Wanted: Grand Strategy for the New World Disorder

Roland Paris seeks new analysis of the factors changing - and disordering - global affairs.
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September 9, 2011

One of the most interesting commentaries to have appeared in the lead-up to the 9/11 anniversary is an article in the Boston Globe by Thanassis Cambanis, in which he laments an apparent dearth of creative foreign policy thinking in the US:

Instead of a flurry of new thinking at the highest echelons of the foreign policy establishment, the major decisions of the past two administrations have been generated from the same tool kit of foreign policy ideas that have dominated the world for decades. Washington’s strategic debates - between neoconservatives and liberals, between interventionists and realists - are essentially struggles among ideas and strategies held over from the era when nation-states were the only significant actors on the world stage. As ideas, none of them were designed to deal effectively with a world in which states are grappling with powerful entities that operate beyond their control…

Although establishment thinkers and government decision-makers have been slow to catch up to the more complicated new mechanics of the world, some thinkers already have begun to grapple with its implications. Even as America’s top-level strategy was driven by more traditionally derived notions such as the “global war on terror” and a “freedom agenda,” quieter corners of the Defense Department and then the newly formed Department of Homeland Security started investing research dollars in the academic study of fuzzier problems like failed states and transnational networks. Much of that grant money has only begun to bear fruit in the last few years, with a handful of thinkers emerging to lay the groundwork for a newer kind of strategy.

Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations and has advised Secretary of State Clinton, was one of the pioneers. In the 1990s, he coined the term “soft power,” arguing that sometimes the most effective way for America to promote its interests would be through influencing global health and the environment, or culture and education. His latest book, “The Future of Power,” counsels that America can preserve its influence if it reconceives its institutions and priorities to deal with a world where the energy is shifting from the West to the East, as well as from states to non-state actors. Michael Doyle at Columbia University, a seminal theorist whose idea of a “democratic peace” in the 1990s crucially inflected policy with the belief that democracies don’t fight each other, now talks about the notion of an age of the “empowered individual,” where lone actors can alter the trajectory of states and of history as never before. Stephen Walt, also at Harvard, argues that in the new era America simply needs to start by acknowledging its limits: that with less muscle and less extra money, the first step will be to streamline its goals in a way that so far politicians have been loath to do.

Cambanis is right: We’ve seen nothing like George Kennan’s Foreign Affairsarticle of 1947, which set forth a vision of Soviet intentions and helped crystallize a consensus on US “containment” policy. Cambanis is also correct to note that the official US foreign policy discourse has been largely stuck for the last decade, not least because of the Bush Administration’s extreme reaction to 9/11, which led to a polarized, all-consuming debate between supporters and critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Now, with the American involvement in these wars winding down, there is a growing interest in other issues and other parts of the world, including the still-reverberating effects of the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and the growing strength of China. So, yes: I agree with Cambanis’ call for more (and more creative) thinking about the ingredients of a forward-looking foreign policy.

But that said, I also have two reservations.

First, given the complexity of the international environment, it is not at all clear that the United States or any other major country would be well-served by a singular grand strategy.  I don’t want to take this argument too far, because I believe there are important benefits to defining broad foreign policy objectives. But Cambanis’ apparent longing for such a clarifying doctrine may be nostalgic and even risky. Indeed, the Bush Administration provided a clear foreign policy vision in response to 9/11, when it declared a ‘war on terror’. That vision was flawed not only because it misdirected American attention and resources, but arguably because it presumed that any simplified doctrine would serve U.S. interests in the current environment. The world is changing so quickly that we barely have time to write about the changes before they are superseded by something else. Under these circumstances, flexibility may be the most important ingredient for a successful foreign policy. Flexibility is not synonymous with passivity. John Hancock is right to point out, in his Roundtable post, that ‘world leadership is in short supply.’ But leadership does not require the articulation of a simplifying doctrine.

Second, more thinking has taken place on the changing nature of international affairs than Cambanis acknowledges. He mentions the works of Nye, Doyle and Walt, all of whom are great scholars. However, as my former University of Colorado colleague, Dan Drezner, points out, the ideas that Cambanis mentions are not new. Nye’s insights into ‘soft power’ were first published in 1990, for example, while Doyle’s pioneering work on the ‘democratic peace’ appeared in the late 1970s. Drezner could have added that in the ensuing years there has been a flurry of scholarly writing addressing the issues that Cambanis raises– including works about the role of non-state actors and about ‘fuzzier’ problems such as transnational networks and failed states. Admittedly, much of this literature is full of academic jargon, but an interested reader with a bit of perseverance will discover rich veins of gold to mine. (If you are interested in taking up pick and shovel, this course syllabus, which lists some recent writings, is a good place to start. If, however, you prefer to have a shiny nugget handed to you, take a look at this thoughtful article by Princeton’s John Ikenberry.)

I wonder what others—including my fellow Roundtablers—think about the Cambanis piece. Is there a dearth of strategic thinking about foreign policy? Which books or articles offer the most convincing analysis of the changes now taking place in global affairs, in your view?

Photo courtesy of Reuters.