A review of The Sheriff: America's Defense of the New World Order, by Colin S. Gray

For over 30 years, Colin Gray has been the most consistently brilliant strategic thinker in the English-speaking world. He is certainly the most prolific, having authored some 20 books and innumerable journal articles. His topics have included nuclear doctrine, arms control, naval strategy, and geopolitics—indeed he has played a major role in the rehabilitation of classical geopolitics, having interpreted and publicized the major works of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, among others. He has also written (skeptically) about "revolutions in military affairs." But he is at his best when addressing the broad questions of strategy. This is what he does in his remarkable new book, The Sheriff: America's Defense of the New World Order.

In the Anglo-American world, the academic study of international relations (IR) consists largely of a debate between "realists" and "liberals." Realists stress the importance of power and military security in international affairs. For the realist, the state is the only important actor in the international arena and relative power the only meaningful goal.

"Human nature" realists, who may be said to be disciples of Thomas Hobbes, argue that the international realm is merely a reflection of the fallen nature of man. But most modern realists are "structural realists" who believe that the competitive character of international politics arises from the nature of the international political system—that is, anarchy. Since states have no common superior, they are the arbiters of their own security needs: each state must take whatever steps it believes will ensure its survival, regardless of the opinions of others. A state may form alliances, go to war, or build up its defenses. Of course, if state A takes what it considers to be defensive steps, state B may see these actions as threats to its security. This is called the "security dilemma" and is the alleged source of arms racing and preemptive war.

For the realist, relative power is the key. "Defensive" realists argue that a state will only pursue the power that it needs to ensure its survival. "Offensive" realists, such as John Mearsheimer, believe that a state will seek to acquire as much power as it can get.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that states can cooperate as well as compete. They contend that the goals of actors within the IPS transcend power and security. Liberals stress the importance of peace and prosperity, and see an important role for actors in the IPS other than states, including international institutions such as the United Nations. They are unlikely to approve a doctrine that focuses on security and military action, including preemptive war.

IR liberals tend to advocate some variant of "cooperative security," a system that seeks to institutionalize mechanisms for preventing aggression and war. Its advocates claim that by means of diplomacy and confidence-building measures, an international regime of cooperative security can increase transparency and trust among states, removing them from the horns of the security dilemma. What's more, the end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of liberal political and economic principles provide a rare window of opportunity for cementing such a cooperative system into place.

Colin Gray describes himself as a "classical realist," but his writings transcend the sterile, abstract dialogue that characterizes so much of the academic IR debate. That is because unlike many structural realists who see the behavior of states as exclusively determined by the anarchistic structure of the international political system—a structural realist can write about Germany in World War II and never once mention Adolf Hitler—Gray understands the social and cultural context of decisions about national security policy and strategy making. In addition, his perspective is practical rather than theoretical: what is the role of strategy in achieving the goals of the state?

* * *

The development of strategy—the formulation of the means to achieve the nation's goals—is a critical component of effective security planning and policy implementation. Without a strategic framework for setting priorities and guiding the development and employment of the instruments of national power, it is difficult to evaluate proposed actions to ensure the nation's security and prosperity.

Strategy is an indispensable element of national security. Without strategy, something else will fill the void. In war, service doctrines will dominate the conduct of operations if strategy is absent. This state of affairs is captured by Andrew Krepinevich's description of the Vietnam War as "a strategy of tactics." In peacetime, defense planning comes to be dominated by what Samuel Huntington calls "structural decisions," i.e., decisions "made in the currency of domestic politics."

The strategy of a state ultimately depends on its role in the world and its interests. America's role in the world is the main focus of The Sheriff. As the title indicates, Gray sees that role as enforcing the "new world order." He argues that this role should be the "single, organizing vision for the U.S. national security policy." "Sheriff" of course, is a metaphor. But it captures the essence of the role that geopolitical circumstances have thrust upon the United States.

Gray prefers the term "sheriff" to other alternatives, such as "empire" or "policeman." While what the United States does in the world is similar to the sort of "imperial policing" we associate with Great Britain in the 19th century, the United States is not an imperial power in the traditional sense. Its role is not to conquer and expropriate as empires have always done, but to maintain a liberal world order that benefits the world in general. But it does not maintain this order as the "world's policeman," which implies that it does everything, everywhere, alone. A sheriff is "an agent of discipline." The sheriff organizes a posse when he can, but sometimes, like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he must act alone. And the sheriff must exercise power prudently, so as not to generate unified opposition. The goal is to achieve what IR theorists call "bandwagoning."

The "new world order" that the sheriff enforces is an international community based on essentially liberal principles. It is an interdependent world in which free trade, capitalism, and democratic governance are most likely to thrive. But pace IR liberals, such an order is not self-enforcing. As the 19th century demonstrated, a liberal world order requires an agent of discipline.

* * *

The Sheriff consists of five chapters that lay out a logical, nine-point argument. First, as already noted, the world order is not self-enforcing. Today's more or less liberal world order did not arise spontaneously and will not continue unless some power (or group of powers) is willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security. As Donald Kagan has observed, history seems to teach "that good will, unilateral disarmament, the avoidance of alliances, teaching and preaching the evils of war by those states who…seek to preserve peace, are to no avail. What seems to work best…is the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens of and responsibilities required to achieve that power."

Second, argues Gray, only the United States can fulfill this role. The alternative to American hegemony is not the United Nations or some other institution representing the "international community" but increasing disorder and regional conflict. "Since there is no rival polity or collation in the near term, the alternative to American hegemony is disorder on a hair-curling scale. The American sheriff will not, and indeed cannot, prevent all disorder. But it can dissuade, deter, bribe, coerce, and sometimes physically defeat those who threaten to create conflagration in their neighborhood and beyond."

Third, while the U.S. role as sheriff may seem to be in the interest of others, the United States serves itself and its own interests by assuming this role, challenging though it may be. Absent the American sheriff, the liberal world order will decay and Americans will be less secure, less prosperous, and probably less free.

Fourth, 9/11 accelerated the process in which the United States was already (slowly) coming to grips with its role as sheriff. Fifth, the preponderance of power that the United States now possesses will of necessity erode over time, but the conditions that underpin this preponderance can be prolonged by wise policy and strategy, and shortened by foolish strategy and policy.

Sixth, "sheriff" is a role, not a strategy or doctrine. Seventh, strategy is difficult. As the ongoing war in Iraq illustrates, military effectiveness neither automatically translates into strategic effectiveness, nor strategic effectiveness into enduring political advantage. Eighth, technology is a vital component of military effectiveness, but in and of itself it does not determine military or policy success.

And finally, history is our best guide to the future. One of the things that separates Gray from most other IR theorists is his historical perspective. All too often, IR debates lack any historical or geopolitical context. As Gray observes, history does not tell us what to think but it does teach us what to think about—how to distinguish between first- and second-order issues. That is why those who wish to understand the nature of war and strategy still find it useful to consult Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz.

* * *

Although Gray believes American preeminence is secure for the time being, he discerns a number of potential threats. One might be termed the "revenge of geopolitics." Americans are an optimistic people and sometimes susceptible to the liberal nostrums of "progress." This tendency was particularly on display in the 1990s when the Clinton Administration was behaving as if Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" really had arrived. "Globalization" was the "big idea" in both IR theory and government, reflecting the optimistic view that "interdependence" is preordained. As a result, Gray deems the foreign and defense policies of the Clinton Administration "unserious." The reality, argues Gray, is that the 1990s constituted just another "interwar" period. But "[b]ad times return."

Realists contend that there is no reason to assume that interdependence and cooperation have replaced competition in international affairs. The last time the world was as "interdependent" as it is now was on the eve of World War I. In his memoir, The World Crisis, Winston Churchill mocked the fatuous optimism that manifested itself during the Agadir crisis of 1911, which, although it was peacefully resolved, marked another milestone on the road to Armageddon:

[War] is too foolish, too fantastic, to be thought of in the 20th Century….Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.

Another threat to U.S. preeminence is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of hostile forces, including terrorists. Yet another is the possibility that U.S. policymakers will be flummoxed by intelligent enemies who pursue "asymmetric" strategies. Another is lack of domestic support for the role of sheriff. After all, the U.S. stepped back from its international role three times during the 20th century: 1919-39, 1945-49, and the 1990s.

Other threats to U.S. preeminence include a traditional predilection on the part of American policymakers to behave a-strategically. "The U.S. defense community has several impressive strengths, but sophisticated and holistic approaches to war and strategy are not prominent among them." One example of this a-strategic mindset is the tendency on the part of many Americans, both in uniform and out, to see technology as a panacea without any reference to the strategic context. The current debate over military "transformation" is a case in point.

Although things are not nearly as bad as they were several years ago, there are still "technophiles" around who seem to believe that technological prowess can insulate the United States from defeat on the battlefield. They argue, for example, that emerging technologies and "information dominance" will eliminate "friction" and the "fog of war," providing the commander and his subordinates nearly perfect "situational awareness," thereby promising "the capacity to use military force without the same risks as before." The technophiles essentially replace the classic Clausewitzian trinity of primordial violence, chance, and the subordination of war to policy by a new technological trinity: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies; advanced command, control, communications, and computer (C4) systems; and precision strike munitions.

Those making such claims are not merely starry-eyed academics but include seasoned military officers. Consider this passage from Winning Modern Wars by retired Army General Wesley Clark, former Democratic presidential candidate and Supreme Allied Commander Europe: modern war is "enabled by high-precision air and ground combat capabilities" and reflects "the importance of operating with other nations in strong alliances, minimizing friendly casualties and civilian losses, and making optimum use of a battlefield almost instantly visible to the media around the world. Effectively prosecuted, modern war [offers] the opportunity for decisive success without having to use decisive force."

Such thinking seems to suggest that military effectiveness is sufficient to ensure the safety of the United States. Gray points out the dangers of confusing military effectiveness with strategic effectiveness. Without a strategic context, it is difficult to move from winning battles to achieving strategic goals and then translating strategic success into political advantage. The German tactical instrument was unmatched in two wars but its successes were trumped by strategic failure. The U.S. military defeated the enemy on the battlefields of Vietnam but still lost the war.

* * *

The United States, argues Gray, can maintain its preeminence by taking such steps as employing statecraft and moderation in the practice of hegemony to "reduce the strength of political motivation on the part of other states to form an anti-American coalition"; institutionalizing, as far as practicable, America's role of sheriff; protecting the economic, technical, and cultural bases of its hegemonic position; maintaining its military power; protecting its reputation for military effectiveness and political judgment; selecting strategies that work well in practicable missions; and maintaining domestic support for the role of sheriff, even in the face of casualties.

Above all, U.S. policy makers must seek to achieve not only military effectiveness but strategic effectiveness. Superior strategic performance requires that policy makers understand the nature and working of strategy as well as its unavoidable difficulties. But the making and implementation of strategy are difficult.

While strategic effectiveness is of higher importance than mere military effectiveness, it is clear that an effective strategy requires the right tactical instrument. Accordingly, writes Gray,

U.S. military power needs to provide adaptable and flexible forces, able to contend successfully both in combat and in providing security after combat in all geographical environments against a wide range of regular and irregular enemies. The cost of doing business as sheriff naturally requires global reach with forces able to deter, coerce, and—if need be—defeat, whoever threatens world order.

Gray points out that the character of future war will not always be "subject to definition by the United States." The U.S. military must be prepared to fight the wars they need to fight, not the ones they prefer to fight. As the current conflict in Iraq demonstrates, Americans may prefer to fight wars at a distance employing precision strikes, but a clever enemy may "so craft the conditions of conflict that the American sheriff will need to sustain a messy and protracted involvement on the ground, very far from the center of its power."

Gray also counsels the avoidance of "strategic monism," a focus on one threat, one region, or one weapon system. For instance, terrorism is not the end-all of U.S. national security. Despite the claims of optimists who predict that large-scale warfare is a thing of the past, U.S. policymakers should not ignore the possibility that a "large peer competitor" will arise at some point in the future.

Although generally supportive of the initiatives that the Bush Administration has undertaken to enhance U.S. security—Gray writes that the Bush team has generally gotten "the big things right"—this is no pro-Bush puff piece. American strategic culture in general and the policies of the Bush Administration in particular come in for considerable criticism. Gray wonders if American strategic culture is up to the job. He also questions the prudence of the administration's commitment to expanding democracy, the emphasis of the American defense establishment on technology as the cornerstone of military "transformation," and the "risk-averse" character of the military's uniformed leadership.

Gray makes a persuasive case for America's role as sheriff of the new world order. It is a demanding role that will be hard to get altogether right. But, he argues, there is really no practicable alternative.