Does the United States have a grand strategy? If so, what is it?
If you rummage around on the White House's website, you'll eventually stumble across something called The National Security Strategy of the United States. In fact, you'll find more than half a dozen National Security Strategy documents, since they're congressionally mandated. (Of course, in time-honored executive-branch tradition, they're generally submitted a year or two after the deadline).
But though the Obama administration's 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) is many things -- press release, public relations statement, laundry list of laudable aspirations -- grand strategy it ain't. The unclassified version alone clocks in at some 60 pages, which is hardly petite -- but "long" isn't the same as "grand." When it comes to grand strategy, less is more: If it can't be expressed in a few paragraphs, it's something other than grand strategy. Don't expect Obama's upcoming State of the Union Address to offer much by way of grand strategy, either: These annual talkathons tend instead to toss out a little bit of this and a little bit of that, in hopes that something will snag the positive attention of voters and media commentators.
Though different scholars and statesmen define "grand strategy" somewhat differently, at its heart, the concept is straightforward: Grand strategy is "the 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. A grand strategy can't be a list of aspirations, wishes, or even a country's top 10 foreign-policy "priorities." (When you have 10 priorities, you really have no priorities at all.) Grand strategy is the big idea that guides the tough decisions, helping policymakers figure out which of those top 10 priorities should drop off the list, which aspirations are unrealistic and impossible, and which may seem like good ideas on their own, but actually undermine the nation's broader goals.
Of necessity, grand strategy has to be pretty simple. After all, for something to be a guiding principle, it has to be readily understood by many actors and easily translated into action. "The United States will contain the Soviet Union by forming strong alliances, assuring allies that we will stand by them, and maintaining sufficient military and nuclear dominance to deter Soviet aggression" works pretty well as grand strategy, for instance (whether or not you think it was the right strategy, it was certainly straightforward). A 60-page document, produced by bureaucratic consensus? Not so much.
Fine, you might say, the NSS isn't a grand strategy, but the Obama administration still has one -- it just hasn't been articulated as such.
Really? You could have fooled me. The Obama administration initially waffled over the Arab Spring, unable to decide whether and when to support the status quo and when to support the protesters. The United States used military force to help oust Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, but insisted at first that this wasn't the purpose of the airstrikes -- and without any clear rationale being articulated, the use of force in seemingly parallel situations seems to have been ruled out. The administration expresses support for the rule of law, but hasn't offered a coherent legal framework justifying the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists inside the territory of other sovereign states. (I'm not saying there's no possible justification -- just that none has been clearly articulated). In Afghanistan, the Obama team first embraced an expansive, counter-insurgency-oriented approach to the nearly decade-old conflict -- then shifted, a mere two years later, into "last guy out turns out the lights" mode.
This isn't an argument for or against any particular decision -- the day to day decision-making may well have been perfectly reasonable in each case. But it's awfully hard to detect the contours of a grand strategy from the last three years. President Obama makes intelligent and persuasive speeches, but judged impartially, U.S. foreign and national security policy over the last three years frequently looks ad hoc, reactive, and inconsistent.
Well, so what? Does the United States really need a grand strategy? Scholars and intellectuals may be fond of these ambitious, pie-in-the-sky concepts, but they don't accomplish anything in the real world, right?