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.
The most important thing to realize about these alternatives is that neither offers an appropriate concept for dealing with the emerging security environment, which has at least three defining features. The first is a burgeoning, grievance-fueled multipolar rivalry. A number of major powers, led by China and Russia, have become dissatisfied with the U.S.-led global order. They want more of a voice and are increasingly willing to test the edges of rules and norms with aggressive behavior.
A second and closely related trend is a more intense pursuit of identity in a shifting geopolitical context by major powers. In various ways, China, Russia, Hungary, Turkey, India, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries are redefining their international roles and seeking enhanced prestige and status as the U.S.-dominated post-war order gives way to something more multipolar, complex, and fluid. Their status-seeking is complicated, and in some cases inflamed, by growing popular resentment against the effects of globalization. At both the elite and mass levels, identity politics, fueled in part by a global surge of radical populism, is becoming a defining feature of world politics. Resistance to U.S. dictates is growing, even among friends.
The third dominant feature of the emerging era is a now-persistent difficulty in projecting military power. Part of the reason is the well-known spread of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and proliferation of more advanced nuclear capabilities to actors such as North Korea, which pose mortal threats to large-scale power projection efforts. But the trend also encompasses insurgencies and hybrid tactics that can exhaust efforts to project power over time as well as aggressive gray zone campaigns that avoid the basis for a decisive response. (The United States could in theory develop creative new concepts to overcome both of those barriers—but we have not done so yet.) Adversaries can also deter or disrupt power projection by holding homelands at risk, including through the use of relatively new techniques such as large-scale cyber-attacks.
The fundamental strategic mandate of these characteristics is thus a paradox: The emerging security environment demands more engagement and more restraint at the same time. Neither primacy nor offshore balancing thus represents a feasible answer for this complex and fractious emerging era. The surge of power- and identity-seeking, for example, makes “primacy” a dangerous anachronism. A range of major powers — China, Russia, India, Brazil, and more — are frustrated with U.S. dominance and determined to create a more multipolar world. A grand strategy that tries to recruit states back to a “U.S.-led” order could run aground very quickly. Meantime the difficulties of power projection suggest that the United States is also at the wrong end of cost curves for reasserting its military dominance: Primacy is operationally infeasible in an age of A2/AD.
Offshore balancing doesn’t align with the emerging context any better than primacy. In an increasingly interdependent world characterized by the vulnerability of homelands, standing aloof from the world’s security challenges simply isn’t possible. Withdrawing the balancing effect of American power would be ill-advised at such a sensitive moment. Growing Russian and Chinese belligerence if anything demands a more vibrant U.S. response. Gray zone tactics also cast doubt on the feasibility of balancing from afar. If the United States goes offshore, it is likely to watch helplessly while rivals gain ground, waiting for the big balancing moment that may never arrive. Finally, in practical terms, because U.S. strategy is shaped by so many different interests, ideas and stakeholders, Washington never chooses the pure, unalloyed version of any grand strategy. An administration trying to embrace offshore balancing is likely to end up with an imprecise, halfway version — slashing presence without abandoning alliances, for example. This could be the most dangerous posture of all, universalizing the “Korea 1950 problem” where the United States will not promise to defend an interest (or ally) in advance, but feels compelled to fight for it once challenged.
Where are the New Paradigms?
The emerging environment for U.S. strategy, then, offers little support for either exceptionalist primacy or disengaged offshore balancing. The United States needs a new grand strategy debate to articulate creative new ideas in the space between primacy and disengagement. U.S. strategy needs to be more engaged in some ways, on some issues, and at some times, and significantly more restrained in others. In terms of the post-war, U.S.-led order, Washington needs to reaffirm some of its norms and institutions, and be willing to be more flexible on others. The issue is how: By what criteria, capabilities, and operational concepts can the United States best strike this tricky balance?
This debate hasn’t even begun, and so it would be premature to argue for the “right” grand strategy just yet. The important thing now is to begin getting compelling options on the table that offer ways to manage the dilemmas of the new strategic context.
Some options might try to strike the balance with bold geopolitical moves: Double-down on the pivot to Asia, for example, and prioritize the coming rivalry with China (even at the expense of painful accommodations to Russia and disengagement from the Middle East). Or aim for a new great power “concert,” offering China and Russia spheres of influence and building cooperation in areas of shared interest like climate, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation.
Other concepts could possibly maximize the impact of U.S. power while reducing its provocations. A new Nixon Doctrine might be an example, using U.S. defense policy and posture mostly to shore up regional partners with defensive concepts and capabilities. Another option might be focusing on a particular set of capabilities designed to overcome constraints without over-engaging: going all-in on a range of transformative long-range strategic strike systems, for example, that could provide a near-instant global veto on any large-scale aggression (without solving related problems such as gray zone aggression or sudden faits accompli).
Not all of these concepts are mutually exclusive. A future administration could pair a new great power concert with a focus on long-range strike systems, or pursue a deepened pivot through a regional Nixon Doctrine. If history is any guide, given the multiple influences on its strategy, the United States will inevitably settle on a blended approach. But the components should be linked by a central concept that provides coherence to the various efforts, one that can both market and justify the resulting U.S. role.
In the process, U.S. strategists will need to resolve a critical emerging choice about the fundamental goals of its grand strategy. Is it most interested in actively promoting the spread of liberal values or encouraging stable great power relations? Both have been central to U.S. strategy since 1945, and U.S. strategy will never definitively choose one over the other. But the emerging context is creating unprecedented strains between the two, and the United States will have to decide which way to lean. Is it time for the United States to become definitively more accommodationist in its approach to Russia and China, or to redouble its efforts to enforce the norms and rules of the liberal order? The worst situation would be to chug ahead on autopilot, allowing knee-jerk and default reactions to generate arbitrary strategic outcomes.
The next administration faces a daunting reality: Changes in the strategic environment demand a rethinking of grand strategy fundamentals. Reasserting U.S. exceptionalism and offering bromides about the liberal order won’t be enough, but a dramatic global disengagement would be equally dangerous. The debate between primacy and offshore balancing needs to give way to a new dialogue over ideas to manage the multiple dilemmas of the emerging strategic environment.
About the Author
Michael J. Mazarr is senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and associate director of the Strategy, Doctrine and Resources Program of the RAND Arroyo Center. He co-leads the RAND Project on Building a Sustainable International Order.