How America can survive – even prosper – in the 21st century

Summary: This is one chapter a series about America’s grand strategy, ways America can survive – even prosper – in an age of new rivals, where 4th generation warfare (4GW) is the dominant mode of war. Ideas that have worked in the past might guarantee failure today. See links at the end for the full series to date. This is a revised version of a post from 14 June 2008. It’s still useful, since our geopolitical strategy has not changed since then.

World in the palm of my hand
Madness: we don’t hold the wold in our hand.


  1. Can we do a grand strategy?
  2. The baggage in our minds
  3. Simple recommendations
  4. More friends; fewer enemies. Strengthen friendships; weaken enemies
  5. Don’t gamble. Adopt slow but sure tactics.
  6. Survive until we win.
  7. For more information

(1)  Can we do a grand strategy?

Perhaps American cannot successfully implement large and complex geopolitical strategies, as discussed in “The Myth of Grand Strategy.” Perhaps this is weakness inherent to democracies. Athens also had difficulty executing complex long-term plans, even in the face of catastrophic defeat.

“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 (Major, US Army, retired) says, the key factor is leadership. Athens’ leaders rose through a small number of career paths, none of which selected for strategic skills. Just like America’s elected leaders.

  1. We elect leaders who successfully market themselves using mass media. This requires a combination of pretty faces, excellent speaking skills, celebrity status, wealth, and ability to manage simple messages.
  2. Politicos often make appointments to high office to workers in their campaigns, rewarding skillful fundraising and marketing (e.g., creating slogans, assembling a crowd at a suburban mall on a Saturday morning).
  3. Politicos often appoint professionals (i.e., experts) to high office following careers of good networking and avoiding mistakes. Or they appoint academics with good networking with no history of making decisions (therefore no 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)   The baggage in our minds

We inherit a millennia-long intellectual tradition, with centuries of the west’s success over the other nations of the world. Perhaps inevitably this has given us an arrogant assumption of superiority when abroad. That distorts our thinking in many ways. For example …

On the Left, belief in universal human rights diminishes our respect for other cultures (who have different highest values) and hence reduces our ability to work with other peoples.

On the right, neoconservatives who usually see America as the good guys bringing civilization to the dark corners of the world. So of course 4GW wars baffle them, with its emphasis on obtaining the moral high ground. They “know” we have it, and cannot understand how foreigners oppose our expeditions to their lands.

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. Few of the Vietnamese people saw this distinction. From this basic error many other errors followed.

The belief that our values are universal — and the highest possible — clashes with our equally dogmatically held belief in multiculturalism (all cultures are equally high). Cognitive dissonance between these incompatible beliefs might explain much of America’s inability to successfully play geopolitics. It is as if we borrowed from George Orwell to create a synthesis: “all cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Strategy as chess
One of these things is not like the others

(3)  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

Perhaps we should rely on simple plans, especially ones that require little subtly and understanding of other societies. From this perspective flows three simple recommendations, as a substitute for a Grand Strategy.

  1. Do not increase the cohesion of our enemies. Avoid making new enemies. Make new friends.
  2. Don’t gamble. Adopt slow but sure tactics.
  3. Survive until we win.

(4)  More friends; fewer enemies. Strengthen friendships; weaken 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. We can no longer have the strength to greet them with outright hostility, pretending to be a global cop eying new gangs entering the neighborhood.

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 it is disastrous as a domestic policy), consistent with the ancient principle (often broken) about the sovereignty and freedom of each people. Rather than play global kindergarten teacher, we can let each find their own way, even if they differ from our values.

We can stop meddling in the affairs of others, which usually increases the cohesion of our enemies. Foreign infidels raining drones down on local insurgents (and civilians) produces the same response as Skynet’s flying killing machines in the “Terminator” films: hatred, more opponents, highly motivated. It’s a formula for disaster. The CIA should focus on gathering intelligence, something sorely missing from post-WW2 decision-making, and leave foreign ops for Mr. Phelps and the Impossible Missions Force.

Bringing this all together we can stop our “holier than thou” criticism of other governments and societies. Instead our government could focus on building alliances and minimizing conflicts with our enemies. 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. Leave it to the non-governmental agencies to blast their discordant exhortations about the human rights gospel (literally translated as “good news”) across the world.


(5)  Don’t gamble. 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 shown by our great progress since 1776. That does not make us great at everything. Not great warriors. Not deep thinkers. Not master strategists. We are a parochial society, which means we’re not well-suited to manipulate foreign cultures.

Let’s allow America’s private sector do what it does best, building the wealth and happiness of our people. Let’s focus our government on what it knows best, our own land and people. We can help the people of other states through research, free trade, and charity. We have much to teach other peoples, and much to learn.

“Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration.”
— John Boyd, “The Strategic Game of ? and ?” (1987), chart 29

Will we makes these changes? Crusades are more fun than restraint, at least for those who do not do the fighting. High risk endeavors generate excitement and the prospect of great gains, and accrue power to 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 world 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)  Survive until we win

How to survive — even prosper — in the 21st century? 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 does not mean autarky. It is consistent with global charity and trade.

In 4GW, the home court advantage is decisive. A “defensive” mode of warfare can win, at lower cost. We need strong homeland security and excellent global intelligence about our potential enemies. We need an offensive capability in order to deal with  threats, but with restraint in its use.

What to do with rogue nations? Developing global diplomatic mechanisms to do this might be our primary foreign policy goal in the 21st century. Containment has worked well, but in an ever-shrinking world might not in the future. Perhaps we should focus on national leaders who seek to disturb the world’s peace, and deal with them in the light as criminals (rather than joins them in the shadows as terrorists).

“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)

(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 provides an alternative based on, and starts from, William Lind’s “Strategic Defense Initiative”, The American Conservative, 22 November 2004.

A series about grand strategy:

  1. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008
  2. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008
  3. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008
  4. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008
  5. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008
  6. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief” , 8 July 2008
  7. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering , 9 July 2008
  8. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , 10 July 2008

Other posts about grand strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006 — Failing at grand strategy
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  5. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  6. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009

11 thoughts on “How America can survive – even prosper – in the 21st century”

  1. “How American and survive – even prosper – in the 21st century”

    The sentence does not parse, something is missing after “American”.

    The link to “The Strategic Game of ? and ?” (odd title with those two question marks) ends up on a dead page.

    “We need strong homeland security and excellent global intelligence about our potential enemies.”

    DHS and NSA approve heartily. More power to them!

    “We need an offensive capability in order to deal with threats”

    DOD approves heartily. More budgetary appropriations for the military!

    “Demonstrate that we neither tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that undermine or work against our culture and our philosophy”

    Plenty of “ideas and interactions” can be construed as “working against culture and philosophy” (whatever that means) more or less intensely, and at various levels; the sentence is a big loophole that makes things look like an ideological struggle.

    Essentially, one should state very carefully what one means — those sentences above are fertile ground for a variety of interpretations, many of them you would probably reject vehemently.

    1. Thanks for catching the typo in the title. The link to Boyd’s article has been fixed.

      How interesting that you believe that we do not need strong homeland security, excellent global intel about our enemies, or a military offensive capability. Good luck advocating for weak security, poor intel, and no offensive capability.

  2. This is the best post I’ve read in FM. I would restate a couple of items. Instead of a strong homeland security and excellent global intelligence I believe it would be more effective if the goal was a competent and robust homeland security and a comprehensive understanding of the language, culture and world view of other cultures, especially those with views opposed to ours.

    The current emphasis on “strong homeland security” has resulted in the militarization to local police forces, ineptitude in evaluating likely threats and planning for real threats. Global intelligence has to include increased human intelligence, fluency in foreign languages and cultures.

    1. Carroll,

      “Instead of a strong homeland security and excellent global intelligence I believe it would be more effective if the goal was a competent and robust homeland security”

      OK, but I think swapping synonyms accomplishes little. Setting the boundaries for national security — perhaps we might use the Constitution — is IMO more essential.

      “a comprehensive understanding of the language, culture and world view of other cultures, especially those with views opposed to ours.”

      And a pony, too. You’re describing a goal of our war advocates, both soft and hard. Strategic corporals, nation building, all sorts of delusions. This post instead recommends simple, achievable plans. Overcoming our long-standing deeply ingrained parochialism is IMO too difficult.

  3. Doesn’t this brilliant, exemplary reform strategy ultimately raise the same old vexing question of how to implement it? Why would the corrupt powerful elements in the system not fight such reforms? How would incompetent politicians be able to push it through? The american people are too traumatized by the broken promises of the corrupt political elites to have any faith in the politicians’ ability to do the right thing for the people.

  4. A good start, but I have to agree with some of the other commenters that this is very general. If you had 10 minutes with the President, I’m not sure this vision would stand out as distinct or actionable. Not making more enemies and protecting international trade are more or less conventional wisdom among most in Washington.

    I don’t always agree with them, but the “National Interest” occasionally publishes a piece on grand strategy recommendations that stake out more specific positions. For example:

    1. Redwell,

      This is, as you note, an introduction to the subject written five years ago.

      See the For More Information section at the end for links to other posts. Plus the right side menu bar will take you to specific applications of this view for a wide range of specific issues.

  5. “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.”

    That’s a neat idea! So are you saying that, if our government/leadership could accept and internalize the idea that it is often conflicted, sometimes to the point of impaired judgment, that it could come up with a strategy that can work around this limitation?

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