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U.S. Grand Strategy is Alive and Well - The Evidence is Happening All Around Us

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U.S. Grand Strategy is Alive and Well - The Evidence is Happening All Around Us

Philip W. Reynolds

The U.S. grand strategy is alive and well and working all around us.  This is not apparent to Kori Schake of King’s College, who writes about “the damage President Donald Trump and his team have done to America’s standing in the world” in The Atlantic.  Now, undoubtedly Trump’s twittering and policy position flip-flopping have made the world leery of anything coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Schake is the just the latest of the handwringers of the lack of a U.S. grand strategy.  Most opinions have been voiced over a perceived decline in American power, either hard power (on the right) or soft power (on the left) and the lack of a grand strategy to maintain the status quo. Thankfully, many have come from the rarified air of academia, and thus brook no concern.  Most are op-eds that are little read, or think-tank compendiums that play to various constituencies.  The Washington Post has eulogized the thingThe Atlantic has demanded a return to American exceptionalism,  the Los Angeles Times has fronted a return to ‘spreading democracy’, and the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman exulting in the Obama doctrine of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’.  The Heritage Foundation has chimed in.  Amazon has well over a thousand books listed with grand strategy in the title.  It seems a rather powerfully and interesting idea.

This desire for a ‘grand strategy’ is firmly rooted in the good wars of the past, and the easy-to-digest bipolarity of the cold war.  It helped that Fascism was easy to define, understand, and observe.  The Soviet Empire was similar in singular ability to use government force to control people’s lives.  The West, with its traditions of individual freedoms and rights to private property, could easily determine the need to pay any price for confrontation.

The problem with the cold war grand strategy, situated as it was in a singular bi-polar world, is that it theorized a world in which the U.S. was a hegemon.  In practice, it was predicated on hard power, and tough bargaining with partner countries that left little doubt about the new American economic empire.  In this kind of world, mistakes are made, like Vietnam and Iraq.

Enter Schake: In the Middle East, Iran is seizing British flagged oil tankers, and in Northeast Asia, Chinese and Russian planes flew over contested airspace, before being engaged by a South Korean fighter, and Australia is taking the lead in working with smaller partner nations.  The world has gone mad and the U.S. is nowhere to be seen is her analysis.  However, Schake’s research is considerably trifling.

This is wrong.  The U.S. policy since George Marshall announced his plan in 1947 has been one of keeping U.S. Allies strong, and making smaller partners stronger.  In international relations theory, this is known as ‘off-shoring’, which Schake, as a professor of War Studies should be aware.  The theory of multipolarity, when translated into action, sees a world in which many nations take up the challenge of securing themselves.  This ‘off-shoring’ of security requirements sees many powers, not just one hegemon, which as described earlier, is assuredly as imperialistic as anything the Romans ventured.  Specifically, sharing the responsibilities of security throughout the world make other countries less inclined to bandwagon against the strong.  In this light, the events of the past weeks can be viewed quite differently

Schake sees the lack of U.S. participation, particularly in the Persian Gulf as a weakness.  This is not the case.  The U.S. position vis a vis the Iranian nuclear deal is well known, and not that popular with U.S. allies and partners.  Now, Iran has British and French frigates, operating quite apart from the U.S., watching closely its actions.  But this is only analysis of the first degree.  The British Army is firmly embedded in the U.S. Central Command, along with her Navy in the subordinate Naval Forces Command headquartered in Bahrain. British, French and Australian ships have been operating with the anti-piracy Task Force 150 and 151 in the Arabian Gulf for years.   The British and French operate seamlessly with the U.S. Far from being a sign of U.S. weakness, having British and French ships patrolling the Gulf is a significant plus-up of Allied power in the region.

If armed force is to be used, this time it will not be U.S. intelligence bludgeoning Allies into agreement, as in Iraq.  Now it will be British and French sailors sparking the debate in their home countries.  Agreement for the use of force will simply be much easier to achieve.  This makes the U.S. position much stronger.

As for Schake’s despair over Australia’s role in the Pacific, it should suffice to say that an active duty Australian officer is a deputy commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific, the component tasked with overseeing training with partner and Allied countries.  Australian soldiers are present for all the major U.S. training exercises, and routinely take the lead in working with the island countries of South Pacific.  Australia is an exceeding strong ally, trusted, and certainly makes the U.S. position stronger in the region.

The last incident involving the Chinese and Russian violation of Korean airspace, was not mentioned by Schake, but serves to illustrate my case.  The South Korean story is one of the greatest in the history of U.S. foreign policy.  From 1953 onward, the Koreans have grown stronger, exercising constantly with U.S. forces.  Far from what the pundits have said, for many years it has been the Korean Army, not the U.S., that has kept the peace on the peninsula.  In light of many armistice violations the South Korean government has restrained itself, a feat of strength, not weakness.  When confronted by Chinese and Russian planes in their airspace, the Koreans and Japanese responded, not by asking for U.S. assistance, but standing on their own.  The U.S. has worked for years to create a sense of understanding between the Korea and Japanese governments and armed forces, not easy given their own colonial history.  Their response to this most recent incident makes the U.S. position much stronger.

To recap: A multipolar view of the world inclines far more towards justice than one in which the U.S. jealousy protects her position.  The British and French are firmly in the U.S. and NATO camps, and are defending their democracies, not docile parroting of the U.S. position.  In Asia, Liberalism is anchored by Korea, Japan and Australia in a grand arc.  This is not the work of Trump, but the sum of endless work over decades to make the U.S. safer.  Recent events are vindication of this ‘offshoring’ strategy.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Philip W. Reynolds is a visiting scholar at the Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii.  He is the author of Ouroboros: Understanding the War Machine of Liberalism.


The gist of the argument is that since 1991, the U.S. has departed from a strategy of offshoring or offshore balancing in favor of taking the bulk of the load ourselves.  So, instead of departing the Arabian Peninsula after pushing Iraq out of Kuwait, and supporting a strong regional partner to keep the Iraqis in check, we stayed and did it ourselves.  Ditto in the Balkans, where we essentially replaced the EU.  Ditto in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq 10-15 years later.  So the debate now is instead of bulking up U.S. presence in the Pacific and Europe, we instead shore up selected U.S. regional allies to provide conventional deterrence in their own back yards.

Note that Marshall's vision was never wholly implemented -- he didn't, for instance, favor the large Cold War U.S. garrisons in Germany and Korea -- and that his plan of "keeping U.S. Allies strong, and making smaller partners stronger" required some level of subsidy, which he regarded as cheaper than maintaining a large, forward-deployed, standing U.S. force.  The actual Cold War implementation was to do both -- forward deploy U.S. forces AND subsidize allies -- and the post-Cold War scheme has been to keep our (reduced) forces forward, but eliminate (or reduce) the subsidizes to allies. 

The current administration wants allies to strengthen themselves without being subsidized (not unreasonable, considering their economies are in much better shape than in 1947)...the debate is how far forward to deploy U.S. forces. 

Bill C.

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 12:54pm

From our article above -- sixth paragraph: 


This is wrong.  The U.S. policy since George Marshall announced his plan in 1947 has been one of keeping U.S. Allies strong, and making smaller partners stronger.  In international relations theory, this is known as ‘off-shoring’, which Schake, as a professor of War Studies should be aware.  ... 


Something seems to be wrong with the analysis; this, given that:

If figures such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Christopher Layne have -- for some time now -- been making the case that we SHOULD ADOPT an offshore balancing grand strategy

Then how is it that our author -- Dr. Reynolds above -- can suggest that such (an "offshoring" grand strategy) is something that (a) WE ALREADY HAVE and (b) HAVE HAD since "George Marshall announced his plan in 1947" ??????

What am I missing here?  Is it something that should be, and glaringly is, obvious to everyone else?

(For example, some exceptionally well-known distinction between "offshoring" and "offshore balancing?")

I'm a big fan of Kori Schake, but I tend to agree here (qualified).  Unfortunately, the national security establishment's dislike for Trump results in predictable opposition to his administration's foreign policies.  Prior to the election 'upset' in November 2016, it seemed as though the entirety of the unipolar interventionist crowd was expecting another Clinton in the White House, and was expecting that administration to take off the muzzles and manacles that Obama had placed on America's foreign policy 'muscles' during his second term.  They were expecting an expanded US role in Syria and Ukraine, and a NFZ in Syria - Russia's air campaign notwithstanding - was mooted by candidate Clinton.  


It's also noteworthy that criticism of the current administration's foreign policy seems unusually strong, given the track records of Clinton, Bush, and Obama.  


Grand strategy always strikes me as an ex post facto idea e.g. Britain's offshore balancing.  Thus far, Trump's administration seems dead-set on confronting China economically and militarily, albeit both the TPP, JCPOA, and NAFTA would help in this area.   


What the administration has done, is crossed the Rubicon where protectionism and arms control are concerned.  It's sledgehammer approach  to the sacred marble cows will enable successive administrations to use chisels instead, now that the great blows have been landed.  


Yet Trump is not - and most importantly is perceived not to be - a champion of liberal democracy.  Indeed, he has harsher words for the military spending and trade balances of US allies, than for the aggressive tyrants in Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang.  Perhaps he seeks to flatter his enemies even as he cajoles his allies, but that would be a charitable interpretation of the man's incoherence and apparent lack of intelligence.