The Art and Craft of Strategy

Posted in Other | 10-Sep-03 | Author: Robert Hunter

Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations
Volume 1, Number 1
Summer/Fall 2000

A new journal of international affairs for a new century. This is timely, useful, and appropriate. It comes a decade after the end of the Cold War, which witnessed, for much of the world, the collapse of the global system that had, for two generations, governed a large part of relations among the world's major countries. To be sure, the Cold War that embraced so much of the world was an aberration -- nothing like it has ever before been seen; but by its end it had sunk deeply into the consciousness of political leaders, analysts, and other commentators, so much so that few if any of these public people predicted its end, even though, in retrospect, that end has taken on the color of inevitability.

The years from the late 1940s onward provided a high degree of certainty in global politics. The classic fluidity of relations among states gave way to a rigidity, at least in the basic outlines of the international political and economic system; and this lasted until 1989-91, when European communism, the Soviet empire, and the sense of global structure all collapsed -- "not with a bang but a whimper," in the most massive strategic retreat by any empire in all of peacetime history. The period in between, known as the Cold War, was not without open conflict; nor was everything that happened in international politics subsumed within the overall framework; nor did the central competition between East and West extend everywhere: but the Cold War framework did take precedence over every competitor as organizing principle.

The Cold War Framework

As we Americans viewed the Cold war, it seemed at the time to be highly complex. But in retrospect it was relatively simple. With all necessary qualifications about parts of foreign policy that did not fit the whole, in fact U.S. actions in the outside world were essentially governed by only three basic goals, together forming a controlling paradigm: to contain the power of the Soviet Union and that of its allies, associates, and acolytes; to counter the scope and appeal of communism; and to lead a growing global economy. All else was to be measured against the requirements imposed by these three goals; and if they were found to apply -- though in many places and cases they did not -- then alternative principles, policies, and values had to be shunted aside or at least relegated to an inferior place.

The Cold War also represented the most sustained period of America's engagement abroad in its history. Of course, the United States has had a "foreign policy" from the beginning of the Republic; and it has been more-or-less constantly involved abroad since the turn of the 19th-20th century. Even in the years between the two world wars, the United States was not in fact "isolated" from all events and engagements abroad. But except for Woodrow Wilson's abortive attempt to devise lasting purposes both for the U.S. and for the European world at the end of the First World War, it was only from the time of the Second World War that the United States began, consciously, to develop a grand strategy of involvement abroad and, in the process, a craft of thinking systematically about its role that was more than a short-term response to circumstances that were largely determined abroad. Even then, beyond the decisions required to conduct World War II -- beginning with the "Europe first" commitment in the national battle plan -- the United States still had only a fledging sense of longer-range purpose. That only began to develop with plans to create a United Nations, along with the Havana and Bretton Woods agreements to establish new institutions for organizing economic relations among states.

The big impetus for U.S. strategy-making, providing a more lasting sense of purpose than the finite goal of defeating the Axis Powers, came from growing recognition of twin challenge posed by the extension of Soviet power into Central Europe, coupled with the spread of communism, including its appeal in some West European states. Winston Churchill called the Marshall Plan of 1947 the "most unsordid act in history;" but it was also a strategic response to the vulnerability of European democracies to a rising, alien philosophy, backed by a major power that made no secret of its proselytizing intent. Through the North Atlantic Treaty, the European Recovery Program was soon buttressed by the formal engagement of U.S. strategic commitment, in response to a pervading sense that "recovery," both political and economic, might not succeed unless the peoples of Western Europe gained confidence that they could sustain their independence and freedoms in face of the looming presence of the Soviet Union. And with the onset of the Korean War, which seemed to prove that the Soviet Union would use military power to achieve its goals, the Western alliance put the "O" in NATO, the Soviet Union imposed a web of alliances in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Cold War became militarized. Further evidence of the overarching nature of the East-West struggle came in the form of communism's triumph in China. And so the global political structure, at least as it engaged the great powers, became frozen.

All these events led the United States to assume new responsibilities and leadership -- though few people at the time understood how "permanent" these were to become -- including the need for a coherent strategy of engagement in the outside world. For the first time in its history, the United States had no choice but to create, articulate, embrace, gain foreign converts to, and build political support for a true grand strategy. This challenge was made even more insistent by the development of history's most awesome military weapons, the atomic and then hydrogen bombs. Once the Soviet Union also began to acquire these weapons, the United States found itself directly and permanently vulnerable to foreign attack, to a degree it had never before faced. Nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union also ushered in an era without peer in human experience, in which all-out war could even lead to the destruction of life on the planet. Never before had the stakes in war been more consequential or the need to prevent such a war from ever starting so critical.

Springtime for Strategic Thought

It is not surprising, therefore, that there was a great flowering of American strategic thought from the late 1940s onward. This began with seat-of-the-pants judgments made by talented and insightful "amateurs" who, in the 1940s, created the great post-War international institutions. The work of devising strategy for the nuclear age was taken up in the 1950s by gifted individuals from the disciplines of economics, mathematics, and the natural sciences; and they were succeeded in the 1960s and later by a community of American experts who had been trained in strategy as a discipline in itself. Indeed, a whole generation of strategic analysts, both in the United States and elsewhere in the West, emerged to meet the demands imposed by the Cold War -- with its awful, unprecedented dangers.

At the same time, new institutions were created across America to conduct research into the implications of the new world brought into being by the Cold War and to devise responses to new challenges. Some of these institutions were seated in corporations, some within universities, and some as stand-alone bodies that came to be known, generically, as "think tanks." This new strategic community of experts and institutions developed links across the United States and into allied and other states abroad; and even -- especially with key nuclear questions that demanded answers to prevent humankind's final war -- into countries like the Soviet Union that were officially "enemies." A minor doctrine from the classic management of military power -- deterrence of another state's actions -- became vitally important, indeed the cornerstone of strategic thought and action on the part of both nuclear superpowers, so much so that they both worked to ensure that each understood the implications of this deterrent doctrine, in its many ways and byways. And elaboration of the doctrine of deterrence, in both thought and weapons, went so far that each superpower embraced one aspect of the broader doctrine (dubbed Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD) that had as its key component the acceptance by each side that its entire society should be kept utterly vulnerable to destruction by the other's nuclear forces.

Of course, nuclear strategy, along with its essential and necessary twin, arms control, did not develop by itself, as an exercise in pure, abstract reasoning, practical application, and creation of instruments to apply its tenets. Intense interest also arose about other applications of military power (especially regarding risks of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons), as well as about many of the world's regions, embracing a wide range of disciplines. In parallel, deeper inquiry was made into the workings of the global economic system, both for its own sake and as an essential element of providing, for the West, the sinews of defense.

In general, the United States became profoundly engaged intellectually in the outside world, as a function both of far-reaching inquiry, provoked at first by Cold War threat and challenge, and of the exponential growth of direct experience. Communications and media led to an explosion in available information; travel abroad became accessible to a wide variety of Americans -- and others to visit America; and a host of new journals -- weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies -- was launched to provide outlets for analysis, in addition to more popular media with their developing global reach.

It was no wonder, then, that systematic and informed study and instruction in international politics and economics blossomed in America, as did interaction with different cultures and values. And much of this fed into the continued development and refinement of the basic U.S. grand strategy and U.S. engagement abroad. This was, of course, uneven as regards different parts of the world. Genuine strategic analysis -- as opposed to other disciplines like area studies and its offshoots -- tended to focus on regions and problems where prevailing elites most judged U.S. interests to be involved. Thus most prominence in strategic thought was given to the Soviet Union, Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, plus, from time-to-time, specialty areas like Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. And while many Americans became interested in other regions that were not focal points of the Cold War -- like the Indian Subcontinent, much of Africa, and virtually all of Latin America -- disciplines of study about these regions rarely produced strategists, nor did the literature on them abound with strategic analysis. Thus in 1984, this author was tasked by the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Central America to provide strategic analysis for that region -- yet was hard-pressed to find a single American analyst who brought that particular perspective to bear, as opposed to other disciplines, each more-or-less developing on its own, like history, economics, sociology, politics, religion, and culture.

One effect of different approaches to different regions of the world -- with strategic analysis reserved largely for those areas judged to be most important in East-West competition -- was that the growth of U.S. understanding about the outside world rarely led to efforts to compare and contrast what was important about one region as opposed to another; and in particular to relate policy toward one region to that of another, except to the extent that such a relationship would impact upon the conduct of the Cold War. Strategy, as a discipline, tended to be "top down" -- that is, deriving from the apparent demands of responding to Cold War challenge -- rather than "bottom up," an accretion of knowledge and setting of choices that derived from individual events and regions and was then developed, to the extent possible, into some systematic, conceptual whole. Regional studies had some currency; but there was little conversation among scholars, experts, and analysts from different regions or functional specialties -- economists and military experts, social scientists and humanists; and even less of what might be called global studies and strategic analysis.

The failure of virtually all the experts to predict the end of the Cold War thus came not just from the fact that its structure had become so compelling that thinking beyond the existing paradigm had become difficult if not almost impossible, but also from the relative lack of systematic communication among different perspectives -- whether regions, functional relationships (like economics), or disciplines. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the Soviet Union and its empire had long since passed the point when internal hollowing out, produced by social, economic, cultural, and political developments -- most notably the impact of the opening up of communications and freer enquiry, Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost -- had passed the point of no return. But knowledge about what was to happen within the Soviet Union, which in retrospect was clearly there to be gleaned, was not properly organized and understood. In essence, there had been a general lack of the most basic aspects of a true grand strategy, the systematic and comprehensive integration of knowledge from multiple sources.

Beyond the Cold War

The years since the end of the Cold War -- whose final demise can perhaps be dated from the formal collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 -- have left the United States facing a very different world. Not all is unique: the return to a more fluid state of international politics reflects less of novelty than a return, at least in major degree, to a "normal" global politics. But some is certainly without precedent in U.S. if not also in modern world history. Most important, the United States has found itself disposing of more power -- latent, incipient, if not always actualized -- that covers more areas of human activity -- political, economic, military, and even cultural -- than has been true of any other nation or empire for centuries: some observers argue since the end of the Roman Empire. Of course, the qualifiers "latent, incipient, if not always actualized" are important, since the United States has clearly not followed up its success in the Cold War -- both geopolitical and ideological -- with an effort to seize territory abroad, occupy other states, demand tribute, employ military force willy-nilly (indeed, quite the reverse), and develop the structures, practices, and attitudes of classic empires. But the very facts of the power that it inherently possesses, along with influence that that circumstance inherently confers, puts the United States in a position unrivaled by any other country, now and for at least many years to come.

At the same time, in part because of its immense power, both absolute and relative to others, the U.S. finds itself facing less direct military threat to the homeland than before Pearl Harbor. Even what seemed to be the permanent threat of nuclear annihilation, the "nuclear balance of terror" with the Soviet Union, has largely dissipated -- not because the weapons have disappeared, but rather because the political context of conflict with the (former) Soviet Union that was a critical ingredient in the sense of threat has disappeared. And while other countries besides Russia also have nuclear weapons, political relations between the United States and none of these countries have deteriorated -- at least not yet -- into circumstances where it can fairly be said that the U.S. faces a nuclear threat. (That may be coming, however, and this question is the centerpiece of much contemporary analysis about weapons of mass destruction and even the possibility of nuclear terrorism at some point in the future.)

At first blush, this seemingly halcyon condition -- great power and diminished imminent, direct threat -- argues against the need for the craft of strategy. That craft, after all, is essentially about choice at the end of analysis: a method of deciding (choosing) what to do when all cannot be done; when resources are scare; when challenges (or opportunities) are significant; and when dangers are real. But for one to assume that the situation in which the United States finds itself is just a time of plenty, in the sense of its position in the outside world, would be to beg many questions. Most basic is the question how to preserve and extend the current situation of power and position -- factors that are, in some measure, inextricably linked; and that question is not just a matter of what the United States does on its own, in terms of military forces, economic strength, effective democratic institutions, and a relatively cohesive society. It is also a matter of what the United States does with other nations and entities, both to turn its power into influence, and either to sustain or to create relationships with other centers of power, current or potential, that will enable the United States to remain relatively free of threats from abroad -- whatever form they may take. Nor is this just a matter of trying to project just how long America's current situation of pre-eminence will last -- the proverbial long-view, comparing its conditions, say, to that of the Roman or British Empires -- but also a matter of doing those things today that will help to ensure that the global environment within which the U.S. operates will be relatively salubrious, both for the immediate future and for that time, however far off, when U.S. pre-eminence fades, at least in relative terms.

Responsibility and Opportunity

Part and parcel with this perspective, with its hint of historic pessimism, are the issues of responsibility and opportunity. Power, it is often argued, confers responsibility; this is another way of arguing that the age of American isolationism is certainly past. The growth of American power and the reduction of global rivals has not just occurred in a vacuum. Concomitantly, the U.S. has become more deeply engaged in the outside world in a host of ways -- political, economic, cultural, and in terms of all the various types of communications, both real (e.g., travel) and virtual (e.g., electronic) -- such that retreat from the world has become inconceivable. Just as surely, the impact of the United States on the outside world will be considerable, whether or not as an act of policy: "America" as a pluralistic entity plays a multiplicity of roles and ineluctably helps to shape, in greater or lesser degree, the circumstances, perspectives, and behavior of others. Thus, like every great power in history, the United States cannot escape the political and moral responsibilities conferred by the facts of power and presence themselves, even before issues of will and intention are considered.

At the same time, many other states and international institutions -- especially in, but not limited to, the West -- have long-since come to depend upon both an active, essentially benign, American engagement in the outside world and the willingness of the U.S. to lead. Nor did this expectation come to an end with the Cold War. This has been a striking phenomenon, given what had been believed to be the compelling quality of the Cold War as organizing principle and the widespread assumption that, in its absence, the United States could devolve much of its leadership role to others, particular other Western countries. This pre-eminence in leadership is sometimes seen by Americans as a curse, as a well as a blessing in terms of the influence it confers, but at the moment it is certainly a fact of life; and in many cases there is as yet no alternative, a reality even further underscored by the degree of difference between the power of the United States and that of others. Even where, among a collection of other states interested in preserving relative freedom from threat and conflict, the United States might prefer that some other nation take the lead -- and American commentators are by no means at one on this point -- this has so far proved to be possible almost nowhere. Thus within the Western Alliance -- whether across the Atlantic (e.g., with the NATO allies) or across the Pacific (prominently with Japan) -- or also globally (e.g. within most of the key international institutions), either the United States exercises leadership -- by definition, in the expectations of others, "responsible" leadership -- or it will not be done.

But the United States' role in the world should not be seen just as conservative -- how to preserve its current favorable circumstances, if not also its current favorable position of power and influence in relationship to both rivals and friends. Nor should this role be seen only as existential: that is, entailing responsibilities imposed and to be discharged, well or badly, by the facts of power and position. This role should also be seen as an opportunity to try shaping critical aspects of relations among states and within institutions, such that both the United States and others who fall within this compass can have reasonable expectations that the future will provide more benefits than liabilities in international life. In some limited areas, in recent years the United States has already attempted to do this: in the modernization of NATO, in efforts (with others) to develop an expansionist and more open global trading regime, and in continued peacemaking, including in places where there is no longer a Cold War motive (e.g., the Middle East) or where U.S. impulses derive more from moral concerns than from requirements of power (e.g., Northern Ireland).

For the long term, probably most important is what the United States and other countries can and will do to create or modernize international institutions that can provide widespread benefits for their members. This has a dual value. It both helps to foster developments in international relations where institutional structure and practice can help to channel, reinforce, and perpetuate ambitions for pursing common interests; and it helps to create an international environment that can bring lasting benefits to the United States, even if its present pre-eminence were to be diminished significantly, well before anyone now foresees. Creating structures, institutions, practices, processes, and attitudes has already proved its worth in some parts of the modern world -- NATO and the European Union are the best and most hopeful regional examples -- and this is a good pattern for the United States, with its unique capacities at this moment in history, to pursue elsewhere, both in its own interests and in that of a broad range of other societies. Indeed, this is a requirement, if the U.S. is to succeed in the future as well as in the present.

Lessons for Strategy

For the United States, therefore, the craft of strategy -- the creation of a basic framework for making informed choices about different courses of action in the world -- is just as important in the post-Cold War world as it was before. In some ways, it is actually more important. This does not relate to the narrow -- though vital -- dimension of nuclear strategy that dominated thinking and action during the time of U.S.-Soviet confrontation; but given that that factor is now absent, other areas of strategy take on their own importance. And it is in these areas -- beyond the nuclear domain -- that the requirements of strategic thought will be most important, in enabling the United States to deal successfully with situations of complexity that were not as important at the time of Cold War and its central, controlling paradigm.

The challenge for the United States in developing a set of policies and practices for the 21st century is no less than to discover -- or to rediscover -- the basic arts of thinking strategically about the outside world and to relate both its many component parts and different disciplines to one another, thus creating a better capacity to make choices among contending interests and possibilities. What follows is not an attempt to prescribe a policy focus for the United States in the years ahead, or even the precise dimensions for a grand strategy. It is rather to make some suggestions for thinking about America's role abroad and the way of approaching it.

First, it is important at the outset to understand that, unlike the Cold War period, there will be no small group of overarching goals, a single paradigm, to provide direction for large elements of America's engagement abroad, or at least to set standards against which all policy must first be measured to determine whether it is consistent with some preeminent demands. Nor is any central theme in the offing, other than one part of the old Cold War central paradigm: that the U.S. retains an interest in leading a growing, global economy. There is, in fact, a "paradigm gap," an absence of unifying themes and perspectives that can link disparate regions together as well as different disciplines. This will continue to be so, unless there emerges a new and globally-oriented geopolitical competitor or a new philosophy to challenge that of liberal democracy. None appears in the offing: Russia would be years if not decades away from reassuming such a role, assuming that that would be its bent. Even if China becomes an assertive power, it is most unlikely to have the global ambition and reach of the former Soviet Union. And, while it cannot safely be argued that the age of contending ideologies, such as marked most of the 20th century, is firmly past, none seems likely to appear, in large part because great social and economic challenges, such as those posed by the need of societies in most of the world to adapt to the Industrial Revolution, also do not appear in the offing. "Globalization" may prove disruptive in many countries and even across regions, but it so far does not seem to have the potential for spawning great contenders for power or organization of societies like communism and fascism.

Instead of being subject to judgment in terms of a few key goals or a central paradigm, therefore, choices for U.S. policy toward the outside world will be far more complex than they were during the Cold War; and choices about different regions will to a significant degree have to be made in terms of the particular conditions of those regions, without basic connections to events elsewhere that are imposed by some overarching global framework. The geopolitical world is, and will largely remain, fragmented -- though this does not also mean that the parts will be isolated from one another.

Second, this insight about the systemic lack of a unifying paradigm does not relieve the United States of the burdens of making choices and tradeoffs, of deciding where to be involved and where to abstain, what resources to commit, the worth of running risks to blood or treasure, or the particular instruments to be employed in advancing national interests. Indeed, if anything there is a greater need for systematic thought than there was during the Cold War, not because of the absolute level of challenge to U.S. security, prosperity, and position (nothing is likely to rival the intensity of threat posed by nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union), but because the lack of a basic paradigm requires greater craft in analysis, in more dimensions, than before. With complexity comes a heightened need for understanding to make sense both of the parts and of the whole of policy toward the outside world.

Obviously, as well, there is a host of developments in the outside world which will increasingly affect the future of the United States and its role abroad. Several stand out, including the future of Russia -- whether or not it again becomes a great power during the next few decades, and, if so, what its behavior will be both in Europe and in Asia; the direction and scope of China's internal change, especially in politics and society, and the manner in which it engages abroad, as major Asian power or aspirant for hegemony; fundamental stresses within and between societies that have emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, including, most immediately, both the North and South Caucasus; the spread of military technologies, including in the areas of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and the complex of policies -- political, economic, and military -- needed to meet these developments, especially in countries actively or potentially hostile to others, including the West; relations among the principal states of the Indian subcontinent, where two rival and sometimes hostile countries, India and Pakistan, now have nuclear weapons; continued challenge within the Middle East and environs, ranging from the Balkans and Greece-Turkey-Cyprus through the zone of Arab-Israeli conflict to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan; and, in general, new strategic equations found throughout the regions listed above. Clearly, strategic analysis will be at a premium.

Third, while each region will need to be understood in its own terms, it remains true that each cannot be isolated from others. In some aspects of engagement, especially in economic and financial involvement, there are many interconnections mandated by the growth of a global marketplace, the speed with which financial resources can be shifted, and the increased interdependence that technology has permitted for global commerce, in both tangible and intangible goods and services, capital, and even -- with limitations -- labor. And even where regional developments in terms of issues like politics and security must be dealt with in their own terms, when it comes to making choices -- and especially in regard to devoting time, attention, leadership and resources -- the United States must have some means for relating one region to another. This is true even beyond the natural interconnections and intercourse between contiguous regions and the new demands placed on analysis of, say, the emergence of a Eurasian strategic context that did not exist in full measure during the Cold War. Interconnections can be more subtle, including the political impact of events in one place with those elsewhere, to say nothing of the impact on international institutions which have a mandate and ambition that go beyond individual regions.

Fourth, this implies that there is an increased burden on American analysis and development of strategic perspectives within regions, but also across regions. This has often proved to be a limitation in American pedagogy -- where area studies can go to great depth, but often do not apply systematic tools of strategic thinking or fully comprehend the burdens of making choices within a broader compass. While looking for a unifying paradigm is an illusion at one extreme, thinking of the world as largely atomized is an illusion at the other.

Fifth, by the same token -- and with even more reason -- the United States now faces a greater need to relate different instruments of foreign policy to one another than during the Cold War. This is especially so since the United States is not prepared simply to exploit its potential power to impose its will through the significant use of economic resources or by running substantial risks in the use of military force. To a significant degree, the reverse has been true: the concept of "peace dividend," which is about psychology and politics more than about economics.