Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy

What are the competing visions for a U.S. grand strategy, their objectives, premises and preferred instruments?

U.S. Grand Strategy

U.S. Grand Strategy

Robert J. Art lays out eight possible grand strategies for consideration: Dominion, Global Collective Security; Regional Collective Security; Cooperative Security; Containment; Isolationism; Offshore Balancing; and, Selective Engagement (2003, 82). These strategies are derived from national interests. I will tackle each strategy one-by-one and describe their objectives, premises and preferred instruments.

Dominion – The objective of dominion is imperial world dominance in that America acquires as much power for itself as it can, primarily through the instruments of military force and capabilities, and attempts to refashion the world in its image (Art 2003, 87-88). Art adds another view, Primacy, which is merely “superior influence” rather than total domination (2003, 90).

Christopher Layne essentially calls dominion and primacy by the term of “Preponderance,” and adds that the strategy seeks a “U.S.-led world order based on preeminent U.S. political, military and economic power, and on American values” (1997, 101). Layne explains that practicing extended deterrence and maximizing economic interdependence deal with threats to that order and will prevent the rise of a rival power (1997, 101).

Global Collective Security (GCS) – According to Art, the objective of GCS is to “prevent interstate aggression and territorial conquest everywhere” through an all-for-one, multilateral alliance where an attack on one state is considered an attack on all states, and all states are obligated to deter and defeat the attacking state (2003, 92-94). The premise of GCS, according to Charles and Clifford Kupchan, is that the hostile nature of anarchy is mitigated through “robust deterrence” and “stability … through cooperation rather than competition” (1991, 222). Thus, the security dilemma is reduced. Multilateral diplomacy, interdependent economic and security institutions and shared values are the main instruments of GSC (Kupchan & Kupchan, 1991, 238-241).

Regional Collective Security (RCS) – The RCS is very similar to the GCS though smaller in geographic and overall scope. Art explains that an RCS requires “a community consciousness which overrides the divisiveness of national interests,” something very difficult for neighboring states living in close proximity to one another (2003, 102). Art adds that RCS alliances must see peace as indivisible, practice burden-sharing, trust one another, and not have a hegemon as a member, thus making NATO and the Rio-OAS not genuine RCS providers (2003, 106). An RCS must also deal with the reality that it will have less resources than a GCS.

Cooperative Security – In order to make war less likely (objective), Janne Nolan says the premises of cooperative security are to exhaust all other means of diplomacy and coercion before resorting to force, using tools like peacekeeping and conflict mediation to prevent conflicts from getting out of control, valuing defensive over offensive military capabilities, and aggressively managing nuclear proliferation and preventing the spread of nuclear technical expertise (2000, 190-192). Art adds that cooperative security does have a “residual collective security system” as a backstop and requires transparency in military and political relations (2003, 107).

Containment – Containment requires a “pooling of efforts by states to deter, defend against, or defeat a common foe” and has a particular geographic emphasis and “degree of severity” (Art 2003, 111). The most well-known and successful application of containment strategy is what the United States did to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The objective is to prevent an established or rising hegemon from asserting territorial aggression (Art 2003, 111). The premise is that the hegemon will take the territory if not resisted. To implement the strategy cooperating states use instruments of “political suasion, waging war, military alliances, or deployment of troops” as well as “economic denial” or strategic embargoes of some sort (Art 2003, 111-113).

Isolationism – Art describes isolationism as a “stand back,” unilateral strategy that wants to avoid war and through seeking its objective of maximum freedom of movement and flexibility in its geopolitical dealings by “avoiding entangling alliances” and only using force when it is absolutely necessary to protect its vital interests (2003, 173-174). Gholz, Press and Sapolsky call it “restraint” or “the disengagement of America’s military forces from the rest of the world” (1997, 55).  They recommend pulling out of NATO and Asia while keeping a limited presence in the Middle East to protect the oil supply (1997, 67-75).

Art says isolationism relies on three premises: (1) The U.S. is physically secure from an enemy attack; (2) military power projection is unnecessary to protect America’s global economic stakes; and (3) keeping overseas bases and executing military interventions for non-vital interests harm America’s pursuit of its long-term goals (2003, 174-175).

Offshore Balancing – Off shore balancing retains many of the same features as isolationism, but it is committed to intervening in Eurasia if necessary to prevent the rise of a hegemon (Layne 1997, 125). This strategy also seeks to “insulate the United States from future great power wars and maximize its relative position in the international system” (Layne 1997, 125). While withdrawing from NATO, Japan and South Korea and “accepting some nuclear proliferation,” offshore balancing retains a strong nuclear deterrent and air force to reduce the likelihood of being drawn into a major power war and relies on neomercantilist economic policies (Layne 1997, 127-128, 131). The premise is one of balance-of-power that believes other states with lesser power and capabilities will balance against one another while the U.S. stands ready in those very rare occasions if needed to balance a rising hegemon (Layne 1997, 126).

Selective Engagement – Selective engagement (SE) attempts to steer a middle path between unilateral isolationism and dominion/primacy. It derives its instruments from its goals which include preventing a severe and catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland as its top goal (preventing spread of WMD is key component), preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon, maintaining secure access to Persian Gulf oil, and embracing and promoting the interdependent and international economic model and democratic values (Art 1998, 142).

SE also relies on a forward-defense strategy of robust bases and military alliances and believes in early intervention to prevent conflicts that could draw in major powers (Art 1998, 144). The key premise with SE is that pursuing and attaining those goals are good for the entire global community of states. Achieving the goals makes every state safer, more stable and more secure.

Analysis – I will quickly go through what I think is the greatest weakness of each strategy. Maybe another day for their strengths.

Isolationism’s greatest weakness is the greater propensity for the spread of nuclear weapons. For dominion it is that the strategy will most certainly ignite major counterbalancing and animosity. GCS and RCS both require major amounts of political will for them to be viable in crunch time. Our experience with the UN and even NATO has proven that political will is often hard to come by when the chips are down.

The idea of cooperative security is nice, but ultimately there is no enforcer to bring about compliance, and all the states have gotten rid of offensive weapons which makes them useless in stopping a major power from attacking. Concerts, which I did not talk about, may be a better instrument, but they can’t be a stand-alone grand strategy. Containment is very obvious and can easily cause some blowback when the container states are trying to pass off their strategy as engagement. Also it is very expensive and requires significant multilateral cooperation to work.

Offshore balancing’s neomercantilist economic policy is not going to work real well if everyone abandons the Bretton Woods system and does the same thing. Nobody will have a place to sell their surplus production. Inflation and rising interest rates would prevail. When it is truly time to engage a threat militarily, the offshore balancer may find it difficult without any alliances, forward presence or international bases.

The SE engagement strategy is kind of an oxymoron. How can states be genuinely selective all the time about when and when not to engage? Too much intervention, which may be required of SE proponents from time to time, will certainly give rise to a competing hegemon. I think many of these strategies could be right for state depending on geopolitical issues at the time, their economic status, and other relevant political events.  The U.S. has tried SE, and it is expensive when you intervene too much. I think some measured offshore balancing and reduction in alliance commitments would be good, but not the abandonment of free market economics.

Art, Robert J. “Geopolitics Updated.” In America’s Strategic Choices Revised Edition, edited by Michael E. Brown, Jr., Owen R. Cote, Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller, 141-175. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

— . A Grand Strategy for America. Copyright: The Century Foundation, Inc. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Gholz, Eugene, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky. “Come Home, America.” In America’s Strategic Choices Revised Edition, edited by Michael E. Brown, Owen R. Cote, Jr., Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller, 55-98. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Kupchan, Charles A., and Clifford A. Kupchan. “Concerts, Collective Security, and the Future of Europe.” In America’s Strategic Choices Revised Edition, edited by Michael E. Brown, Jr., Owen R. Cote, Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller, 218-265. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Nolan, Janne E. “Cooperative Security in the United States.” In America’s Strategic Choices Revised Edition, edited by Michael E. Brown, Jr., Owen R. Cote, Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller, 179-217. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

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