In January, either a second Trump administration or a Biden administration will face the most difficult foreign policy test the United States has experienced since the early years of the Cold War. This test stems not just from specific challenges but also from a growing imbalance among four classic variables of grand strategy: ends, ways, means, and the security landscape. Left unrecognized and unaddressed, gaps between U.S. ambitions and the U.S. ability to fulfill them will generate increasingly unacceptable strategic risks.

From our experience as national security officials—in the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense—we understand why correcting this imbalance is easy to say but hard to do. The policy community resists setting priorities, mostly reacts to ongoing events, and uses the term “vital” promiscuously. Military services and warfare communities are wedded to long-cherished legacy systems that are in many ways misaligned with the full range of U.S. interests. And the thought that open sources now provide insights into global developments as important as those provided by stolen secrets is difficult to accept for an enterprise built to spy.

Overcoming this resistance requires a clear and direct order from the president and disciplined follow-up to hold his administration responsible. The result of the president’s directive should be a new kind of national security strategy: short and succinct, not all things to all people. It needs to lay out an understanding of ends through the lens of a list of generic, prioritized security interests, as well as guidance on using that list to both resource and employ national power. And it needs to have a clear outline for how the entire symphony will be conducted so the instruments are well tuned and coordinated.

Accompanying the directive from the president must be a national sense of urgency, which will in turn demand bold and unifying leadership. The United States is slipping in the eyes of the world, and ambitious powers are capitalizing on every moment. It is more important than ever to frame an effective approach to foreign policy and national security. But that effort will fail absent a new way to align American power with American purpose, one that avoids the mistakes of strategies past.


Foreign policy requires maintaining a balance among four classic variables. Ends are what an administration is trying to protect and advance. Ways are the strategies, policies, concepts, and methods employed to achieve those ends. Means are the elements of national power, acquired through taxing or borrowing, that enable the ways. And all three variables operate on the landscape of global security, economic, and political conditions in which other actors pursue their own interests.

The current loss of equilibrium that characterizes U.S. foreign policy is driven by two of the four variables. First, changes over the last two decades in the global landscape, including major shifts between the relative power of the United States and its major competitors, present an immense challenge. Changes in GDP, which forms the substructure of national power, are telling. Measured by purchasing power parity, the United States’ share of global GDP has decreased from 50 percent in 1950 to 14 percent in 2018, while China’s has recently surpassed the United States’ to 18 percent. Moreover, both China and Russia have capitalized on U.S. preoccupation with two decades of “endless wars” to narrow gaps in conventional military capabilities and to develop asymmetric ones. They have employed technology to exploit open democratic societies, and they have weakened U.S. leadership by helping to drive wedges between the United States and its traditional allies.

The United States is slipping in the eyes of the world, and ambitious powers are capitalizing on every moment.

Second, American voters are signaling their desire for more attention and resources to be used for domestic issues. Moreover, as a result of steps taken to mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19, U.S. government debt has expanded to levels previously thought unsustainable. By the end of this year, that debt as a share of the GDP will reach 110 percent—the highest level since the end of World War II. The result is that the overall resources available for foreign policy will almost certainly shrink.

The next administration will have to grapple with negative trends in these two strategic variables. In so doing, it will have to look to the other two variables, over which it has the most control: ends and ways. It will need to adopt a more disciplined approach to ends and a more imaginative use of ways, including all the instruments of national power—diplomacy, military prowess, strategic communications, and economic influence.


Adjusting the ends will require adopting a rigorous framework that recognizes a hierarchy of interests to guide foreign policy decisions. No administration has ever put such a list together and used it to guide policy.

The concept of the list is not new. For example, the Report from the Commission on America’s National Interests, published in 2000, made a persuasive case for this approach, arguing that a clear sense of national interests was “the only sound foundation for a sustainable American foreign policy.” Yet to allow for specific interests to change over time and to help maintain focus and discipline, it is more useful to begin with a hierarchy of interests stated in generic terms, so that goals in a particular situation can be traced to more enduring, fundamental ends. Otherwise, there is a risk of falling prey to one of the worst tendencies of many administrations: chasing every emerging threat or opportunity deemed by anyone to be “vital.”

A framework for addressing threats and choices should start with a hierarchy with five tiers. First is the survival of the country as a free democracy—the most important responsibility of any government. In the Cold War, policymakers frequently reiterated the mantra “the survival of the United States as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact.” Because the United States is geographically blessed with wide oceans and friendly neighbors, this interest traditionally has been threatened only by major nuclear and perhaps biological attacks. Now, information attacks, operating at light speed and unencumbered by physical distance, must be added to that list, because they could permanently alter the character of the U.S. political system.

A framework for addressing threats and choices should start with a hierarchy with five tiers.

Second is the prevention of catastrophic attacks on the country and its citizens. Numerous threats fall into this category, including a major terrorist attack; a one-off nuclear detonation; a crippling cyberattack on critical infrastructure; severance of undersea cables; or even an electromagnetic pulse attack delivered by a high-altitude nuclear detonation. It also includes criminal groups importing the synthetic opioids that kill tens of thousands of our citizens each year. While these do not threaten the country’s very survival, their high human and economic costs could result in systemic changes to its way of life.

Third is protection of the global operating system and a U.S. leadership role within it.  Sometimes called the international order, this system comprises the institutions, laws, agreements, and norms that have allowed Americans and others in the world to enjoy seven decades without great-power war and with the greatest increase in economic well-being ever. Within this structure, the United States has led in promoting global economic growth through expanding trade in a rules-based system, facilitating finance with the dollar as the reserve currency, and building a global Internet with open standards. While this system has always been under threat from rivals chafing against it, it is now increasingly stressed from the inside by rising nationalism and populism.

Next in the hierarchy comes the security and support of allies and partners—a unique interest in that allies and partners may be thought of as both ways and ends. International alliances are closely bound to the first three imperatives, and while the United States’ leadership role is not always popular at home or abroad, allies play a key role in U.S. security and prosperity. They contribute to global markets; enhance the United States’ own diplomatic, intelligence, and military capabilities; and provide legal and even moral support in times of need. Having weighty allies on its side of the seesaw of great-power rivalries makes the United States much stronger.

Finally, there is the protection and, where possible, the extension of universal values—including ideals such as the prevention of atrocities, genocide, deliberate attacks on civilians, and chemical or biological warfare, as well as the sovereignty of nations and relief of human suffering. Somewhat more debatable, depending on one’s definition of “universal,” is the extension of democracy itself.


Although others may make a case for a different set of interests, the essential point is to have an enduring and explicit hierarchy. It would bring rigor to decisions about resourcing the means of national security, exposing where parochial interests (such as individual military services or powerful members of Congress) or simply a lack of imagination have led to over- or underprotection of certain interests. It would also promote reasoned judgments about the use of instruments of power. When a given situation finds strong correlation with the rank of the interests affected, the number of interests affected, and the depth of impacts on those interests, policymakers should be more willing to expend more resources to protect them. If vital interests are at stake, the use of force (unilaterally, if necessary) could be warranted, even with a high cost in blood, treasure, and opportunity; when correlation is low, significant expenditure of power, including the use of force, is not appropriate. A corollary is the imperative to avoid turning a small problem into a big one by protecting a low-ranking interest in a way that threatens a higher-ranking one.

Having weighty allies on its side of the seesaw of great-power rivalries makes the United States much stronger.

To see how this framework could help clarify hard choices, consider the George W. Bush administration’s sequential decisions to pursue Osama bin Laden, destroy the Taliban’s regime, and then create a democratic government in its place. In the first instance, there was a strong enough correlation with security interests number two and four above—the need to prevent an additional catastrophic attack on the United States and its allies—to justify major use of force. However, once those threats were attenuated, albeit not completely eliminated, the correlation with those two interests decreased significantly. In attempting to create a democratic Afghanistan as a way to prevent future terrorist acts, policymakers were captivated by interest number five. But the overall correlation of interests and methods simply did not justify the level of resources in blood, treasure, and opportunity expended over the following two decades.

The changing security landscape and growing limitations on means will require the next president to make increasingly difficult decisions about which ends are most worthy of resource allocation and power expenditure. To be sure, higher-ranked ends, including the security of the American homeland and its democracy, are non-negotiable. But if subjected to a thorough review through the lens of the hierarchy of interests above, would others—such as the depth of the United States’ commitment to all current allies and partners, or its determination to maintain military primacy in every area of the world—be refashioned to better reflect changes in landscape and means? Would such decisions lead to more clever ways to address these interests? In answering these questions, the next president should heed Henry Kissinger’s warning: “No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment of time.”


With limited means to navigate a deteriorating landscape, there is but one remaining variable to maintain the equilibrium and protect the ends deemed most important: ways. Ways spring from the various elements of national power, which include diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments. Employed either individually or in concert, they are the “how” of what policymakers are trying to accomplish. When existing strategic ways become inadequate, leaders must summon the courage and creativity to find new ones—as the United States did during the space race—or to modernize old ones.

Changing ways may be even more difficult than adjusting ends. In large systems such as the U.S. national security establishment, internal and external investments in the status quo make it hard to break out of existing practices. In almost all cases, new ways will require shifts in allocation of means among the elements of national power and within the institutions that actually employ them. Nonetheless, the next administration has an opportunity to reset the ways it uses each element of U.S. national power to better serve the United States’ ends. The alternative is to risk advancing unsustainable, or outdated, tactics in service of muddled priorities—with the result that the United States will struggle more and more to provide for the common defense, promote general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.

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