OPLANs [operational plans] but no strategy

downloadThere is a very useful, insightful article in Foreign Affairs by US Senator Tim Kaine who was Hilary Clinton’s running mate in 2016. Senator Paine is a senior member of the US Senate committees of both defence and foreign affairs. In the article Senator Kaine admits that policy (strategy) in the Obama era, when Ms Clinton was Secretary of State, was made in  “an executive-driven, reactive way, without a clear or lasting strategic vision.” Senator Kaine begins by reminding us of the Truman Doctrine, which was he said, until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, “a fairly coherent foreign policy, which both parties supported.”

He talks as though Truman invented the bipolar world of the Cold War. I doubt that; it seems to me that for the better part of 1,500 years the world (or worlds) has seen itself as bipolar: the Chinese, for example, for 2,000 years have seen their world as bipolar: them, the Han, especially, against the barbarians from (especially, again) the North, and West; equally, since the decline of the Roman Empire the “West” has worried about the barbarians from the East (and North), even, as in the 16th and 17th centuries, when ‘Christendom’ was in a terrible century of internecine wars about religion. The Western Christians hardly distinguished (and could hardly distinguish) between Arab and Turk and Mongol warriors nations (tribes) ~ who had intermarried for centuries ~ and Chinese or Indonesian traders; it was “we” versus “them,” as it was for the Chinese, too. But that’s a quibble.

The main thrust of Senator Kaine’s article might be found in a quote he attributes to a senior American military officers: “Early in 2016,” he says, “I was struck by something one of our most senior uniformed officers told me. “We have OPLANs [operational plans] but no strategy,” he said. He was right, and his complaint laid bare a key problem the United States faces today. While operational plans are important—and the U.S. military creates them for virtually every contingency—the country lacks an overall framework for looking at and leading in today’s complicated world.” That has, it seems to me, been (mostly ~ the Nixon administration being the exception to the rule) the “way” of American strategic thinking since the about 1960. The strategic “big brains” (think Marshall, Acheson and Dulles) …

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… were replaced, increasingly, by men (and women) with little of what the Brits call “bottom” (a mix of experience , judgement and personal gravitas) ~ people who were 800px-henry_kissinger_shankbone_metropolitan_opera_2009220px-condoleezza_rice_croppedthere because they were friends of the family or (relative) “celebrity intellectuals” (and I am exempting both Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice from that list, both were academic “celebrities” but both got that status from solid academic work. I didn’t always agree with them but their intellects and the rigour of their analyses earned them, rightfully, almost universal respect).

In any event, Nixon aside, few US presidents, from Kennedy to Obama, were interested in grand strategy or had the intellectual strength (and strength of character) to put their personal stamp on one. The result was that generations of political, academic and military “whiz kids” became what passed for strategists while the thinkers were sidelined … except in China.

It is (relatively) easy to write OpPlans ~ easier by far to have a  hundred or two hundred “whiz kid” navy captains and army and air force colonels write hundreds of OpPlans than to have a few argumentative “big brains”  argue with the chief executive about strategy.

But a strategy is, generally, a good thing … not perfect, just better than no strategy. Sebator Kaine says, of the Truman Doctrine, “The fact that the Truman Doctrine lasted as long as it did does not mean that it was perfect. Without it, the United States might have avoided taking over France’s colonial fight in Southeast Asia—a fight that became the Vietnam War. It might not have intervened to help topple the democratically elected governments of Iran, Guatemala, Congo, and Chile. It might not have attempted to invade Cuba during the first months of the Kennedy administration. Too often, in attempting to thwart real or perceived Soviet influence, the United States threw its weight behind authoritarian regimes—thus turning a doctrine meant to promote its best values into one focused on checking its adversary. And as President Dwight Eisenhower famously observed, the doctrine also led to an overemphasis on militaristic solutions, thereby robbing the Treasury of dollars that might have been better spent on domestic priorities … [but] … for all of the doctrine’s flaws, at least the United States had a strategy during these years—one that shaped its military posture, its budget, its diplomacy, its humanitarian aid, its engagement with international institutions, and even many of its great domestic social programs. And by its own terms, that doctrine succeeded: the United States dominated the second half of the twentieth century, and the Soviet Union, unable to compete, eventually collapsed. When it did, however, Washington suddenly found itself without an organizing principle to animate its foreign policy—and so it reverted to the pragmatic, case-by-case approach the country had pursued prior to World War II.

“Now,” he adds, “there is something to be said for careful pragmatism in international relations. The George H. W. Bush administration, for example, demonstrated the virtues of this approach in 1990–91, when it pushed Iraq out of Kuwait but then refrained from toppling Saddam Hussein.” And he goes on to point out that what he calls “nondoctrinal pragmatism” is, very much, the “American way.” I agree that “nondoctrinal pragmatism” can work, and can work well if and when the leadership is, indeed, pragmatic and fully informed but when, as was the case under all of the Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barak Obama regimes neither of those exists then “nondoctrinal pragmatism” becomes flailing about in the dark.  I am afraid that with Donald Trump we have one of the least informed and least pragmatic leader in modern US history.

Senator Kaine asks the pertinent question: “So how should the United States do things? Simply,” he says, “calling for the creation of a new grand strategy is easy. The problem is that the modern world is significantly different from the world Churchill, Truman, and Marshall confronted. Given how hyperdiffuse and hyperconnected power has become, it’s worth asking whether it’s even possible to conceive of a comprehensive national security strategy today.

He then examines three differences between the world that faces Donald Trump, Elizabeth May and Angela Merkel and the one that faced Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and George C Marshall:

  • In trying to define a new grand strategy, a president should start with the same question that Churchill, Truman, and Marshall asked themselves in the late 1940s: What is the current arrangement of power around the globe? Things are much more complicated today than they were during the Cold War, when the world was dominated by the competition between a U.S.-led democratic capitalist bloc and the Soviet-dominated socialist bloc. Wealth has become far more diffuse, and there is more parity among nations. At the close of World War II, the United States enjoyed both economic and military dominance. These days, although the United States stills boasts overall primacy, it faces far more constraints, such as high debt levels, which have created a powerful push to reduce spending on international aid, diplomacy, and the military. Such constraints narrow the United States’ qualitative edge and limit its choices—if not always the rhetoric coming out of Washington.
  • A second change from Truman’s day is the increase in interconnectedness. Today, travel, communication, information sharing, technology, immigration, and commerce draw nations together far more closely than ever before. And the post–World War II system of international norms, rules, and institutions—a system the United States played a major role in building—draws countries closer together still. This interconnectedness is generally a positive thing, but not entirely so. The tighter ties linking markets means that national financial problems, such as the Greek debt crisis, can have a much bigger impact on other countries—including the United States—than they would have had a few decades ago. Immigration brings valuable flows of talent to the United States but also raises concerns about security. More trade means more export-related jobs, but it also means fewer jobs in sectors where other nations’ lower costs give them an advantage.
  • A third key difference between Truman’s era and our own is the tremendous increase in the power of nonstate actors—from terrorist groups to criminal syndicates to international nongovernmental organizations to transnational businesses. Many of these forces are benign, even beneficial. But the ability of nonstate actors to use violence and evade laws and accountability is both pernicious and destabilizing. The rise of these nonstate actors is undercutting the Westphalian consensus, which dates back to the mid-1600s and was based on the assumption that power, especially military power, was to be exercised by nation-states—and only nation-states—and within generally accepted boundaries. Today’s world is not bipolar, as it was during Truman’s day. It’s tripolar: power is now exercised by democratic states, authoritarian states, and nonstate actors. A contemporary U.S. security doctrine must operate in that framework and offer a guide for action that treats each group distinctly.

Senator Kaine offers a prescription: “As the United States builds a strategy for navigating today’s tripolar world, the first step should involve setting aside the idea that it is “the indispensable nation.” This concept was largely a statement of fact when Churchill and Truman promoted it in the 1940s. And it was arguably still a statement of fact when then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made it the 1990s. But it doesn’t accurately describe the United States’ place in the world today. Other nations are growing in power. Growth is a positive development, and the United States should find ways to accommodate it in a framework designed to help both American citizens and people around the world.” America, Senator Kaine suggests, should go from being the “indispensable nation” to what he describes as the “exemplary nation.”

The good news,” Senator Kaine opines “is that if the United States decides to reinvest in the power of its example, it will have an exemplary foundation to work with. Ever since Thomas Jefferson put equality first on his list of “self-evident” truths in the Declaration of Independence, the country has progressively expanded civic participation. The country witnessed a number of remarkable firsts in just the last decade, including its first minority president, its first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic descent, and its first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party. It extended the right to serve in all positions in the U.S. military to anyone who meets the qualifications, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It expanded access to health care to tens of millions of people of modest means, and it granted marriage equality to LGBT citizens. Although the harsh rhetoric during the recent election and the election result have threatened to undo some of this progress, history has shown that such pushbacks never erase all the gains made—and often provide new motivation for champions of equality to move society forward. Indeed, the recent uptick in civic activism and peaceful protest shows that this dynamic is already working … [and] … There are so many other areas in which the U.S. example is strong. Chief among them is the American culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, fostered by the rule of law, the protection of intellectual property, strong institutions of higher education, a big supply of immigrant talent, and a willingness to accept failure and allow second chances. As China and India continue to grow, the United States may not remain the world’s largest economy forever. But there is no reason why it should stop being the world’s most innovative economy.” I agree with both his diagnosis and prescription.

He calls for a better focus US military effort ~ making the US military the “partner of choice” for allies, not the “partner of necessity.” He calls for better trade deals with better rules and better management regimes, not for abandoning free(er) trade. Finally he calls for a recognition that America is no longer the global policeman.

Senator Kaine specifically calls for America to refocus its grand strategy on “the Americas” first, rather than President Trumps ill-conceived and quasi-isolationist “America First!” rhetoric. I think he is, tacitly, recognizing that Germany is the leader of Europe and that China is the dominant power in East Asia as is India in South Asia.

Senator Kaine doesn’t have an answer for every problem, but he offers a coherent and achievable programme that Americans ~ Democrats, Independents and Republicans, alike ~ would do well to consider, discuss and debate.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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  1. Not sure where Senator Kaine is going by saying there is “no strategy,” as the Goldwater-Nichols act requires annual publication of a National Security Strategy.


    President Obama published two, and so did President Bush. Previous Presidents published (almost) annually. The National Security Strategy feeds other strategic documents to such as the QDR (produced by the SecDef), the National Military Strategy (produced by the CJCS). The President also routinely publishes other strategic documents such as the Unified Command Plan and the Global Employment of the Force, which provide strategic direction to military forces.

    So, there is a lot of strategic guidance out there. How good it is is another question.

    1. I’m on Senator Kaine’s side: I doubt those official document rise to anywhere near the status of “strategy,” much less “grand strategy.” The last coherent “grand strategy” was, likely, in my opinion, enunciated by those members of the George W Bush (43) administration who were also active in the “Project for a New American Century.” I didn’t agree with their strategy but:
      a) it was one; and
      b) it was coherent in its aims and scope.

      I think that both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama eschewed strategy in favour of what they doubtless saw as “non-doctrinal pragmatism” but which looked, to me, like (normally) military reaction to (normally) socio-political problems.

      Gunboat diplomacy is not a strategy, it’s a tactic … done well it might be a very good, very effective and very long-lasting tactic; done not so well or even poorly, as I would argue it has been, by successive US administrations since 1960, it might produce “blow back” effects that are worse than the ‘crises’ that one wanted to resolve by force.

      Grand strategy is a socio-economic, political and policy thing … the military is a peripheral component of it. The Americans, especially thanks to the influence of the US military post Marshall-Eisenhower-Bradley-Ridgeway, have gone from bad to worse at grand strategy.

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