Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy? Why We Need Doctrines in Uncertain Times

November 9, 2012

Foreign Affairs:

As the U.S. military intervenes in Libya, a fierce debate has erupted over the possible existence of an Obama doctrine, with a chorus of foreign policy observers bemoaning the United States’ supposed strategic incompetence. Last fall, the columnist Jackson Diehl wrote in The Washington Post, “This administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy — or strategists.” In The National Interest this January, the political scientist John Mearsheimer concluded, “The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War.” The economic historian Niall Ferguson took to Newsweek to argue that alleged U.S. setbacks in the Middle East were “the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of a coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policymaking have long worried.” Even the administration’s defenders have damned it with faint praise. The National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh argued that “the real Obama doctrine is to have no doctrine at all. And that’s the way it’s likely to remain.” Hirsh, at least, meant it as a compliment.

But is it true that President Barack Obama has no grand strategy? And even if it were, would that be such a disaster? The George W. Bush administration, after all, developed a clear, coherent, and well-defined grand strategy after 9/11. But those attributes did not make it a good one, and its implementation led to more harm than benefit.

Grand strategies are not nearly as important as grand strategists like to think, because countries tend to be judged by their actions, not their words. What really matters for great powers is power — national economic and military strength — and that speaks loudly and clearly by itself. Still, in times of deep uncertainty, a strategy can be important as a signaling device. In these moments, such as the present, a clearly articulated strategy matched by consistent actions is useful because it can drive home messages about a country’s intentions to domestic and foreign audiences.

Despite what its critics say, the Obama administration has actually had not just one grand strategy so far but two. The first strategy, multilateral retrenchment, was designed to curtail the United States’ overseas commitments, restore its standing in the world, and shift burdens onto global partners. This strategy was clearly articulated, but it delivered underwhelming policy results.

The second, emergent grand strategy is focused on counterpunching. More recently, the Obama administration has been willing to assert its influence and ideals across the globe when challenged by other countries, reassuring allies and signaling resolve to rivals. This strategy has performed better but has been poorly articulated. It is this vacuum of interpretation that the administration’s critics have rushed to fill. Unless and until the president and his advisers define explicitly the strategy that has been implicit for the past year, the president’s foreign policy critics will be eager to define it — badly — for him.


A grand strategy consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them. Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence. Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones. Either way, a well-articulated grand strategy can offer an interpretative framework that tells everybody, including foreign policy officials themselves, how to understand the administration’s behavior.

All this sounds terrifically important, but most of the time it is not. For grand strategies to matter, they have to indicate a change in policy. And trying to alter a state’s foreign policy trajectory is like trying to make an aircraft carrier do a U-turn: it happens slowly at best. The tyranny of the status quo often renders grand strategy a constant rather than a variable, despite each administration’s determined efforts at intellectual differentiation and rebranding.

Power is the true reserve currency in international affairs, and most countries simply lack the power to make others care about their intentions. The rest of the world is not waiting up nights to learn about Belgium’s grand strategy (although a government would be nice). The same applies to nonstate actors. After 9/11, a cottage industry of analysts emerged to deconstruct every statement issued by al Qaeda’s leadership. As the group’s operational tempo, capabilities, and ideological appeal eroded, however, its statements garnered less and less interest. Unless Osama bin Laden’s successors demonstrate their continued ability to wreak havoc, only a narrow slice of specialists will care about their ideology or strategy. This is why the debate over U.S. grand strategy is less important than the debate over how to rejuvenate the U.S. economy.

Even for powerful actors, moreover, actions speak louder than words. George Kennan may have articulated the doctrine of containment, but in his formulation, the strategy did not require protecting South Korea. “Containment” gained the meaning it did because a series of presidents fleshed out Kennan’s concept in their own distinct ways. As the historian Melvyn Leffler has documented, the core elements of George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy — preventive war and democracy promotion — were not new, having appeared in the official discourse of prior administrations. What was different about Bush was that unlike his predecessors, who treated the concepts as boilerplate rhetoric, he acted.

Critics and analysts stress the importance of choosing the right grand strategy and the catastrophic implications of selecting the wrong one. History suggests, however, that grand strategies do not alter the trajectory of great-power politics all that much. Consider the United States. Even radically imperfect strategies have not fundamentally affected its rise and fall. The United States should have taken a more active role in world affairs after World War I but instead retreated into isolationism. Successive presidents bought into the domino theory of communism and expanded U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War beyond what any other strategic logic would have dictated. The Bush administration launched a war of choice against Iraq that was designed to inject a stable democracy into the region while bolstering nuclear nonproliferation. The actual result was a $1 trillion-plus diversionary war and a global wave of anti-Americanism.

All three of these strategic mistakes were rooted in coherent strategic narratives popular with both policymakers and the public. What is striking, however, is that none of these missteps altered the trajectory of U.S. power. The United States eventually assumed the responsibilities of primacy after World War II. The country’s overstretch in Vietnam did not change the outcome of the Cold War. Operation Iraqi Freedom was costly, but public opinion data demonstrate that the harm done to the United States’ standing quickly faded. In all three cases, the institutional strengths of the United States forced appropriate corrections to the grand strategy. New leaders in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon made the country adopt a leadership role in the postwar era, refrain from post-Vietnam interventions, and reform its counterinsurgency doctrine in the face of setbacks in Iraq. These course corrections prevented strategic miscues from becoming permanent reversals…

Read it all.

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