Far from asserting global hegemony, the United States is inadvertently acting like a balancer of last resort in the world
By Adam Garfinkle
Over the past quarter century, the American political class, its leadership included, seems to have lost the ability to think strategically about the world and America’s place in it. The reinforcing reasons for this are both remote and proximate, some buried deep within American political culture and others the result of recent and, one hopes, ephemeral distractions. But whatever the reasons may be, four generic phenomena have resulted from the recent abeyance of strategic thought.
First, the error quotient of US foreign policy has risen, and even great powers ultimately have limited margins for error. Second, US policy has become largely reactive, particularly since American leaders’ quality time has been all but monopolised by the deep post-2008 economic swoon and accompanying signs of equally deep political dysfunction. Third, the US reputation for foreign policy constancy and competence has suffered, not least in encouraging revisionist actors to take advantage of the US attention deficit. And these three phenomena have together stimulated a fourth: a shift by default from the US grand strategy in place since the end of World War II to one absentmindedly bearing a different set of prospective risks and benefits.
None of this is particularly good news for American allies.
Unlike classical European and Asian statesmen, American leaders have never developed a tradition of formal grand-strategy making. There is no American version of Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, and comparatively little grand-strategy literature written by native-born intellectuals and leaders exists. This is partly because of the idealistic anti–“Old World” mercantilist bias of the Founders’ Enlightenment ideology. It is also partly because, after the first few decades of American independence and the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European imperialism away from the New World, the nation no longer found itself locked in strategic competition with proximate near-equals. The American state’s initial grand strategy, which was to acquire as much of North America as possible, arose ineluctably from the conditions in which the young nation found itself. Whether it was called Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” or “manifest destiny,” this first, developmentalist grand strategy gained nearly universal, if mostly tacit, consensus. There was no need to write formal tracts about it and argue over them in private conclave, and no one did except in rare cases such as Seward’s Folly — the US purchase of Alaska in 1867.
While this first American grand strategy was simple and hence clear, as all grand strategies worth their salt must be, it was not for the saintly or faint of heart. As Machiavelli put it just past 500 years ago, every benign political order rests on antecedent crimes. The American case is no exception: the barbarous treatment of native Americans, slavery, an early avarice directed toward Canada that led to the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, which even as unsentimental a man as Ulysses S. Grant condemned as one of the most unjust wars ever inflicted by a stronger power upon a weaker one. America’s westward expansion was also a necessary precondition for the worst calamity in American history: the Civil War. Withal, the strategy succeeded and by so doing exhausted itself. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner famously wrote about the “closing of the frontier” at the end of the 19th century, the strategy had become obsolete, notwithstanding some unrequited but on balance faint imperial yearnings directed toward the Caribbean and, of course, Hawaii.
At that moment in American history, following the Spanish–American War, several strands came together to produce the second American grand strategy. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great American navalist, fused his grasp of the British strategic tradition with the newly developing academic notion of geopolitics and out came the template for American anti-hegemonism. Long since unworried about a peer competitor in the Western Hemisphere or the return of a European power in strength to the New World, the grand strategy of the United States as a maritime-oriented World Island would be to oppose the emergence of a hegemonic power in either peninsular Europe or East Asia.
This was not a principled anti-hegemonic stance, for Mahan and others were unperturbed about America’s own New World dominance. It rather flowed from two different principles: First, in a technologically dynamic age, the impossibility that any power at either bracket of Eurasia could amass sufficient resources to literally endanger US security could no longer be taken for granted; and second, no power should be allowed to compel the United States to undertake a level of mobilisation that would undermine the small-government, no-standing-army injunctions of the Founders.
How to implement this strategy? Through self-help and key alliances. Self-help consisted mainly of building up the US Navy to world-class scale; hence President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world in 1905; the construction of the Panama Canal, completed in 1913, needs also be seen in this light. It consisted in Asia too, many supposed, of US control of the Philippines. The alliance consisted in riding the coattails of the Royal Navy, that great fleet which bestrode the empire on which the sun never set, and aligning America’s diplomacy too, where possible, with that of Britain. Together, this maritime strategy could be aptly termed one of offshore balancing, which fairly describes the British post-Napoleonic Wars grand strategy that inspired Mahan to devise it.
American strategy also depended for its implementation on deft diplomacy to complement growing US wealth and power. For example, after World War I, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, beyond convening the famed Washington Naval Conference of 1922, set to clean up the imperial detritus in the Pacific occasioned by the collapse of the German Empire. A series of linked negotiations involving the United States, Britain, Japan, and France established a new multilateral security balance upon the exit of Germany from the Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Islands, Samoa, and Shantung Province in China — which Japan had seized during the World War but, thanks to American diplomatic efforts, was returned to China in 1922.
Alas, the new Pacific order depended on all participants keeping up their insurance premiums, so to speak — but with the coming of the Great Depression America’s security investments all but ceased. American military weakness, particularly its drawdown in naval power, turned the Philippines from potential strategic asset into real strategic liability in the face of rising Japanese militarism. The result was the onset of the Pacific War in 1941, the first direct fist-on-fist test of America’s Mahanian grand strategy.
World War II supplied proper nouns to American grand strategy as World War I never had. In Europe the feared hegemon was Nazi Germany; in Asia it was Japan. America’s guiding wartime two-front tactic, as the immediate application of its larger grand strategy, was so simple that it consisted of but two words: “Europe First.” The strategy was implemented successfully and, after the war, the United States found its own military forces stationed on the brackets of Eurasia, and with both its British and French allies much weaker for war’s wear. As the names of potential hegemons changed from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia in Europe, and from Japan to Communist China in Asia, America’s two-front anti-hegemonic grand strategy changed in two ways. First, the pro-democracy ideological dimension of the Cold War, long latent in American thinking about global affairs, merged with the anti-hegemonic objectives of US grand strategy. Second, the mode of its implementation changed from offshore balancing to forward deployment. Together, these changes gave rise, in George Kennan’s famous term, to a strategy called “containment.”
Whereas in the past, the US Navy, in concert with the British Navy, was the principal military instrument of US grand strategy, after the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the outbreak of war in Korea the main instrument also came to include the US Air Force, now with nuclear weapons, deployed both at home and in bases ringing the Soviet Union and Communist China. The ongoing aim of US grand strategy now was to deter geostrategic advance by either hostile would-be hegemon, who were believed to be in league with each other for reasons of ideological affinity, but also to suppress security competitions in Europe and Asia that might provide opportunities or temptations for an adversary’s advance toward a hegemonic position.
Since US interests in both brackets of Eurasia were relatively impartial compared to those of local powers, and whereas US strength was truly unparalleled, American strategy attracted many local associates. This enabled US diplomacy to assemble a robust but flexible alliance system spanning Europe and Asia. The ideological and economic dimensions of US policy, also attractive to many abroad, became complements to this policy according to the Tocquevillian conviction that prosperous democracies make for better strategic partners. The US Navy and Air Force thus became, in effect, the ante that allowed Washington to participate in the geopolitics of the two regions, and the alliance structures, in turn, provided a politically supportable means by which US power could combine with that of others. By the advent of the Eisenhower Administration, if not a few years earlier, the grand strategy of the United States was sufficiently clear that a single sentence sufficed to express it: Prevent the emergence of a hegemon over peninsular Europe or East Asia by suppressing security competitions through the forward deployment of US forces, and through a supportive pro-democracy, pro-trade diplomacy.
Through the end of the Cold War in 1989–91, that was America’s post-World War II grand strategy. The strategy did not work perfectly, as the Vietnam War debacle illustrates. It also required some adjustment, for example to add the greater Middle East to its ambit, not mainly for its own sake, but for that region’s instrumental significance to European and Asian security in a new oil-fired age. Yet despite the tendency of the ideological aspect of the struggle to kick up much obfuscating dust, on a good day most senior American leaders, certainly those in the relevant Executive Branch offices and in the upper ranks of the military, were more or less able to articulate that single sentence.
No more. As Walter Russell Mead put it recently, “the habit of supremacy developed in the last generation” caused the “strategic dimension, in the sense of managing intractable relations with actual or potential geopolitical adversaries, [to] largely disappear … from American foreign policy debates.” That, in turn, has allowed the recurrence of those legal and moral modes of thinking about foreign and national security policy that George Kennan and many others tirelessly warned against. What passes for thought about strategic problems now transpires through what Mead calls “an uncomplicated atmosphere of Whig determinism” that manages to somehow turn Anglo-American institutions and values into supposed universal best practice.
This is not a partisan issue. Both American liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, each in their own ways, have long been bridled to Whig views of history. Both were disciplined from indulging in excessive secular messianism during the Cold War by the realism-inducing spectre of clear and present dangers. In the Cold War’s wake, however, resurgent Whiggery has trumped all — even during and just after the shock of 9/11.
The Clinton Administration acted as though the great wave of post–Cold War globalisation represented a cosmic confluence of American power, interests, and values all wonderfully woven together. Strategy was subsumed by multi-dimensional triumph, so that all foreign policy need do was remove lingering obstacles and deal with the occasional atavistic rogue-regime’s response to the galloping obsolescence of its ways of doing business. In consequence, funding for the military and foreign assistance plummeted.
The Bush 43 Administration held a similar view, except that the now obviously underestimated scale of the aforementioned atavistic reactions evoked a more muscular and ambitious promotion of presumed universal best practice. For a short time, President Bush’s “forward strategy for freedom” seemed to become the new US grand strategy. Unfortunately, the misinterpretation of the origins and nature of the 9/11 problem, as it careened through the prism of American exceptionalism, led to decisions that compounded US burdens and devalued resources, in the form of America’s alliances and its “soft power” reservoirs, that had long been vital to US grand strategy.
To take a signal example of the former, while the principal military instruments of US grand strategy are its Navy and Air Force, the doubled US defence budget in the decade after 9/11 overwhelmingly flowed to the Army and the Marines as the recapitalisation of the Navy and the Air Force languished. Had American leaders recognised and affirmed what US grand strategy actually was, launching and (mis) fighting two land wars in Asia Minor would have been the last things they would have chosen to do. By the time the second Bush term ended, the pre-9/11 strategy had not been restored, though US military and diplomatic activities remained wedded to it. But no replacement stood in its place as the 2008 economic crisis descended.
With that shock there soon came a new American administration preoccupied with domestic problems and even more prone than its post-Cold War predecessors to think in legal-moral categories rather than in strategic ones. The combination, with rare “kinetic” exceptions such as the misadventure in Libya and the failed “surge” in Afghanistan, has turned US foreign policy into an extended duck-and-cover drill. These tendencies are illustrated in the Syria and Iran policy portfolios, where a focus on non-proliferation issues has related to second tier the larger strategic stakes raised by the cases seen separately, and especially seen together. Meanwhile, the “pivot to Asia” of the first Obama term was misframed as an either-or choice, and its naval and air force components remain too resource-straitened for either adversaries or allies to yet take it very seriously.
Insofar as there is any larger thinking about strategy in the current administration, perhaps a coherent view actually does exist despite the appearance of ad hocery. That view, an optimistic or benign realism, is said to posit that the United States can withdraw from virtually all European and most Middle Eastern issues without risk because a more or less friendly post-American balance of power is latent in the structure of international affairs and will bloom forth if only America gets out of the way and lets it do so.
Such a view, identified with a neo-offshore balancing perspective, certainly exists in academic circles. Whether this view is truly characteristic of high-level Obama Administration thinking is difficult to know. The signs are ambiguous. Even outward indications of the existence of a coherent strategic view, such as the 2010 roll-out of the Navy–Air Force “Air-Sea Battle” construct — a quintessential offshore balancing proposition — sometimes turn out to be less than meets the eye. In that case, the rollout reflected less a substantive or doctrinal adjustment and more a joint attempt by two beleaguered services to advance their claims to larger defence budget shares.
Perhaps a switch from a forward-deployment method of preventing hostile hegemons in favour of an offshore-balancing one is wise. Perhaps the United States cannot afford the post–World War strategy for political reasons; perhaps, too, it runs more risks than vital US interests warrant in a post–Cold War environment. Certainly it is irresponsible to maintain commitments without willing the means to redeem them en extremis — that is the sort of derangement of ends and means that birthed the Pacific War. Perhaps the anti-hegemonic state-based objective itself is outdated, and that the threat of apocalyptical terrorism joined to weapons of mass destruction is now the principle problem to be addressed.
One would think that, under the circumstances, Americans among themselves and with allies would be discussing these issues. After all, differing means of executing an anti-hegemonic strategy demand different mixes of military-technical, intelligence, diplomatic, financial, and other skill sets. Each requires different kinds of alliances and asks different things of allies. Some regions seem more amenable to stable do-it-yourself local balances than others; but which are which? The potentially destabilising consequences of transitioning from one posture to the other, too, need to be thought through.
Unfortunately, little in the way of a strategic debate is discernible in Washington, either within the administration at high levels or among the political class at large. There is still little recognition here in Washington even of what US grand strategy has been for nearly the past seventy years, hence no basis from which to discuss alternatives. Instead, US thinking, if one can call it that, is being driven by financial strictures, some of them, like sequestration, self-inflicted beyond necessity or logic. In short, the United States is sliding toward an offshore-balancing grand strategy by default, without discussing its implications and without even calling it by its proper name.
A nation does not have a grand strategy if those responsible for devising and implementing it cannot articulate what it is. American grand strategy thus seems to have suffered a strange, silent death. One wishes to say rest in peace, as with any saddening death, but that wish may very well go unrequited. Although relatively few Americans have noticed the problem, senior figures among several allies and associates have. American commitments to allies have nowhere been formally rescinded, but the credibility of those commitments is now everywhere doubted. Even America’s larger competitors have reason to be anxious, for when the rule-maker and provider of global common security goods for more than half a century appears to suddenly abdicate much of that role, uncertainty and perhaps a bit of trouble cannot be far behind.