One Ring to Rule Them All

I felt rather fortunate to be abroad during the debt debate. But one thought I had while (to get very Tom Friedman-like, listening to Jay-Z and Bun B. talk about their own unique understanding of microeconomics in “Big Pimpin” while moving around the outskirts of Shanghai) was that the current spectacle has largely exposed the 20-year debate over future American grand strategy to be rooted on a fundamentally false assumptions. In fact, one might, as Joseph Fouche often does, compare them to the titular fantasy quest in Lord of the Rings. Why?

To sum it up, we neither understand what grand strategy is nor have realistic expectations of how to make it “work” in our unique domestic political system. The first error really comes down to a definitional issue. Grand strategy as a topic is a hobby-horse for people in what might broadly be considered the strategic studies community. We like it because we study war, and war–and the preparation for it-is a big part of grand strategy. But “strategy” as we understand it is a “bridge” between policy and the nuts-and-bolts aspects of warfare. It’s an instrumental device that’s intended, bluntly, to win wars.

What we call “grand strategy” is something else entirely–and I have to thank some readings suggested by a few Clausewitzians and organizational theorists for this better understanding.

Grand strategy is really “grand policy” because it is predominately peacetime planning for international competition (violent and nonviolent) and is mostly a guiding idea between how a state spends resources to produce security and prosperity for itself. Because the term “grand strategy” is linguistically ingrained, I suppose there’s no choice but to keep using it in my blog posts and articles in order to speak the same language as other people in this field.

Because we gravitate towards primarily a primarily military-strategic way of thinking about grand strategy, this in turn leads to viewing other states primarily through the “friend”-“enemy” distinction. This is a recipe for both threat inflation (“__ country is the next Soviet Union/Nazi Germany/Imperial Japan!!”) and complacency in the face of people we think will not come to blows with because of magical globalization pixie dust.

Grand strategy is in some ways much like everyday life–you can only really rely on yourself at the end of the day, and the vast majority of people you meet and interact with fall into neither the category of true friend nor intractable enemy.

The military domination of grand strategy intellectually also results in ignoring other ways to think about planning about the long-term peacetime use of resources from fields that have pondered this in much more detail than military strategists. Most of the time, the fields that have devoted the most empirical time and attention to this (such as business theory and scenario thinking) have found that the methods we use in our defense reviews privilege a kind of reductionist planning that does not square with the messy and often iterative way organizations make long-term decisions.

After being introduced to much of this literature by looking at the history of the Office of Net Assessment, I am trying my best to kickstart my own reading in things such as competitive strategy and strategic management and appreciate any reading suggestions.

If that were not troublesome enough, we have wildly unrealistic expectations about what kind of grand strategy is possible in 2011 America.

Perhaps because we often understand grand strategy through case studies of large authoritarian systems, the kind of mass industrial planning and identity-building that commentators are really talking about with the political slogan of “nation-building at home” amounts to a kind of American Great Leap Forward or Five-Year Plan. The dubious record of central planning in socialist states speaks for itself, and in America you can’t simply exile the Kulaks to Siberia for forced labor and the writing of tedious modernist literary fiction when they don’t cooperate.

These are not problems that have a transparently “right” answer that could be divined by the technocratic fantasy of getting enough smart people together in a room and refusing to let them come out until they create a solution. To go back to my discussion of business and planning theory, the idea of the enlightened cabal of planners died a rather quick death in corporate circles. Why should we assume that it would work any better in an environment infinitely more complicated than a Fortune 500 boardroom?

Dan Trombly puts them on blast:

[T]he growing drumbeat for programs of internal renewal, to be led by major, national efforts, recall some of the most spectacularly failed elements of modern foreign policy. When people utter noxious phrases such as “nation building here at home,” they commit a double error. First, they confuse nation building for capacity building. Nation building is not just about investing in education or social spending, but using it to forge a coherent national identity. It is also about the use of violence and force.

We’ve already seen, rather painfully, that we lack the capacity to fundamentally re-order foreign societies, although our use of force has achieved narrower political objectives. Drones, tanks, and CERP money can’t make the local bigman less corrupt nor make warlords think in terms of nation rather than self. So why try it at home, with the militarily coercive elements replaced by finger-waving pundits who exhort people to cooperate in the name of the national interest?

Grand strategy has to be built on a realistic estimation of how it can be sustained in a time when the most basic political functions–how to distribute resources-are in a state of paralysis. Everyone is familiar with Clausewitz’s idea of war as an expression of political intercourse (not just rational policy), but it is important to note that Clausewitz was descriptive rather than normative.

If the fights over resource-distribution are so intractable that “whole of government” cannot be achieved domestically, how it can it be projected abroad? If differing visions of grand strategy are just another attempt to advance local political agendas (such as the idea about, say, the national security implications of school cafeteria lunches), how can anything substantial be built?

I agree with Dan that a grand vision should be broad enough to be politically sustainable, but I’d go even farther than that. It has to be realistic enough and not assume a domestic political climate that simply doesn’t exist.


3 thoughts on “One Ring to Rule Them All

  1. Bravo. This is a large part of a book I’m writing due out next year. An early version of my thoughts was published in Survival earlier this year: “The Socio-Economic Roots of Geopolitical Change.” (Their title choice, not mine). If you have access to JSTOR or something like that, it is easy to get. If not, let me know and I can email you a copy. We have to understand that state power, the part of all our economic might, etc, that we can actually mobilize, is low right now. Until we understand our own limitations, we are going to “disinvest” ourselves of our power as Keohane said, instead of recreating the conditions for hegemony as he suggested.

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