America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past

This is the first of a series of notes about America’s grand strategy.

Grand Strategy:   a State’s collective policy with respect to the external world.  From a Trinitarian perspective, a State’s Grand Strategy focuses and coordinates the diplomatic and military efforts of its People, its Government, and its Army.

America has had several strategies during its history.  We can learn much from the successes and failures of our past.  Since we desperately need a new grand strategy, let’s do a quick review now.

First, North America

Our first strategy was nothing more than a primal desire to grow geographically and indusrially.  Like most — perhaps all – Empires, the US was born in greed.  Our probes into Canada were unsuccessful, but our wars against the American Indians and proved fruitful.  (Tomorrow’s note gives an excerpt from Grant’s Memoirs describing the consequences of our war with Mexico — a warning about national hubris.)

A primal strategy is a single-minded commitment to a goal, an expression of a people’s core beliefs. It is non-intellectual, with no need for theories and plans.

  1. Rome conquered the Mediterranean world, driven by self-confident belief in their fitness to rule others.
  2. Men like Pizzaro and Cortes conquered much of the world for Spain and Christ.
  3. The British Empire was built by men like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, whose acquisitive drive and energy brought India into the British Empire — often without instructions or even against their government’s wishes.
  4. Nineteenth century Americans felt it was their manifest destiny to extend America from ocean to ocean.

We can describe these as “grand strategies”, but to do so has an element of falsity. Such intellectual analysis, based on theory, had no place in the hearts of these peoples. History also suggests than leaders cannot manufacture a primal strategy. You either have it, or you do not.

Later, the world

By the twentieth century we had outgrown this phase.  We needed a Grand Strategy befitting a superpower, thoughtful and complex.  Fortunately we had grown an intelligentsia able to provide one.

Hence WWI, and the folly of our first Grand Strategist.  President (formerly Professor) Wilson had wonderful dreams, bringing us to war in April 1917, just as the contestants were near exhaustion.  Our help extended the war by 18 months.  The resulting deaths do not seem justified by any added wisdom in the eventual peace treaty, vs. what they might have achieved without our participation.

Our conduct of WWII from 1942-1945 is often cited as an example of a ambitious and successful American Grand Strategy.  How unfortunate that we sat idle from 1938-41, when we could have prevented or minimized the war.  We entered only at the last possible moment — when only megadeaths could end the conflict — rather than acting before Germany had consolidated its control of the financial and industrial resources of Europe.

Any strategy whose execution includes dropping two atomic bombs deserves the adjective “ambitious.”   Less so “successful.”  But we won, with the aid of Russia, whose soldiers did most of the dying.  How odd that the combined effort of Russia, America, and a host of smaller powers were needed to defeat the “Axis of Three Mid-sized States.”

The Cold War saw a more mature Grand Strategy by America:  Containment of the Soviet Union.  Clearly a humble strategy, formulated by men emerging from the horror of WWII, with its emphasis on alliances, modest goals, and long-term perseverance.  Our satisfaction with its execution bears little examination.  Even its author, George Kennan, grew disgusted with our implementation of his ideas.  Inciting and abandoning the 1956 revolts in Poland and Hungary.  The follies of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  The fallacious “Domino Theory.”

Worse was the emotional excess that accompanied it.  Although conceived by cool, considerate men, in the 1950s anti-communism mutated into a doctrine of hatred.  This irrationality had a malign influence on our policy makers and led to the McCarthy-era witch-hunts that so damaged the State Department and stained our history.

“With communism now a menace at both ends of the Far Eastern arc, the Indochina War changed from a colonial war into a crusade — but a crusade without a real cause.”
— “Dien Bien Phu: A Battle to Remember“, Bernard B. Fall, Vietnam Magazine, April 2004

Containment ended victoriously with the collapse of the Soviet Union due to the USSR’s hopelessly flawed economic regime — and the Saudi Princes opening the taps to their oil wells, crashing the price of oil and bankrupting the USSR.  Note that some neo-conservatives claim it resulted from Reagan’s military build-up, a textbook instance of the post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.  Precedence in time does not prove causation.

Containment was a successful Grand Strategy, adequately executed.  But with cautionary lessons important to learn, especially if our next foe proves more of a challenge.

Next, humility

America grew to greatness with a primal grand strategy of geographic and industrial expansion.  This required simple but good governance, not military or strategic brilliance.  America emerged victorious, almost unopposed, from the 20th Century due to its industrial might, the bravery and energy of its people, and its superlative internal cohesion.  This required good governance – but neither military nor strategic brilliance.

The point of this historical review is not to compare our performance with an impossible perfect ideal, but to suggest that humility is appropriate when conceiving a Grand Strategy.

And humility is desperately needed.  With no Soviet Union to fight, we need a new Grand Strategy.  Surrounded by rising powers, facing financial challenges from the aging boomers and massive foreign debts, with an economy desperately needing deleveraging and restructuring — we need a strategy to maximizer our still-great strenghts and buy time for us to regenerate.

We have no lack of suggestions, appearing policy journals, blogs, books, academic dissertations, and government white papers.  Visionaries like Thomas Barnett propose ambitious if impractical plans.

As Hegel foresaw, this understanding comes at the end of a cycle.  Let’s hope we have learned enough to lay the foundation for success in the next round of the great game.

“When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.  The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.
Preface to Philosophy of Right by G.W.F. Hegel  (1820)

Other posts about 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.  Here are some posts on this subject.

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy (31 January 2006)
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006)
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW (4 January 2007)
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War” (24 July 2007)
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? (28 October 2007)
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II (14 June 2008)
  8. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris  (1 July 2008)
  9. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles  (2 July 2008)
  10. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work  (7 July 2008)

Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.

4 thoughts on “America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past

  1. I have tried to google it, but without success, but as far as I can recall it was a British admiral who once said: “We are out of money, its time to think”.

    I believe Americans will start to think when their credit cards are rejected, when they can’t watch what Britney is doing on the telly because the power is down and when they can’t eat because the food is too expensive. I admire Americans, but they have been kept sedated for so long by stupid television. When all that ends then Americans will start to think again and with a little bit of luck the USA could be coming roaring back.

    Basically the Americans are a good people with a constitution what – at least in theory – is the best in the world. It has just been abused and neglected for so long. I still see a spark of hope in the USA. So honestly: A crisis and even bankruptcy might not be such a bad think if it could create a new renaissance for Western and American democracy. As long as people start to think again.

  2. “Our conduct of WWII from 1942-1945 is often cited as an example of a ambitious and successful American Grand Strategy. How unfortunate that we sat idle from 1938-41, when we could have prevented or minimized the war. We entered only at the last possible moment – when only megadeaths could end the conflict — rather than acting before Germany had consolidated its control of the financial and industrial resources of Europe.”

    In fairness to Franklin Roosevelt, all the evidence is that he recognized this and desperately wanted to apply American power in the early years when it could have done the most good. But he was hamstrung by isolationist Congresses that limited his ability to act through mechanisms like the Neutrality Acts. It took the sinking of the destroyer Reuben James by a German U-boat to get Congress to finally recognize the threat, but by that point — weeks before Pearl Harbor — it was too late.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed! A grand strategy results from a complex process involving both a nation’s leadership and its people. In this case, the people wanted to remain isolated from the world’s problems. An understandable goal, but unrealistic.

  3. To FM:

    But being involved in the world’s troubles may not necessarily bring good tidings to a nation or its people either,as evidenced by the idealistic “meddlings” of Woodrow Wilson.

    The “White Man’s Burden” can be morally and intellectually stifling.Then again,as you’ve mentioned above,isolation likewise is myopic and impractical.

    Is this all leading to a grail for the Philosopher’s Stone of Int’l Relations?It seems that the U.S. is now faced with limited options.Bankruptcy of strategic thought…very soon a major issue for other powers as well.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: 4GW gives an alternative to the sterile dichotomy of meddling/hegemony or isolationism. This is sketched out in my posts on grand strategy.

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