Time for a New Grand Strategy, America
Part 1: The Problem
In the last days of February and the first days of March, 2014, the Russian Federation sent tanks and troops rolling into Crimea, while Russian warships blockaded the nearly insular peninsula. Ostensibly, the maneuver was meant to protect ethnic Russians from Ukrainian malfeasance; strategically, it was most likely part of a last-ditch effort to maintain Russian power in its soft historic underbelly, today the sovereign nation of Ukraine.
This comes as the Russians have repeatedly striven to overawe their European neighbors through implicit nuclear threats and pipeline diplomacy, while drawing their former Soviet comrades into the Muscovite orbit through security arrangements and multilaterals like the foreshadowed Eurasian Union. The trend is clear- though Russia might have crippling demographic and economic problems, and a corrupt political system, it is certainly doing what it has to do to perpetuate its life, and is acting as a great power.
To the East, China continues its seaward expansion, nominally checked by a coalition of Asian powers more or less backed by the United States. Its naval capacity grows every year, as its public servants strive desperately to reform its internal system in the favor of stability and growth. Beijing’s overseas interests expand ever more, as more Third-World nations enter the widening club of Sino-African/Asian/South American economic partnerships; if China’s infrastructure abroad were formally imperial, it would be an empire upon which the sun never sets.
This unprecedented strength, mixed with unprecedented anxiety, are leading the Chinese leadership down the paths of traditional great power politics. Their counterparts in Tokyo, seeing this, are doing the same.
Again to the West, the Iranian leadership slyly manipulates its power. No longer shackled by intense international pressure and isolation, finally breathing the slightly thinner air of diplomacy, the ayatollahs now fight, as Machiavelli counseled, both with arms and with laws. Through warzones like Syria and Lebanon they extend Shia influence, while they work covertly to weaken the Sunni regimes across the Gulf. Predictably, the sheikhs in Riyadh and the statesmen of the Knesset see a terrible threat in this, and work to counterbalance the scepter of Shia Islam, while the Turks quietly extend pipelines and contacts through the former Ottoman lands of the Middle East.
Sensing pressures from both sides and from each other, Pakistan and India have worked to expand their capabilities and improve their chances of weathering the next preemptive strike. Pakistan, fearing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has sought to beef up its forces at the expense of its failing state, while India, sensing China’s rise as an Indian Ocean blue-water navy, has expanded its own naval capacities to break out of the String of Pearls and establish itself as a naval power in its own right. The military buildups of the subcontinent are little different from similar buildups in the last century.
Turning to Europe, we see a fraying international system, eroding due to incompetence and decadence at the highest levels in Brussels and greater regionalism and nationalism among and within the various members of the European Union. But it is clear where the power lies. France intervened, on its own, in at least three different African countries in the last couple of years; while not necessarily indicative of a Richelieu-esque return to power politics, the recent adventurism certainly seems to display a newfound willingness to engage in power plays. And Germany is increasingly revealing itself to be the Master of Europe, capable of manipulating the EU’s remaining economic mechanisms to ensure its own health at the expense of lesser states. In an ancient land where international politics was supposed to be a thing of the past, history has returned.
And there is one nation as-of-yet unmentioned, one nation whose transgressings of international order quite easily dwarf those of most of these other powers. That nation is the chief hegemon of world power, yet it has forgotten how to rule; for whereas the polities of the Old World have endeavored to conduct foreign policy in their strategic interests, never blinded by the false light of a liberal world order, their western heir has engaged in wishful thinking to the highest degree, both in its diplomacy and, yet more, in its interventions. Its people have forgotten their responsibility, and its leaders have all but abdicated it.
The rise in power politics all around the supercontinent of Eurasia, mixed with the strategic decadence of American foreign policy, point to one inevitable conclusion: the United States is not implementing a successful grand strategy, and the world is responding.
It is not that there has been no tradition of successful American foreign policy. Far from it. The United States has been attacked less than most other great powers, and more importantly is at the head of the international system, possessing the most dynamic economy, the strongest military, and the most vibrant culture. Prudent and vigorous management of its place in international affairs, constrained by various pressures, drove it to attain this pinnacle by the end of the Second World War; and through the Cold War it generally maintained a successful strategy. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the elimination of the last meaningful threat to American power, the discipline of older days was forgotten, replaced by a tendency toward oscillating extremes of democracy-export interventionism and cowardly, imprudent isolationism and international legalism. We inhabit that era today, and pay the price.
The general American grand strategy has always been, and to a degree still is today, one of mixed idealism and realism, not unlike the formulation of our constitution. Successful American foreign policy has generally been quite realistic, striving to maintain balances of power at critical points around the world, setting nations against each other, so that no nation can usurp the balance of power, become a hegemon in its region, and potentially threaten American global dominance. At the same time, the United States inherited the burgeoning global trading and finance system built by the British, and as the British Empire and its imperial navy slipped away, Americans stepped up to claim and maintain it. This has ensured a general global insistence upon transoceanic communication, which in turn has led to freer markets and, oftentimes, more open societies with greater regard for the rules of the supposed ‘international community.’ This liberal world order has been possible only because of American dominance of the seas. The United States is a benevolent hegemon, at its best. The two foreign policy ideal types listed above- power-balancing and trade-route-securing- might be called, respectively, the Realist tradition and the Liberal tradition in American foreign policy, grouped together into consummate marriage in what might be called “Pragmatic American Realism.” This has been the baseline of U.S. imperial foreign policy.
At the same time, there has been a very idealistic component to American foreign policy, one which has led to the oscillating extremes of isolationism, messianic interventionism, and legalistic internationalism. From this tradition spring the high regard for human rights, democracy, capitalism, and good government that have always given the United States a sense, and an essence, at times, of moral legitimacy in its foreign policy. Thinking with the interests of all Mankind at heart, American foreign policymakers have believed themselves to be bringing goodness into the world, while at the same time expanding American interests, and when these experiments have blown up in their face, they have receded into a continental shell, content to be a City on a Hill, and inspiration for the world and nothing more. This image of benevolence contributes very much to American soft power.
Nothing could be more hypocritical. Throughout its history American foreign policy has been as brutal as any other nation’s foreign policy, from the genocidal excesses of the Indian Wars to the subjugation of various Latin American peoples throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries to impious land grabs like the Mexican War to true colonialism and imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, to the firebombings and atomic bombings of the Second World War, to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in every war before and since that greatest war in all of history- America has bloodstained hands and a bloodstained soul. The price of empire- and the order, stability, security, prosperity, and society that come with it- is not sacrifice, but guilt.
Moreover, what cold, ruthless strategy remains in the American arsenal today- most notably the indiscriminate use of drone strikes and the dramatic expansion of special forces operations- appears to indicate to many around the world and in the United States that America no longer has the moral authority it once claimed. Regard for human rights and democracy means nothing for a country willing to discount both in the name of security, so goes the argument.
Part 2: The Proposal
Perhaps it is time for a reexamination of all the traditions of American foreign policy, in the interest of discerning what can be kept and what must be updated, in a brutal world whose laws do not change, but whose composition of power rises and wanes with the moon.
It may be a leap of reasoning, but it seems as though it may be time for the United States to stop treating non-liberal, non-democratic regimes as though something was wrong with them, as though they went against human nature. The success of the Chinese and German and Japanese models, as well as the reasonable survival success of those of India and Russia, are empirical evidence that there are, indeed, models of social organization other than the traditional western liberal capitalism-and-welfare open societies we Americans love dearly. The fact that a government is not elected does not mean that it is not legitimate. Elections are no sure sign of good governance. It would seem that the measure of a good government lies not in various measures of democracy and liberalism, but in relative levels of security, order, prosperity- those basic public goods which only government can ensure- as well as general responsiveness to citizens’ needs and prudent management of the nation. Ends, not means, are the measure of success, and it seems that nations striving to attain security, order, and prosperity should not be condemned by the ‘international community’ for doing what states must do to ensure a more perfect polity. Such is the utmost hypocrisy of the Western states, whose industrial economies were formed in exactly the ways which they condemn and en-sanction when practiced by Third –World leaders.
To this end it is imperative that American foreign policy cease its endless, irrational focus on exporting democracy and holding other nations accountable to our values and our standards. As the increased global engagement of the Nixon-Kissinger years demonstrates, much more can be accomplished through diplomacy than through Manichean insistence upon standards.
Perhaps a new grand strategy ought to be conjured, one which rejects the idealistic faith in global governance and crusading for human rights and democracy of American liberalism, and modifies the tradition of Pragmatic American Realism in the interests of responding to irrevocable global shifts.
This new grand strategy would involve a fundamental realignment in world order. Rather than an imprudent domination, American grand strategy would seek a more Metternichian state of affairs- the recognition of great powers in every region, a condoning of their legitimacy, a general approval of their hegemony in their respective spheres, including among other nations, and a Concert of Great Powers willing and able to negotiate disputes between themselves as equals. Certainly, they’d pursue their interests just as viciously as before, and plot behind each other’s backs; but without the moralistic dualism spewed by the United Nations, it is ever so likely that their relations with each other would be more cordial and civil, their squabbles and wars less intense.
Furthermore, this need not be a formal institution- just implicit and informal recognition and respect on the part of all powers. In circumstances where Russia invades a part of the Ukraine, or China quells an uprising in Xinjiang- things whose parallels the United States would assuredly do, were it in the same situations- the response of US diplomats would be not condemnation, not preaching, but a candid and dispassionate acknowledgment of the other nation’s rationale in pursuing its interest.
This cannot be stressed enough- the moralistic nature of American diplomacy, in this circumstance, would necessarily be required to give way to a quiet, understanding, and accepting toleration of the behavior of other great powers. Meanwhile, the United States would continue to pursue its interests dispassionately, in the expectation that other powers would similarly recognize American rationale. When we all realize and admit we are merely pursuing our interests, doing what we must do to preserve our nations, it seems all will be clearer.
Now this does not necessitate the end of the liberal world order. Indeed, a primary counterargument to this concert system would be the fact that it encourages the rise of other powers, whose power thus would challenge American dominance and therefore America’s ability to maintain a liberal world order. This is a powerful argument. But, it may be added, there are common interests in the maintenance of world order by all the powers of the world- and for the most part, the successful states prize good governance, stability, and trade. While the world order, in this situation, would be quite different from the democracy and liberalism-based world order we know today, it would be more or less the same in structure and allow for the advancement of all societies among their own lines. Ideological diversity can be disastrous, but in a climate of tolerance it brings out the best in each polity.
Neither does this necessitate the end of liberal democracy as a powerful force on the global scale. The nations of the Anglosphere- the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand- all are linked in their common cultural heritage and their reliance on and investment in the global commercial system for their prosperity. Together, they constitute the most powerful unofficial long-term alliance the world has ever known, and in their own ways they can do much to develop liberalism and democracy- to use wisely their power, and perfect the ideal of liberty. The classic Jeffersonian notion of America as a Shining City Upon a Hill, its values things to be emulated and not to be exported, does much to explain how best to bring American values to the world (if they should be brought there at all.) And what other nations might choose to keep what democracy they have, especially those in Europe and Latin America, would most certainly be free to develop as they wish with the full support of the Anglosphere.
It could easily be argued that a return to great power politics and concert systems will exacerbate the chances of world wars. This is undoubtedly true, and a risk that statesmen must take, a guilt their consciences must bear. All previous epochs of great power competition have been marred by bloody wars and wastes of human life. But while this legitimate claim is true, also true is the fact that there is not much that can be done to reverse the present status quo, which is trending towards great power politics and national spheres of influence irreversibly already. At a certain point, the best way to deal with the troubles of reality is to accept them and manage them prudently, knowing full well that they cannot be eliminated or abolished.
But this final consideration brings us to a critical issue- should the United States go about changing its grand strategy to this new concert system? My answer is, “Let’s talk about it.”
There is a lot to be said for maintaining the present grand strategy of the United States, minus its naïve trust in international law and its immature insistence on the paramount nature of human rights. Pragmatic American Realism, blending power-balancing with the maintenance of a liberal international order, has the blessing of being a proven strategy that works, and one which prevents our rivals from rising to dominance in their respective realms. By preventing them from rising to dominance, we prevent them from challenging us and provoking major wars. Our policies in the Korean War, the Iran-Iraq War, the India-Pakistan situation, and the present East-South China Seas situation all demonstrate American resolve to continue using this time-tested method: maintaining natural balances of power in various strategic regions and maintaining our hegemony in ours. And it is true that this is probably the best way to maintain world order, short of actual world domination and formal legal control.
But all Americans must ask themselves two questions. First, will America be able to realistically maintain its commitment to such balancing, both active and passive, in its political, economic, military, and diplomatic establishments? Second, can Americans be trusted to have the prudence, historical awareness, and geopolitical tact to manage things in this way without succumbing to the Scylla of isolationism, the Charbydis of messianic interventionism, or the Sirens of international legalism?
If the answer is yes to both of these questions, then the present system and the present grand strategy are perfectly fine, and just need polishing up. I hope this is the case.
But if the answer is no to either or both- if America has so far declined, and her statesmen have been so far degraded, that she is no longer either powerful or wise- then it may be time to relinquish American Exceptionalism and the time-tested strategy of Pragmatic American Realism, and revert instead to the cynical concert politics of the Old World. A diminished global role would be preferable to decadence and ultimate collapse, in maintaining an empire we cannot hold.
But there is a third way, in the event that our institutions have indeed rotted, that our nation has indeed declined, that our statesmen have indeed diminished in stature. In this third way, we can keep Pragmatic American Realism even in a global and national situation in which Pragmatic American Realism becomes unsustainable.
That way is national improvement. But that is another essay entirely.