Look at America’s grand strategy. Why do we believe this nonsense?

Summary: A nation’s grand strategy can make the difference between victory and defeat, prosperity and poverty. Two recent articles about grand strategy have gotten attention, written by an expert in a major periodical — on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, on the eve of our occupation of Afghanistan. What lessons do they provide?



  1. About grand strategy
  2. Our Foes
  3. Our Grand Strategy
  4. More of Martel’s insights
  5. Post a Comment
  6. For More Information

(1)  About grand strategy

Not everyone has what it takes to become an American geopolitical expert.  Knowledge of the world, a flair for writing, and the ability to manipulate the essentials of American foreign policy: greed, hubris and paranoia — if not sincerely, then convincingly. Recently a new star has appeared, just in time to replace those discredited by the failure of their delusional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: William C. Martel (Assoc Prof of International Security Studies, Tufts U; bio here). Here we’ll examine his latest articles at The Diplomat:

Martel opens with a sound description of grand strategy, then goes bonkers with this:

To be effective, America’s new strategy must reinforce the domestic foundations of American power, reassure friends and allies that American foreign policy embraces a prudent balance between our principles and ideals, and avoid the twin perils of strategic overreach or neglect.

While the challenges are daunting, failure is not an option.

This is grand strategy written for pre-teens (God help us, he probably teaches this at the Naval War College). What is a “prudent balance between principles and ideals”, and why do out allies care about it? Do we worry about conflicts between France’s ideals and principles — or China’s? Do our leaders really worry about this balance? (“Joe, we support the brutal oppressive kleptocrat Saudi Princes. How does that affect the balance between our principles and ideals?”)

Including the Hollywood line “failure not an option” adds a touch of lunacy.  Only fools would include failure as an option (have you ever seen a press for failure button?) — but failure is always possible, and plans must include such scenarios.

Like America’s grand strategy which it recapitulates, Martel’s analysis is too daft for detailed analysis. However, here are the key high points he makes:



  1. The world is as dangerous as during the cold war
  2. America lacks a grand strategy

Both are obviously false.

(2)  Our foes

Threat inflation is the cornerstone of our grand strategy, and skillful fear-mongering a requirement for an aspiring US geopolitical expert (eg, news shows don’t want sound bites downplaying threats, no matter how microscopic the danger).  Martel does it well.

During the cold war the US faced two internally cohesive superpowers — inimical to the US, with large atomic arsenals. Now Russia (a remnant of the Soviet Union) and China are standard great power rivals; fellow capitalists — no longer ideological opponents. The odds of a world-ending conflict remain too high, but far below the cold war average.

The foes we face are poor or even derelict powers (eg, North Korea, Iran — both crumbling under sanctions), and groups like al Qaeda — a stateless actor which we easily smashed after 9-11 and probably no longer exists in meaningful form. In the absence of powerful foes, our national security apparatus picks fights with nationalistic Islamic insurgents — often fighting US-backed tyrannies (btw, governments usually win) — few of which have serious quarrels with the US, and whose activie hostility to us results largely from our attacks on them.

Only years of intensive propaganda, rendering us unable to see even obvious aspects of the real world, allows our natural security leaders and their lackeys to spout such nonsense without fear of widespread public mockery.

(3)  Our Grand Strategy

Despite Martel’s assertions, America has a grand strategy — one clearly spelled out in government documents such as the Quadrennial Defense Reviews, executed with consistency since 9-11.

One of the clearest statements of our grand strategy was the in the 2006 QDR, which (from the press release) was “charting the way ahead for the next 20 years as America confronts current and future challenges and continues its transformation for the 21st century.” The opening lines:

“The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our Nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life.”

Also, the QDR implies that a nation becomes a threat by opposing US hegemony (eg, Iraq, Iran). Or, if a non-ally, by seeking to increase its military capabilities — no matter how inferior to the US, even if they seek regional superiority like that declared by the US in 1823.

These two policies justify the fantastic growth in US military spending since 9-11 (one of the major goals of our grand strategy), and remain in effect today. It’s a black/white view of the world, with greys pressured to become allies — or enemies.

For details about our grand strategy see this analysis of the 2006 QDR: America takes another step towards the “Long War”.  These strategies remain in effect today. Our drones circle over an increasingly number of nations, and our Special Operations forces train and kill in an ever-growing number of countries (eg, in Africa). Our intense pressure continues against Iran. Our leaders remain firmly militaristic in their view of the world (see The Obama Doctrine: we will attack and destroy all non-nuclear rivals).

With such policies — almost unquestioned in mainstream US politics — to speak of America’s “drift” is bizarre.

(4)  More of Martel’s insights

“First, the United States must remain committed to playing a leadership role.”

Does anyone disagree?  The last prominent isolationists died years ago.

“Consider the chaos enveloping Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Or, consider Iran’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, or the pressure on states in Eurasia as Russia and China become increasingly assertive.”

Boilerplate, of the sort written every year since WWII.  There is always social unrest in some nations. Since 1984 hawks have been warning that Iran would have nukes in a few years (details here).

“Foremost among these is the threat posed by other great powers to American interests and global stability.”

This is a refrain, usually implicit, throughout both articles.  In fact “American interests” and “global stability” are very different things. Failure to understand, among other basics, reduces what could be a useful guide to indoctrination for pre-teens.

“Reinforce domestic foundations of American national power”

Does anyone disagree? I could continue, but these snippets illustrate the nature of his two articles.

The real question is why we discuss such a vital subject on such a child-like level?  Martel’s articles are typical (IMO among the best), echoes of the policy papers floated by both sides during the election and incessantly produced by State and DoD. The most likely reason for their low wattage is that our leaders do not want us to understand America’s policies, its deeds on the world stage, and the propaganda that justifies them.

When we begin to ask hard questions (as we briefly did after Vietnam), then America will be ready to forge a better grand strategy — one more likely to create a peaceful and prosperous 21st century for us and the world.

(5)  Leave a comment

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(6)  For More Information: other posts about grand strategy

The key posts:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006 — Why it’s difficult to do
  2. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006 — The limits of grand strategy

Other posts about grand strategy:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  2. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  3. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  4. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  5. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  6. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  7. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering , 9 July 2008 — chapter 7
  8. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  9. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  10. Realism and Realpolitik – Setting the Conditions for America’s Survival in the 21st Century, 23 February 2012
  11. The Obama Doctrine: we will attack and destroy all non-nuclear rivals, 31 March 2012



2 thoughts on “Look at America’s grand strategy. Why do we believe this nonsense?”

  1. Pingback: Look at America’s grand strategy. Why do we believe this nonsense? | Soicalpost


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