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.”
Moscow’s policy isn’t about becoming a leader in the region but accumulating influence to use closer to home.
A new balance of power is solidifying in Syria. Iran, Turkey and Russia have all played a role in the conflict there – jockeying for position and even agreeing in September to set up zones of control. But Russia in particular has deftly managed the game up to this point, and it is emerging from the Syrian civil war with a strong hand. Ultimately, Russia’s goal is to parlay its position in the Middle East into advantages in areas that matter more to Moscow. To some degree, it has achieved this, but it’s still unclear whether its strategy will be successful enough to score Russia an advantage in the area it cares about the most: Ukraine.
There has been much consternation in America and Europe for the past decade since Russia began practicing hybrid warfare. Ostensibly initiated by Russian General Valery Gerasimov with PM Putin’s support, hybrid warfare has resulted in Russian taking Crimea without a shot being fired, occupying Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, keeping Syrian President Assad in power, and potentially influencing the outcome of an American election. The aggressive and successfully moves in Ukraine have so alarmed some European nations that they are considering withdrawing from the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty which attempts to outlaw the production and use of landmines. Both Ukraine and Finland have threatened to pull out of the Ottawa Landmine Ban treaty because of perceived Russian aggression. Russia, helped spur on such a perception with a very public military exercise that contained a practice invasion of Norway and other northern European states. With so much success and so much cowering in western states, it is no wonder that much of the scholarship on Russian hybrid warfare has asserted the near infallibility of the Russian approach. While most western nations see Russian hybrid warfare as threat to the western democratic way of life, it is, ironically, more threatening to the continued existence of Russia as viable nation-state.
The US has been contending with the challenge of the North Korean nuclear program for decades, yet we are no closer to the goal of convincing the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Indeed, that goal now appears unattainable under current circumstances.
Meanwhile the most serious threat facing the world today is the danger of nuclear proliferation. Both North Korea and Iran continue to develop nuclear weapons production capabilities. If they succeed, their regional neighbors will go nuclear in response, triggering a global cascade of proliferation. The resulting worldwide availability of nuclear weapons and fissile material to rogue states and terrorist groups will rapidly lead to a chaotic situation out of control.
The end goal of this strategy is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, a North Korean economy that can sustain itself, a regional security environment free of military threats from North Korea, and decisive actions addressing the deplorable human rights situation throughout North Korea.
It’s grand strategy season in Washington, and with good reason. From War on the Rocks to Foreign Affairs to a recent spate of books, there has been a renewed argument over primacy, offshore balancing, and other contenders for the grand strategy crown. The debate is timely: The international order is in the midst of an epochal shift and a new administration will have to rethink basic organizing concepts for America’s role in the world.
Unfortunately, most of the debate has already begun to ring hollow. The default grand strategy concepts no longer capture the choices that America faces. The most important truth about grand strategy today is that the United States badly needs new options to choose from. The classic stand-off is between advocates of primacy or preeminence on the one hand, and restraint or offshore balancing on the other. There are dramatically different versions of each, and the terms can mislead as easily as they can inform. As Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth have rightly argued, for example, “primacy” can sometimes imply a straw man vision of hegemonic dominance that nobody really advocates.