Essays & Reviews

McDougall: Can America Do Grand Strategy?

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI)-Temple University Consortium on Grand Strategy has published an essay by University of Pennsylvania Professsor WalterA. McDougall, on “Can the United States Do Grand Strategy?” This essay was presented in October 2009 at the Consortium on Grand Strategy, a project sponsored jointly by FPRI and Temple University’s Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy. The Consortium was established in 2009 as part of the Hertog Program on Grand Strategy.
McDougall surveys the history of the American experience with grand strategy, even if Americans never thought of it as such, by using the categories of 19th and 20th century foreign policy traditions that he developed in his 1997 book, Promised Land, Crusader State.  He also reviews critically the arguments of contemporary American scholars of various persuasions.  He asks whther grand strategy has to be articulated for it to be said to exist at all; and if not, can grand strategy be said to move a nation even when that nation’s fluctuating roster of mostly incompetent leaders are unsure as to why they do anything?  His answer with respect  to the United States seems to be, respectively no and yes — there are continuities that of foreign policy, and an intuitive sense of strategy among the American people, which characterize certain periods (which is not to say that all traditions are equally valuable).  “The historical record would seem to indicate, first, that the United States can and has embraced grand strategies (even during the eras once scorned as isolationist), second, that strategies based on realist premises have been mostly fruitful, and third, that strategies based on idealist premises have been mostly abortive.”
McDougall poses the question differently — whether the U.S. government is capable formally of planning, coordinating and executing grand strategy with sufficient competence to secure the nation and its vital interests?   Here he expresses strong doubts:  “World weary as I am, having witnessed so many disappointing and disillusioning cycles of politics and foreign policy, having acquired so much vicarious experience of human folly and forgetfulness from my study of history, I nurture no hope that a great burst of grand strategic creativity lies just ahead. Oh, this or a subsequent administration may make institutional reforms, such as insisting that the National Security Strategy document address resources and means instead of just goals, or reinventing the Eisenhower NSC structure with its Planning and Operations Coordinating boards.”  [Note:  Eisenhower, and Eisenhower’s policy planning process, is clearly McDougall’s favorite among post-World War II administrations]  The best that probably can be hoped for is for policy-makers to be aware of common mistakes — and avoid making the wrong mistake, as Yogi Berra would say.  To wit:  “Grand strategy, whatever other ambitions it may serve, cannot aim at the abolition or obviation of grand strategy itself. That is why U.S. strategists, while devoting all their imagination to the prevention of specific dangers, cannot be about eliminating the possibility of deadly scenarios altogether.”
McDougall offers one interesting example of sound vs. unsound grand strategy.
Indeed, one useful measure of sound grand strategy could be derived from the successful example of the United States’ rise to world power and the failed examples of Germany and Japan. Paul Kennedy elegantly styled the latter “middle powers” seeking to break into the ranks of the world powers seemingly destined to loom over the coming twentieth century: the Russian, British, and American empires. Kennedy underscored their importance by discarding the usual periodization with breaks at 1871, 1890, and 1914, in favor of a section beginning in 1885, when Meiji Japan and Imperial Germany began questing for overseas empire.  In two world wars their excellent general staffs backed by fully supportive regimes conducted military operations at the highest level and won stunning triumphs. But they brought utter ruin in the end because they wrongly assumed that sufficient operational success at the level of strategy could transform realities at the level of grand strategy. My definition of sound grand strategy, therefore, simply postulates the opposite: an equation of ends and means so sturdy that it triumphs despite serial setbacks at the level of strategy, operations, and campaigns. The classic example is Allied grand strategy during World War II.
I would note with McDougall that American grand strategy to that point, whether consciously or unconsciously, had put the United States in the position of sufficient “depth” to be able to suffer major tactical, operational and even strategic setbacks without threatening the core interests of the regime — Vietnam being a more modern example — with the caveat that there is obviously a point at which the accumulation of such defeats overwhelms grand strategy.