Much ink has been spilled in the last 12 months over whether President Donald Trump can have a grand strategy and, if so, what form it takes — or should take. Before Trump had even assumed office, Micah Zenko and Rebecca Lissner accused the president of “strategic incoherence” and a transactional approach to international relations focusing on bilateral deals. Hal Brands differed from this view by characterizing Trump’s grand strategy as “resurgent nationalism,” while other scholars argued that the president is following a Jacksonian tradition of American foreign policy based on “national honor” and “reputation.” More boldly, Richard Burt, a Cold Warrior who served at the highest levels of the U.S. national security establishment, harkened back to Nixon and Kissinger in prescribing “a grand strategy of great-power balancing” or else “all bets are off.”
Our own work, reflected in our new book, The End of Grand Strategy, suggests that these varied prescriptions may be misguided. That’s because, we argue, operational requisites often determine American strategy in any theater of conflict — and these aren’t reflected in the president’s tweets, political speeches, official strategic documents, nor the ideas debated on websites and in journals, even at War on the Rocks. As an example, the president was tweeting about NATO’s obsolescence, lavish overspending and unfair distribution of costs as a plank of his America First strategy. Concurrently American deployments in Eastern Europe were unabated and increased sums were being spent to deter any Russian aggression. It succinctly demonstrates that how military forces are used, what resources and capabilities are available, how American units cooperate with friends and allies, and most other operational details are determined by the requirements of a crisis or a specific security challenge. Local and regional military commanders consult with senior military and political leaders in Washington and elsewhere. But their choices are largely made based on practical necessity rather than conformity to some overarching idea of what U.S. strategy should be.
In effect, grand strategy is no longer very grand. It may have been during the Cold War, when America continually faced one dominant enemy — the Soviet Union and its collection of subject states — and one predominant threat — of conventional and nuclear war. The grand strategy of containment, initially articulated by George Kennan and then misinterpreted by a long list of American policy mandarins, was a foundational idea flexible enough to endure until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But nothing comparable currently exists.
With friends, allies, interests, and international commitments across the globe, the United States plays small ball, responding heterogeneously to the varied challenges its forces face. In today’s messy world, whether functional or effective (or not), the military dimension of American strategy is therefore more often calibrated with the prevailing local context than any larger plan. To understand any specific challenge, civilian strategists and military leaders must now answer three questions. First, who are you dealing with? The types of actors the U.S. military faces have proliferated in the last two decades. They range from conventional states to various forms of non-state, transnational actors including terrorists and jihadists, criminal organizations and pirates, and even subcontractors and legitimate multinational corporations involved in things like the smuggling of WMD or money laundering.
Second, what is the threat? Analysts and the media alike focus on high-profile conflicts for their own reasons: the existential threats posed by North Korean ballistic missiles; weapons of mass destruction possibly wielded by terrorists; or conventional military threats posed by Russia in Eastern Europe or by China in the South China Sea. But these headline threats aren’t necessarily what the U.S. military prepares for, or deals with, on an everyday basis. The delivery of humanitarian aid, building infrastructure, and patrolling the sea-lanes have become as much a part of the military’s contemporary mission as warfighting.
Third, which form of conflict, or potential conflict, do the armed forces face? Larger, more capable destroyers would play an indispensable role in confronting China or Russia’s modernizing navies in a potential conventional conflict. And THAAD missile systems are comparably important in defending against North Korea’s growing arsenal. But neither these, nor a myriad of other weaponry, have much utility when engaging in irregular warfare in the Middle East, in interdicting drug smugglers in the American littoral, or while carrying out a variety of counterterror operations in a growing number of ungovernable zones. Of course, American forces fought asymmetric conflicts in the twentieth century, most notably Vietnam. But now they must routinely prepare for and fight them — albeit it often covertly in special operations — across Africa and the Middle East. In addition to these conventional and asymmetric forms of conflict is a new, third category popularized by Frank Hoffman, labelled “hybrid warfare,” that includes cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns. But as Russian disruption of the 2016 Presidential campaign made clear, both America’s military and civilian elements are unprepared to address that problem.
Of course, this trio of questions — the who, what, and which of any theater — are familiar to military commanders. The answers, which can configure in a multitude of ways, guide operational responses and regional strategies. But often local responses conflict with the general principles sketched out in Washington — at least by those who insist on consistency and coherency. What gets fed back up the decision-making chain often conflicts with what gets sent down. And the answer often guides the decisions of military command and sabotages the campaign promises of even the most determined of politicians. As the president has admitted, when confronted with security issues stretching from North Korea to NATO and on to the Middle East, “It’s complicated.”
In the end, we argue, strategic continuity remains the default position. But continuity in that sense does not mean prescribing any one of the classic formulations characterized by Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, such as neo-Isolationism, Selective Engagement, Cooperative Security, and Primacy, nor recent innovative ones such as Posen’s advocacy of Restraint. And strategic continuity certainly doesn’t mean implementing the foreign and security policies of the Obama or even the George W. Bush Administrations.
In contrast, we recognize that the strategies required in addressing a particular threat or crisis can and do change. American forces will adapt as ISIS morphs, for example, from something approaching a conventional army defending a territorial state to that of a clandestine terrorist organization. Likewise, the PLA’s anti-access, area-denial capabilities and China’s construction of islands require that the U.S. Navy adapt its strategy in the western Pacific.
But the ultimate takeaway we offer is that America’s military calibrates its strategies across the globe every day. Some resemble the rudiments of isolationism and others primacy. Some replicate elements of Barry Posen’s version of restraint, and there are even examples of what we term sponsorship — a strategy that critics have harshly labeled “leading from behind.” The Trump administration is as much a captive to these operational requisites in the 21st century as was its predecessors. Trump’s faith in military leadership, and delay in restocking the foreign policy bureaucracy with knowledgeable, professional civilian advisors only serves to reinforce that point.
We address the succession of recent and forthcoming Trump administration strategic documents in this context. The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy will reportedly soon to be joined by the Nuclear Posture Review and a Cybersecurity Strategy. All attempt to bring greater order and coherence to American strategy. And they share two attributes common to a grand strategy: They are both prescriptive and aspirational.
The National Defense Strategy focuses on the belief that “[T]he central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by … revisionist powers.” It argues that China and Russia are those revisionist powers (representing an “authoritarian model”) and both have the growing capacity to undermine “the international order from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles and ‘rules of the road.’” Counteracting this effort “requires the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power — diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement and military.” Intentionally or not, this sentiment closely echoes the initiatives prioritized in each of the four pillars of the National Security Strategy. Together they at least begin to sound, for the first time, like an articulation of a coherent Trump grand strategy that narrows its focus to state-based, great power competition.
The consequences of the emerging Trumpian grand strategy are not yet evident. We believe that continuity will rule in the short-to-intermediate term because, as of yet, military strategies and their operational implementation are determined by our trinity — of participant actors, forms of threat, and the character of latent or actual conflicts. But, the Trump administration’s strategy documents make the case that while the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations blithely pursued differing strategies that focused on smaller states or non-state threats, “other actors steadily implemented their long-term plans to challenge America.” As a consequence, the National Defense Strategy explains, the United States is facing “increasingly global disorder,” and an “security environment more complex and volatile than we have experience in recent memory.”
Yet, if an accurate portrayal, the implementation of this Trumpian vision is bound to falter in the current context for four reasons.
First, the documents are rife with internal contradictions. They praise what used to be called “whole of government” campaigns. Yet they offer no means to better coordinate the U.S. interagency process, nor address the issue of the militarization of America’s involvement in international affairs. Both the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy place great power competition front and center. Yet they devote considerable space to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism in the greater Middle East and beyond. It is manifestly unclear how the United States can coordinate addressing both sets of issues.
Second, without the active cooperation of both domestic and international stakeholders, the aspirations of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy will come to naught. Congress, for example, must fund budgets to pay for the operational tempo necessary to pursue competitive strategies globally. It must also pay for the long-term investments in the emerging military technologies — cyber, artificial intelligence, autonomy, and directed energy — necessary to compete with the efforts of revisionist powers to maintain America’s military “overmatch.” Organizational efficiency and cost saving matter. Yet Congressional leaders have long been unwilling to confront the thorny issue of acquisition reform, even as the National Security Strategy argues in favor of acquisition reforms “to put the right equipment in the hand of our forces,”and the National Defense Strategy urges a new “management” system to speed the delivery of innovative capabilities and cut costs through budget discipline. The Congressional bureaucratic, political, and budgetary impediments are legendary. In 2014, for example, the Congressional Research Service counted “more than 150 major studies on acquisition reform since the end of World War II” while, in the last three fiscal years, legislators have passed 247 Defense Authorization Act provisions for reregulating military acquisition. Both Trump Administration officials and congressional reformers, like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), believe that the FY 2018 legislation provides a solution: That dividing the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics into two entities, “One is the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and the other is the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment” will speed the process of acquiring new capabilities and ensure the Department of Defense’s ability to work with commercial vendors. While promising, it will take an acquisition cycle or two before we know if this institutional reform will address this abiding problem. Meanwhile, as the most recent government shutdown briefly highlighted, building and maintaining a capable military is difficult in an environment characterized by persistent budgetary uncertainty.
Third, both the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy put great faith in shared values and alliances. But American diplomacy under the Trump administration has either worked at cross-purposes to the president or, more generously, been so low-key that careful observers can barely distinguish its impacts. Even the most steadfast American friends and allies — like the United Kingdom and Germany — have balked at some of the administration’s initiatives, from the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to calls for greater spending by NATO members and decertifying the Iran deal. Forthrightly stated, it is hard to see how the United States can lead a sustainable coalition against great power challengers and rogue states when “America First” pronouncements alienate so many.
The fourth, final and most important impediment to any new grand strategy embedded in these reviews are the operational realities of facing two revisionist powers, two “rogue” states (Iran and North Korea), and the general disorder of the current global security environment. The varied tasks defy simple assertions of American leadership or broad vows to put America’s national security first. The United States’ military is already stressed by longstanding global operations. Readiness has been an ongoing challenge and recapitalization has been long-delayed, despite the vast increases in military expenditures following the Afghanistan, Iraq, and terror wars. Combatant Commanders demand ever more resources and adapt to local conditions out of necessity. Yet neither the National Security Strategy nor the National Defense Strategy prioritize these threats. Nor do they sketch out the means to integrate the U.S. government’s foreign operations within and amongst the globe’s regions.
Perhaps the full, classified version of the National Defense Strategy addresses these issues in more detail. But that will only be revealed over time. And assuredly as the combatant commands continue to revise and refine their operational and contingency plans in the coming years, planning staffs will heed strategic guidance provided by both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. But the structural challenges created by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 will remain until it is superseded by new legislation. Combatant commands will continue to prioritize their own short-term warfighting requirements while the Joint Staff and the Department of Defense struggle to prepare for future conflicts with great powers and acquire innovative capabilities.
In the absence of radical changes in culture, institutional decision-making, and resources, strategies will thus remain calibrated to the operational circumstance and challenges that military commanders face. And without dramatic changes, the United States will muddle along, pursuing such strategies by default, despite the intellectual effort and ink spilled in an effort to develop a coherent grand strategy for the remainder of the Trump administration. From our research there is nothing inherently wrong with calibrated strategies; rather we argue simply that strategists prescribing a single approach are likely to be disappointed.
About the Authors
Simon Reich is a Professor in the Division of Global Affairs and Department of Political Science at Rutgers Newark.
Peter Dombrowski is a Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College in the Strategic and Operational Research Department.
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