Pondering American Grand Strategy

08/12/2011: Pondering American Grand Strategy

By Richard Weitz

On Thursday, August 4, 2011, CNA convened a one-day unclassified conference on “American Grand Strategy and Maritime Power” at the Army and Navy Club in downtown Washington. This column will address the grand strategy issues that were raised; the next one will discuss the various forms of military power discussed that could help achieve these goals.

The discussions assessed the advantages, costs, risks, and implications of several plausible U.S. grand strategies. They also considered the factors that shape the evolution of U.S. grand strategies and the implications of these strategies for the U.S. military. The speakers told the audience, many of whom were military officers or defense planners, that they must understand these issues to best prepare their services, their units, and themselves for future security challenges and opportunities.

In search of a strategy

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The first speakers set the international context. As the geopolitical landscape changes, U.S. grand strategy must likewise change. In terms of the relative sizes of their economies and populations, longstanding U.S. allies and adversaries—such as Europe, Japan, and Russia—seem to be in decline, while the great Asian continental powers of China and India are rising. Although U.S. strategic thinking in the wake of the Cold War has been temporarily distracted by non-state threats such as terrorism, grand strategy must also address the challenges posed by newly empowered conventional state actors.

American grand strategy, which was focused for half a century on securing Europe and containing Russia, must be reoriented to address the growing challenge of a more powerful and assertive China. Intimately connected with meeting this challenge is courting and engaging an increasingly influential India, whose expanding economy, vast population, and proximity to strategically significant nations to both the east (China) and the west (Afghanistan-Pakistan) increases India’s strategic significance.

Power transitions are rarely peaceful. At the level of the international system, the rise and fall of great powers typically entails major tensions and often major wars.   Rising powers seek to alter international institutions and the rules to their advantage as well as pursue territorial and other concrete goals. They convert some of their growing wealth into power projection and other military capabilities—which they can in turn employ to pursue their foreign commercial goals. The declining great powers will resist these predations on their overseas economic interests and the existing world order of institutions and norms from which they benefit.

Unresolved border disputes, competition for scarce resources, and even status and prestige considerations can easily precipitate an armed conflict. The 16th through 17th centuries saw the transition of international power pass from Spain to England in a series of open military conflicts. Great Britain’s fall from dominance over the course of the 20th century was hastened by the two most devastating wars in history, though the actual handoff of global primacy to the United States occurred relatively peacefully. Likewise the Soviet Union emerged from World War II as a superpower largely by sudden and aggressive territorial grabs toward the end of the conflict.An effective U.S. grand strategy must manage the current power transition. China might use its growing economic and military power to uphold common interests, such as freedom of the seas against pirates, political reconciliation and economic development in the Afghan-Pak region, or nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and the Koreas, but such a benign power transition is rare and certainly cannot be presumed.

Like other scholars, Christopher Layne, Professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security at George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, argued that the world was seeing another great power transition from the United States and its European allies to the rising powers of Asia—India and especially China. Layne explained that we should view this power transition not so much as a result of America’s decline as about the Asian countries’ rise—or rather their restoration to great power status, which several have enjoyed in previous centuries. Insofar as Americans were contributing to their own fall, Layne saw it as due to “termite” decline—the eating away of the foundations of American power through misguided fiscal and other domestic policies—and needlessly extensive foreign military interventions and other manifestations of “imperial overstretch.”

US grand strategy in search of an identity in a challenging world

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As Chinese and Indian economic growth numbers continue to outpace those of the United States and its European allies, Beijing and New Delhi are likely to demand more representation in the key international institutions and exert more power and influence in Asia. How the United States manages these developments will determine in large part the political stability and prosperity of the new international order. The fundamental question is whether this power transition will happen through war, as in the past, or whether the transition can be managed in a way that avoids unnecessary loss of life, time, and resources.Rising powers also tend to apply their growing strength to resolve territorial conflicts in their favor. Beijing’s case is more menacing since so many of its land and sea borders are contested with other states.  China’s excessive claims to sovereignty over the East China Sea are worrying given the conflicting claims and the vital importance for maritime navigation of these sea-lanes. American forces provide strategic deterrence and military security for many East Asian states, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, among others. Many Asian leaders privately, and some openly, look to Washington to balance a more assertive Chinese foreign policy in the region.

One core element of an effective grand strategy will be working with other Asian powers. American grand strategy must consider how to engage China’s neighbors, many of whom are wary of the PRC’s growing power. Layne argued that a grand strategy of “offshore balancing” would help address the gap between the large-scale U.S. foreign policy ambitions and the scarce U.S. power resources.  Although authors often use the term “off-shore balancing” imprecisely or in different ways, the concept broadly refers to strategic efforts by a major power to check the rise of a rival power by aligning primarily with other regional powers to bar the burden of balancing the rising state.

The obvious advantage of this strategy is that the offshore balancer can exert influence without maintaining a financially costly and diplomatically burdensome strong physical presence in the rival’s region. For example, the related concept of “selective engagement” would entail concentrating U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic resources to protect a few vital interests. In today’s world, this approach would prioritize maintaining control over vital sea lines of communication, preventing a major land war in Eurasia, and augmenting U.S. homeland security. In Layne’s vision of how the United States would apply the concept of offshore balancing to the PRC, Washington would seek to balance China’s rise through strategic ententes rather than military alliances. The United States would use burden shifting, not burden sharing, which contributes to free riding of others on U.S. defense efforts.

Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, also stressed what he saw as the recurring failure of U.S. allies to pay enough for their own defense because U.S. grand strategy, which regularly employs military power to guarantee the security of U.S. allies and friends, makes it unnecessary for them to do so.In Layne’s vision, Japan, India, and possibly Russia, all of which have an imminent interest in countering China’s expansion, would serve as the front-line balancers of Beijing.By reducing its direct military role in the region, the United States would induce China’s neighbors to assume a greater self-defense burden. This burden shifting would allow Washington to constrain China’s rise while reducing U.S. defense costs as well as potential concerns of other countries regarding how U.S. hegemony might constrain their own strategic options.

Such regional balancing need not involve only military means. For example, India and especially Russia could work within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to constrain Chinese influence in Central Asia, perhaps supplemented with a more open U.S. engagement with that organization and a U.S. policy more encouraging of expanding Russia’s role in East Asia. U.S. military power would backstop such efforts, though mostly in the background, as with U.S. nuclear weapons today.Layne saw U.S. naval and air power as the optimal tools for this purpose since the United States has strategic advantages in these capabilities. Therefore, the United States would adjust its regional force posture to maintain more of an “over the horizon” presence that focuses on sea power and air power while keeping U.S. ground forces on the Asian mainland to a minimum. Barry Posen, recalling his “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” stressed the need to maintain U.S. command of “the commons,” i.e., the seas, sky, outer space, and the cyber domain.  This primacy gives the United States the ability to strike anywhere very quickly, and very hard, while at the same time allowing allies to benefit from U.S. extended security guarantees.

As long as the United States acts to keep the commons open to all legitimate users, other countries will support this U.S. hegemony because it directly benefits them—they are able to enjoy free use of the commons without having to pay the full burden of upholding it.Unfortunately, analysts at the conference noted that China’s development of ballistic missiles and other anti-access and asymmetric capabilities were threatening to challenge U.S. primacy in the sea and air near China, as well as the cyber and outer space domains more broadly.Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy Program at SAIS, stressed the continuing limitations of Chinese power. Although the size of the entire PRC economy was large, its per capita GDP remains low. Referencing Susan Shirk’s book, China: Fragile Superpower, Mandelbaum noted how the PRC also faces major domestic impediments to its rising power, including ethnic tensions, an aging population due to the one-China policy, and restrictions on the Internet and other societal communications and freedoms resulting from the PRC’s authoritarian political system.  Japan provides a recent example of how what many Americans considered an emerging great power challenger to the United States in Asia failed to materialize due to debilitating domestic problems.

In terms of international barriers to China’s rise, PRC leaders fear acting too aggressively might strengthen other states’ incentives to form a countervailing coalition against them. In addition, Mandelbaum and others argued that PRC leaders’ desire to remain in power leads them to avoid actions that could jeopardize their country’s high economic growth—something best achieved in a peaceful Asia without conflicts or other impediments to commerce. According to Mandelbaum, PRC leaders also want to restrain nuclear weapons proliferation since their acquisition by Japan or Taiwan would present a real threat to Beijing’s regional security ambitions. The Chinese Navy would need decades, if ever, to catch up to the U.S. Navy. Until then, the PRC would refrain from directly challenging the U.S. military.

Mandelbaum also identified several characteristics of the present international system that could make the current great power transition more peaceful than previous ones. First, the advent of nuclear weapons made an all-out war between China and the United States unthinkable. Second, empires are out of fashion. Whereas before World War I Germany was igniting conflicts with Britain and France in its quest for overseas colonies and its naval buildup to support its burgeoning overseas empire, the PRC relies on Chinese diplomats and companies, with strong but non-military support from their government, to obtain the raw materials China needs to fuel its expansion. In fact, Beijing depends on the indirect support of the U.S. Navy to preserve the freedom of the seas necessary for China to import vital energy and other foreign goods. The United States must determine how to exploit this period of weakness in China’s expansion. In terms of American diplomacy, common suggestions in the policy literature are to continue to divide and conquer potential adversaries as well as to enhance U.S. alliances with the United Kingdom, Japan and India. These countries are bound together by their shared beliefs in democratic governance and wariness of growing Chinese influence in Asia and abroad.  In some areas, Washington would do better to cooperate with rising powers to manage transnational threats such as terrorism, pathogens, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. In these areas, U.S. policy should promote strategic collaboration among all great powers, whether friendly or not.

The problems with having an ineffective grand strategy is that it can lead to a further decline in U.S. relative power and influence. For example, analysts have faulted U.S. policy makers for not having a grand strategy after 9/11 that balanced ends and means by establishing clear priorities regarding which terrorist groups and nation states represented the greatest threat to the United States and what means should be employed to counter them. Critics of the George W. Bush administration believe it devoted excessive resources to countering terrorism and confronting Iraq, while neglecting to consolidate initial U.S. successes in Afghanistan, reverse deteriorating relations with Russia, and respond to Asian worries about the PRC’s rising power.

The Obama administration has also been faulted for devoting excessive resources to the Afghanistan War when, in contrast to the locally focused Taliban, most of the hard-core transnational terrorists have relocated to other countries, such as Yemen and Somalia, which therefore warrant greater economic and other resources.Today, some analysts worry that the Obama administration and the Congress will cut defense spending excessively, while others fear that they will prove insufficiently bold to make major cuts and thereby induce other countries to assume greater defense responsibilities.Resolving these competing recommendations is impossible without a high-level grand strategy that establishes a hierarchy of essential objectives and then determines what military and non-military means are necessary to achieve them.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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