Analysis of a grand strategy for the us Essay

Analysis of a grand strategy for the us

            In a “Grand Strategy for the United States”, Frederick Kagan provides a framework for American foreign policy and decision-making that is pointedly interventionist, and describes a policy of containment aimed at America’s international competitors.   His Bismarckian framework encourages more involvement in stabilizing key regions, defeating terrorism, and containing Russian, Iranian, and Chinese ambitions; but the key lynchpin is a pragmatic approach that ultimately keeps American interests and security at the forefront without getting clouded by altruistic or fruitlessly humanitarian ambitions.  He emphasizes his approach with examples of recent foreign policy successes used by American presidents who adhered to principles of realpolitik: those who employed American instruments of power in practical versus idealistic manners.    


            Kagan argues that the current American administration followed foreign policies that were not very different from past successful policies, but that the execution resulted in mixed results, if not outright failures.  The key example of this was in the controversy over how to approach the problem in 2003 of WMDs in Iraq.  Between the Bush administration and their critics the dispute existed not over the validity of action, only over methods of approach: a preemptive war versus a program of economic sanctions.  Kagan opaquely appears to favor the economic sanction approach in this description, but argues that foreign policy strategy should not necessarily be negatively influenced by the apparent failure of the Bush administration’s excursion; a continued policy of interventionism is critical to maintaining a favorable balance in unstable regions because of America’s unique unipolar position in world affairs.  In fact, history reveals that periods of American “isolationism” have led to political dysfunction in a world environment that has come to rely on American involvement.

            He refines his strategy with regional approaches.  The Middle East currently commands the attention of most U.S. military forces, and addressing takfirism is the most complex task facing American policy strategists.  The various problems in the region create a confusing web of American entanglement there, but Kagan agrees that the primary U.S. goals should be to prevent and defeat takfirism, as well as stabilize the regions that enable its rise.  Yet in recent history America has tried many approaches to this problem: counterinsurgency and counter terror campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan, targeted strikes against takfiri leaders, and supporting anti-extremist proxy forces in various countries.  Takfirism likely cannot be eliminated; America must focus on marginalizing those states that endorse it and defeat those who would have it dominate a nation’s ideology.  This is where Kagan’s argument remains intentionally vague about actual employment of U.S. instruments of power; his policy of containment would have America use multiple avenues of economic, political, and military support in order to stabilize these regions, and leave all options available to achieve these ends.

            Dealing with Iran, Russia, and China; Kagan outlines some general principles within his strategy that address containment of their influence.  In the case of Iran, the U.S. must maintain nation states in the Middle East that are favorable to the U.S. in order to contain Iranian influence and ambition, but paramount in this principle is continuing to support both of the geostrategically critical governments of Iraq and Afghanistan in their efforts to democratize and lean westward.  In the case of China, the U.S. must simply compete economically, and not drive Middle Eastern powers into Beijing’s sphere of influence by implementing unwise sanctions against repressive Middle Eastern regimes.  In the case of Russia, Kagan concedes that the U.S. may not be able to exert much in the way of influence other than to deter Russian adventurism and help reduce European reliance on Russian oil supplies.

            In a holistic sense Kagan asserts that his proposed policy is no different from American foreign policy of the past half-century.  He proposes an expensive, controversial, long-term approach of political and economic intervention that at best will not provide clear avenues of action but rather a series of risk-analyses that will have to be conducted by American policy-makers at every turn.  Although vague about implementation, Kagan asserts that there is no cookie-cutter solution to these problems and that America must keep all options open when developing a cohesive policy with strategic requirements.


            Inherent in his strategic outlook is the idea that America will have to expend resources and energy to balance the forces of rogue states, non-state actors, and extremism that will likely plague U.S. foreign policy in the years to come.  The most dangerous aspect of such a strategy lies within the implementation of the policy: the U.S. must not overreach economically or politically into world affairs and thus lose the ability to influence the very problems we are trying to fix.  Keeping a finger in every strategic pie could cause the U.S. to lose hold of its own.

            Kagan subtly suggests that the “process” of his policy is one that could optimize costs and quality of life for Americans by balancing long-term costs against his intentions to continue a policy of containment.  But even Kagan admits that rising entitlement costs could force reductions in military and foreign policy spending, and in another breath mentions that our military is overtaxed from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Without proposing specific strategic requirements and how to address them with instruments of national power, Kagan leaves the door wide open to interpretation by policy-makers who may have a vague apprehension of the scope of the costs to address the geopolitical problems in the long run.

            A potential solution to the problem of Kagan’s opaque policy of long-term interventionism is to place the burden more squarely on the military.  Although combat forces engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently stretched thin, they are now after seven years of war the subject matter experts on culture and political alliances in the very regions that Kagan purports to influence.  Additionally, the military has broad capability to influence realms outside of combat, as evidenced by Special Operation Forces capabilities to conduct Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, Information Operations, and intelligence work.  With military spending at only 4.0 percent of American GDP, even modest increases, if conducted correctly, could make vast differences in the military’s ability to influence regions of interest.  At worst, having a more culturally-attuned military with a spending cap (and concomitant personnel limitations) would give policy-makers natural boundaries to how much of the strategy they could actually accomplish.  An added benefit of a military with “friendlier” aims might be to refurbish the tarnished image of the U.S. after the ill-advised invasion of a sovereign Muslim country.


            In an era of globalized capitalism, nuclear deterrence, rogue nation states, and non-state actors, a confluence of international factors affect the American way of life on a daily basis.  Kagan’s argument for continued realpolitik and intervention in world affairs is a guideline that has no alternative: ignoring world affairs when our fate is so tightly wound around other nations’ would be foolish.  In Barry Posen’s essay “A Grand Strategy of Restraint” he outlines a strategy that sounds remarkably similar to the U.S. and Britain after World War I, a strategy of international devolvement fed by a population tired of warfare and the accompanying tribulations.  Frederick Kagan would argue against that policy on the grounds that American isolationism actually fuels hostilities between nation-states in the long run.

            The strongest argument that Kagan makes is seen in his keen detail of Muslim extremism.  Takfirism essentially is promoted by non-state actors with an irrational desire to destroy Western culture (usually American culture).  Extremists have already shown a capability to attack the U.S. spectacularly, and a willingness to do so again.  The attacks of September 11, 2001 can be blamed for an economic slowdown in the United States, and some theorists would go as far as saying that the subsequent economic recovery mechanisms were ultimately (at least partially) responsible for the credit and lending crisis that the U.S. is suffering today.  This shows that the U.S. is indeed vulnerable to attacks and should prevent them at all costs.  Kagan’s argument for prevention is costly but important; the U.S. and it’s partners must remain on the offensive against Muslim extremism wherever it occurs in order to keep the fight outside of the U.S., because ultimately this approach is much less costly than allowing attacks within American borders.

            Posen and Kagan essentially agree that involvement with multi-lateral institutions will produce better results for American foreign policy makers (although Kagan does not want to institutionalize the need for multi-lateral approval of all U.S. foreign involvement.)  Posen is generally against the current American activism abroad which has tarnished it’s international salience, and argues persuasively against future activism within his policy of restraint.  Posen does not hold water against Kagan in one fatal arena, however; in his address of nuclear weapons.  He argues that if terrorists used a nuclear weapon in the United States, America would still go on and that it would hunt down the perpetrators and their supporters no matter how long it takes.  Kagan would argue that we are already at that point: takfirism has already committed ferocious acts and the U.S. is dealing with problems abroad in order to prevent further attacks.  Posen argues that the effects of an attack by terrorists with a WMD are exaggerated; Kagan would ask him to look at the U.S. economic and human effects of 9/11 more closely to see how badly a nuclear attack could possibly hurt America.

            One obvious weakness of Kagan’s argument is his lack of detail in how to employ instruments of national power in support of his strategy.  This would indicate that high material costs would be associated with a generalized policy that does not provide limits to the amount of incursion policy-makers could promote in the future.  This sort of vagueness could also lead to policy debates reminiscent of the 2003 decision to invade Iraq.    Posen attacks this weakness with the facts about waning American support for the war efforts, high borrowing rates to fund military operations, and looming costs of retirement and health care for the aging baby boomers biting in to war chests of the future.  Against the backdrop of the current economic hard times and the lack of public support for the ongoing war efforts, Posen rails against the ongoing military operations that only cause deteriorations in America’s preeminent power position.  He has valid points.  But although Kagan’s processes are vague, his foundation is solid.  He envisions a firm adherence to realpolitik whence America must begin to balance out the inclinations toward direct action operations in a geopolitical environment that can only be approached with a combination of soft and hard power.  He even concedes that the risks we assume now in our campaigns are too high: his policy is one of constant reevaluation of resource allocation and strategic requirement evaluation.  We should not get focused on the Iraq war as an example of failed foreign policy, rather we should learn the lessons of rash policy implementation.

            In the 19th Century Bismarck realized the importance of keeping balance between foreign powers, and would likely contend that America’s preeminence in today’s geopolitical landscape puts us in a dangerous position.  Where Posen argues that America should make every effort to maintain this position of salience, Kagan would say that U.S. activism and containment abroad is the closest solution to creating a balance of power amenable to U.S. interest.  Moreover, the greatest threats to U.S. power lie in economic challenges from emerging powers, and WMD attacks from non-state actors supplied by rogue or failed states.  In this type of environment the American interventionism can be adjusted and reevaluated, but cannot be abandoned for fear of losing influence over pertinent world affairs.  In this type of environment, America cannot afford to follow a policy of restraint.