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Rethinking US Grand Strategy

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Rethinking US Grand Strategy

Peter Layton

Great power competition is today’s defining strategic issue.  Crucially this competition is seen as remaining below the level of great power armed conflict, instead ranging across diverse areas including economic, diplomatic, cyber, information campaigns and proxy wars. Such diversity gives the great powers much more choice in the grand strategies they could potentially use to advance their interests than during the Cold War bi-polar confrontation.

In sharp contrast, American grand strategy thinking has today been captured by a single approach. A recent review of contemporary US grand strategy proposals found the neorealist international relations theory dominates. This way of looking at how the world works has been further narrowed down to the ‘balancing’ subtype.[1]  Demonstrating how entrenched this theory now is, the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s approach is effectively neo-realism 101 with balancing at centre stage.[2]

Neo-realism (new realism) considers all states act the same with their foreign policies determined by relative military power balances. It’s the theory that gives us terms such as uni-polar, bi-polar, multi-polar, making us see the world in terms of military might and conflict. The international system’s structure is key. In way of contrast, in just plain-vanilla realism, human nature is the key; individuals innately seek dominance over others.

For practical people such neo-realist abstractions become really important when it’s recalled that ‘balancing’ – more formally termed a balance of power - involves the threat or use of violence. Under this, war can play a major role and is both acceptable behaviour and a legitimate means of statecraft. Creating a favourable balance of power may require a major war between the great powers.

The neo-realist balancing approach seems to be purposefully constructing an uninviting future where success is either uncertain or ugly. In the National Defense Strategy the two great powers of concern are China and Russia. A future China may overtake the US in economic power and be able to spend more on defense than America, and potentially create a larger military force. On the numbers, China might win a ‘balancing’ relative power game. Russia is easier through being in long-term economic and demographic decline but has considerable nuclear forces which makes using war as a means of statecraft unappealing. A nuclear victory might be a pyrrhic one.

There are other options and other roads that could be taken. As noted, this era of great power geopolitical competition is one where a diversity of means can and are being used. This characteristic suggests a diversity of perspectives should be used when thinking about grand strategy. This does not mean that neorealism – or balancing – not feature in grand strategy thinking merely that other perspectives not be overlooked. American grand strategy is too important to allow myopia to unintentionally limit debate. It is worthwhile thinking more broadly.

To suggest what is possible and encourage consideration of different framing perspectives I’ve recently written a paper published under the DoD’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment program. This paper derived some grand strategy alternatives specifically related to China (twelve) and Russia (ten) by drawing on a broader spectrum of international relation’s theories than only neorealism.[3] The paper does not advocate any particular grand strategy but instead quickly sketches alternatives, hoping to provoke creative thinking and innovation.

The grand strategy alternatives outlined could each create a different future but these are more than simply possibilities. The various ends and ways sketched are not products of the imagination but rather derived from international relations theoretical perspectives that have been developed, assessed and critiqued in academia over an extended period. In being so devised the alternatives are given a structure useful in assessing these and other options.

Such an approach means there are some differences to that taken elsewhere. The most obvious is that national interests do not drive the grand strategies examined.  National interest is a contested term mainly due to its vagueness and imprecision. Any societal group or individual can claim any objective is in the national interest.[4] Moreover knowing when the national interest has been achieved is difficult, as they are mostly open-ended, aspirational statements.  ‘National interest’ is also somewhat astrategic. The term by definition encompasses only one nation whereas strategy involves at least a bi-lateral relationship between ‘us’ and ‘them’. If strategy intrinsically involves interacting with others, deriving strategies with reference to only a single state is inherently problematic.

While ends can be explained more fully by avoiding ‘national interest’, grand strategy is inherently about ways.  While many ways are possible, the paper uses the fundamental ways of changing an existing relationship with another state into something better: stopping them doing something, working with them or trying to change their minds.  Incorporating international relations theoretical thinking leads to three broad grand strategy types.[5]

Denial grand strategies are constructed around the notion that superior power determines outcomes; you can stop others achieving their objectives by being more powerful than them. Engagement grand strategies make use of groups in the other state that have interests and desires that you share, or at least that are useful to you. Reform grand strategies endeavour to change the ideas people hold.

The potential grand strategies discussed are as follows:


The alternatives given are very much a high-level outline. Determinations on which are preferred would require deeper investigation. Some may impose a resource burden some consider imprudent while others may clash with strategic culture. Importantly, it is problematic blending different grand strategy types; history suggests doing so may lead to incoherence and failure.[6]

Considering a range of alternative grand strategies to meet the challenges China and Russia pose can help advance creative thinking and innovation. There is real utility to strategizing using different framing mechanisms. These challenges are of a type and scale that makes accepting theoretical diversity and rejecting myopia essential when formulating new grand strategies. 

End Notes

[1]. Rebecca Friedman Lissner, ‘What is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield’, Texas National Security Review, Vol.2, Iss.1, November 2018, pp.52-73.

[2]. The just released Indo-Pacific strategy nicely illustrates this aspect. See Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region, (2019), Washington: Department of Defense, 1 June, p.16.

[3]. Peter Layton, Grand Strategy Alternatives 2019, Invited Perspective Series, Series Editor: Sarah Canna, Strategic Multilayer Assessment, Future of Global Competition & Conflict Effort, March 2019,

[4]. Arnold Wolfers, '"National Security" as an Ambiguous Symbol', Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 4, December 1952, pp. 481-502.

 [5]. Peter Layton, Grand Strategy, Brisbane, 2018, pp. 37-92,

[6]. Ibid, pp 153-169.

Categories: grand strategy

About the Author(s)

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A former RAAF Group Captain, he has extensive defense experience, including in the Pentagon and at National Defense University. He holds a doctorate in grand strategy. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.


Part I:

The "starting place" for our discussion of grand strategy must begin, I suggest, with an understanding that:

a.  Much as the Soviets/the communist lost the Cold War cir. 1990,

b.  The U.S./the West lost the Post-Cold War cir. 2017.


To help us understand how the Soviets/the communist lost the Cold War cir. 1990 -- and the U.S./the West lost the Post-Cold War cir. 2017 -- let us (a) first look at what the Cold War and the Post-Cold War were all about and then (b) look at how each such "war" ended:

1.  What the Cold War was all about:

"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other." 

(From Hans Morgenthau's 1967 "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.") 

2. How the Cold War ended (cir. 1990): 

From perspective offered by Morgenthau above, the Cold War ends when the Soviets/the communists abandon their "expand, transform and incorporate" missions -- and embrace more-"Western-like" reforms instead.  

3.  What the Post-Cold War was all about:

"Throughout the Cold War, we contained a global threat to market democracies; now we should seek to enlarge their reach, particularly in places of special significance to us.

The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement -- enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies.

During the Cold War, even children understood America's security mission; as they looked at those maps on their schoolroom walls, they knew we were trying to contain the creeping expansion of that big, red blob. Today, at great risk of oversimplification, we might visualize our security mission as promoting the enlargement of the 'blue areas' of market democracies." 

(From then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake's 1993 "From Containment to Enlargement.")

4.  How the Post-Cold War ended (cir. 2017):

From the perspective offered by NSA Lake above, the Post-Cold War ends when the U.S./the West (much like China and the Soviet Union before us?) abandons, in this case, OUR "expand, transform and incorporate" missions -- and embraces certain of our enemies' (for example: "we'll take you as you are?") attributes and approaches instead:

Prime Minister Theresa May:

“It is in our interests – those of Britain and America together – to stand strong together to defend our values, our interests and the very ideas in which we believe,” she said.

"This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

President Donald Trump:

"We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”

Part II: 

Now let us look at Page 14 of the larger, more comprehensive paper -- referenced by our author Peter Layton at Paragraph 7 of his introductory document here -- and consider same in in relation to my Part I explanation above:


A reform grand strategy aims to change another’s social rules. The transformation sought could be as fundamental as establishing a new political culture, or much less consequential in simply altering some specific social rules concerning a single issue. Reformed social rules may not necessarily change a state’s capabilities or social purpose, but the state’s actions and behaviour will be different. Some argue an example is the way the Cold War ended after Mikhail Gorbachev and other elites in the USSR as part of perestroika embraced new norms and identities. ... "

Bottom Line Questions -- Based on the Above:

a.  Does my Part I explanation above -- as relates to the Soviets/the communists "defeat" cir. 1990 -- and the U.S./the West similar "defeat" cir. 2017 -- meet the "reform" criteria addressed by author Peter Layton at my Part II immediately above?  If so,

b.  Then what are the ramifications (if any) of this such U.S. "defeat" -- as relates to addressing and determining U.S. grand strategy today and in the future?