Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War, the United States has found itself trapped in a crisis of strategy. We seemingly have no grand mission underlying our foreign involvements, our endless occupations of Middle Eastern countries, our assassinations of officials of sovereign nations. The United States’s post-9/11 military paradigm has been a confused mixture of unwinnable, endless wars against loosely organized insurgents combined with unpunished war crimes, with no apparent strategy or organization within the various federal departments tasked with waging war. By observing our ongoing wars and recent foreign policy decisions, and placing those events within their historical context, we are able to address our military’s misapplication and discuss our options for reconciling our national interest with the actions of our military.
In order to truly understand our present crisis, we must first look to the history of our military, to the times when we did have a sound underlying grand strategy. For the majority of our military history, we subscribed to an impressively concise and achievable grand strategy: Washington’s Great Rule. George Washington outlined this foreign policy philosophy in his 1796 farewell address, and this strategy dominated our conception of our global niche for the following 150 years: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation.” Washington’s Great Rule is an excellent example of assessing the country’s global position, and devising a grand strategy through which we can effectively assess our foreign policy decisions. As an agricultural society with comparatively little global influence, isolationism was the best strategy through which we could secure our national interest and avoid potentially destructive wars with the great powers of Europe. Though Washington’s prescriptions were occasionally stretched to justify wars with the powers of Europe (Monroe Doctrine, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII), our involvement in these conflicts required at least a semblance of defensiveness. We were protecting our hemisphere from imperial control, avenging the U.S.S. Maine, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor (notably, these isolationist involvements justified revenge against the power which attacked us; our misguided 9-11 vengeance missions such as the Iraq war do not fit into this paradigm of defensiveness). Viewing our foreign policy decisions through the lens of isolationism continued until the mid-20th century. The rise of the Soviet Union and the commencement of the Cold War, combined with our newfound military and economic power, required a fresh assessment of our role in the world and a reevaluation of an appropriate grand strategy. This reevaluation was encapsulated by the Truman Doctrine established in 1947, which defined our role in the world as a great power responsible for containing the geopolitical expansion of Communism, countering the Soviet Union’s quest for global influence. And, although it dragged us into many unsuccessful and wasteful proxy wars (Vietnam comes to mind), the Truman Doctrine was an effective grand strategy, becoming the lens through which we assessed all of our foreign policy decisions until the fall of the Soviet Union.
Having defined the two broad grand strategies we have employed in our history, we can now appropriately assess the present: what, if any, grand strategy have we employed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, or more relevantly, since the attacks on 9/11? Our closest approximation to a grand strategy is the “War on Terror”, but this strategy has a couple of key distinctions from the Great Rule and the Truman Doctrine preceding it.
Firstly, the concept, strategy, whatever you want to call it, of the War on Terror is completely unachievable. Perhaps the most important element of a grand strategy is its concision, its clearly defined objectives and its immovable goalpost of what defines “victory”. The War on Terror is essentially “The War on Bad Guys”, and the futility of trying to rid the world of all evil is clearly evident when we observe our military involvements through which we sought to do so. We can look towards our seemingly endless war in Afghanistan as a case study of how the War on Terror is not a true grand strategy. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush (with massive support from the reeling nation) commenced Operation Enduring Freedom, which established the first goalpost for victory in Afghanistan: destroy the forces of the Taliban and their territorial control over Afghanistan. If this goal was in accordance with a well understood grand strategy, we would have declared a swift, decisive victory in December of 2001, when the Taliban was by all accounts defeated, ousted from their centers of control in Kabul and Kandahar. However, President Bush’s goalpost for victory was not in accordance with any achievable grand strategy; it was an arbitrary line in the sand that, once achieved, did not solve the problem of the presence of “bad people” in the world. So, we created a new government in Kabul out of thin air to fill the power vacuum, one with no preceding legitimacy or ability to govern effectively, a government we have been babysitting ever since. The reason Afghanistan has spiralled out of control and become an endless occupation is because our lack of strategy (or, rather, our laughably unachievable strategy of making the entire world love us) not only allows, but requires us to constantly redefine victory. Victory was defined as defeating the Taliban. Then, we redefined it as creating a stable government in Kabul. Then, we redefined it as creating a liberal democracy in Afghanistan modelled upon the United States. When our “strategy” in a conflict is to a) reform the historical and cultural attitudes of a region, b) prop up a state with no preceding legitimacy or governing experience, and c) make that state a product of the western paradigm of statehood (democracy, liberalism, and adherence to foreign cultural values), the war will have no definitive end and American taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill for military and statebuilding actions with either diminishing returns upon or nonexistent effects upon the safety of American citizens.
The second glaring issue with the “War on Terror” is that the various federal departments we give war powers to are not at all on the same page. A true grand strategy is one which the entire government moves in unison to achieve; if there is a clear lens through which our foreign policy is assessed, the federal departments will independently make decisions which culminate in an advancement of that grand strategy or objective. This is comically not the case today. In one example of many, the CIA-armed Fursan al Haq in Syria repeatedly clashed with the Pentagon-armed Syrian Democratic Forces. Our government is horribly confused: the independently acting departments of war are in a proxy war with each other, unable to advance any grand strategy and throwing taxpayer money into the pit of endless war without making the United States any safer. When our underlying “strategy” in our foreign policy is to kill all the bad guys in the world, we end up having to kill a lot of guys, even the ones we are giving guns to.
There are far too many factors for our strategic crisis to be fully examined in one article (if our goal is to get rid of terrorists, why are we helping radical Islamic groups in Syria and Yemen? Why are we such close buddies with Saudi Arabia who helped execute the 9/11 attacks?). However, I hope that the factors I have briefly examined demonstrate that we currently have a worrying strategic vacuum in our foreign policy. Our job now is to soberly assess our global position, and to decide upon a concise grand strategy which ensures our national interest given our geopolitical setting. In an op-ed published by the New York Times, authors Elizabeth Cobbs and Kimberly Field give three such proposals for a grand strategy, each of differing degrees of trigger-happiness: City on a Hill, Fortress on a Hill, and World Policeman.
As a city on a hill, the United States would express its grand strategy by “redirect[ing] money from overseas military commitments to improving domestic infrastructure, education, technology, health care and the environment to showcase democracy’s strengths. We would assist foreign governments with economic development and peaceful conflict resolution.” This strategy would have the United States lead by example, promoting liberal democracy through a demonstration of its strengths rather than through permanently babysitting illegitimate governments.
Alternatively, Cobbs and Field propose the strategy of a fortress on a hill, which they describe as “protect[ing] our shores while selectively reducing overseas bases, devolv[ing] more responsibility onto China for keeping trade routes open, and allow[ing] the United States to focus on the nonmilitary dimensions of international problems.” Essentially, such a strategy would allow the United States to remain a military hegemon, with the key distinction of using the threat of our military might as ammunition at the negotiation table, willing to use our military for the express defense of our borders, but preferring to use diplomatic deterrence as a means to secure our national interests.
Lastly, the authors propose the world policeman strategy, which “would continue to assume that we can best assure our interests by being the world’s emergency responders. We would guarantee security for all countries that ask, maintain existing foreign bases, increase spending on soft power assistance, and in general do whatever is necessary to remain No. 1.” Although such a strategy is quite similar to our current philosophy, Cobbs and Field make the distinction that in order for the world policeman strategy to truly be a grand strategy, we would have to follow international law, most importantly by only pursuing military intervention when we are given a UN mandate to do so. Furthermore, we would have to act within an achievable paradigm of victory in the conflicts we do engage in, establishing a definition for what defines a victorious intervention, and getting out once such a victory is achieved.
Endless war is a recent phenomenon in the historical development of the United States military. Rather than a) accepting it as the only option for securing American safety or b) blindly insisting to bring the troops home, we must foundationally assess our role in the world and how we can best wield our historically unprecedented geopolitical power to secure safety and prosperity for the American citizenry. When trillions of taxpayer dollars are expended in our military adventures around the world, we need to sit down and soberly ask ourselves: what is it all for?