March 25, 2008 — America has been adrift for too long. The attacks of September 11th did not “change everything,” but exacerbated the difficulty of articulating a purpose for American power since the Berlin Wall fell nearly two decades ago. America has suffered from strategic whiplash: the nebulousness of the post-Cold War era was rapidly replaced by a post-9/11 myopia on Islamist extremism and the so-called “war on terrorism.” This myopia lay at the root of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and it remains the chief obstacle preventing the emergence of a reasoned and pragmatic debate over the purpose of American power in the 21st century. The absence of a true grand strategy imperils America.
The Bush administration has pursued a foreign policy that is narrow in its view, negative in its purpose, and has produced negligible results. Americans deserve a grand strategy that is panoramic in view, positive in its purpose, and persuasive as a basis for the continued exercise of American power.
The purpose of American grand strategy in the early 21st century should be to maintain our position of leadership in the world by rebuilding our legitimacy, renewing our key alliances, and ensuring our access to the global commons, in order to help sustain an international order based on a vibrant world economy. In the near-term, a key feature of a sustainment strategy will be to renew those aspects of our position that have eroded in recent years. Only a grand strategy based on sustaining America’s position as a respected world leader is commensurate with our interests, our history, and equal to the challenges and opportunities we face today.
Early in its term, the Bush administration attempted to make a virtue out of the abdication of global leadership – preferring power over persuasion, isolation rather than inclusion, hubris rather than humility, and change rather than continuity. Such positions have clearly been detrimental if not disastrous to American interests around the world, and in recent years the administration has been forced to return to the kinds of international diplomacy it previously rejected as unworthy distractions. The Bush administration realized far too late that America cannot a loner, it must be a leader.
America remains the most powerful country on earth and therefore - at least the first-half of this century - will remain an indispensable nation and thus destined to lead. The positive use of American power over the last century has been central to the emergence of a modern global economy that cannot be sustained without deep American participation and leadership in the very international institutions it helped created after the last World War.
Beyond the defense of the homeland, a grand strategy of sustainment would commit the United States to the pursuit of three vital global interests: stable balances of power in key regions, an open international economy, and continued access to the global commons. Such things are international public goods, and are thus shared goals that are can constitute a foundation of an efficacious approach to a stable world order.
First, America has not made good use of its unipolar moment, and much of the remaining time should be spent helping to create and maintain stable balances of power in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. The United States must focus anew on sustaining the viability of its key alliances. NATO must not be allowed to whither, and America’s alliances in East Asia need renewing. Rising powers such as India and China should be engaged on every dimension. Arrogant talk of helping rising powers become “responsible stakeholders” should be replaced with words of respect derived in part from America’s enduring position of strength. There is no obvious reason why China should be considered a strategic competitor rather than partner, and talk of inevitable conflict is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Second, America has extremely powerful incentives to help sustain an international order based on the continued functioning of a globalized economy. America accrues power and influence as global interdependence deepens and as economic interests tend to generate openness, progress, and peace. Rising powers such as India and China can and will challenge American economic dominance in specific areas, but will not overtake the United States for the foreseeable future. Open global markets are required to redress the grievances of developing nations and to help expand the benefits of economic interdependence. Globalization cannot be stopped, but can be positively or negatively skewed – it is in America’s interest to pursue the former course, rather than abdicate its leadership and risk the latter.
Third, the United States must ensure access to the global commons – air, sea, space, and cyberspace. America has the benefit of friendly neighbors and favorable geography, but remains reliant on access to maintain robust connectivity to the global economy and to key security interests. A stable international system also requires that other powers can safely traverse and utilize the global commons. For decades American power has helped sustain the global commons, and this role needs to continue. The process of globalization shrinks the tyranny of time and space – the instant information and currency flows constitute a global grid that can be used for good, but also for ill. A strategy of sustainment would recognize the centrality of cyberspace to a 21st century international system.
A grand strategy of sustainment would be more selective in the use of American force. Sustaining a global system will at times require the use of military power, but would shun the preventive use of force. As a global leader, the United States should invest sufficient resources to ensure it continues to field the world’s most dominant military. When force must be used, a strategy of sustainment would accept some risk to ensure the participation of allies. Working by, with, and through security alliances helps sustain American legitimacy and moral authority and are not deleterious to success, especially when ideational dimensions are central to modern conflict.
Finally, America must respect the rule of law and civil liberties at home in order to renew and sustain its role as an example of how a modern liberal democracy can function. The best way for America to promote the growth of democracy abroad is to refine and highlight its practice at home.
America must help shape a future worth creating, and thus cannot operate from without, but must lead from within. A grand strategy of sustainment is predicated on the recognition of America’s proud and enduring role as a world leader, and recognizes that America is more safe and secure when it exercises its power and influence to promote shared global goods.
Americans have not been well served by a narrow debate over tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader threat of terrorism. Such a debate, important though it is, remains well below the dimension of grand strategy, and can no longer obviate the need for a larger, grander American purpose.
Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and almost seven years after 9/11, our country needs a grand strategy that is strong, pragmatic, and principled. A grand strategy aimed at sustaining American leadership and renewing its moral authority as a champion of peace and an exemplar of liberty is ambitious, worthy of the costs required, and long overdue.
Shawn Brimley is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.