How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II

Summary: This is one chapter a series about America’s grand strategy; see links at the end for the full series to date. Here is part one of a two-part sketch of how America can survive – even prosper – in an age where 4th generation warfare (4GW) is the dominant mode of war. This is a slightly revised version of an article published 19 March 2007, inspired by Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army). This takes Nagl’s insights and runs in a different direction. Chapter I described the situation, the geopolitical challenge facing America. This chapter describes a solution.


  1. Question #1: Do we need a grand strategy?
  2. Another problem affecting our implementation of a grand strategy
  3. Some simple recommendations
  4. Do not increase the cohesion of our enemies. Try not to make new enemies.
  5. Don’t gamble. As Pericles recommended, adopt slow but sure tactics.
  6. Survive until we win.
  7. For more information

(1)  Question #1: Do we need a grand strategy?

American might be structurally unable to successfully implement large and complex strategies, as discussed in this author’s “The Myth of Grand Strategy.” Perhaps this is a problem inherent to a democracy. Athens also had difficulty executing complex long-term plans.

“The {Athenian} masses voted for Perikles… Kleon… Alkibiades… Nikias… Alkibiades again… for Themistokles… to exile Themistokles… to kill every adult male citizen of Mytilene… to spare every adult male citizen of Mytilene… to put Alkibiades in charge of the Sicilian expedition … to put Nikias in charge of the Sicilian expedition. The Athenian demos voted for *everybody* at different times.”
History as Tragedy: The Peloponnesian War“. Brad DeLong, Professor of Economic at Berkeley

As Donald Vandergriff says, leadership is the key factor. Athens’ leaders rose through a small number of career paths, none of which selected for strategic skills. This is also true about leaders in America’s government.

  1. We elect leaders on the basis of successful marketing though mass media. This requires some combination of pretty faces, excellent speaking skills, celebrity status, wealth, and simple messages.
  2. Politicos often appoint officials to high office on the basis of successful work in their campaigns, such as fundraising, creating slogans, or assembling a crowd at a suburban mall on a Saturday morning.
  3. Politicos often appoint professionals (i.e., experts) to high office after a career based on personal management: good networking and avoiding mistakes. Or they appoint academics, which mean good networking with no possibility of making decisions and thereby making mistakes.

An apparatus built with such people might find rational planning and competent execution to be beyond its abilities. This kind of official apparatus worked for American during the 19th century era, the era of small government, but has repeatedly failed us during the 20th century. The challenges of the 21st century might be even greater, hence the need to either reform our government or change our approach to geopolitics. Since the former is so difficult, I suggest we consider the latter.

(2)  Another problem affecting our implementation of a grand strategy

Despite its millennia-long intellectual heritage, our religion has become an unquestioned dogma taught to our children, who are given no knowledge of its supporting reasons or inherent fallacies. This often gives them an arrogant assumption of superiority when abroad. Yes, a belief in human rights has diminished our ability to work with other cultures.

This is seen in the work of some neoconservatives, who assume that we’re the good guys bringing civilization to the dark corners of the world. No wonder they are baffled by 4GW theory, with its emphasis on obtaining the moral high ground. They appear confident that we have it, and sometimes seem not to see the possibility of alternative views. This is not a new problem. Leaders of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations assumed that the Vietnamese people would know that, unlike the French who preceded us, we were not colonialists. Many were unable to see this distinction.

The belief that our values are universal and supreme conflicts with our equally dogmatically held belief in multiculturalism. Cognitive dissonance between these might account for much of America’s inability to adapt to changes in the world. It is as if we borrowed from George Orwell to create a synthesis: “all cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

(3)  Some simple recommendations

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

From this perspective flows three simple recommendations, as a substitute for a Grand Strategy.

  1. Do not increase the cohesion of our enemies. Try not to make new enemies.
  2. Don’t gamble. Adopt slow but sure tactics.
  3. Survive until we win.

(4)  Recommendation #1: Do not increase the cohesion of our enemies. Try not to make new enemies.

With respect to others … we should:

  1. Respect their culture and achievements, show them we bear them no harm and help them adjust to an unfolding world, as well as provide additional benefits and more favorable treatment for those who support our philosophy and way of doing things, yet
  2. Demonstrate that we neither tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that undermine or work against our culture and our philosophy hence our interests and fitness to cope with a changing world.

John Boyd, “The Strategic Game of ? and ?“, 1987, chart 57

Great regional powers are emerging, and we can no longer greet them with suspicion or outright hostility. New cultures are emerging, or re-emerging, and we must embrace them as part of the human pageant rather than disdainfully judge them vs. our ideas. On what basis do western values become “human rights?”
Multiculturalism might work well in this new world (even if disastrous as domestic policy), as a belief in the sovereignty and freedom of each people. They can and must find their own way, even if they fail. This is the risk and price of freedom.

We should stop meddling in the affairs of others, which usually serves only to increase the cohesion of our enemies. Tell the CIA to focus on gathering intelligence, and leave foreign ops for Mr. Phelps and the Impossible Missions Force.

Similarly, our government should cease our “holier than thou” criticism of other governments and societies. Instead it should focus on building alliances and minimizing conflicts with our enemies. Let our non-governmental agencies blast their discordant exhortations about the human rights gospel (literally translated as “good news”) across the world.

We need not applaud aspects of other societies that we consider wrong or evil, but should not presume that Americans stride the planet as gods – to define right and wrong for everybody.

(5)  Recommendation #2: Don’t gamble. As Pericles recommended, adopt slow but sure tactics.

For as long as he was at the head of the state during the peace, he pursued a moderate and conservative policy; and in his time its greatness was at its height. When the war broke out, here also he seems to have rightly gauged the power of his country. He outlived its commencement two years and six months, and the correctness of his previsions respecting it became better known by his death. He told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war, and doing this, promised them a favourable result. …

What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions and private interests, in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies — projects whose success would only conduce to the honour and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war.

— Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book Two

“We should cultivate a reluctance “to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense” unless we have great need.”
— Paraphrase of a post by Jim Henley

Americans have many strengths, as our great progress has shown. That does not make us great at everything. Not great warriors, or deep thinkers, or master strategists. We are a parochial society, which means not well-suited to manipulate foreign cultures.

Let’s allow America’s private sector do what it does so well, build the wealth and happiness of our people. Let’s focus our government at what it knows best, our own land and people. We can help the people of other states through research, free trade, charity, and teaching. We have much to teach other peoples, and much to learn. Sharing one’s culture is seldom offensive to others if done as equals and with respect to others.

“Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration.”
— John Boyd, “Strategic Game,” chart 29

Unfortunately such recommendations are difficult to implement, as they require concentration upon our limits and problems. Crusades are more fun, at least for those who do not actually fight them. High risk endeavors generate excitement and the prospect of great gains, and accrue power to their leaders.

Until failure. Then the bills come due. Fortunately there are ways to influence the world other than force.

“My vision of the course of the Arab war was still purblind. I had not seen that the preaching was victory and the fighting a delusion. For the moment, I roped them together, and, as Feisal fortunately liked changing men’s minds rather than breaking railways, the preaching went the better.”
— T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter 30

Perhaps it is time to return to a place in the global ecosystem more in accord with the views of our Founders. The following is as true today as it was when written:

“I have always given it as my decided opinion that no nation has a right to intermeddle in the internal concerns of another; that every one had a right to form and adopt whatever government they liked best to live under themselves; and that if this country could, consistent with its engagements, maintain a strict neutrality and thereby preserve peace, it was bound to do so by motives of policy, interest, and every other consideration.”
— George Washington, letter to James Monroe, 25 August 1796

(6)  Recommendation #3: Survive until we win.

Here is a “to do” list for a strong 21st century America.

Rely on our greatest strengths: we are a free people with a strong, vital culture. That means focusing our effort on building the best possible America. That is not autarky, and is consistent with global charity and trade. Above all, ensure a strong foundation at home.

In 4GW, the home court advantage is decisive, so the “defensive” mode of warfare gets priority. That means strong homeland security and excellent global intelligence about our potential enemies. Of course, we need an offensive capability in order to deal with evident threats. Developing diplomatic mechanisms to do this might be our primary foreign policy goal in the 21st century.

“One or two of them, perhaps, it would be wiser to kill without malice in a friendly and frank manner; for there are bipeds, just as there are quadrupeds, who are too dangerous to be left unchained and unmuzzled; and these cannot fairly expect to have other men’s lives wasted in the work of watching them.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act III  (1903)

How to do these things is obvious in general terms. We all know what needs to be done. For example:

  1. Pay down national debt and lower the level of household debt. Wean ourselves off foreign borrowing. Accumulating debts which we have neither the capability nor intention to pay shows severe moral weakness.
  2. Make the US dollar again a strong currency.
  3. Avoid point dependencies for critical materials, like oil, where there are a small and shrinking number of providers for this critical input.

(7)  For More information

There are few comprehensive proposals for a grand strategy for America in the literature of either the “Revolution in Military Affairs” or of 4th Generation War. This series presents an alternative to Thomas P.M. Barnett’s“Pax Americana” vision. It is based on, and in a sense starts from, William Lind’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” originally published in The American Conservative, 22 November 2004.

A related question concerns grand strategy. Does America need a grand strategy? If so, what should it be? Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security.

Other posts about grand strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006
  4. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  5. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  6. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  7. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  8. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008
  9. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008
  10. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  11. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  12. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  13. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  14. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  15. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief” , 8 July 2008 — chapter 6
  16. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering , 9 July 2008 — chapter 7
  17. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
  18. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  19. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  20. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  21. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009

6 thoughts on “How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II”

  1. “In 4GW, the home court advantage is decisive, so the “defensive” mode of warfare gets priority. That means strong homeland security and excellent global intelligence about our potential enemies. ”

    If only there was only 4GW, not 0GW, 1GW, 2GW, 3GW, and 5GW, or for that matter all the non-war dimensions of politics, nor any of the other stuff that happens.

    Writing a grand strategy while focusing on 4GW is as sensible as writing a grand strategy that focuses on terrorists. It confuses a technology of warfare with the means, the ends, and the obstacles we face.

  2. Actually, I would opine that in ALL “GW”s of warfare the defensive is inherantly the stronger. Whether you’re Grant forcing Lee to attack you and bleeding his army (or, grand strategically, holding Lee by the nose in Petersburg while Sherman kicks the Confederacy in the ass through Georgia and the Carolinas); whether you’re Slim, using the “boxes” around Imphal to wreck the Japanese…from the tactical to the geopolitical, the platform on which wars are won is always a sound defence.

    The offense comes when the enemy is already disrupted, enervated and morally defeated.

  3. If Bill Lind’s characterization of 4GW is correct:
    • The loss of the state’s monopoly on war and on the first loyalty of its citizens and the rise of non-state entities that command people’s primary loyalty and that wage war. These entities may be gangs, religions, races and ethnic groups within races, localities, tribes, business enterprises, ideologies—the variety is almost limitless;
    • A return to a world of cultures, not, merely states, in conflict;
    • The manifestation of both developments—the decline of the state and the rise of alternate, often cultural, primary loyalties—not only “over there” but in America itself.

    then 4GW as a prism through which to view our globalized survival environment is absolutely the proper approach and indeed necessary. That of course assumes importance of that environment defined by “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and includes resources, logistics, communications, travel, and not living in a box. If 4GW means COIN, well that’s something else.

    As to leader skill required, “what if nothing our leaders have ever been taught or experienced is sufficient to the problem?” – What Fabius addresses, I believe.

    “And what is good Phaedrus,
    And what is not good –
    Need we ask anyone to tell us these things”

    Appears we do need an inquiry into values.

  4. Fabius-

    Nice blog. I had a nice response to you over at the DNI/RRW thread but it got lost in the shuffle. Concerned what I see as the contradictions of applying van Creveld to 4GW. Some other time perhaps . . .

    To answer the question of this thread, I think first you need to take a good hard look at the current American condition. To me the real threats are all internal. The real questions all are basic domestic political ones.


    Greetings Chief, great to see you posting here. Btw, your view sounds very Clausewitzian to me . . .

  5. To discuss “grand strategy” without explicitly discussing WMDs, and especially nukes, seems like ignoring the 500 lb gorilla in the room.

    The essential question is this: does America allow a terrorist non-state actor to acquire a nuke and use it?
    The current political answer is that we are willing to commit huge resources to stop that scenario from happening. I am convinced, without being able to prove it, that had the US not attacked Saddam, both dictator-led Iraq and mullah-led Iran would be closer to having nukes now.

    Crusades are more fun, at least for those who do not actually fight them.
    For the survivors, life & death combat is usually the most intense experience in their lives, endlessly talked about and recalled. (Much like high school/college athletes relive their best games.)
    Let’s remember that all the military who’ve died in Iraq were volunteers, and at only 5000 deaths, its not much different in numbers than the casualty rate of military deaths under non-war fighting Pres. Clinton.

    I particularly like “survive until we win” — had we done this after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the N. Viet commie victory wouldn’t have happened, nor the boat people nor the commie Killing Fields in Cambodia.

    If allowing genocide in Darfur is better than fighting to stop it, there will be more genocides.

    While this was good, I find it too easily agreed to in general, yet objected to in particular.

    Paying down household and national debt are really quite important — the mortgage interest deduction should be replaced by a pure 50% tax credit of your house purchase payment, up to a maximum of 10 * last year’s avg wages (~45 000, so 450 000/2 lifetime max, slowly increasing).
    Fabius Maximus replies: WMD’s are discussed in other chapters. This chapter is just a teacup, and can hold only a cup of water — not the full ocean.

    Martin van Creveld’s analysis seems definitive imo, that WMD’s have a stabilizing effect on States. War becomes instant regime change. They psychological factor was best described by Mel Brooks: “It is good to be King.” Rulers tend to be folks obsessed with obtaining and keeping power, with its fine perks.

    “the survivors, life & death combat is usually the most intense experience in their lives, endlessly talked about and recalled. (Much like high school/college athletes relive their best games.)”
    I recommend some volunteer time in a Vet hospital, sharing this “interesting” perspective with them.

    “Let’s remember that all the military who’ve died in Iraq were volunteers,”
    What is the point of this statement? Are their lives to be squandered because they were placed in our hands, trusting us to use them wisely?

    As for Darfur, can we fix all the ills of the world?

  6. “How to do these things is obvious in general terms. We all know what needs to be done.”

    Sounds great! I also plan to start my diet tomorrow.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Harsh. Cynical. But probably true.

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