Small Wars Journal

A Grand Strategy of Sustainment

A Grand Strategy of Sustainment

By Shawn Brimley

America has been adrift for too long. The attacks of September 11th did not "change everything," but exacerbated the difficulty of articulating a purpose for American power since the Berlin Wall fell nearly two decades ago. America has suffered from strategic whiplash: the nebulousness of the post-Cold War era was rapidly replaced by a post-9/11 myopia on Islamist extremism and the so-called "war on terrorism." This myopia lay at the root of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and it remains the chief obstacle preventing the emergence of a reasoned and pragmatic debate over the purpose of American power in the 21st century. The absence of a true grand strategy imperils America.

The Bush administration has pursued a foreign policy that is narrow in its view, negative in its purpose, and has produced negligible results. Americans deserve a grand strategy that is panoramic in view, positive in its purpose, and persuasive as a basis for the continued exercise of American power.

The purpose of American grand strategy in the early 21st century should be to maintain our position of leadership in the world by rebuilding our legitimacy, renewing our key alliances, and ensuring our access to the global commons, in order to help sustain an international order based on a vibrant world economy. In the near-term, a key feature of a sustainment strategy will be to renew those aspects of our position that have eroded in recent years. Only a grand strategy based on sustaining America's position as a respected world leader is commensurate with our interests, our history, and equal to the challenges and opportunities we face today.

Early in its term, the Bush administration attempted to make a virtue out of the abdication of global leadership -- preferring power over persuasion, isolation rather than inclusion, hubris rather than humility, and change rather than continuity. Such positions have clearly been detrimental if not disastrous to American interests around the world, and in recent years the administration has been forced to return to the kinds of international diplomacy it previously rejected as unworthy distractions. The Bush administration realized far too late that America cannot a loner, it must be a leader.

America remains the most powerful country on earth and therefore - at least the first-half of this century - will remain an indispensable nation and thus destined to lead. The positive use of American power over the last century has been central to the emergence of a modern global economy that cannot be sustained without deep American participation and leadership in the very international institutions it helped created after the last World War.

Beyond the defense of the homeland, a grand strategy of sustainment would commit the United States to the pursuit of three vital global interests: stable balances of power in key regions, an open international economy, and continued access to the global commons. Such things are international public goods, and are thus shared goals that are can constitute a foundation of an efficacious approach to a stable world order.

First, America has not made good use of its unipolar moment, and much of the remaining time should be spent helping to create and maintain stable balances of power in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. The United States must focus anew on sustaining the viability of its key alliances. NATO must not be allowed to whither, and America's alliances in East Asia need renewing. Rising powers such as India and China should be engaged on every dimension. Arrogant talk of helping rising powers become "responsible stakeholders" should be replaced with words of respect derived in part from America's enduring position of strength. There is no obvious reason why China should be considered a strategic competitor rather than partner, and talk of inevitable conflict is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, America has extremely powerful incentives to help sustain an international order based on the continued functioning of a globalized economy. America accrues power and influence as global interdependence deepens and as economic interests tend to generate openness, progress, and peace. Rising powers such as India and China can and will challenge American economic dominance in specific areas, but will not overtake the United States for the foreseeable future. Open global markets are required to redress the grievances of developing nations and to help expand the benefits of economic interdependence. Globalization cannot be stopped, but can be positively or negatively skewed -- it is in America's interest to pursue the former course, rather than abdicate its leadership and risk the latter.

Third, the United States must ensure access to the global commons -- air, sea, space, and cyberspace. America has the benefit of friendly neighbors and favorable geography, but remains reliant on access to maintain robust connectivity to the global economy and to key security interests. A stable international system also requires that other powers can safely traverse and utilize the global commons. For decades American power has helped sustain the global commons, and this role needs to continue. The process of globalization shrinks the tyranny of time and space -- the instant information and currency flows constitute a global grid that can be used for good, but also for ill. A strategy of sustainment would recognize the centrality of cyberspace to a 21st century international system.

A grand strategy of sustainment would be more selective in the use of American force. Sustaining a global system will at times require the use of military power, but would shun the preventive use of force. As a global leader, the United States should invest sufficient resources to ensure it continues to field the world's most dominant military. When force must be used, a strategy of sustainment would accept some risk to ensure the participation of allies. Working by, with, and through security alliances helps sustain American legitimacy and moral authority and are not deleterious to success, especially when ideational dimensions are central to modern conflict.

Finally, America must respect the rule of law and civil liberties at home in order to renew and sustain its role as an example of how a modern liberal democracy can function. The best way for America to promote the growth of democracy abroad is to refine and highlight its practice at home.

America must help shape a future worth creating, and thus cannot operate from without, but must lead from within. A grand strategy of sustainment is predicated on the recognition of America's proud and enduring role as a world leader, and recognizes that America is more safe and secure when it exercises its power and influence to promote shared global goods.

Americans have not been well served by a narrow debate over tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader threat of terrorism. Such a debate, important though it is, remains well below the dimension of grand strategy, and can no longer obviate the need for a larger, grander American purpose.

Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and almost seven years after 9/11, our country needs a grand strategy that is strong, pragmatic, and principled. A grand strategy aimed at sustaining American leadership and renewing its moral authority as a champion of peace and an exemplar of liberty is ambitious, worthy of the costs required, and long overdue.

Shawn Brimley is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.


SWJ Editors' Links (Updated)

A Grand Strategy of Sustainment - Matthew Yglesias, The Atlantic

Sustainment - Ilan Goldenberg, Democracy Arsenal

Sustainment - Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic

Kinder, Gentler Superpower - Jules Crittenden, Forward Movement

A Grand Strategy of Sustainment - Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interest

4GW: A Solution of the Second Kind - Fabius Maximus


G. Alistar

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 4:32pm

Speaking of WMD, let's hope that it does not take one to the homeland to wake up our political leaders. Yep, I know that the Army CSA (Retired) GEN Gordon Sullivan penned the famous quote, "Hope is not a method."

c.l. ball (not verified)

Sun, 03/30/2008 - 12:16pm

I like the general idea, and think that the economic and global commons planks are excellent ideas. Both have conceptual tie-ins outside of grand strategy (which I think of as the theory of how to make a state secure) to address environmental concerns, like global warming, pollution, and fisheries management.

An open economy is not necessarily a global public good, however. Cheaters can be excluded, so it is a global club good. Put differently, if an open economy were a public good, then embargoes would be impossible.

The stable balances of power concept is tricky, however. Pure collective security would be a global common good if and only if a victim-state was certain to be defended. But defense can be excluded: witness the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It is instead a club good: the US and Ethiopia were able to exclude Somalia from defense against armed intervention.

But the real problem is not that maintaining regional BOPs is a club good but that it is hard -- very hard -- to balance power effectively in a region. Witness the 1990 Gulf War: the US had been attempting to balance littoral Arab power against Iran, and it backfired badly and led to the awkward and unsustainable 'dual containment' doctrine. Northeast Asia is a similar BOP nightmare: NK v. SK; NK & SK v. Japan; China v. Japan; Taiwan v. China; China v. India. Moreover, we have qualitative arms races as well as quantitative ones going on.

The end of the Cold War and the unipolar US status by traditional measures of power mean that the US faces few obvious military threats. Regional stability is more important to preserve the open international economy than anything else. No state has the ability to project military force globally as the US does. Even China has made no substantive moves in this direction.

Section9 (not verified)

Wed, 03/26/2008 - 12:39am

Ach, this reads like boilerplate for the Obama Campaign.

However, given the fact that the writer makes a reasoned case for investment in naval and air assets, I will assume otherwise.

You don't see the Chinese pursuing this kind of utter nonsense. The notion that the U.S. must preside over a vast array of alliances persists because <i>that's what we did during the Cold War</i>. Inertia, after all, is a force all its own. I suspect that the utility of NATO, for example, has long passed. We persist out of sentiment, but largely because the Europeans remain friendly enough to us to enjoy the hidden military subsidy for their welfare states.

The American people are, thankfully, returning to the wisdom of the Farewell Address. The notion that we may solve everyone's problem is fatuous, and we must think anew, and act anew.

This article is merely warmed over Wilsonianism for the Obama era. Interventionism with a Happy Face.

Ucko and Brimley are both deluded. The alternatives were virtually nil. The goodwill and alliances they tout were paper-thin, and have exposed themselves as such. The international institutions they would rely on are deeply compromised by massive short-sighted blocs of the superficial and self-interested.

Only the US has grasped the nettle, and will reap the rewards. The cost has been negligible; both military expenditures and deaths are lower than in the preceding "peacetime" years. Europe is about to reap the whirlwind for its neglect of the realities the US has (partially) confronted.

David Ucko (not verified)

Fri, 03/21/2008 - 11:05am

Abu Suleyman: Saying that the invasion was great, but the occupation, well, less so is to separate two inseparable parts of the operation - particularly as the aim was always regime-*change*. The alternative - toppling the regime and somehow getting out of there - would surely not have worked. So what's the point of celebrating the invasion as a bold move if there are no plans or willingness to consider the aftermath. It's like raving about a jump off a building and then lamenting the inevitable fall.

The other issue with going after Iraq in '03 - which has been discussed so much that I'm suprised it is being raised again - is OPPORTUNITY COST. What else could have been done in 02-03, when the US enjoyed widespread goodwill and support?

It was Woodward who quoted Powell as saying that the run-up to war sucked nearly all the oxygen from every other issue in foreign relations. I think that trend continued for some time.

Abu Suleyman

Fri, 03/21/2008 - 10:40am

While I am not sure that I understand what this article is talking about, and I get the feeling that I have only heard half of the conversation, at first blush I believe that it leaves the most important implicit question unanswered. Essentially if, as author admits, force is necessary to continue the strategy of sustainment, then how are we supposed to know when to use that force.

I would argue that <i>invading</i> Iraq was one of the best things that we could have done to improve our standing in the world, especially among the rogue states. OF course the islamists hated it, as did the 'peace at all cost' types, but it sent a firm message to the world that America really was willing to take issues to the wall. There is strong indication that the reason that Saddam Hussein was put up such a good front of WMD's was he believed that the U.S. was not good for its word. That we were all bluster. Iraq proved that wrong.

It was the occupation and mishandling thereof that did tremendous damage to our military and our image overseas. We have returned to where we were before, with the world believing that we no longer have the political will, and in some cases ability to use force.

This is being discussed right now in the national political realm. Sen. Obama claims that he had better judgment on Iraq. Be that as it may, I would ask the question, what was it that lead to that better judgment? If it was just a general opposition to military force, then we essentially abdicate all battles requiring the military to the enemy. If it is just a tingling in the leg at the time, then it is not generalizable to other situations.

This remains the question for all respondents. If force is authorized at times but not at others, how can we know when it is judicious to use it? Which side should we err on, when in doubt? It is really easy to see when there are mistakes in the past, and general promogulations of policy are easy. But without specific guidelines and prescriptions they are useless.