Daniel W. Drezner
Why We Need Doctrines in Uncertain Times
Foreign Affairs, July/
As the U.S. military intervenes in
But is it true that President
Grand strategies are not nearly as important as grand strategists like to think, because countries tend to be judged by their actions, not their words. What really matters for great powers is power -- national economic and military strength -- and that speaks loudly and clearly by itself. Still, in times of deep uncertainty, a strategy can be important as a signaling device. In these moments, such as the present, a clearly articulated strategy matched by consistent actions is useful because it can drive home messages about a country's intentions to domestic and foreign audiences.
Despite what its critics say, the Obama administration has actually had not just one grand strategy so far but two. The first strategy, multilateral retrenchment, was designed to curtail
The second, emergent grand strategy is focused on counterpunching. More recently, the Obama administration has been willing to assert its influence and ideals across the globe when challenged by other countries, reassuring allies and signaling resolve to rivals. This strategy has performed better but has been poorly articulated. It is this vacuum of interpretation that the administration's critics have rushed to fill. Unless and until the president and his advisers define explicitly the strategy that has been implicit for the past year, the president's foreign policy critics will be eager to define it -- badly -- for him.
SOUND AND VISION
A grand strategy consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them. Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence. Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones. Either way, a well-articulated grand strategy can offer an interpretative framework that tells everybody, including foreign policy officials themselves, how to understand the administration's behavior.
All this sounds terrifically important, but most of the time it is not. For grand strategies to matter, they have to indicate a change in policy. And trying to alter a state's foreign policy trajectory is like trying to make an aircraft carrier do a U-turn: it happens slowly at best. The tyranny of the status quo often renders grand strategy a constant rather than a variable, despite each administration's determined efforts at intellectual differentiation and rebranding.
Power is the true reserve currency in international affairs, and most countries simply lack the power to make others care about their intentions. The rest of the world is not waiting up nights to learn about
Even for powerful actors, moreover, actions speak louder than words.
Critics and analysts stress the importance of choosing the right grand strategy and the catastrophic implications of selecting the wrong one. History suggests, however, that grand strategies do not alter the trajectory of great-power politics all that much. Consider
All three of these strategic mistakes were rooted in coherent strategic narratives popular with both policymakers and the public. What is striking, however, is that none of these missteps altered the trajectory of U.S. power.
WHEN IDEAS MATTER
If grand strategies are so overrated, why the furious debate? For two reasons, one petty and one substantive. The petty reason is that everyone in the U.S. foreign policy community secretly hopes to be the next Kennan. When a commentator bewails the failings of
The more substantive reason is that there are moments when grand strategies really do count: during times of radical uncertainty in international affairs. Ideas matter most when actors are operating in uncharted waters. They can function as cognitive beacons, guiding countries to safety. During normal times, decision-makers will extrapolate from current capabilities or past actions to predict the behavior of others. In novel times, however, grand strategies can signal to outsiders the future intentions of a country's policymakers, reassuring or repulsing important audiences.
Two kinds of events can trigger the kind of radical uncertainty necessary for a grand strategy to matter. One is a massive global disruption -- a war, a revolution, or a depression -- that rejiggers countries' interests across the globe. In this situation, when everybody is unsure about what comes next, grand strategies can provide a functioning road map for how to interpret current events and the appropriate policy responses. The other is a power transition, which can also lead to profound uncertainty. When a fading hegemonic power is confronted by a rising challenger, countries want to know how each of the two governments views its role in the world. States in relative decline can respond in a myriad of ways, from graceful retrenchment to preemptive conflict. Rising powers, for their part, can be revisionist states, like
The current era, interestingly, is marked by both sets of uncertainties. The Great Recession has rocked the global economy, and commodity prices have gyrated wildly. The international system has had to cope with a welter of natural disasters, technological changes, and incidents of diplomatic turmoil. Revolution has spread across the
At the same time,
When operating in unfamiliar terrain, officials in charge of making and executing national policy can infer what to do from their government's strategy documents. Actors abroad can also develop expectations about the future from them. In these circumstances, foreign governments will care about how much a country's proposed response to uncertainty seeks to revise or reinforce the status quo. Countries prefer the devils they know. Even during uncertain times, grand strategies that advocate wholesale revisions of the international order will make other countries nervous. The Bush doctrine of preemptive intervention had this effect, as did
One other aspect of grand strategy will pique everyone's interest: whether a country's strategic vision appears to promote public or private goods. All great powers have their own ideas about how to buttress a stable world order: strict recognition of Westphalian sovereignty, nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, more multilateralism, greater global development, democracy promotion, and so forth. Some of these ideas advance goods that clearly benefit the rest of the world as well as the great power itself; in other cases, the benefits to others seem less clear. When a great power puts forward a grand strategy that appears to focus on its own interests, it will trigger a backlash from other countries. For example, the Bush administration believed that democracy promotion was in the greater good, but other countries viewed that goal in combination with preemptive intervention as a license for
Much of the handwringing about U.S. grand strategy has been overblown -- but the Obama administration has inherited a world of great uncertainty. Does it have a grand strategy to respond? Actually, it has had two.
Obama came into office with three firm strategic convictions. First, domestic rejuvenation was crucial for any long-term grand strategy, a point he has stressed in all his foreign policy speeches. "[We have] failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy," Obama said in his
Obama's first grand strategy, as explained in various speeches and administration initiatives in his first year, was to make lemons out of lemonade. As Secretary of State
This mixture of words and actions represented a clear strategic concept, but the results fell short of the administration's expectations.
What went wrong? The administration, and many others, erred in believing that improved standing would give
The other problem was that
In response, the administration reset its policies after its first 18 months in office, pivoting toward a second, more assertive grand strategy. One remaining constant is that the administration is still focused on restoring American strength at home, but it has been increasingly comfortable using the specter of rising foreign powers as a motivational tool. This is why Obama called for a "Sputnik moment" in this year's State of the Union speech and why he has tried to boost public investment in education, science, and clean energy.
At the same time, the administration switched from a strategy of retrenchment to one of counterpunching. In response to international provocations,
Finally, and contrary to the claims of many Republican operatives, Obama linked U.S. foreign policy to American exceptionalism. Clinton has become much more vocal in criticizing
TROUBLE AT HOME
As a set of ideas, Obama's new grand strategy holds together in most parts of the globe.
But whereas the new counterpunching doctrine is sustainable internationally, the same is not true on the domestic front. The most significant challenge to Obama's grand strategy is likely to emerge at home rather than abroad. Viable grand strategies need to rest on a wellspring of domestic support. The biggest problem with Obama's new grand strategy is its troublesome domestic politics.
One issue is the mismatch between the complexity of the global system and the simplicity of U.S. foreign policy rhetoric. Politicians do a fine job talking about "friends" and "enemies," but have great difficulty discussing "rivals," a more nuanced category. It is difficult for the administration to use rising powers as a threat to goad
A more serious problem is that by focusing on renewing
But none of this explains why Obama has done such a bad job explaining his grand strategy to the American people. To be fair, the long economic downturn has soured Americans on engaging with the rest of the world, making any activist foreign policy a tough sell. That said, the administration has done itself few favors in this area. Indeed, the most well-known phrase that articulates current U.S. grand strategy is "leading from behind," which is a politically disastrous wording.
Why has the Obama administration not been more up-front about its grand strategic redesign? First, changing course implies an admission that the previous course was incorrect, and no administration likes to do that. Second, the administration takes pride in its foreign policy pragmatism, but that makes it difficult to promote a new grand strategic vision. Finally, military actions tend to crowd out attention to other dimensions of a foreign policy. And although the Libyan intervention might be justified on its own terms, it does not fit perfectly with Obama's new grand strategy.
All this is a problem because politics abhors a rhetorical vacuum. If the president is not clear about his grand strategy, foreign policy critics and political opponents will be happy to define it for him, using less than flattering language. Until the Obama administration does a better job of explaining its grand strategy to the American people, it will encounter significant domestic resistance to its policies.
After some initial wrong turns, the Obama administration seems to have found a useful strategic map, but it still needs to persuade the other passengers in the car. Clear communication is rarely a cure-all. In the wake of bin Laden's death, however, the administration has a golden opportunity to explain its revised grand strategy. In taking the risk of sending U.S. Special Forces into
Daniel W. Drezner is Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the editor of Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy.
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