Over the past week, in between absorbing massive amounts of military history and trying to set a record for amount of caffeine consumed in one day, I have been reading Thomas P.M. Barnett’s 2004 book, The Pentagon’s New Map. Barnett’s background is rooted in international security studies, think tank work, and government service. After 9/11, Barnett played a fundamental role in forming the Untied States’ new grand strategy. In his book, he writes that after the Cold War ended, the U.S. “grand strategy… was to avoid grand strategy.” Rather than approach international politics with a clear vision of America’s future role in the world, we addressed problems as they arose. This approach to foreign policy is a slippery slope: without an overarching strategy guiding what the state’s interests are and what could potentially threaten such interests, it is difficult to avoid haphazardly addressing issues indiscriminately.
As the seemingly unavoidable strike on Syria continues to dominate the news and blow up my twitter feed, I must ask: has the United States broken away from this passive “grand strategy” or are we still addressing issues without considering the future we envision for our country?
“A grand strategy is a political-military, means-ends chain, a state’s theory about how it can best cause security for itself.” Barry Posen, Sources of Military Doctrine
The 2010 National Security Strategy indicates that the administration sees a future in which “America is stronger, more secure, and is able to overcome challenges while appealing to the aspirations of people around the world.” In response to this I bluntly ask- what does this mean? This tells me that U.S. goals include a) maintenance or increase in relative power, b) the maintenance of security, and c) international acceptance and support of U.S. actions. All in all, that doesn’t sound too bad (Okay- aside from this “appealing to the aspirations of the world” bit- but that is another story).
However, does this tell us anything about what is necessary to achieve these goals? We want power: okay- are we going to strengthen coalitions for increased aggregate power or shall we eschew multilateralism and focus instead on a zero-sum conceptualization of power? Security: is this achieved through the accumulation of power or is it gained through arms control and increased defense? Answering these questions at the grand strategy level is important because it indicates how the administration views the world and illuminates what might put our interests at risk. If we, as a country, are unable to decide what counts as a true threat to our interests, our role in international politics will continue to be disconnected and sporadic.
Syria is an exceptional illustration of this. For the longest time, the debates I had with professors, peers, and random people at the grocery store focused on the stakes. Why should America care about Syria? What national interest does instability in Syria really threaten? I could only imagine peripheral effects, thus justifying, in my own mind, the case against intervention. However, the U.S. threw down a red line- “no chemical weapons, Assad, or we’ll really let you have it!” Then, surprise, surprise: chemical weapons are used—BAM—America’s credibility has been threatened. Since we all know that the world will spiral into disarray without the strength and stability of the United States to guide it, then clearly we must act. But wait, how does Assad’s use of chemical weapons really affect the United States’ power, security, or (ahem) “international acceptance” of action? The argument against credibility through upholding commitments notwithstanding, if Washington had a more concise understanding about what truly matters to the United States, perhaps a red line would never have been drawn, helping us to avoid a conflict that could most certainly do more to damage our interests—whatever they may be—than we realize.
Originally written in August 2013