and the administration was thus permitted to pursue the invasion—in retrospect, a strategic mistake of the first order.

Explosions in Baghdad during airstrikes, March 2003. The periodic production of a national security strategy has been an American ritual since 1986, when the Goldwater-Nichols Act required the president to submit an annual report to Congress.

Explosions in Baghdad during coalition air strikes, March 2003.

A second defense of strategizing maintains that the public articulation of strategy holds leaders accountable for their decisions. In foreign policy, the argument runs, there is rarely a parallel to a financial bottom line; formal strategy documents help by laying out the criteria for evaluating leaders’ performance in foreign policy. Even so, accountability remains the exception, not the rule. Politicians take credit for successes that are not theirs and evade responsibility for mistakes that are. Ronald Reagan, the “Teflon president,” was particularly adept at this. Despite the various scandals that surrounded his presidency, including the Iran-contra affair, his popularity ­remained high. Indeed, foreign policy rarely brings down a president. Strategically skilled presidents have been turned out of office (George H. W. Bush, for example, just under two years after his triumph in the first Gulf War), and strategically unsuccessful ones have found their way back to the White House (as did George W. Bush, in 2004, after Iraq had already started to slip into chaos). When leaders are held accountable, moreover, it is for outputs, not inputs: they are punished when a policy fails, even if the reasoning behind the policy was sound, and rewarded when something works, even if it was a reckless gamble that should never have been tried.

Strategizing is supposed to provide a way beyond all of this, forcing an administration to show the thought processes behind its choices and helping the public apportion credit and blame appropriately. But formal strategy documents are typically vague on their metrics for failure and success. This is partly for good reason: international politics is turbulent and unpredictable, and so strategy must be flexible. But presidents also shy away from making firm commitments, which run the risk of alienating interests inside and outside government and would give ordinary citizens too much ammunition to hold them accountable. Consequently, the National Security Strategy typically lays out a laundry list of threats and challenges so long and varied that leaders can always point to some success or deflect some blame after the fact. Obama’s latest National Security Strategy, for example, highlights threats from weapons of mass destruction, violent extremism, terrorism, fragile states, civil wars, corruption, economic recession, and many others. Obama cannot fail because neither he nor anyone else could truly succeed.

A final argument in favor of strategizing is that it makes U.S. interests clear to allies and adversaries, reducing uncertainty in global affairs and boosting international stability. But credibility cannot be gained merely by issuing a public document, let alone one that carries few concrete proposals or repercussions. And when foreign officials do take published strategy seriously, they read in their own biases, refracting and distorting the intended message.

Consider the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. As Kurt Campbell, then the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, explained in 2012, the pivot was founded on two premises: that “in the twenty-first century, the lion’s share of the history of the world will be written in the Asia-Pacific region” and that “every country in Asia wants a better relationship with China.” But in China, the pivot was seen as the beginnings of containment. Beijing’s latest official military strategy makes thinly veiled references to “new threats from hegemonism, power politics, and neo-interventionism” and places U.S. “rebalancing” in a broader narrative of encirclement by hostile regional competitors. A strategy intended to make the region safer has thus had the opposite result.

U.S. President Barack Obama with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House, September 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House, September 2015. 

THE EVIL OF BANALITY

Strategizing is more than just unhelpful; it is also dangerous. The ritual of crafting strategy encourages participants to spin a narrative that magnifies the scope of the national interest and exaggerates global threats. The aggressive policies adopted in reaction to the perceived threats make them real: when states seek to defend themselves, they threaten others, prompting a response and touching off a dangerous game of escalation—a classic security dilemma. Strategizing turns possible threats into all-too-real ones.

For a number of reasons, strategizing gives hawks the upper hand. Human brains are hard-wired to reduce cognitive dissonance and preserve self-esteem. People are unlikely to participate in strategic reviews that result in merely an affirmation of the status quo, since that would suggest that the process was unnecessary—and so, too, their participation in it. Officials have strong incentives to depict the world as full of threats, moreover, because that justifies ever-larger budgets and validates their organizations’ values and missions. And strategizing gives participants incentives to focus on the possible rather than the probable, as the political costs of failing to identify a threat are greater than those of wrongly identifying one. Presidents seek legacies associated with a positive agenda of accomplishment; they would rather not be remembered solely for avoiding poor outcomes. One need only recall the ridicule Obama received for his rule, reportedly a saltier version of “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

Strategizing is more than just unhelpful; it is also dangerous.

The result is that even when the nation’s external security environment is extraordinarily benign, strategists make it seem anything but. In the early 1990s, for example, the United States was the world’s leading military and economic power. The Soviet Union, its great ideological and material competitor, had collapsed. With the object of U.S. defense spending now gone, many hailed the prospect of a so-called peace dividend. But U.S. President Bill Clinton’s first strategy document, released in 1994, acknowledged the end of the communist threat before declaring, “The dangers we face today are more diverse.” If ever there was a time for U.S. retrenchment, it was immediately following the end of the Cold War. Not so fast, said Clinton: “Never has American leadership been more essential—to navigate the shoals of the world’s new dangers and to capitalize on its opportunities.” To enter the world of the National Security Strategy is to enter a world always at risk.

In an anarchic world with weak global governance, the sources of potential harm are infinite, and a hegemon such as the United States will be constantly tempted to act to diminish those threats. Strategizing is supposed to make citizens feel safe, confident that their leaders have everything under control. Instead, as pundits lay out catastrophic scenarios and as officials warn of wide-ranging menaces, everyone emerges more anxious—and more tempted to use the United States’ immense power to alleviate that anxiety.

Strategizing is thus counterproductive. It does not make Americans feel more secure; just the opposite. And the cost of this collective anxiety goes beyond therapy bills. It inclines the U.S. government to ill-considered action, at home and abroad. It leads Washington to sacrifice civil liberties, impose costly domestic security measures, and offer commitments to allies that it cannot easily reverse. It encourages American leaders to respond aggressively to threats before the evidence is in, bringing those threats to fruition.

THE VIRTUES OF PRAGMATISM

Instead of obsessing over strategy, Washington should adopt a more pragmatic approach to questions of policy. This would involve four main elements.

The first is narrative pluralism. When a single narrative dominates policy debates, only a limited range of options can be considered. At the height of the Cold War consensus, for example, legitimate voices hewed to anticommunist axioms, which prevented Washington from seizing opportunities to fracture the communist bloc and negotiate a stable arrangement with the Soviet Union. Now, with the United States relatively secure and the future of the global order up in the air, there should be room for differing views over national security; there is no excuse for enforced homogeneity. Narrative pluralism facilitates flexibility, which runs counter to the impulse to strategize. It is also often unpopular. Uncomfortable with narrative disorder, people clamor for their leaders to make sense of the world around them. If presidents fail to do so, they are pilloried as “unstrategic.” The challenge for leaders today is to satisfy the public’s demand for narrative order without overly narrowing the scope of debate.

Second, pragmatism involves focusing on specific challenges in lieu of searching for an overarching foreign policy doctrine. Doctrines force leaders to act for the sake of seeming consistent, even when it would be wiser not to. Even offhand comments at press conferences somehow become ironclad promises, or so Obama and his critics believed when it came to Syrian chemical weapons use, and the pressures mount all the more with officially endorsed doctrines. A pragmatic approach would consider threats on their own terms rather than as part of a larger strategic worldview. And it would sustain a more restrained foreign policy that avoids the distraction of peripheral interventions.

Third, a pragmatic approach would replace the ritual of periodic strategizing with more regular venues for officials to articulate the logic behind policy. Although national security sometimes requires secrecy, there are limits to what democratically elected governments should withhold from citizens. Citizens have the right to demand that their leaders explain their foreign policy priorities and initiatives and that their representatives in Congress, rather than engage in political grandstanding, ask hard questions of and demand real answers from the executive branch. An aggressive press, alongside strong freedom-of-information legislation, is an essential bulwark of democracy. But the periodic publication of a formal national security strategy—and the many related documents released down the bureaucratic ladder—does not provide meaningful transparency. In its current form, strategizing is little more than political spectacle.

Finally, pragmatism calls for a more experimental approach to foreign policy. Creativity emerges only from an organizational and political environment that eschews rigid strategy and tolerates failure. Successful organizations adapt fluidly to changing circumstances, create cultures that permit experimentation, and learn from their errors. The first rule of foreign policy should remain “Do no harm,” but much international harm can come from playing it safe. The United States must cultivate a bureaucratic and political climate that is forgiving of small failures. Only in that atmosphere can the country’s foreign-policy makers go after the big wins—and leave strategizing behind.

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