Grand Strategy in the 21st Century

There is an excellent article in the January/February 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs by the distinguished American scholar Dr Joseph S Nye Jr, the author of Soft Power, headlined “Will the Liberal Order Survive? The History of an Idea.” It begins, in fact, with a very brief history of American grand strategy from the founding of the great republic until 1945. In the immediate Post War period he explains that, “The liberal international order that emerged after 1945 was a loose array of multilateral institutions in which the United Harry_S_Truman_-_NARA_-_530677_(2)States provided global public goods such as freer trade and freedom of the seas and weaker states were given institutional access to the exercise of U.S. power. The Bretton Woods institutions were set up while the war was still in progress. When other countries proved too poor or weak to fend for themselves afterward, the Truman administration decided to break with U.S. tradition and make open-ended alliances, provide substantial aid to other countries, and deploy U.S. military forces abroad. Washington gave the United Kingdom a major loan in 1946, took responsibility for supporting pro-Western governments in NATO-LogoGreece and Turkey in 1947, invested heavily in European recovery with the Marshall Plan in 1948, created NATO in 1949, led a military coalition to protect South Korea from invasion in 1950, and signed a new security treaty with Japan in 1960.” He goes on to say that, “These and other actions both bolstered the order and contained Soviet power. As the American diplomat George Kennan and others noted, there were five crucial areas of industrial productivity and strength in the postwar world: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and Northeast Asia. To protect itself and prevent a third world war, Washington chose to isolate the Soviet Union and bind itself tightly to the other three, and U.S. troops remain in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere to this day. And within this framework, global economic, social, and ecological interdependence grew. By 1970, economic globalization had recovered to the level it had reached before being disrupted by World War I in 1914.

That’s about a clear and concise an overview of 150 years of US foreign policy as you are ever likely to read.

But, Dr Nye says, “The mythology that has grown up around the order can be exaggerated. Washington may have displayed a general preference for democracy and openness, but it frequently supported dictators or made cynical self-interested moves along the way. In its first dec­ades, the postwar system was largely limited to a group of like-minded states centered on the Atlantic littoral; it did not include many large countries such as China, India, and the Soviet bloc states, and it did not always have benign effects on nonmembers. In global military terms, the United States was not hegemonic, because the Soviet Union balanced U.S. power. And even when its power was greatest, Washington could not prevent the “loss” of China, the partition of Germany and Berlin, a draw in Korea, Soviet suppression of insurrections within its own bloc, the creation and survival of a communist regime in Cuba, and failure in Vietnam.

And he adds another “but:” “recently, the desirability and sustainability of the order have been called into question as never before. Some critics, such as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, have argued that the costs of maintaining the order outweigh its benefits and that Washington would be better off handling its interactions with other countries on a case-by-case transactional basis, making sure it “wins” rather than “loses” on each deal or commitment. Others claim that the foundations of the order are eroding because of a long-term global power transition involving the dramatic rise of Asian economies such as China and India. And still others see it as threatened by a broader diffusion of power from governments to nonstate actors thanks to ongoing changes in politics, society, and technology.” Joseph Nye concludes the first part of his article by saying that “The order, in short, is facing its greatest challenges in generations. Can it survive,” he asks,”and will it?

Then Dr Nye goes on to look at a few challenges to the Liberal Order:

  1. Some observers,” he says, “see the main threat to the current liberal order coming from the rapid rise of a China that does not always appear to appreciate Bamboo_book_-_binding_-_UCRthat great power carries with it great responsibilities. They worry that China is about to pass the United States in power and that when it does, it will not uphold the current order because it views it as an external imposition reflecting others’ interests more than its own. This concern is misguided, however, for two reasons: because China is unlikely to surpass the United States in power anytime soon and because it understands and appreciates the order more than is commonly realized … [but] …  Contrary to the current conventional wisdom, China is not about to replace the United States as the world’s dominant country. Power involves the ability to get what you want from others, and it can involve payment, coercion, or attraction. China’s economy has grown dramatically in recent decades, but it is still only 61 percent of the size of the U.S. economy, and its rate of growth is slowing. And even if China does surpass the United States in total economic size some decades from now, economic might is just part of the geopolitical equation. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spends four times as much on its military as does China, and although Chinese capabilities have been increasing in recent years, serious observers think that China will not be able to exclude the United States from the western Pacific, much less exercise global military hegemony. And as for soft power, the ability to attract others, a recent index published by Portland, a London consultancy, ranks the United States first and China 28th. And as China tries to catch up, the United States will not be standing still. It has favorable demographics, increasingly cheap energy, and the world’s leading universities and technology companies.
  2. Complexity is growing, and world politics will soon not be the sole province of governments. Individuals and private organizations—from corporations and nongovernmental organizations to terrorists and social movements—are being empowered, and informal networks will undercut the monopoly on power of traditional bureaucracies. Governments will continue to possess power and secresources, but the stage on which they play will become ever more crowded, and they will have less ability to direct the action … [and] … Even if the United States remains the largest power, accordingly, it will not be able to achieve many of its international goals acting alone. For example, international financial stability is vital to the prosperity of Americans, but the United States needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change and rising sea levels will affect the quality of life, but Americans cannot manage these problems by themselves. And in a world where borders are becoming more porous, letting in everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, nations must use soft power to develop networks and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges.
  3. Dr Ny adds that “Even if the United States continues to possess more military, economic, and soft-power resources than any other country, it may choose not to use those resources to provide public goods for the international system at large. It did so during the interwar years, after all, and in the wake of the conflicts in trump13Afghanistan and Iraq, a 2013 poll found that 52 percent of Americans believed that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” … [and] … The 2016 presidential election was marked by populist reactions to globalization and trade agreements in both major parties, and the liberal international order is a project of just the sort of cosmopolitan elites whom populists see as the enemy. The roots of populist reactions are both economic and cultural. Areas that have lost jobs to foreign competition appear to have tended to support Trump, but so did older white males who have lost status with the rise in power of other demographic groups. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in less than three decades, whites will no longer be a racial majority in the United States, precipitating the anxiety and fear that contributed to Trump’s appeal, and such trends suggest that populist passions will outlast Trump’s campaign.

It seems that Joseph Nye is less worried (than I, at least) about the dangers of Russian opportunistic adventurism, and perhaps it is just a short term threat which can, as I have suggested, be contained without actual direct military conflict. He also does not appear to see radical, fundamentalist Islamist militancy as a real threat to either America or the Liberal Order.

But, Professor Nye warns both Americans and the world, “It would be a mistake to read too much about long-term trends in U.S. public opinion from the heated rhetoric of the recent election. The prospects for elaborate trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have suffered, but there is not likely to be a reversion to protectionism on the scale of the 1930s. A June 2016 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, found that 65 percent of Americans thought that globalization was mostly good for the United States, despite concerns about a loss of jobs. And campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, in a 2015 Pew survey, 51 percent of respondents said that immigrants strengthened the country … [and] … Nor will the United States lose the ability to afford to sustain the order. Washington currently spends less than four percent of its GDP on defense and foreign affairs. That is less than half the share that it spent at the height of the Cold War. Alliances are not significant economic burdens, and in some cases, such as that of Japan, it is cheaper to station troops overseas than at home. The problem is not guns versus butter but guns versus butter versus taxes. Because of a desire to avoid raising taxes or further increasing the national debt, the U.S. national security budget is currently locked in a zero-sum tradeoff with domestic expenditures on education, infrastructure, and research and development. Politics, not absolute economic constraints, will determine how much is spent on what.

Joseph Ny concludes that: “The United States will remain the world’s leading military power for dec­ades to come, and military force will remain an important component of U.S. power. A rising China and a declining Russia frighten their neighbors, and U.S. security guarantees in Asia and Europe provide critical reassurance for the stability that underlies the prosperity of the liberal order. Markets depend on a framework of security, and maintaining alliances is an important source of influence for the United States … [and] … At the same time, military force is a blunt instrument unsuited to dealing with many situations. Trying to control the domestic politics of nationalist foreign populations is a recipe for failure, and force has little to offer in addressing issues such as climate change, financial stability, or Internet governance. Maintaining networks, working with other countries and international institutions, and helping establish norms to deal with new transnational issues are crucial. It is a mistake to equate globalization with trade agreements. Even if economic globalization were to slow, technology is creating ecological, political, and social globalization that will all require cooperative responses.

Finally, he warns that: “Leadership is not the same as domination, and Washington’s role in helping stabilize the world and underwrite its continued progress may be even more important now than ever. Americans and others may not notice the security and prosperity that the liberal order provides until they are gone—but by then, it may be too late.

Good words that I, for one, trust. Canada needs to rebuild its own grand strategy within the broad framework that Dr Nye has outlined, one in which the USA, for better or worse, remains the (sometimes reluctant) dominant power in a multi-polar world.

One thought on “Grand Strategy in the 21st Century”

  1. Maybe Americans would have been more disposed to continuing their efforts on behalf of the free world, if some of those countries now demanding they not abandon them, had spent a little less time squawking about how they were doing it all wrong.

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