Big Goals and Small Adversaries: Why Grand Strategy Matters

4 December 2018, 0949 EST

The United States is closing in on the 18th anniversary of its first wartime death in Afghanistan, that of CIA operative Mike Spann, providing a melancholy opportunity to emphasize the role of grand strategy as a policymaking tool. To this end, I ask why the United States has done relatively poorly in so many of its so-called small wars, wars against much weaker adversaries. Its poor record is surprising because the United States has done so well in its major wars, including the world wars, the Korean War, and the Cold War.

Some of the United States’ smaller wars have gone as planned. The invasion of Grenada and replacement of its leftist government in 1983 was quick. The attack on Panama to replace President Noriega in 1989-1990 was also relatively short and low cost for the United States. Some small wars (small from the great power perspective, of course) have not turned out quite as planned, but have also not escalated significantly either vertically or horizontally, or in costs. These include the humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Why should Iraq and Afghanistan still drag on, then, when the United States and its allies are fighting weak non-state actors whose ideologies hold little appeal? Why did the U.S. intervention against insurgents in Vietnam last 21 years? Why did its intervention against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement, which started out stealing and buying its weapons from the Salvadoran military in the Salvadoran civil war, last 13 years?

The United States extended and even escalated these wars, sometimes geographically and always in terms of firepower and human and material costs, because policymakers set political objectives that the United States could not achieve against these smaller, weaker, presumably less appealing non-state actors. It set unattainable political goals because it failed to consider these conflicts within a grand strategic context that would have demonstrated the lack of important U.S. interests involving these adversaries and these states. Thus, it failed to correctly assess the threats and the possible solutions in these interventions. This is not to say that the United States would have triumphed in these military interventions had it set less ambitious goals. It is to say that the more unachievable the goals, the higher the costs, and using the tools of grand strategy can help states identify and distinguish between achievable and unachievable goals. Even more importantly, perhaps, it can help distinguish between necessary and unnecessary wars, or what is necessary for security and what is not, as well as what is attainable.

While strategy is the art of linking military ends, ways, and means to achieve a specific political objective, grand strategy is a more hotly debated concept. It has gotten sexier as the War on Terror has dragged on. One gross measure of the attention it garners is number of Google hits. The year from November 26, 1996, to November 26, 1997, shows 10 pages of hits for “grand strategy,” while the year from November 26, 2017, to November 26, 2018, shows 18 pages. Foundational work on grand strategy developed a typology for analysis. Debates about grand strategy since have typically revolved around which variant is best for the United States and which version, if any, is currently or was previously in effect. Deeper considerations include the empirical context of grand strategic choices, whether it is possible for a government to develop and implement a grand strategy at all, and whether it is even necessary.

The most straightforward definition of grand strategy is how a state thinks about its security, including but not limited to use of its military tools. A leading scholar on the subject, Barry Posen, argues that the purpose of grand strategy is to subject military power to the discipline of political analysis. This crucial practical aspect of grand strategy receives less attention than it should. Scholars are moving toward greater focus on the workings of grand strategy in real life.

In a world with no global police force, even great powers cannot take their own security for granted. In the post-Cold War world, with only one superpower (though with continued competition amongst nuclear-armed states), the United States has struggled to identify the greatest threats it faces and respond appropriately. Its extended, expansive, costly wars against small, weak adversaries highlight the problems with its approach.

Whether a government has a grand strategy or not, the concept is a reminder that any state — even the richest, safest, and strongest – must consider threats in a relative context. How one ranks state interests and threats varies with one’s assumptions and emphases, but traditionally relative strength has played a role in such net assessments. The United States may be the safest great power ever, with its ocean moats and far weaker neighbors.

Since al Qaida’s attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, however, the United States has not behaved like a relatively safe superpower. It has become a revisionist state, struggling to change the domestic politics of smaller powers because it labors under the misapprehension that liberalizing and democratizing their governments will help them defeat the insurgents and terrorists they face at home, thus increasing U.S. and international security.

U.S. goals in the major wars of the 20th century were obtainable, and obtained. In World War I, the United States punished German aggression and prevented the rise of a hegemon in Eurasia. In World War II it fought for the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, again preventing the rise of a hegemon to challenge U.S. interests. In the Korean War, the United States succeeded in its political objectives of punishing aggression and pushing back against Communist expansion to once more prevent the rise of a hegemon that could plausibly threaten U.S. interests.

U.S. interventions in the late Cold War were also limited in political objective and scope. In the unipolar moment of the 1990’s its interventions in the Balkans had a variety of political objectives, including increasing Western European security by slowing the wartime refugee flows from the East; humanitarian protection; and bolstering NATO after the disappearance of its main raison d’être, the Soviet Union. It achieved these, as well as the immediate goal of ending the Balkan wars.

Since then, however, the United States has paid high self-imposed costs in combating small, weak, unpopular non-state actors on other states’ territory. It has done so largely by foregoing grand strategic concerns about relative power and prudent consideration of the vast differences between terrorists’ and insurgents’ will and their actual capabilities.

It has set dizzyingly ambitious goals for its interventions. The 2005 NATO goal for Afghanistan, for example, was a “self-sustaining, moderate, and democratic Afghan government.” The U.S. National Security Strategy 2010 political objective for Iraq and Afghanistan was “building the capacity necessary for security, economic growth, and good governance [as] the only path to long term peace and security.” The State Department told Congress that U.S. policy for Yemen in 2010 was to address “the profound political, economic, and social challenges that help al Qaeda and related affiliates to operate and flourish.” This goal was startlingly out of touch with the goals of Yemeni actors, as the state’s descent into another civil war shows.

These Global War on Terror goals are reminiscent of U.S. political objectives in Vietnam. “Pacification” meant “all action to eliminate organized Viet Cong military activity and nurture economic, political and social development of a viable economy,” for example, while “rural reconstruction” meant development activities “principally of a social-economic-political nature identified as ‘nation building” intended to “strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the local government thus to solidify the support of the people for that government and to demonstrate visibly to other non-secure areas the benefits that accrue in a peaceful area operating under the rule of law.” And as in Vietnam, the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other GWOT locations, have dragged on across multiple administrations and changes in party control as popular attitudes have shifted from support to scattered protests to ennui.

Consideration of the terrorism threat in the grand strategic context would remind U.S. policymakers that the country has survived periods of domestic political unrest and that the homegrown Muslim terrorist threat is overblown. Research shows that most wannabe jihadis are less than bright and hardly efficient or effective. Use of the grand strategic tool or heuristic would also remind policymakers that terrorism abroad is neither a new threat nor an existential one. Further, it would remind them that U.S. power and influence are limited, particularly beyond its own borders, and less ambitious goals are more achievable even when the adversary is small and weak. Finally, consideration of relative threats, costs, benefits, and opportunity costs would alert policymakers to the reality that terrorist groups rarely end with members’ conversion to liberal democratic beliefs.

Grand strategy may be impossible. It may be a myth or unicorn. It may require learning on the fly. All of these are reasonable positions. But if there is one thing that grand strategy surely is, it is a toolkit. The kit contains tools for evaluating a state’s interests and threats to those interests, the ranking of those interests and those threats, and consideration of alternative courses of action to address them. Finally, thinking grand strategically is a habit of mind that reminds us that politics is the art of the possible.