Small Wars Journal

No Narrative, No Support, No Problem: Crafting Grand Strategy in Postmodern America

Thu, 08/25/2022 - 5:11pm

No Narrative, No Support, No Problem: Crafting Grand Strategy in Postmodern America

By Garrett Martin


            The growing distrust amongst Americans has strategic implications. It seems that Americans no longer agree on what unifies them, what their national objectives are, and what narrative frames their collective reality. Without public buy-in of a unifying national narrative, the government will face increasing domestic resistance to its political and military objectives. A population unable or unwilling to support national narratives not only loses its sense of trajectory, but also the strength of its collective will. A nation at war with itself, even in a rhetorical sense, is insufficiently equipped with the public support necessary to effectively wage war against its adversaries. The growing domestic cynicism towards national narratives indicates a population transitioning into postmodernism – a social shift that will require a uniquely adaptive grand strategy to align national security efforts. A “postmodern grand strategy” may provide additional advantages my reducing strategic overdetermination.

Postmodern America

If modernity was marked by intentional society building, then the U.S. was a decidedly modern nation from its inception. Whether we give credit to its providential roots[1] or its galvanizing war narratives,[2] Americans have generally enjoyed a clear sense of purpose. The last two decades, however, lie in stark contrast to the previous twenty-five as Americans have grown jaded to their narratives. When a populace loses that unifying narrative, when they become “incredulous of meta narratives,” they transition out of modernity and into postmodernity.

The impetus behind American social disunity is highly debatable but its consequences are becoming increasingly conspicuous. American public skepticism extends not only to news media – it is estimated that less than a third of cable news viewers believe stories are covered accurately[3] – but to virtually all U.S. institutions,[4] particularly the presidency.[5] The COVID-19 pandemic offered a recent example of the growing skepticism Americans express towards narratives posed by institutions.[6]

Civic narratives, unfortunately, face perhaps the most scrutiny as Americans continually lose faith in their democratic process.[7] Escalating rhetoric emanating from the political duopoly eroded public trust in American democracy given that leading party figures have questioned the presidential election results in 2000,[8] 2008,[9] 2016,[10] and 2020.[11] Even the military’s perceived legitimacy, which usually benefits from higher public confidence than most formal institutions, is on a downward trend.[12] The loss of a national narrative represents a constellation of problems that are political, social, and cultural, but it also manifests as a uniquely challenging security problem: without popular support of a narrative, American leadership must reconceptualize the prospect of grand strategy.

American Grand Strategy      

Grand strategy can be understood in a number of ways but most simply as “the use of power to secure the state”[13] or “a polity’s conception of its security goals and of the ways it plans to ensure its security.”[14] An effective grand strategy, however, clearly articulates national aspirations tempered by its capabilities.[15] These national security aspirations are then contextualized through narrative in order to gain public support. Consider the American public’s buy-in to WWII. Americans generally took significant steps to support war efforts, even beyond the 6.3 million who voluntarily joined the military.[16] Civilians accepted rationing, supported the vast manufacturing efforts of the war economy, grew victory gardens, and donated scrap materials; it is estimated that nearly seven pounds of rubber scrap were donated by every person in the U.S. in response to the “rubber drought.”[17] Domestic support on such a grand scale is virtually inconceivable today largely due to the deteriorating relationship between Americans and their national narratives.

Narratives not only fill the interstices between the collective public will and national ambitions but they come to shape the collective consciousness. Philip Smith notes in his study of national war narratives that “people make sense of world with stories and act accordingly.”[18] In the age of modernity, this has largely been accomplished through the manufacturing of consent.[19] But formal institutions are losing their narrative hegemony as they lose their credibility. The future of American grand strategy thus cannot rationally rely on narrative support. It would be prudent for the U.S. to draft its grand strategy with its postmodern population in mind.

Postmodern Grand Strategy

A postmodern grand strategy would avoid the pitfalls of “futurology” by conscientiously eschewing the anticipation of future geopolitical landscapes. The hubris of pretending to know what the world will look like in 25 years (the DOD’s current benchmark) is clear if one tries to reason how 2022’s realities could have been foreseen in 1997 – China, for starters, was ranked 8th in global GDP.[20] Not projecting for the future may seem counterintuitive to contemporary strategy, but this would force the alignment of current aspirations with current capabilities. The DOD fixation on attempting to anticipate the next battlespace has done little, strategically, beyond figuring what to fund next. A postmodern grand strategy would do well to narrow its scope, anticipating little, and instead favoring an honest look at what can be done in the relative here and now. A strategic plan of five years may provide a more advantageous scope.

By reducing its scope, the U.S. can better manage the challenges of scale. This is to say a postmodern grand strategy would not force an interpretation of shifting geopolitical realities to fit within its worldview. Rather, it would approach incipient events as opportunities for the gradual expansion of the edges of its strategy. Principles would guide these incremental adjustments instead of a grand narrative. In his history of grand strategy, John Gaddis posits that:

If, in evolution, edges of chaos reward adaptation; if, in history, adaptation fortifies resilience; and if, in individuals, resilience accommodates unknowns more readily than rigidity, then it stands to reason that a gradual expansion of edges better equips leaders for the unexpected than those that shock, leaving little time to adapt, or those inherited, which breed entitlement and arrogance, its companion.[21]

Grand strategic narratives innately create an overdetermination that can lead to strategic overstretch.[22] Choosing instead to embrace the “edges of chaos,” guided by fidelity in national principles, allows a nation-state to seize unfolding opportunities with flexibility without sacrificing intentionality; grand narratives inherently limit the perceived availability of options.

Deconstructing grand strategy naturally refocuses how strategic principles connect to practices in a manner akin to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. [23] The principles that inform practice would likely be economic in nature but could also contour to any desired security goal. For example, if military leadership articulated “maintaining nuclear supremacy” as a principle, then efforts to reduce or restrict nuclear proliferation would be deemed appropriate practice. The practices may very well still employ or at least imply military action, but American grand strategy can no longer take military means as their strategic ends. Despite this nuance, the next iteration of American grand strategy would do well to avoid simply supporting “capitalism” as its only guiding principle because in practice this has left the nation in an undeniably vulnerable position. The unfettered support of capitalism has helped to grow the People’s Republic of China to its world conquering proportions. China has successfully absorbed the vast majority of America’s manufacturing, leaving the U.S. in a stunningly vulnerable position economically and militarily as it would be unable to reproduce the war economy of WWII. The next set of principles to inform American strategic practices must actively seek to reduce such vulnerabilities by no longer subordinating the interests of the nation to the interests of its lobbyists.[24]



By shedding its grand narrative, the U.S. could employ a strategy that is more flexible and better equipped to adapt to unfolding events, and may even benefit overall by being less predictable. We can assume that most nations will continue on as rational actors within their individual grand strategies, allowing the U.S. to exploit their rationality. The U.S., in contrast, would become a more difficult nation to strategize against as its motives would become more ambiguous. In game theory, this approach would be called a “mixed strategy” [25] in that it introduces a certain degree of randomness or irrationality; this is a mathematically supported strategy when faced with an opponent that is likely to outthink you, which is perhaps the situation the U.S. is currently in. Conceptualizing grand strategy in a postmodern context offers insights into leveraging an absentee narrative into an advantage. In an environment where nation-states are led by overdetermined hedgehogs, the United States can recover its fleeting supremacy by acting like a fox.[26]



[1] Philip Gorski, American Covenant (Princeton University Press, 2017); Nicholas Guyatt, Providence and the Invention of the U.S. 1607 – 1876 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] John W. Dower, War Without Mercy (Pantheon Books, 1986); Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War (Penguin Books, 2005); Philip Smith, Why War? (The University of Chicago Press 2005); Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[4] Madeline Halpert, “Trust in U.S. Institutions Hits Record Low, Poll Finds,” Forbes, Jul. 5, 2022.

[5] “In Depth Topics: Confidence in Institutions,” Gallop.

[6] “The Public’s Perspective on the United States Public Health System,” Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, May 2021, ; Cydney Livingston, “Black Americans’ Vaccine Hesitancy Is Grounded in More Than Mistrust,” Research Blog, April 8, 2021,

[7] “Fall 2021 Harvard Youth Poll,” The Institute of Politics at Harvard University, December 1, 2021,

[8] “Democrats to investigate voter problems in 2000 election,” CNN (Jan. 2001).

[9] Ben Smith, “Palin: Obama birth certificate ‘a fair question’,” Politico (2009)

[12] “In Depth Topics: Confidence in Institutions,” Gallop.

[13] R.D. Hooker, Jr. “The Grand Strategy of the United States,” INSS Strategic Monograph (National Defense University Press 2014).

[14] Pascal Vennesson, “Europe’s Grand Strategy: The Search for Postmodern Realism” European Foreign Policy in an Evolving International System (Palgrave Macmillan 2007).

[15] John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (Penguin Press 2018). 

[17] Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, p. 266 – 267 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2019).

[18] Philip Smith, Why War? p. 18 (The University of Chicago Press 2005).

[19] Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon Books 1988).

[21] John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, p. 250 (Penguin Press 2018).

[22] John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, p. 215 (Penguin Press 2018).

[23] John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, p. 63 (Penguin Press 2018).

[24] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New Edition (Oxford University Press 2000); Smedley Butler, War is a Racket (Round Table Press 1935).

[25] Kevin Zollman, “How to Outfox Someone Who is Smarter than You,” BigThink (2018).

[26] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (Princeton University Press 2013).

About the Author(s)

Garrett Martin is a graduate student at UCLA, a Marine Corps veteran, and a research fellow at the Naval Postgraduate School in the department of Defense Analysis. His research centers on propaganda, psychological operations, culture, and the role of group identity in contemporary warfare.