The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Sleepwalking Towards Strategy

June 23, 2011

Must strategy be named to be practiced? Nowadays we tend to look for strategy as something that folk write down and codify. We live in logocentric times, where strategy is linked to formal declaratory documents, advisory councils and institutions dedicated to thinking about how to relate our power and our commitments, our resources and our goals.
Of course, that dubious definition would disqualify all sorts of states from having a grand strategy, when the historical record suggests that in fact, their leaders were attempting to prioritise and rank effort, allocate resources to deal with competing demands, and orchestrate ends ways and means to keep the show on the road.

Even those who don’t think they ‘do’ strategy may still be doing it. This question arises as competing interpretations of the Clinton Presidency emerge, in particular its first term. One major judgment against the Clinton years was that on his watch, the US lacked a grand strategy of any kind. It was an ‘Eagle Adrift’ (though compared to the dogmatic certitudes and ideological fundamentalism of the Bush years after 9/11, some might be nostalgic for a time when we didn’t know exactly where we were headed). This was a President who came to Washingtonmainly interested in domestic affairs, who won his mandate by persuading others that it was about the economy, stupid, not George Bush Senior’s statecraft in the Gulf.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis summarises this moment of drift and empty slogans:
The Clinton administration spoke of “enlargement” and “engagement,” without specifying what was to be “enlarged” or who was to be “engaged.” It was a bad sign when President Clinton assured an aide in 1994 that Roosevelt and Truman had gotten along fine without grand strategies. They’d just made it up as they went along, and he didn’t see why he couldn’t do the same.
But grand strategies need not be the brainchild of one ruler’s mind. They can often be the cumulative creation of a wider political culture, a body of assumptions and shared myths – not to mention a convenient stock of ideas to use and abuse. Even ifClintonthought he was just making it up rather than following an overarching vision, there is arguably a different pattern to be found.
 Clintonenlarged NATO. He eventually had US forces intervene in the Balkans. Though he introduced cuts, he also sought to sustain an overwhelming military edge against potential competitors. He saw China-Taiwan relations, and the political order in East Asia, asAmerica’s business. He didn’t extract theUSfrom the Gulf. And despite his private dismissals of grand strategy, he still articulated a national security strategy in which theUSsecures itself by remaking the world in its own image, an idea that underlay all the policy moves above.
In other words, a ruler or regime that subjectively believes it has no grand strategy may well be objectively following the logic of one that it inherits. The grand strategic assumptions may be so familiar and powerful that it is mistaken for mere ‘common sense’, when it is a strong ideology that intervenes to define how the new masters define the nation’s interests. If we think of grand strategy not as a rigid plan but as a general (even loose) conception of how to relate the state’s interests with its power, the Clinton years should be seen not as a strategic vacuum of random drift, but as the consolidation of assumptions about America’s role in the post Cold War era, as the unchallengeable guardian of world order. Clinton’s diplomacy wasn’t so chaotic after all.

(Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer). 

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.