[eDebate] "Grand Strategy" FYI
Fri Dec 26 20:03:05 CST 2008
McDonough, Orbis, Winter 2009, Beyond Primacy: Hegemony and 'Security
Addiction' in U.S. Grand Strategy
Debating American Grand Strategy
The United States emerged from the Cold War with its formidable
military capabilities and globe-spanning network of allies largely intact.
Strategic thinkers had an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the U.S.
in the world. Yet decision-makers found it difficult to maintain discipline
the many different interests, priorities and goals that competed for scarce
resources. There was little consensus on the contours of grand strategy:
are vital U.S. interests in the post-Cold War period? What are the
these interests? What means should be used to respond to these threats and
secure these goals?
Of course, grand strategy is fundamentally about finding answers to
these questions. It involves a theoretically informed relationship of ends
means that identifies and prioritizes national interests, potential threats
resources and/or means to meet these threats. The goal is to develop a
''conceptual road map'' and ''set of policy prescriptions'' on issues of
security.1 Containment was one such road map and it proved to be remarkably
1 Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American
Strategy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp.
resilient. The post-Cold War period, while marked by a vigorous debate over
grand strategy, has proven to be a far more difficult terrain to chart an
Barry Posen and Andrew Ross have summarized four alternative grand
strategies.2 Neo-isolationism advocates a significant reduction in U.S.
commitments, including the dismantlement of NATO and other alliances,
and the avoidance of international engagement. This grand strategy has an
essentially benign account of the security environment. ''Strategic
guaranteed by the U.S. nuclear arsenal and geostrategic location;
would facilitate the rise of stable regional balances and reduce the
hostility often generated by U.S. hegemony and interventionism.3
This approach was, however, largely dismissed as an unwise and essentially
infeasible option. As Posen and Ross note, ''Neo-isolationists seem willing
to trade away considerable international influence for a relatively modest
improvement in domestic welfare.''4
In contrast, selective engagement envisions a more restrained strategy
that forgoes significant humanitarian or policing duties, and instead
prudential application of American power to maintain regional balances and
great power peace. The United States should therefore be concerned with
maintaining military commitments in Europe and Asia, as well as a presence
the Persian Gulf to forestall competition for its energy resources. Yet it
criticized for being an explicitly ''realist'' strategy that remains
ill-suited for a
Republic that has historically been concerned with ''liberal'' principles as
as power. One can also question whether this approach can ever be selective
its implementation. There is little agreed-upon criteria for what
''national interests,'' and current commitments will ensure a significant
global presence for the foreseeable future. Some prominent advocates have
even adopted a ''realpolitik plus'' strategy that, by including
and environmental activism, illustrates the potential temptation of an
definition of selectivity.5
Neo-isolationism may complement the historic American proclivity for
''limited liability'' and ''prudence'' in its international commitments.
2 Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, ''Competing Visions for US Grand Strategy,''
Security, Winter 1996/97, pp. 5-53.
3 For an excellent account of neo-isolationism, see Eugene Gholtz, Daryl
Press and Harvey
Sapolsky, ''Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of
International Security, Spring 1997, pp. 5-48.
4 Posen and Ross, ''Competing Visions of US Grand Strategy,'' p. 16. An
additional benefit of
the neo-isolationist approach is in the reduced probability of a nuclear or
attack on American cities ? though such an attack is perhaps one of the few
scenarios that might
actually trigger such ''restraint.'' See Douglas Ross, ''Nuclear Weapons and
Strategy: Essential Pillar or Terminal Liability?'' International Journal,
5 Robert J. Art, ''Geopolitics Updated: The Strategy of Selective
Security, Winter 1998/1999, pp. 79-113.
engagement is meanwhile rooted in the present unipolar environment,
particularly the need to conserve scarce resources and preserve the
remaining strategic advantage. But neither approach meets the structural and
cultural conditions necessary for a stable strategic adjustment.6 American
preponderance makes any return to a neo-isolationist posture highly
while its liberal impulses have always made explicitly realist strategies
inherently suspect and ultimately short-lived.
The two remaining grand strategies, cooperative security and primacy,
provide the most ambitious blueprints for a U.S. global role. Cooperative
security differs from the other approaches by being founded on unadulterated
liberal principles; humanitarianism is to be prescribed and armed aggression
prohibited. Supporters of this strategy have an optimistic view on the
for institutions like NATO or the UN to coordinate ''the deterrence and
of aggression,'' 7 and for arms control and confidence-building measures
to minimize security dilemmas and buttress strategic nuclear stability. Yet
cooperative security also posits a high level of ''strategic independence''
connects U.S. national security to any number of disputes abroad. With the
pressing need to build credibility, the United States and its allies must be
willing to undertake humanitarian interventions and proactive
of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Many United States allies, wedded to notions of ''human security'' and
multilateralism, will likely embrace a U.S. shift towards cooperative
is, however, unlikely that allies will be able to resist the ''free-riding''
and adequately reinvest in military assets. The United States will have to
bear the primary burden for any such project. It is also uncertain whether
United States has the appetite to sustain the imperial policing role needed
''regulate regional peace, discipline violators of civilized norms, and
democracy and world order.''8
Primacists, on the other hand, have placed their trust in the overwhelming
American strategic preponderance that underpins international
institutions. The ultimate objective is the preservation of U.S. supremacy
and the prevention of any serious challenger to this hegemonic order. Allies
and more amicable regional powers are to be discouraged from developing
an independent global role, through a mixture of coercion and robust
security guarantees. More aggressive near-peer competitors are to be
contained. While eschewing the multilateralism of its more ''cooperative''
cousin, primacy does envision a vigorous (and likely unilateral) effort to
stem WMD proliferation, which could otherwise curtail U.S. freedom of action
and facilitate the rearming of potential competitors.
6 Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, Chapter 5.
7 Posen and Ross, ''Competing Visions of US Grand Strategy,'' p. 25.
8 Richard Betts, ''A Disciplined Defense: How to Regain Strategic
Solvency,'' Foreign Affairs,
Nov./Dec. 2007, pp. 67-80.
Primacy is firmly rooted in key realist assumptions. ''Primacists are
hawkish and hard-line, with a keen appreciation for the role of power,
conflict, and national self-interest in international relations.''9 But this
controversial choice is also optimistic on the potential for both indefinite
U.S. preponderance and the successful suppression of strategic rivals and
WMD-armed regional powers. Primacy supporters either underestimate or
simply ignore the possibility that other countries may resent such
hubris.'' This stems partly from the U.S. liberal exceptionalism that posits
benign and more acceptable sort of hegemony, and partly from the difficulty
balancing against a superpower.
The George H.W. Bush administration showed a strong inclination
to adopt primacy after the Soviet Union's collapse. The draft Defense
Planning Guidance (DPG) for 1994-1999 featured explicit calls for indefinite
military preponderance and the prevention of a new strategic rival. The
DPG was publically disavowed by the administration after it was leaked
to the press in 1992. But a redrafted version, authored by I. ''Scooter''
Libby under Dick Cheney's guidance, contained even more ambitious
calls to shape ''the future security environment'' and dissuade rivals from
contemplating military competition. This document's statement on overall
strategy was subsequently released in 1993 as the Defense Strategy for
The Clinton administration came into office eager to adopt a grand
strategy more attuned to notions of cooperative security. Multilateral
institutions like the United Nations were given significant responsibilities
for peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction, while the United States
recommitted itself to a number of multilateral economic arrangements. Yet
more astute observers of the United States also detected a growing
over the efficacy of international institutions. With the exception of
NATO, multilateral organizations were shown to be disastrously unprepared
to manage the civil conflicts and stabilization operations in Somalia,
and Rwanda. The sincere desire for an institutional order conducive to
achieving true cooperative security was balanced by the recognition that
U.S. leadership and strategic power were essential to fulfill this vision.
multilateral organizations often dithering over such crises as Yugoslavia's
dissolution, the United States rediscovered the burden of being the
Colin Dueck has noted that the Clinton administration's liberal
internationalist assumptions were balanced by ''a strong dose of primacy,''
9 Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, p. 121.
10 The original DPG document was written by Zalmay Khalizad under the
guidance of then
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
See Michael Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (New
Books, 2004), Chapter 13.
as demonstrated by the explicit rejection of ''dovish'' prescriptions to
''America's forward strategic presence.''11 Indeed, President Clinton had
frequently resorted to an ''assertive multilateralism'' that relies on
allies towards military action, and thereby acquiring at least a semblance
multilateral legitimacy for these operations. Posen and Ross have also
an additional emphasis on selectivity and concluded that this mismatched
approach should be termed ''selective (but cooperative) primacy.''12 This
grand strategic amalgamation may not satisfy the more hardline adherents
of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), but there should be
doubt that the Clinton foreign policy team's lofty multilateral rhetoric was
used to soften otherwise tough primacist policies.
Posen and Ross's four-fold typology of strategic choices offers an
admirable clarification of the key positions of an otherwise esoteric
Yet the reification of these options carries the danger that similarities
be overlooked. Christopher Layne, for example, argues that American
grand strategy has essentially been concerned with maintaining U.S.
strategic preponderance. Selective engagement still envisions a forward
strategic presence to balance potential competitors and preserve American
hegemony, and cooperative security would only further reify an American
institutional order. A grand strategy of ''offshore balancing,'' which
incorporates neo-isolationist prescriptions with a more active role as the
''balancer of last resort,'' is advocated as an antidote to visions of
grandeur. Layne's vision is decidedly optimistic on the potential benefits
an eventual multipolar environment, even as it prescribes a smaller,
oriented military and the dismantlement of entangling alliances.13
It is difficult to deny that both primacy and selective engagement take
the preservation of American strategic preponderance as a conceptual
point. Primacists are simply more optimistic on the continued vitality of
American power, and are, therefore, reluctant to rely on other countries to
provide regional counterweights to any challenger. Even supporters of
security have grown to share this appreciation for American hegemony.
In this light, the Clinton administration's willingness to embrace elements
these different approaches, rather than an aberration from an undisciplined
presidency, seems to be a more natural condition arising from conflating
American unipolarity and its liberal strategic culture.
It would be imprudent, however, to simply dismiss the post-Cold War
grand strategy debate. All three of these strategic options began with
points of disagreement on the necessary means to achieve American security?
primacists rely on U.S. supremacy, cooperative security advocates rely on
Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, p. 132.
12 Posen and Ross, ''Competing Visions for US Grand Strategy.'' pp. 44-50.
13 Christopher Layne, ''From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's
Strategy,'' International Security, Summer 1997, pp. 86-124.
multilateral institutions, and selective engagers rely on extra-regional
These differences lessened during the Clinton administration, as cooperative
security and selective engagement slowly blended into a more
multilateral version of primacy. The 9/11 attacks later crystallized a
approach that was both aggressively unilateral and, with its democratization
campaign in the Middle East, also virulently liberal.
The debate over American strategic options has narrowed considerably
in the post-9/11 period. ''The new debate on U.S. grand strategy is
essentially about which variant of a hegemonic strategy the United States
should pursue.''14 Posen labeled these two variants of primacy ''national
liberalism'' and ''liberal internationalism.''15 The former is essentially
current administration's unilateral approach, while the latter has been
embraced by a Democratic Party eager to demonstrate its competence in
national security affairs. President Bush's strategy does not represent a
change when compared to its predecessor, but it does represent the
culmination of a strategic adjustment process that has effectively settled
primacy?in one form or another?for the post-9/11 period.
The vagaries of U.S. domestic politics and the shock of the 9/11 attacks
had given neoconservative strategists an opportunity to implement their
aggressive primacist vision. Primacy is, however, a more stable strategic
than many critics of the current administration are likely to admit. It will
continue to guide American strategy long after the Republican
have left the executive branch. Any calls for strategic restraint are
to be heeded by either major party in the current strategic climate.
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