U.S. grand strategy is in a period of flux. From the early days of the Cold War to the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States’ grand strategy – its main, overarching strategic goal which molded the total of its policies and resources – could be summarized in a single word: containment. Preventing the spread of communism and maintaining the balance of power with the USSR were the goals that dictated U.S. policy for almost half a century. Yet, after the fall of the Soviet empire, containment became obsolete. Without a formidable superpower adversary on which to focus our attention, we were left in an uncertain, unipolar world without a plan.
Since that time, the United States has embraced its role as a global hegemon, operating under the premise that the world is best led by us, the benevolent superpower. While different Presidents have taken different approaches – the military primacy of the Bush Doctrine, in particular, clashes considerably with the soft democratic enlargement principles of Clinton and Obama – the overarching U.S. strategic objectives have remained constant: spread democracy and stay on top.
Now, however, there are rumblings in the top levels of our government that may lead our nation on a different course. Earlier this month, Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars published a document titled “A National Strategic Narrative” which lays out an alternative grand strategy of sorts – a narrative that sets forth the following proposition: “we want to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.” In a signal of its ambitious nature, the paper is signed “Mr. Y,” a play on the “Mr. X” pseudonym that George Kennan, the father of containment, adopted in the Long Telegram, the document which first described U.S. containment policy.
The article begins with a preface by our most recent State Department Director of Policy Planning, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who neatly sums up its major themes. Our national security narrative, it explains, should imply that we drop the assumption that we are the leader of the international system and most powerful nation on Earth. In her preface, Dr. Slaughter asks us to “consider the description of the U.S. president as the ‘leader of the free world,’” and highlights its shortcomings: “anyone under thirty today, a majority of the world’s population, likely has no idea what it means.”
The rhetoric of Mr. Y (revealed as two top-ranking members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Cpt. Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby) is striking. The United States has, over the past two decades, relied too heavily on military-based hard power and overreacted to Islamic extremism. We have focused too much on identifying outside threats while ignoring the importance (and atrophy) of our domestic sources of influence. We must embrace a new role in an even-changing world, where other nations will challenge our dominant role in the world, and where the diffusion of power to nonstate actors will necessitate a change in our thought process. We must, therefore, “move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement.”
At its core Mr. Y suggests that we must invest more in our sources of strength – our economy, our infrastructure, and our youth – and constantly emphasize the American values that have made our nation great. Our defense budget, accordingly, will shrink to reflect our changing national priorities. Y would have us invest more in our domestic priorities so we can attract other nations to us through soft power than ensure our continued military dominance.
All of this is surprising, considering it was almost certainly sanctioned by Robert Gates himself. The article certainly has whiffs of Obama’s foreign policy, but takes a far humbler approach – it at its core is reminiscent of the logic of John Mearsheimer, Fareed Zakaria, and Joseph Nye. Although it does not outright predict a downfall for the United States, it certainly seems to imply one without a significant change in strategy. And Mr. Y undoubtedly wants our nation to embrace soft power on a larger scale for the foreseeable future.
With that said, is Mr. Y naïve? While United States hegemony has certainly created a myriad of problems for us and been difficult to manage, can we not continue our belief in American exceptionalism, and keep ourselves at the top of the international order for years to come? Is it wise for us to step down from a role of global leadership and accept a more timid role, even if we strive to be the “strongest competitor and most influential player?” And even if it is, can we handle the enormous scale of the organizational restructuring that will certainly be required, especially considering our complex bureaucracies and gridlocked political process? True strategic reform will require not just a concentrated effort from the top levels of government but also the will of the American people. Without it, Congress will undoubtedly maintain the status quo, for better or for worse.
Ultimately, “A National Strategic Narrative” is nearly a must-read for anyone who is concerned about the future of our nation and ponders the future directions in which our country is headed. Whether you agree or disagree with its conclusions, its arguments merit serious consideration. Indeed, it is critical that we continue to contemplate our place in the world, lest we become complacent and watch as the United States atrophies like the great powers of the past.
- “The Y Article” – Foreign Policy Magazine
- “What in the world? The military’s secret plan… to shrink” – Global Public Square Blog, CNN
- John Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design” – The National Interest
- Fareed Zakaria – “The Post-American World“
Photo credit: zenpundit.com