Delusions of 
Grand Strategy

The Problem With Washington’s Planning Obsession

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

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.


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