Monday, July 28, 2008

Four basic options for grand strategy

NOTE: The original link to the paper quoted in this post is no longer active. However the paper has been published in a pdf document here: Finding Our Way: Debating American Grand Strategy (link no longer active)

In this introductory paper to a symposium on grand strategy, Shawn Brimley asserts four options:

In general, there are four basic options or ideal strategic types
when conceiving of a nation’s grand strategy: isolationism or restraint, selective engagement,
cooperative security, and primacy. Each of these competing strategic visions has a robust history
in both academic and policy literature and each contain significant individual strands that are
unique in history and in practice.31 Each school has modern advocates, and in general American
national security strategies tend to contain elements from several of these schools.32

First, neo-isolationism holds that America’s only true vital interest is national defense - defined as
securing the liberty, property, and security of the homeland. The United States should not
attempt to maintain world order, and the promotion of democracy around the world only serves to
generate additional enemies and risk strategic exhaustion.33 Isolationists are highly skeptical of
the use of American power abroad, and retain a deep animosity toward international institutions
and international law. Contemporary arguments seldom use “isolationism,” but rather terms like
“restraint” or “offshore balancing.” In The Peace of Illusions, Christopher Layne argues that
“offshore balancing is a multipolar – not unipolar – strategy, and therefore it would accommodate
the rise of new great powers while simultaneously shifting, or devolving, to Eurasia’s major
powers the primary responsibility for their own defense.”34 In a November 2007 article in The
American Interest, Barry Posen concluded that 16 years of post-Cold War strategy had failed,
and the United States should thus “conceive its security interests narrowly, use its military power
stingily, pursue its enemies quietly but persistently, share responsibilities and costs more
equitably, watch and wait more patiently. Let’s do this for 16 years and see if the outcomes aren’t
better.”35 In the context of the likely strategic inheritance in early 2009, a strategy of restraint will
have some salience in America’s domestic politics.

Second, selective engagement represents a hybrid strategy that is firmly rooted in the realist
goals of security and prosperity, but also includes liberal goals such as expanding free markets,
human rights, and international openness.36 Unlike most neo-isolationist ideas, engagement
strategies posit that a precautionary or forward posture seeking to prevent significant threats
from materializing is preferable to one employing offshore-balancing. Therefore, selective
engagement strategies would maintain core American alliances such as NATO and bilateral
alliances with Japan and South Korea. In order to actually be selective, advocates of selective
engagement would employ a tiered hierarchy of national interests, differentiating between the
vital interest of defending the homeland, with the highly important goals of maintaining Eurasian
great power peace and access to Gulf oil at reasonable prices, and important interests such as
international economic openness, growth of democracy and human rights, and preventing severe
climate change.37 In A Grand Strategy for America, Robert J. Art argues that selective
engagement is both politically feasible and affordable, steering “a middle course between not
doing enough and attempting to do too much; it takes neither an isolationist, unilateralist path at
one extreme nor a world policeman role at the other.”38 Critics argue that a forward military
presence and focus on alliances tends to result in balancing behavior and a persistent temptation
toward “mission creep.”39

Third, advocates of cooperative security strategies are typically liberal internationalists who
argue that America has a vital interest in pursuing a “world of liberty under law.”40 For this school,
a post Cold War-era defined by growing interdependence and deepening connectivity demands
that American interests be defined broadly, that wars anywhere stand a greater chance of
spreading and expanding, and that the United States must therefore pursue liberty both at home
and abroad.41 Others argue that in a world where transnational threats such as non-state
nuclear proliferation are likely to increase, the international community has a so-called “duty to
prevent,” which rejects the proposition that sovereignty is absolute.42 A globalized world in which
threats proliferate and multiply underwrites a logic that connects the pursuit of security in
America to festering problems everywhere. Advocates of cooperative security thus place a great
deal of instrumental value on the creation and effective performance of multilateral institutions
and international law. But more fundamentally, advocates of collective security such as G. John
Ikenberry have argued, that “American power may rise or fall and its foreign policy ideology may
wax and wane between multilateral and imperial impulses – but the wider and deeper liberal
global order is now a reality to which America itself must accommodate.”43 To wit, it would be
foolhardy and counterproductive for America to disengage from a world order that it helped

Finally, advocates of American primacy argue that only sustained hegemony ensures continued
global stability. From this perspective, the rise of a peer competitor in Eurasia would pose a
dramatic threat to international order and significantly increase the risk of war. Most advocates of
primacy argue that the United States is, on balance, perceived to be a benign hegemon, and
thus significant balancing behavior that would undermine America’s strategic position is unlikely
to occur.44 Moreover, even if there is growing resentment of continued American primacy,
Michael Mandelbaum in The Case for Goliath, argues that American abdication from its current
role would “deprive the international system of one of its principal safety features, which keeps
countries from smashing into each other, as they are historically prone to do. In this sense, a
world without America would be the equivalent of a freeway full of cars with no brakes.”45
According to this view, the so-called “unipolar moment” must be sustained, and thus China and
other rising powers should be viewed as strategic competitors rather than partners.46 Critics of
perpetual primacy often argue that an insistence on hegemony is a recipe for strategic
overstretch, national exhaustion, and a decline of power and influence.

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