Shadow Government

The pitfalls of practicing strategery

The quarter-century-old debate about America's grand strategy grinds on. Will and Dan both commented favorably on a report by the Project for a United and Strong America called "Setting Priorities for American Leadership," which styles itself a sort of Shadow National Security Strategy. The report is a restatement of a sort of muscular liberal internationalism, a half-way point between Robert Kagan and G. John Ikenberry. As such, I generally agree with it.

Which makes it a useful case for criticism. If "Setting Priorities" is the most recent attempt to argue for a more coherent internationalist grand strategy -- a worthy endeavor -- then whatever weaknesses it has might throw into relief some broader problems of U.S. foreign policy. So, with great respect for, and in broad agreement with, the authors of that report, here's everything they got wrong: 

1. The missing link between ideals and interests. The report rightly claims that American security and global democracy are linked. However, the report simply asserts this claim with little reasoning or evidence and implies the connection is straightforward and obvious. But I sense American voters are wary of sweeping claims about the goodness of democracy because it reminds them of what they feel was the oversell on democracy promotion by the Bush administration.  It would be helpful to spell out the logic tying American security to global democracy -- namely, the democratic peace and related ideas. Constitutional, liberal democracies tend not to fight one another, sponsor terrorism, export refugees, or have famines. They do tend to trade together, cooperate in international efforts, work for a rules-based international order, and be sources of innovation and prosperity. America should foster democracy abroad not because we are a missionary nation out to convert the world to our theory of justice, but out of a stone-cold calculation that democracy is the cheapest way to keep the peace. Making this case is crucial to persuading Americans weary of the burdens of international leadership that it is worth the cost.

2. A weak threat analysis. The report rightly claims that we face a "full spectrum of security threats," but its list of threats is almost entirely limited to unconventional threats, like terrorists, drug trafficking, and cyber threats. The missing end of the spectrum is rival great powers and nuclear states, all of whom have been underestimated since the end of the Cold War. The report follows the bad example of much of the field of security studies in overemphasizing the new, trendy, fashionable topics -- partly, I sense, because that is where the research money has gone for two decades. The report mentions the rise of China and North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons not under its threat analysis but as examples of "the rise of Asia," that is "transform[ing] the geopolitical landscape." That's either the triumph of tact over clarity or the result of committee writing gone awry. Later the report says more directly that we need a military to "deter any potential military rival and defeat any potential adversary," but, thanks to the apparent absence of major rivals and adversaries in the threat analysis, the report paradoxically implies that we really don't need much of a military -- at least for conventional purposes -- after all. 

3. The self-licking Leadership ice-cream cone. Praising American strength and leadership is something of a mantra -- not to say mania -- for a certain corner of foreign policy wonks. I count about three dozen uses of the words "strong," "strength," or "leadership" in the report (not counting the title, which emphasizes the need for a "Strong America"). Sometimes it seems like we demand that American be a strong leader in order to protect America's role as a strong leader, so that American can go on being strong and exercising leadership in the service of our strength and our leadership...and so on. It's circular reasoning, a self-justifying policy of infinite regress. I fear I may be labeled a heretic for asking what we need to be a leader for? Where are we leading people to? The report says the United States "must play an active, day-to-day role in shaping events" to "shape common action on a global agenda." I agree that global cooperation happens more effectively with American involvement, but the report treats "the global agenda" as an intrinsic good. The only intrinsic good of American foreign policy is American security. I'd like to see "the global agenda" and America's burden of leadership justified by how it contributes to American interests, not vice versa. We lead to secure interests; we don't have interests to secure our leadership. (The British occasionally tried a policy of "masterly inactivity," and they didn't have a bad run of hegemony). I broadly agree with pretty much all the specific examples the report gives of where American leadership is needed; rather, I am taking issue with the principle of the matter more than its application.  I'm not arguing that we should "lead from behind" or retrench or anything of the sort. I am pleading that we treat strength and leadership as a means, not an end, of foreign policy.

4. Just a List of Stuff. The report gets most specific in its penultimate section on "Challenges and Opportunities." But because of the lack of prior conceptual clarity, these challenges and opportunities are presented as just a list of things to worry about with little explicit connection to the threats or interests spelled out earlier in the report. That makes the list vulnerable to an easy critique by those who would downplay the threats to American security. I agree with the list of challenges, but it reads like the agenda of a chaotic NSC meeting rather than a strategic tour d'horizon

5. Not a strategy. Finally, the report-like all "national security strategies" published by every administration since Congress mandated the document in 1987-is less a "strategy" document than a list of aspirations and goals. A strategy would go further and specify the resources, tools, and instruments of national power to be employed to achieve each specific goal. That may be too much to ask of a 20-page report (but then again NSC-68 was only 25,000 words).

Notably, many of these weaknesses are common to almost all attempts at articulating a grand strategy from across the ideological spectrum. There are some other, more specific faults (the section on Pakistan) and some exceptionally good parts (the language on foreign aid and the paragraphs on Afghanistan and India). But lest I be misunderstood, I mean this critique to be a compliment -- the report is good enough to merit close attention. I always scribble more comments on my best students' papers because they have the most potential. The papers with no ink on them are too hopeless to bother with.  (Having said that, I still plan to ink up the Obama administration's next national security strategy, no matter how good or bad it is). And I am painfully aware that it is far easier to criticize than to create. My own humble attempt to articulate an American grand strategy for the 21st century came in a pair of articles for Survival last year (here and here). Critiques welcome.

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