At the summit, Winston Churchill tells us, true politics and strategy are one. But how exactly are politics and strategy brought together, even assuming that is possible? Can one leader, or a government, formally articulate and execute a grand strategy? Some skeptics argue that “grand strategizing” is about as meaningful and effective as centralized economic planning—that diplomacy, military strategy, financial programs, intelligence collection and analysis, and the like, are all carried out by various parts of government more or less independently. The skeptics claim that any national “integration” of these elements is ad hoc at best; that grand strategy is a construct imposed retrospectively by journalists and academics trying to make sense of non-sense. Others believe that grand strategy is possible in a Burkean sense, one conditioned fundamentally by geography and culture, which emerges organically from decades or centuries of trial and error (what Churchill called an “unconscious tradition.”) Grand strategy might also spring from a seminal document or argument, made from inside or outside government, which catalyzes new thoughts about a nation’s place in the world (e.g., 19th century U.S. strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s understanding of “sea power,” British geographer Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland theory,” or the containment strategy laid out in American diplomatist George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram.”)

The Center for a New American Security, a think-tank founded primarily by moderate Democrats, takes on the subject in America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration, edited by CNAS staff Richard Fontaine and Kristin M. Lord. The editors note in their introduction various well-known studies of how states have done this in the past, including Edward N. Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (1979) and The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union (1983), Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War (2003), Otto Pflanze’s Bismarck and the Development of Germany, 2nd ed. (1990), Richard Samuels’s Securing Tokyos Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia (2007), and Avery Goldstein’s Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (2006).

CNAS offers four distinguished scholars an opportunity to set out their preferred future grand strategy:

Robert J. Art (Brandeis University) recognizes America’s diminished super-power status but calls for an activist leadership role through the use of what he terms “selective engagement,”aimed at fostering global interests and international collective goods, rather than democracy promotion or state-building.

Richard K. Betts (Columbia University) argues for a grand, not grandiose, strategy—he favors greater restraint and some limited retrenchment in U.S. foreign policy as a means to conserve the power and resources necessary to maintain America’s global leadership.

Anne-Marie Slaughter (Princeton University; former Obama State Department) sees the rise of global networks as the most significant international shift of the 21st century, and she urges the United States to position itself close to the center of the political, military, economic and other networks that most affect its interests.

Peter Feaver (Duke University; George W. Bush NSC staff) suggests making adjustments to the current U.S. approach only at the margins, preferring instead to preserve the international order that has guided the United States through the post-Cold War era.


I focus here on Feaver’s contribution, “American Grand Strategy at the Crossroads: Leading From the Front, Leading From Behind or Not Leading at All,” because it makes the case that the United States already has a sensible grand strategy (something that many would dispute), which has developed sequentially over several decades, with certain key documents serving as guide-posts to its evolution.

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Feaver argues that the United States has been guided successfully by a grand strategy initially developed during the George H.W. Bush Administration in the immediate post-Cold War period and adapted incrementally by subsequent presidents. That grand strategy is one of American leadership, in which the United States bears the burdens of the sole superpower in order to preserve the existing global order as long as possible. “The primary threats identified by the strategy are distinguished by time frame. In the long run, the greatest threat is the emergence of a hostile peer rival who could rewrite the global order—in short, another Cold War. In the short run, the threat is any menace that, although less than a hostile peer rival, is nevertheless capable of imposing a grave disruption onto the global order.”

Feaver characterizes this as the “legacy strategy,” which seems to be an unfortunate term for an imaginative, adaptive approach to the world (at least as he describes it). Perhaps he wishes to avoid the political difficulties associated with describing the strategy as one of “primacy” or “hegemony.”

Feaver maintains that “the legacy grand strategy does not mean viewing the world through a decades-old lens,” back to the unique point in time when the Soviet Union collapsed and Charles Krauthammer famously proclaimed a “unipolar era.” According to Feaver, just as the grand strategy of containment proved adaptable to new conditions, the legacy grand strategy has shown its fitness to meet the challenges of a fluid post-Cold War environment.

Feaver’s argument faces the obvious objection that President Obama’s approach to national security—”leading from behind”—is a conscious rejection of the strategy of American primacy. Feaver contends, however, that despite the rhetoric, “Obama has largely continued the grand strategy laid out by his post-Cold War predecessors.” Any attempt at deviation has led to obvious trouble for the administration. Feaver concludes that the legacy strategy is viable for the foreseeable future—assuming that it continues to adapt to emerging challenges, such as cyber-security, and that it is properly resourced. He outlines major concerns on those accounts, such as the projected deep cuts in defense spending and the vacuum in the Middle East caused by the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to follow through on the Bush Administration’s hard-won gains in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Feaver identifies five pillars of this American grand strategy designed to preserve and extend the existing global order.

Pillar I involves dissuading the rise of a hostile peer rival by use of a “velvet-covered iron fist.” The iron fist entails maintaining defense spending in excess of what is needed to meet near-term threats, thus staying far ahead of would-be rivals and thereby dissuading them from trying to catch up (or at least preventing them from being able to catch up). The velvet glove entails accommodating would-be rivals, giving them equity stakes in the global order in excess of their current power. The velvet glove is most plainly captured in the responsible stakeholder approach, which has given China an outsized stake in the existing global order as a way of dissuading it from disrupting that order as its power increases. The glove covers a fist of military superiority and alliance hedging, in the form of improved relations with India, China’s most serious regional rival.

Pillar II involves investing in efforts to push the world to be more like the United States politically by promoting the spread of democracy…. The strategic premise is that democracy promotion advances not merely U.S. values but also U.S. interests because stable democracies will undergird the strength of the existing (favorable) global order.

Pillar III of the grand strategy is the economic counterpart: push the world to be more like the United States economically by promoting globalization, market capitalism and free trade. This was the so-called “Washington consensus,” the widely-held view that the U.S. triumph during the Cold War had vindicated the superiority of Western capitalism as the surest way to prosperity…. American strategy is premised on the idea that in the long run, all states benefit from a more open global economic order and that it is worth the costs and risks to shore up that system rather than replace it with a radical alternative.

Pillars II and III can be mutually reinforcing…[and] lock in a global status quo that favored an existing global order with the United States as the sole superpower.

Pillar IV of the grand strategy involves identifying and confronting the highest priority near-term threat: the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to rogue states…. [S]uccessive administrations have used negotiations where possible and force where necessary—multilateral force where they could, unilateral force where they had no alternative—to prevent certain states from realizing their WMD ambitions.

A consensus on Pillar V emerged after the attacks of 9/11 elevated the urgency of defeating transnational terrorist networks inspired by militant Islamism…. Some critics have claimed that the United States “took its eye off the ball” of the long-term challenges of Pillars I, II and III to focus on the more immediate threat of terrorism, but in fact, successive administrations have spent considerable resources trying to do it all. Indeed, the Bush administration saw those pre-existing pillars as crucial to addressing the terrorist threat.


Especially the nexus between terrorism, rogue states, and WMD.

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To return to the point about how grand strategy is made: If one accepts Feaver’s basic argument about the essential continuity of American grand strategy since 1989, these five pillars evolved more or less sequentially. Although there is no “single document that lays out the post-Cold War grand strategy explicitly,” Feaver concludes that “this outline is readily discernible in the primary strategy documents that successive administrations did develop…. [T]he outline of this approach,” especially the pillar of unquestioned military primacy,

is evident in the draft Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) that the Department of Defense developed in 1992…. Pillars II and III are made quite explicit in President Bill Clinton’s National Security Strategy, released in July 1994; indeed, the Clinton administration gave the strategy the label “A Strategy of Enlargement and Engagement,” deliberately echoing Cold War containment policy. Candidate George W. Bush campaigned against Clinton’s emphasis on failed states and promised other tonal shifts (including a more ‘humble’ foreign policy), but the essence of what he advocated involved a reorientation back onto the four preexisting pillars.


President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy took the attacks of 9/11 fully into account and brought Pillar V into play.

There is a bit of natural selection at play in the evolution of American grand strategy: Feaver notes that certain additional “candidate” pillars have been advanced unsuccessfully, most notably the imperative to deal with failed states, to address climate change, and to prevent genocide and humanitarian disasters. He also observes that assertive multilateralism did not catch on as the functional alternative to American primacy.

If American grand strategy has evolved in this fashion, that brings us back to the point of origin in the first Bush Administration and particularly the 1992 draft DPG: that of “maintaining defense spending in excess of what is needed to meet near-term threats, thus staying far ahead of would-be rivals and thereby dissuading them from trying to catch up (or at least preventing them from being able to catch up);” and increasing America’s strategic depth through expanding the zone of democratic peace. The DPG, which originated in Paul Wolfowitz’s policy office in the Pentagon, would thus qualify as one of those rare government documents, such as Kennan’s long telegram, NSC-68, and NSDD-75, which captured an overarching strategic perspective that fundamentally influenced future national security policy. This was the case even though President Bush himself was notoriously averse to “the vision thing;” the State Department and other agencies of government were unaccommodating; and the publicly released version, The Regional Defense Strategy, received little public notice. (See Eric Edelman’s “The Strange Career of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance,” in In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11, edited by Melvyn P. Leffler and Jeffrey W. Legro, 2011; and Wolfowitz’s chapter in the same book).