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The contemporary theory and practice of grand strategy by the United States can be summarized in the sound byte uttered in 2001 by President George W. Bush shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Bush did not invent this conception of grand strategy. His sound byte was simply a variation of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s triumphalist theory that America became the world’s “essential power” when the Cold War ended. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that this primitive conception of unilateral prerogative blew back on itself to create all sorts of problems at home and abroad. It is also clear that, notwithstanding the blowback, this coercive grand strategic outlook has become even more entrenched and even intensified during the Presidential tenure of Barack Obama. This is evident in his unilateral escalation of drone attacks, his fatally-flawed Afghan Surge decision ( & ), the foreign and domestic spying by the NSA, which included tapping the cell phones of close allies like German Prime Minister Angela Merkle, his aggressive meddling in Ukraine together with the demonization of Vladimir Putin that is well on the way to starting an unnecessary new cold war with Russia, and his so-called strategic pivot to the East China Sea to contain China.
Surely, the art of grand strategy is more subtle than a simple idea of coercive diplomacy that centers on an assertion of a unilateral military prerogative. There must be more to the art of grand strategy than the primitive notion of coercion embodied in the question Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s posed to General Colin Powell during a debate over whether or not to intervene in the Balkans,“What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
So, what makes up a sensible grand strategy?
The late American strategist, Col John R. Boyd (USAF Ret – see bio) evolved five criteria for synthesizing and evaluating a nation’s grand strategy. Boyd’s brilliant theories of conflict are contained in his collections of briefings entitled a Discourse on Winning and Losing, which can be downloaded here. Here, I will briefly introduce the reader to what I will call Boyd’s criteria for shaping a sensible grand strategy.
Boyd argued that any country should shape its domestic policies, foreign policies, and military strategies in pursuit of its goals in a way that a nation’s decisions and actions work to:
- Strengthen that nation’s resolve and increase its political cohesion or solidarity;
- Drain away the resolve of its adversaries and weaken their internal cohesion;
- Reinforce the commitments of its allies to its cause and make them empathetic to its success;
- Attract the uncommitted to its cause or makes them empathetic to its success;
- End conflicts on favorable terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflicts.
These common sense criteria should not be thought of as a checklist, but as being general guidelines for evaluating the wisdom of specific policies or actions — say, for example, of President Bush’s response to 9-11 or Obama’s meddling in Ukraine (which I will leave to the reader for evaluation).
Obviously, it is difficult to synthesize policies that harmoniously conform to or reinforce all these criteria at the same time. This challenge is particularly difficult in the case of the unilateral military strategies and the coercive foreign policies so popular with the foreign policy elites on both sides of the political aisle in the United States. Military operations and political coercion are usually destructive in the short term, and their destructive strategic effects can be in natural tension with the aims of grand strategy, which should be constructive over the long term. History is littered with failures to reconcile the natural tension between military strategy and grand strategy.
Moreover, the more powerful a country, the harder it becomes to synthesize these often conflicting criteria into a sensible grand strategy. Overwhelming power breeds hubris and arrogance which, in turn, tempt leaders to use that power coercively and excessively. But lording over or dictating one’s will to others breeds lasting resentment. Thus, paradoxically, the possession of overwhelming power increases the danger of insensibly going astray grand strategically over the long term.
That danger becomes particularly acute and difficult to control when aggressive external actions, policies, and rhetoric are designed to prop up or increase internal cohesion for domestic political reasons, such as the goal of winning an election. Very often, the effects of military strategies or coercive foreign policies that are perceived as to be useful in terms of strengthening domestic political cohesion backfire at the grand-strategic level, because they strengthen our adversaries’ will to resist, push our allies into a neutral or even an adversarial corner, and/or drive away the uncommitted … which, taken together, can set the stage for growing isolation and continuing conflict, which eventually blows back on itself to erode cohesion at home.
The German invasion of France through neutral Belgium in 1914 is a classic case study of how a policy shaped by inwardly focused strategic considerations (in this case, Germany’s well-founded fear of isolation and a two-front war) can induce a competent strategic leadership elite into perpetrating a grand-strategic blunder on a colossal scale for the most “rational” of reasons.
Germany was not trying to conquer and permanently occupy Belgium or France at the beginning of WW I. But in the ten years leading up to WWI, the German general staff became obsessed with the idea that it was necessary to attack and defeat the French army very quickly in order to knock France out of the coming war, before France’s Russian ally could mobilize in the East. Germany’s operational-level problem was that the Franco-German frontier was heavily fortified, so the German military leadership convinced itself of the strategic need to avoid these fortifications by invading small neutral Belgium, which had much weaker defenses. While the plan was grounded in logical strategic military considerations, the German obsession with military strategy blinded its military planners and the Kaiser to the grand-strategic implications of such an invasion, especially if the invasion did not produce a quick, clean victory. They understood that violating Belgian neutrality would bring Great Britain into the war, but they did not appreciate how the civilized world would react to their invasion of a small neutral country, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by a treaty the Germans recognized. In the event, the invasion of Belgium and then France enraged the civilized world, and when the German’s were stopped at the Battle of the Marne, it effectively handed the British a propaganda windfall that the Brits brilliantly milked to the hilt for the rest of the war.
Over the next four years, the Brits successfully constructed an image of Germany as an unmitigated evil doer (which was not the case at the beginning of World War I). This successful propaganda operation was reinforced by continued grand strategic blundering on the part of German leadership (e.g., the Zimmermann Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare, etc.). These self-inflicted wounds served to effectively isolate Germany morally at the grand strategic level of the war. Germany’s moral isolation also created a psychological asymmetry that increased the freedom of action of her adversaries: to wit, the British were able to avoid criticism, while they conducted a ruthless blockade of Germany that resulted in far greater indiscriminate death and suffering to civilians than the damage and death caused by Germany’s submarines. Indeed, the propagandized sense that Germany was an evil doer was so effective that Britain was able to maintain its murderous blockade of Germany after the armistice, well into 1919, without any outcry by its allies or neutral countries.
Even America, with its large German population and widespread anti-British sentiment (something now forgotten), rejected its long tradition of neutrality and joined Germany’s enemies. No doubt the British grand strategic success during the war also worked to fuel the arrogance that led to the excessively vindictive terms imposed on Germany at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. These onerous terms ‘ended’ the conflict on terms that helped to sow the seeds of future conflict. By deviating from the criteria of sensible grand strategy in victory, Britain, together with the connivance of Italy and France and President Wilson’s inability or refusal to impose moderation in the peace terms, inadvertently helped to pave the way for the emergence of a truly pathological state in the form of Nazi Germany.
Today, a hundred and one years later, the world is still paying a price for Germany’s grand-strategic blunder in 1914 and Britain’s ruthless grand-strategic exploitation of that blunder in 1919 — the problems in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Russian heartland, and the Caucasus, to name a few, have roots reaching back to destruction of world order created by the invasion of 1914, the vengeance of 1919, and its violent aftermath.
So, one general lesson is this: It is very dangerous to allow military strategy to trump grand strategy.
Whenever a great power fails to adequately consider the criteria shaping a sensible grand strategy, painful unintended consequences can linger for a very long time. That is why it is time to do a grand-strategic evaluation of the American coercive unilateralism that is evident in our ever-mutating war on terror, our meddling in Ukraine, and the so-called strategic pivot into China’s backyard and threaten China’s exceeding vulnerable sea lines of communication to “contain” China, whatever that means.
The Presidential campaign will move into high gear on the day after Labor Day. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if at least one candidate stopped beating his or her breasts and spoke thoughtfully to the importance of moving our country onto a pathway toward a sensible grand strategy.
Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen; too many people on both sides of aisle are becoming rich and powerful by preaching the self-referencing politics of unilateralism, fear, and perpetual war.