Symposium | First Principles: America and the World

Grand Strategy: The Four Pillars of the Future

By Charles Kupchan

Tagged Foreign PolicyGrand Strategy

Tectonic shifts in international affairs and in political and economic conditions within the United States call for reconsideration of the first principles of American grand strategy—the fundamental tenets guiding the nation’s statecraft. The global landscape is fast changing due to the ongoing diffusion of wealth from the West to the rest and the social awakenings taking place in the Middle East and beyond. At home, Democrats and Republicans are locking horns on most foreign policy issues and on how to control debt and stimulate growth; the resulting political stalemate risks compromising the purposeful exercise of U.S. power and eroding the economic foundations of national strength. Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a shrinking defense budget have diminished the political appetite for sustaining the full portfolio of America’s global commitments.

American grand strategy needs to adjust to these potent international and domestic constraints. The alternative is an erratic statecraft that switches direction as power changes hands in Washington. Worse still, partisan paralysis, especially when coupled with economic duress, has the potential to stoke isolationist sentiment, just as it did during the 1930s. A world in the midst of tectonic change can ill afford an America that is not up to the task of providing steady and enlightened leadership.

In this new era, a progressive grand strategy for safeguarding the nation’s interests should rest on four first principles. To begin, grand strategy and national power start at home—with political and economic solvency. Only if the United States recovers consensus and prosperity will it have the political purpose needed to provide effective leadership in a changing world. Second, the United States must rebalance means and ends by pursuing a judicious retrenchment; the nation needs to bring its strategic commitments back into line with its interests, resources, and public will. Third, Washington should work with emerging powers to fashion a more inclusive and representative global order—one that updates, but preserves, a rules-based international system. Fourth, the United States should breathe new life into the Atlantic community. As countries that practice authoritarian capitalism rise in power and influence, the democracies of the West need to continue to serve as the anchor of liberal values and progressive change.

On each of these four fundamental dimensions of grand strategy, conservatives offer stark alternatives—but ones that promise only to lead the United States astray. Progressives are the inheritors of the liberal and internationalist foreign policy traditions that have served the United States so well since the 1940s. They must now reclaim and rejuvenate these traditions and ensure that they triumph over the illusory alternatives.

Restore Political and Economic Solvency

The conduct of American statecraft is traditionally viewed as a preserve of bipartisan cooperation. But as Peter Trubowitz and I have argued, political division over foreign policy has been the norm, not the exception, in American history. Indeed, polarization over matters of foreign policy has frequently frustrated efforts to advance the nation’s security. During its early decades, the United States was deeply divided over whether to tilt toward Britain or France, whether to embrace protectionism or free trade, and whether to industrialize and amass military power or remain agrarian and distant from geopolitical aspiration. The discord continued into the twentieth century, contributing to the Senate’s rejection of U.S. participation in the League of Nations and to the retreat to isolationism in the 1930s.

Following World War II, a bipartisan foreign policy consensus emerged, which, although sorely tested by the Vietnam War, continued through the end of the Cold War. But that consensus has since been lost. Congressional bipartisanship on foreign policy has sunk to lows not seen since the 1930s. Partisan confrontation on issues ranging from defense spending to global warming means that party often gets put before nation, that diplomatic inconstancy follows power shifts in Washington, and that the United States is poised to respond to global change with political stalemate rather than timely strategic adjustment.

The progressive response to the collapse of bipartisan cooperation on matters of national security should be two-fold. First, Democrats should follow President Obama’s lead and continue efforts to restore the postwar tradition of stopping partisan politics at water’s edge. A combination of ideology and party discipline encourages Republicans to make this task singularly difficult, giving progressives legitimate reason to question the merits of reaching across the aisle. But Democrats have little choice; although the president is commander-in-chief, many aspects of statecraft—resources for diplomacy and defense, treaties, the sustained use of force, trade deals—require congressional consent. Like it or not, progressives must continue the fight to rebuild consensus behind America’s role in the world.

Second, renewing the nation’s economic health is vital to advancing its national security. Fiscal solvency, industrial capacity, and technological prowess are essential ingredients of military primacy. So too is broadly shared prosperity a precondition for political solvency. The bipartisan consensus that emerged after World War II rested on the rising economy’s dampening effect on partisan cleavages. Today, unemployment, stagnating wages, and growing inequality are all contributing to ideological polarization. Accordingly, progressives should be unequivocal in linking American leadership in the world to a responsible domestic program of spending cuts, revenue increases, and strategic investment in infrastructure and jobs. Reviving economic growth, reducing unemployment and income inequality, improving education—these are prerequisites for rebuilding the economic base on which national power rests and restoring the political consensus needed to guide U.S. statecraft. The first first principle of a progressive agenda is that political and economic renewal at home is the indispensable foundation for strength abroad.

Conservatives do not offer a credible alternative to this first plank of a progressive agenda. They not only fail to appreciate the vital link between bipartisanship and national security but deliberately seek to undermine political consensus. President George W. Bush sought to exploit, not repair, political divides; his advisers explicitly advocated polarizing policies that catered to the Republican base, not the moderate center. Since Obama entered office, Republicans have consistently sought to obstruct his foreign policies—regardless of the substantive merits. Many Republicans opposed his effective reconfiguration of European missile defense, charged that his successful reset with Russia was a sellout, and criticized his calibrated approach to participating in NATO’s intervention in Libya.

Conservatives also fail to offer a realistic program for economic renewal. They focus only on reductions in government spending and ignore the urgent need for new revenue and public investment. Additionally, their refusal to raise taxes on high earners demonstrates their disregard for economic inequality and its contribution to the fracturing of America’s political center. America’s strength on the world stage depends on a social cohesion borne of shared prosperity. Through shortsighted economic policies, conservatives are making the nation divided at home and weak abroad.

Balancing Means and Ends

A progressive grand strategy must help guide the United States from its current state of overextension toward a new balance between its foreign policy ends and its economic and political means. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the scope of America’s commitment has far outstripped the interests at stake. The Iraq War, as unnecessary as it has been expensive, has drained the nation’s coffers and ground down the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, it makes little sense for the United States to spend more than $100 billion per year in a nation whose annual GDP is roughly $14 billion, or for 100,000 U.S. troops to be in the fight when Al Qaeda’s operational capability in that country has been largely dismantled. An open-ended strategy of counterinsurgency should give way to a much smaller U.S. mission focused on counterterrorism.

At the same time that U.S. commitments have outrun interests, America’s resources for projecting power abroad are also contracting. Funding for the State Department, including for foreign assistance, is on the chopping block. The Pentagon is entering an era of lean times. And the U.S. public—which should not determine foreign policy, but should certainly inform it—is turning inward; a recent Pew survey found that 46 percent of Americans believe the country “should mind its own business” and 76 percent want us to “concentrate more on our own national problems” rather than on challenges far afield, by historical standards very high measures of isolationist sentiment. Taken together, these facts necessitate that the country scale back its international commitments to bring them into line with diminishing means.

In the first instance, strategic retrenchment requires completing the exit from Iraq and ensuring the expeditious drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to minimum levels. It also means limiting the scope of U.S. involvement in other, less-than-vital military missions, as Obama has successfully done in Libya. That operation similarly demonstrated the merits of greater American reliance on allies; France, Britain, and other European members of NATO carried their fair share. Around the globe, Washington should look to partners—EU members, Turkey, the Gulf sheikdoms, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Brazil—to shoulder heavier military burdens and help manage local crises. Greater reliance on regional organizations also holds the promise of a more equitable distribution of responsibility. With American encouragement and assistance, groupings such as the EU, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can be more effective contributors to security in their own regions.

Progressives must also not shy away from arguing forcefully that U.S. foreign policy has been over-militarized since 9/11. America’s military primacy is a precious national asset, but hard power has its limits. As has been made painfully clear in Iraq and Afghanistan, force can be very effective at punishing adversaries—but it is a blunt instrument when it comes to securing desired political outcomes. Accordingly, the United States needs to put greater emphasis on diplomacy, preventive action, development assistance, and trade when dealing with troubled regions.

The United States of course must guard against doing too little. Especially in the Persian Gulf and East Asia, retrenchment must be accompanied by words and deeds that reassure allies of America’s staying power. Moreover, there is no substitute for the use of force in dealing with imminent threats. Only through relentless military pursuit has the United States succeeded in eliminating numerous leaders of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States needs to refurbish its armed forces and remain ready for the full spectrum of potential missions.

Progressives have the right formula for finding this balance between doing too much and too little. Going back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the progressive foreign policy agenda has consistently embraced a liberal internationalism that is equal parts power and partnership. America’s military strength will remain as central to global stability in the years ahead as it has been in the past. However, like the geopolitical and economic successes of the twentieth century, the path to security and prosperity will require leveraging America’s strengths by working with allies and sustaining an institutionalized rules-based order. Progressives should also stand by the broader liberal agenda of promoting democracy, human rights, universal education, and economic openness.

Progressive vigor in restoring equilibrium between America’s goals abroad and its means at home is needed more than ever. The centrist wing of the Republican Party, which since World War II has steadily backed liberal internationalism, is on life support. In the meantime, neoconservatives and Tea Party supporters have increased their influence over Republican positions on foreign affairs. Shorn of their centrist caucus, Republicans are poised to do either far too much or far too little—depending upon which wing of the party holds sway.

George W. Bush’s first term was effectively a neoconservative experiment—one that succeeded in alienating much of the world and saddling the nation with inconclusive wars and mounting debt. Nonetheless, neoconservatives populate the campaign staffs of Republican presidential candidates, and their ideas continue to wield influence in Washington. Should this wing of the Republican Party again control U.S. foreign policy, it would pursue unlimited ends without regard to available means, preventing the country from finding the new equilibrium needed to restore political and economic solvency. The Tea Party, on the other hand, hails from a libertarian tradition holding that American ambition abroad comes at the expense of liberty at home. Ron Paul hardly speaks for the Republican Party, but his popularity does reflect the increasing allure of neo-isolationism on the right. His call for U.S. withdrawal from the UN, NATO, NAFTA, and other commitments constitutes not a measured retrenchment but a precipitous retreat.

A conservative grand strategy promises either to pursue immodest ends that overstretch national means or to deny the country sufficient means to pursue necessary ends. In contrast, by spelling out how a judicious foreign policy can make America more secure than can one of unbridled ambition, progressives inoculate the electorate against the false promises of neoconservatives. And by offering a vision of global leadership that limits costs and is attuned to the nation’s core interests and political will, progressives undercut the illusory appeal of isolationism.

Making Room for the Rising Rest

As emerging powers continue their ascent, dampening rivalries and fashioning a new rules-based order will require strategic vision and purposeful U.S. engagement. Rising powers, whether democratic or not, will not obediently take their place within the liberal order erected during the West’s watch. The rising rest differ with the West on fundamental issues, including the sources of domestic legitimacy, when and under what conditions violations of sovereignty are warranted, and the relationship between states and markets. Accordingly, they will want to recast the international system in ways that advantage their interests and ideological preferences.

Russia and China do not equate legitimacy with Western standards of liberal democracy, and both powers were critical of NATO’s intervention in Libya and vetoed a UN resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on protestors. For decades, Turkey aligned itself with Europe and the United States, but Ankara is now charting its own path, flexing its muscles in the Middle East, and adopting a confrontational stance toward Israel. India is ostensibly America’s new strategic partner, but it votes with the United States in the UN General Assembly only about 25 percent of the time.

The task ahead for the West is not corralling emerging powers into the existing international order—a futile undertaking—but instead working together with them to arrive at a new set of global rules. Because progressives appreciate the merits of pluralism, they are well suited to help negotiate a bargain among states that embrace quite diverse conceptions of domestic and international governance. As Adam Mount and I argued in these pages in 2009 (“The Autonomy Rule,” Issue #12), equating legitimacy with responsible rule rather than only liberal democracy, fashioning a more equitable brand of capitalism, and strengthening the capacity and authority of regional institutions are the types of compromises around which a new order is likely to take shape. Progressives understand that pluralism and tolerance help resolve some of the most difficult challenges of domestic governance, and that these values can do the same for international politics.

Progressives should apply the logic of constructive engagement not just to those powers headed for the top ranks. As civil societies in many parts of the Arab world clamor for political freedom and economic opportunity, Washington should encourage and assist democratic movements even as it acknowledges that incremental liberalization is preferable to chaotic change and that more democracy in the Middle East may well mean more political Islam. Progressives should also support patient engagement when dealing with dangerous or unfriendly regimes. The reset with Russia has led to military cooperation on Afghanistan, diplomatic coordination on Iran, and a new pact limiting the size of nuclear arsenals. Obama’s outreach to Cuba has admittedly proceeded in fits and starts, but Havana has introduced a program of economic privatization and released dozens of political prisoners. Washington has been cautiously improving ties with Myanmar as its government relaxes its grip on power. And even if engagement with the likes of Iran and North Korea ultimately leads nowhere, Washington’s prior diplomatic efforts would help provide a political foundation for a more hard-line approach should that prove necessary.

Among Republicans, the ascent of illiberal powers promises to reinforce neoconservative and isolationist tendencies. Neoconservatives recoil at the prospect of working with autocracies like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; such regimes, they argue, should be brought to heel and transformed into liberal polities, not treated as stakeholders. Engagement is even less justifiable when dealing with pariahs like Iran and North Korea.

While perhaps emotionally satisfying, the neoconservative preference for regime change is a recipe for self-defeating adventurism; America’s recent forays into nation-building have produced scant benefits at enormous costs. The assumption that illiberal regimes yield only when forced into submission also flies in the face of history. The most notable geopolitical breakthroughs of the twentieth century came not through coercion, but bold diplomacy—Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Moreover, stabilizing the global economy, ensuring energy supplies, combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism—these and many other international challenges require working with, not isolating, non-democracies.

The Republican Party’s neo-isolationist wing, rather than seeking to turn illiberal regimes into democracies, would simply shun them. The Tea Party would want to avoid the domestic exertions and diplomatic constraints entailed in engaging rising powers not created in America’s image. Such isolation would, however, not only mean missing opportunities for pragmatic cooperation, but also ceding too much ground to non-democratic regimes. Even as the United States works with illiberal powers to forge a new rules-based order, it must actively promote democracy and liberal values globally. Pluralism, tolerance, and the power of persuasion are as important to advancing liberty and equality abroad as they are at home—something that progressives fully understand.

Reviving the Atlantic Community

As the distribution of power shifts from the West to the rising rest, the transatlantic community will need to shore up its ability to serve as the anchor of liberal democracy. The United States and Europe remain each other’s best partners, but economic duress and political weakness on both sides of the Atlantic have strained their alliance. Of particular worry is the financial crisis within the eurozone and the accompanying fragmentation of the European Union.

Progressives should make a priority of reviving the West. Although Washington has limited influence over developments within the EU, the United States should offer expertise and resources to help stabilize European markets. Washington should also make unequivocal its strong support for European unity and deepen its ties to official bodies in Brussels in order to help strengthen the union’s institutions. Only if the EU aggregates the collective will and resources of its member states can it be the full partner Americans seek.

Solidifying the transatlantic partnership as the global core of liberal values and interests also means strengthening NATO. To be sure, NATO does not enjoy the solidarity and centrality that it did during the Cold War. And its European members are certainly falling short when it comes to defense expenditures. But the Atlantic Alliance is much more than a military tool kit—it is an institution vital to preserving the coherence and effectiveness of the West as a political community. NATO should certainly continue to ensure the common defense of its members and undertake joint military operations, as it has done in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya. But the alliance should also serve as the West’s main venue for coordinating engagement with rising powers and advancing global security by helping other organizations secure peace in their own regions.

Although conservatives are often dismissive of Europe due to its lack of hard power, they generally appreciate the importance of a transatlantic community that rests on common values and interests. While neoconservatives tended to denigrate the Atlantic partnership during George W. Bush’s first term—particularly because many Europeans opposed the Iraq War—Bush changed course during his second term and worked hard to repair the Atlantic link. The Tea Party may not relish the binding commitments to collective defense that come with NATO membership, but its supporters would at least in principle welcome institutions that might be able to pick up the slack as they orchestrate the retraction of America’s geopolitical commitments.

Nonetheless, the policies pursued by conservatives are likely to do more harm than good to the Atlantic partnership. Europeans have little stomach for the brash unilateralism favored by neoconservatives. Nor do they deem wise calls from the right for NATO to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine, a move that would provoke Russia and saddle the alliance with new and onerous commitments. As for the Tea Party, mainstream conservatives in Europe do not relate to either the isolationism or the social and fiscal conservatism of America’s far right. Simply put, an America that plays by conservative rules abroad and at home is not an appealing partner for Europe. American progressives are the natural political allies of Europeans and would therefore provide the Atlantic community a much firmer foundation of affinity and interest.

Progressive leadership at home is essential to the nation’s political and economic renewal, which in turn is the foundation for progressive leadership abroad. Since World War II, the United States has been dramatically successful in making the globe more stable, prosperous, and liberal. The recipe for ongoing success in this mission is no different than in the past: a solvent and centrist America reliant on a progressive combination of power and partnership to safeguard the national interest while improving the world.

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Charles Kupchan is a Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His next book, to be published in March 2012, is No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn.

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