Get Real? Get Strategic.
August 18, 2005 - 12:33pm ET
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It's really not their fault. Realists just never got any training in being grand strategists. It's a lot like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show... before he realizes that something is just not quite right. Since President Truman and Sen. Vandenberg agreed that America would pursue a grand strategy of containment against the Soviet Union, there has been little to no training in global grand strategy for American foreign policy experts. Given that grand strategy was decided for 40 years (i.e., the Cold War), everyone focused on learning how to operate within that strategy and no one bothered to learn how to make a new one.
Then a strange thing happened. The Soviet Union just disappeared. The reason for the grand strategy of containment evaporated but containment kept going. America during the 1990s just coasted, dealing with ad hoc financial or humanitarian crises as they arose. Our military shifted to a reactive mode, planning for contingencies. Our diplomacy shifted to economic objectives, seeking to feed the American consumer economy.
And then 9/11 happened. And the one group that had debated and devised a grand strategy for America, the Project for a New American Century, jumped into the policy vacuum with a plan for American domination through the righteous application of American military might.
The center, defined as people who really don't want to stick to some kind of moral principle lest they fall out of favor with those in power, went along with this strategy, now called the Bush Doctrine. True, they were deceived, but they swallowed and regurgitate the lies quite readily. Think of Tony Blair and Colin Powell as their role models. Both knew better. Both had advisors telling them the truth. And both could have spoken out to stop the invasion of Iraq. But, lacking a strategic concept to provide backbone, they caved.
So today, during a week that has seen The Washington Post claim the Bush Doctrine and its "axis of evil" framework has failed, Gideon Rose, editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, agrees and says it's time to come home to realism.
Not so fast.
Rose describes realism as "the need to act carefully in a fallen world," and as an approach that embraces "the difficult trade-offs and unpleasant compromises that international politics inevitably demand." But such an approach without a strategic concept is meaningless. It's like having a compass without a map. At night. Sure, it's better than nothing, but it is far from optimal.
Realism had a relatively good run during the Cold War because it had a map; it was informed by containment. To fall back from the Bush Doctrine to ad hoc realism may stop us from making massive strategic blunders like attacking Iran, Syria or the United Nations, but it is inherently reactive if uninformed by a larger strategic concept. In our current geo-political situation, defined by the need for massive simultaneous adaptations to deal with energy insecurity, terrorism, China's demographic forces, and climate change, we simply cannot afford to be reactive.
Instead, America needs to come to consensus on a grand strategy that systematically addresses the major threats facing the nation and the world in a way that leads us towards our ideals. Then this grand strategy can be pursued realistically.
Yet realists will have a hard time figuring out any viable grand strategy because it requires looking at and changing the drivers of American interests, not just satisfying the current set. Right now the threats facing America are driven by our dysfunctional economy and the resource and market requirements it entails. Energy security, climate change, trade imbalances, economic weakness are all driven by a U.S. economy that has not adapted or innovated to meet the requirements of this new age. Instead, our Cold-War era economy has been protected, shielded by our military and economic power.
The men who set up containment knew about the necessity of balancing our domestic economy and our foreign policy in one coherent grand strategy. They had experienced the mass mobilization and modernization of the American economy to fight World War II. While they were framing containment, the G.I. Bill was converting wartime production into peacetime suburban consumerism. They also kept the wartime innovation of income tax in order to pay for the military necessary to stop the Soviet threat. They even said so in NSC-68, the document that codified containment. Today we need nothing less.
Rose, however, just wants to deliver the hair of the dog that bit us, calling realism, "American foreign policy's perennial hangover cure." That's not what we need. What we need is to sober up, look at the mess that's all around us and build a new grand strategy to get the American experiment back on track.
That's more realistic.
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