Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 1  /  

Must American Strategy Be Grand?

Must American Strategy Be Grand? Must American Strategy Be Grand?
To cite this article: Elkus, Adam, “Must American Strategy Be Grand?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Winter, 2012, pages 24-28.

Does America need a grand strategy? Is our current one defective? This essay submits that the concept of “grand strategy” in American policy discourse suffers from several major deficiencies. First, grand strategy is conceptualized as a dominant “big idea” instead of the steps that translate high concept into action. American grand strategy’s conceptualization of strategy is divorced from classical strategy’s instrumental focus on bridging violence and politics. American grand strategy’s present form simply adds a superficially strategic character to what is predominately ideological foregrounding to national policy.

Like a family, American grand strategy and classical strategy need not always agree. But classical strategy provides a framework from which grand strategy originated, and American grand strategy’s somewhat “grand” departure from this original grounding has not yielded greater analytical utility or practical value. It is time for a family reunion.

Grand Expectations

The author has previously registered his concerns with the idea of grand strategy from the standpoint of classical strategy. Yet this essay does not categorically reject the concept of grand strategy.[i] Whatever its divergence from the insights of classical strategy, it nonetheless endures in American political life. Provisionally accepting its vocabulary, however foreign to the analyst or practitioner of classical strategy, is a hitherto more pragmatic course than outright antagonism.

Strategy itself is partly a process of negotiation and dialogue, and fruitful engagement with an eye towards improving the discussion of American grand strategy may yield strong benefits.[ii] Grand strategy has many prominent defenders known for their appreciation of military history and classical strategic theory, also suggesting that form of pluralism is essential for the functioning of useful debate on strategic theory. Williamson Murray, Eliot Cohen, Colin S. Gray are just some of the many noted scholars of classical strategy who have written about grand strategy.

There is, however, a critical difference between the ways in which military historians and American foreign policy analysts conceive of the term. In American foreign policy discourse, grand strategy’s status as “grand idea” is highlighted. The average American grand strategist yearns to be a George Kennan, identifying the destination to which the ship of state travels. These views proffer “strategy” as progressive social transformation, conservative reaction, or some ungainly mixture of both. The instrumental focus on reconciling ends, ways, and means is lost in the quest to define a master concept that links ends, ways, and means together as an organizing principle.

In classical strategy, the high concept is the policy. But in American grand strategy, there is no distinction between policy and strategy. For example, Rosa Brooks critiques the Obama administration for lacking a grand strategy, which she defines as follows:

“[T]he big idea” of foreign and national security policy — the overarching concept that links ends, ways and means, the organizing principle that allows states to purposively plan and prioritize the use of “all instruments of national power,” diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military.”[iii]

Also, Anne Marie Slaughter recently favorably reviewed a set of proposed grand strategies that make similar claims, from a revised approach to liberal internationalism to a design for greater global sustainability.[iv] Lest it appear that this essay pick on one school of international relations unfairly, it should also be noted that realist critics have consistently opposed what they view as a strategy of “global hegemony” and called for a greater conservatism in international affairs.[v] What links both sides is their prioritization of vision and narrative over implementation. Grand strategy in American political discourse is foremost a political choice about America’s ideal role in the world rather than a means of getting from point A to B.

Daniel Nexon understandably expresses boredom with the “grand strategy debate.” Given the lack of new themes, we should all react with a roll of the eyes to the latest excited op-ed calling for a radically new grand strategic approach.[vi] What is being contested is not any new or interesting approach of relating ends, ways, and means but two ideologically inspired visions that will likely never see eye-to-eye. Strategy should not be theology, but there is little to the American grand strategic debate besides badly sung gospel. It should thus be no surprise that American grand strategy is, as the perennial critique goes, mostly aspirational in nature.

Grand Ideology

Barry Posen is correct that the best means of producing security is central to the American conception of grand strategy. But the abstract question of what produces security is deeply implicated in differing ideological conceptions of how society should be organized.[vii] As Beate Jahn has detailed, notions of the “state of nature” provided classical political philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau an image of how a society could meaningfully advance.[viii] Security remains central to these social images. Hobbes’ depiction of life in the state of nature provided inspiration for concepts such as the “security dilemma” in international relations, and Kant and Jeremy Bentham more explicitly contributed ideas as to how perpetual peace in the international environment could be established. The influence of Niccolo Machiavelli and Thucydides on conceptions of security is also likely very familiar to Infinity Journal readers and scarcely needs any elucidation.

Larger debates about philosophy and society have had a powerful, though only sometimes explicitly conscious, impact on American national security. Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the “Empire of Liberty” was a vehicle for the protection of America’s republican form of government. Alexander Hamilton astutely observed that Britain had preserved its own liberalism because it was geographically isolated and thus could afford to keep a small army and focus on the legally protected production of wealth. He desired the same for America, instead of the large armies and absolutist governments of continental Europe.[ix] Aaron Friedburg has also tied American desires to preserve its unique system of government and political economy to American conceptions of national security in the Cold War.[x]

The Cold War-era discipline of modernization theory–the basis of so many Cold War development efforts–presupposed what Charles Tilly derided as an idea of a society advancing in “stages” to more prosperous and liberal forms of government.[xi] Even military strategy itself has been influenced by American ideology, as Mark Clodfelter argues in his survey of the American Progressive movement’s influence on the World War II strategic bombing program.[xii] A conception of how society should be organized also suggests notions of who can rightly rule, a social fact central to American discourse that justified the subjugation of the Native American peoples and provided a basis for more than one hundred years of expansion.

The ideological implications of identity and difference have also always been key to grand ideas about American destiny. From the early 20th century to Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” American international thinkers have always struggled to create a conceptual schema that would produce policy implications for American security from notions of civilizational difference. Are the roots of “Muslim rage” hostility to modernity, as Bernard Lewis famously suggested? Is Henry Kissinger correct that Chinese national identity and Confucian heritage provides practical policy lessons for US-China relations? Scholars can endlessly debate whether or not these ideas are correct, misleading, or even bigoted. What matters is whether policy elites and popular pundits believe such ideas and incorporate them into their conceptions of foreign policy and national security.

The Vietnam-era “best and the brightest” took their inspiration from an implicit theory of identity (modernization theory) and the wellspring of Cold War liberalism. John F. Kennedy and his contemporaries pledged that the United States would “pay any price” and “bear any burden” to resist the Soviet Union, emphasizing the need for the US to compete with the Communists in the economic and political modernization of the former colonial world. The “Ugly American” had to compete for the allegiance of the peasant at the local level with Communists selling him a dream of a better life. These were not just empty words. They deeply entwined the US in political and military struggles across several continents, sometimes with horrific results. No less a Kennedy-Johnson man than Robert McNamara regretfully admitted that a monolithic worldview blinded American policymakers to the politics behind the wars in Southeast Asia.[xiii]

The Chimera of Strategic Holism

Understanding the impact of ideology on American conceptions of grand strategy also means recognizing the holism implicit in recent grand strategic discourse. Overly loose conceptions of strategy’s power and reach have been key to justifying liberal, conservative, and imperialist views of national destiny. Having a comprehensive view is not inherently bad, but the problem is that holism is often cast as a rejection of analytical and practical tradeoffs. If the world is an integrated, complex adaptive system, with even the most remote of factors intimately and causally linked, how does one determine what deserves attention or where to devote resources?

The recent Wilson Center monograph A New National Strategic Narrative states that national borders and natural barriers cannot protect states anymore, and in a “complex, interdependent, and constantly changing global environment, security is not achievable for one nation or by one people alone.” It repeatedly argues that “our interests converge with those of people in every part of the world.” The Narrative’s authors call for an end to what they dub “binning”—the idea that national security, economic health, and other spheres of national activity should be considered separately.[xiv] At every turn, they try to link together disparate fields of social action into a tidy whole. At the international level, they try to draw connections not often glimpsed by mainstream foreign policy and strategy thinkers. Their discussions are often eloquent and empirically supported, but there is a fundamental conceptual problem lurking in the background.

Holistic approaches to grand strategy often overestimate our ability to really un-“bin” the social world. Certainly one would be foolish not to acknowledge the historical reality of both historical and contemporary economic, ideational, informational, and biological exchanges among the human community. Various aspects of national power are certainly interlinked. But choice is always involved in determining which flows are important and what to make of them. As Max Weber noted in his survey of the methodology of the social sciences, “all the analysis of infinite reality which the finite human mind can conduct rests on the tacit assumption that only a finite portion of this reality constitutes the object of scientific investigation.”[xv]

No one man or women can visualize the complexity of the interactions inherent in the social world and the natural processes that gave rise to it. Weber acknowledges that choice is involved in what is “worthy of being known,” and debate can be waged about what political problems deserve sustained American attention. The answer is simply to “bin” more wisely.[xvi] How can we best understand some of the world’s relationships? For example, the logistical and informational web that connects jihadists in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia to al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan obviously is more important to the American people and their representations than other hypothetical social formations.

The all-encompassing holistic character of grand strategy also enables “domestic politics by other means.” Today, everything from childhood obesity to the need for rebuilding American infrastructure can be justified through reference to American national strategy. Expansive programs of domestic social and economic change can be justified by reference to external competition. If one considers strategy to be legitimately everything under the sun, it is hard to argue against the idea that fat children are a danger to American national security.[xvii] One’s own political preferences are “strategic” and meaningfully advance the national interest, while the opponent is simply “playing politics.”

The Narrative’s authors, like many before them, dive deeply into domestic politics. They write about health care, education, and economic growth, and call for a “National Security and Prosperity Act” that would seek to harmonize domestic policies and foreign policies completely. This act is portrayed as disinterested and nonpartisan, despite entailing what would obviously be a far-reaching transformation of government and domestic life. That such a maneuver is impossible to pull off in society as politically divided as 21st century America barely needs to be stated.

The amorphous character of discourse on American grand strategy also makes effective critiques and assignments of responsibility effectively impossible. Andrew Bacevich’s latest essay lays out a laundry list of American policy flaws, from issues of statecraft to military strategy. In total, it is much too diffuse a list of woes to dump at the feet of what he views as myopic military “strategists.”[xviii] Can one chide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey for America’s failure to adjust to the rise of Asian powers, shifts in global energy supply, climate change, or the “Arab Awakening? If strategy is everything, then who is really at fault for strategic failure?

Strategic holism keeps strategy fixated on applied theology, and some determined reductionism would help grand strategists stick to the fundamentals. Weber warned that every meaningful value judgment about someone else’s aspirations always will be a criticism from the standpoint of one’s own worldview. Science, he declared, while not telling what should be, can delineate what is possible.[xix] Strategy, as a purpose-built bridge between politics and action, cannot tell a politician the “why” but can illuminate the “how.” Classical strategy, though very much different in conception from American grand strategy, should be emulated because it does not concern itself with big ideas. It is about big actions.

Must American Strategy Be Grand?

The dynamics of political enmity, competition between two opposed forces, and the management of violence are key to classical conceptions of strategy. If the various conceptions of strategy constitute up a family, classical strategy is the venerable elder. All children differentiate themselves from their elders. But classical strategists can no longer perceive basic family resemblance in their wayward American grand strategic children. Classical strategy, from the perspective of American grand strategy enthusiasts, may seem frustratingly reductive. But its grounding in thousands of years of history suggests that classical strategy cannot be completely tuned out. Strategy and American grand strategy need not always agree on the fundamentals but should at least be able to communicate with each other.

What separates strategy from political doctrine is an adversarial character. All members of the strategic “family” must deal with a fundamental disconnect between their own aims and those of others. Strategy is thus inherently relational in that it concerns itself with a power relationship between organized social entities and the means by which power creates different material realities that favor one side at another’s expense. Power shapes the relative autonomy and choice of others.[xx]

A grand strategy thus cannot be about setting the grand idea. Rather, strategy must be about what—or more importantly, who stands in the way of the idea becoming reality and how he or she can be made to accept it. American grand strategy should be a technical and instrumental assessment of the gap between a presumed future vision of the ordering of the social world and the present. It would abdicate the normative content of setting national aspirations to politicians and polemicists.

Rather, the task of a grand strategist should be to delineate the ways and means necessary to use national power to accomplish the ideological consensus. The remit of the grand strategist’s reach would also be radically circumscribed. The problematic nature of the policy-strategy distinction means that a restrained grand strategy would still impinge on domestic politics. But its inherent clash with domestic politics would be nonetheless be substantially minimized down from the substantial domestic transformations American grand strategy demands today.

A Truly Grand American Strategy

A hypothetical American grand strategist advising Thomas Jefferson would not draft a brilliant policy memo calling for the idea of an “Empire of Liberty.” Instead, he would tell Jefferson what kind of army such an Empire would necessitate, the political and social relationships to be leveraged, and the economic costs to be borne. He would analyze how British, Spanish, and French military forces on the continent would impede the realization of the Empire of Liberty and the steps that might be necessary to overawe them. But perhaps more important is what our hypothetical Jeffersonian grand strategist would not do.

He would not use his strategic calculations to dictate to Americans how many calories their children should eat; he would not strain to connect the troop requirements for checking British power in Canada to the environmental and urban design practices of the day, and he would understand that most of the world’s complex interconnections do not relate to his analytical task. He would eschew devising claims about whether or not the world was more complex or adaptive than before. Whenever our grand strategist would be tempted by such considerations, he would remember the ancient tribulations he learned in his childhood study of classical Greek and Roman history and conclude that complexity and adaptation is simply an inescapable and timeless part of the strategist’s burden.

Finally, he would accept that his political masters determined whether a liberal, realist, or constructivist national policy was best. International relations theory, while informing his own thinking, did not determine his strategic vision. His task was to plot how fine ideological aspirations might be realized in a politically divided nation with a perennially short attention span. Our intrepid fellow scribbling strategic calculations in longhand would certainly not be a classical strategist. But history may very well come to regard him as an able American grand strategist.


[i] Adam Elkus, “The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and the Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought,” Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012, 24-27.
[ii] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, op cit.
[iii] Rosa Brooks, “Obama Needs a Grand Strategy,” Foreign Policy, 23 January 2012,
[iv] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy for His Second Term?” Washington Post, 18 January 2013,
[v] Stephen M. Walt, “In the National Interest: A Grand New Strategy for American Foreign Policy,” Boston Review, February/March 2005.
[vi] Daniel Nexon, “ISO: American Grand Strategy,” Duck of Minerva, 2 January 2013,
[vii] Barry R. Posen, “A Grand Strategy of Restraint” in Michele A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley (eds), Finding Our Way: Debating American Grand Strategy, Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, 2008. 84-85.
[viii] See Jahn’s edited volume, Classical Theory in International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
[ix] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist 8: The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States,” 20 November 1787.
[x] See Aaron Friedburg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
[xi] See Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.
[xii] See Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
[xiii] The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara, DVD, Errol Morris (dir), Los Angeles, Sony Pictures Classics, 2004.
[xiv] Mr. Y, A New National Strategic Narrative, Washington: Woodrow Wilson Institute for Scholars, 2011, 5-11.
[xv] Max Weber, Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (eds and trans Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch), Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinoiis, 1949, 72.
[xvi] Weber, ibd.
[xvii] Lisa Suhay, “Too Fat to Fight: Is Childhood Obesity a National Security Threat?” Christian Science Monitor, 25 September 2012.
[xviii] Andrew Bacevich, “America’s Strategic Stupidity,” The Spectator, 12 January 2013,
[xix] Weber, 60.
[xx] Martin Barnett and Raymond Duvall, “Power in International Politics,” International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1, Winter 2005, 39-75.