Essays & Reviews

Ionut C. Popescu on Grand Strategy: Adaptability, Not Grand Design

Ionut C. Popescu (Assistant Professor in the Robertson School of Government, Regent University), offers this commentary on the Obama administration and its attitude towards grand strategy. As Popescu notes, Obama signaled in an interview that his foreign policy vision is not based on an overarching design to accomplish a long-term goal.  Obama emphasized that he aims for small incremental changes rather than the pursuit of a grand design: “…you take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.” (This corresponds with his earlier remark that foreign policy was “not doing stupid [stuff].)”

Contrary to what many strategic scholars contend, Popescu argues, Obama’s emergent approach to grand strategy is actually more sensible than the pursuit of an overarching design. In general, the connection between grand designs and successful grand strategies is far less clear than many experts simply assume.

For example, even during the Cold War, America’s grand strategy came more from an emergent process rather than being the product of farsighted designs. He cites scholars such as Wilson Miscamble (and I would add Elizabeth Edwards Spalding) who have shown how George Kennan’s original designs had far less influence in shaping containment than today’s pundits and policymakers assume. In Popescu’s judgment, there was no single “grand design” that guided U.S. policy during the Cold War, but rather a continuous process of formulating and implementing strategies (plural, as John Gaddis famously titled his study of containment) by different administrations, based partly on their respective “lessons learned” from crises in Greece, Turkey, Berlin, Korea, and Vietnam, among others. Any good strategy must evolve with the context in which it is applied, and containment was no different. Kennan himself recognized this.

Popescu contends that cause of Obama’s foreign policy problems are not caused by the lack of a grand design, but by the administration’s inability to learn from its mistakes and adapt to unexpected circumstances.  It is not the incremental process of strategy-making that plagues Obama’s foreign policy, it is rather the administration’s failure to learn and adapt as effectively as previous U.S. policymakers did during the Cold War.

An adaptive strategy approach somewhat similar to Obama’s own understanding of how to navigate today’s fluid international environment, is exactly what top management consulting firms like the Boston Consulting Group recommend. These ideas challenge the national security orthodoxy by showing that, in turbulent environments, “successful strategies emerge from practice rather than from analysis and design.” However, successful strategizing in the absence of long-term plans is dependent on how well policymakers learn from their actions. “The most important thing a government can do is learn,” the Boston Consulting Group argues. The Obama administration, alas, showed a remarkable inability to learn from some of its early mistakes and misconceptions about how the world works. That needs to change if the president wants to leave behind a world “a little bit better” than he found it, to use his own definition of his goals.

I recommend that you read the remainder of Popescu’s short essay, which goes into more detail about Obama’s difficulties and which contrasts the ability of this administration to learn and adapt, with that of Bill Clinton in his final years in office.  (For a different perspective on the Obama administration and grand strategy, see “More on Niebuhr.”)

Popescu’s view of strategy writ large, with its emphasis on adaptability, tracks with that of other prominent scholars, including Lawrence Freedman.  This leads one to ask:  what, if any, are the fixed points (or at least compass lines), which are required to orient strategy, even if there is no grand design?  And at what point must one change what seemed to be fixed points?  Take, for example, the “Europe first” imperative that guided American grand strategy during World War II – there were other choices, in principle at least; opportunities and crises in the Pacific theater challenged that imperative and required adjustments; and the Americans and British frequently disagreed over how to apply “Europe first,” in detail.  What if there had been a catastrophic failure in the Atlantic theater – if the German U-Boat campaign had succeeded in choking off supplies to Britain; if the Soviet front had collapsed; or if D-Day had failed?

Popescu’s continuing work on policymaking and grand strategy will undoubtedly give us important insights into such questions, looking forward.