The Duck of Minerva

Grand Strategy is Worldmaking

25 October 2022

I think a lot of people are kidding themselves about what grand strategy is—it’s worldmaking. It’s an attempt to put the power of the state in service of grand political purpose. States big and small can have grand strategies because states big and small have elites who use state power to serve their visions.

When you think of grand strategy this way, most of what passes for grand strategic categories and policy prescriptions are exposed as morbidly violent, exploitative, and even reactionary. 

But wait, what is this concept of worldmaking? What about the “national interest?” What about all the smart people who’ve been writing about grand strategy the past 30 years? Did I just call an entire research program reactionary? Let’s back up a second.

There is No Interests-Values Conflict

We take for granted that grand strategy (and foreign policy generally) pursues something referred to as the “national interest.” But as revolutionary communist Dwight Eisenhower once remarked:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

His point, and mine, is that the pursuit of the national interest forces sacrifices on some for the sake of others, making it the most values-laden of enterprises. Any articulation of interests that cashes out in the real world will affect what people value (physical safety, rights, status, resources). What we do in the name of interests, therefore, reveals our real priorities.  

You wouldn’t necessarily know this to be the case by the way government officials and grand strategist-types talk about foreign policy though. The values smuggled into discourses about vital or important “national interests” are uniquely grim. So grim, in fact, that they are more likely to be successfully pursued euphemistically. Who wants to openly advocate for militarism, secrecy, the circumscription of political rights, upward redistributions of wealth, and downward (or at least outward) redistributions of violence? Better to dress it up. 

By talking about interests instead of values, elites employ the state to do the dystopian things associated with processes of securitization.  

It’s not that interests don’t exist at the level of the nation; they do. But 1) those shared security interests are extraordinarily thin if you think about it, 2) it’s mystifying and intellectually hollow to say that grand strategy is about national or vital interests given that the concept of interests is indeterminate and more often than not a stand-in for anti-democratic actions, and 3) the language games involved in invoking interests masks who actually benefits (and how much) from the policies taken in the name of the national interest.

If Grand Strategy Pursues Interests, Then What’s It Really Doing?

Dan Nexon wrote recently that he was skeptical grand strategy “is a thing.” He had a lot of valid gripes, but none were about the indeterminacy and values-masking that goes on in the pursuit of “national interests.” 

Dan noted that grand strategy as a research agenda tends to be dominated by stale, stylized cases about Spanish imperial overstretch, the Hapsburgs, World War II, and the like. No state pursues a sufficiently coherent statecraft to qualify as grand strategy, at least according to some definitions. And many people who gravitate to grand strategy as a topic or phrase seem mostly interested in hero worship, specifically the idolatry of George Kennan. All true.

You could also argue that grand strategy is capacious to a fault, lacking a common definition and scope. Grand strategy can be variously characterized as a theory of security, a plan or blueprint, a set of principles, a pattern of conduct, a national security narrative, a national theory of success, or a foreign policy’s intellectual architecture. What’s really crazy is that it can be nearly all of these things simultaneously.

But I don’t think any of this invalidates grand strategy. Scholars get a lot of mileage out of terms that are capacious or lack a stable definition—neoliberalism, empire, liberty, and the list goes on. It’s certainly true that grand strategy is not a theory. And I’m agnostic about whether it constitutes a research program (if it does it’s fairly degenerate—the most vibrant things written about grand strategy the past decade have tended to be review essays rather than empirical or theoretical claims).

We’re thinking about grand strategy the wrong way, perhaps in a desperate attempt to avoid acknowledging the politics of how things labeled “grand strategy” function in the real world. Grand strategy describes a historical practice of political elites using state power to preserve a ruling-class status quo that disproportionately benefits them. Sometimes, these grand strategic projects are so grand in ambition that they literally try to order world politics. Hegemonic orders don’t exactly entail egalitarian distributions of rights or economic power. 

But does it have to be a ruling-class project? Can’t non-elites pursue grand purpose by bidding for state power and redistributions of resources? Yes. Grand strategy is worth critiquing, but also worth rescuing. So whatever else grand strategy may be, it is also worldmaking. It’s just that as practiced historically, it’s been associated with elite-centered status quo worldmaking. 

What is Worldmaking?

The concept of worldmaking is having a moment. 

I first came across it in Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire, a stimulating book about Third-Worldist, anti-imperial, and black internationalist traditions of trying to pursue policies that reimagine what the world ought to be. 

Then I found an older book by Nelson Goodman called Ways of Worldmaking that is, frankly, very weird. It explores many attributes of what it calls worldmaking, but doesn’t concretely define it in a way that you could operationalize. My main takeaways from it—there are many worlds, worlds exist as both an imagined space and in reality, worlds can be made and remade, and worlds can clash with each other. 

More recently, there’s an article by Liane Hartnett that conceptualizes micropolitics with a specific valence (specifically love) as threading through and producing nationalist, cosmopolitan, and other projects that can be understood as worldmaking in the Getachew-ian sense. David Milne also had a book with Worldmaking in the title, and as I understand it he meant it in a somewhat pejorative way—the hubristic ambition of US policymakers at the dawn of the Cold War to think they could make a world that serves specifically their purposes. 

It’s intuitive that grand strategy is basically worldmaking insofar as it refers to policy projects that have consequences for the world and/or elites’ place in it. The things states do are constructing the world that we live in everyday regardless whether those doing the doing harbor great ambitions or are simply reacting to the conditions around them.

So if grand strategy has been a reactionary political project that generates insights for ruling-class interests—and it definitely has been—then the world it’s making is one in which grand strategists are just advising princes on how to steward some version of the status quo. Primacy, offshore balancing, etc are postures that ensure the ability of elites to hoard opportunities and preserve privileged positions in politics and society. Working in the idiom of grand strategy means working disproportionately for their interests.

But it need not be this way. I use the concept of worldmaking in recent research to characterize left-progressive grand strategies. When we talk about progressive (or leftist) foreign policy, we’re talking about policy preferences that align with one or more of several progressive (or leftist) grand strategies. And even the most restrained of those grand strategies have as their aim transforming international politics to be more peaceful, egalitarian, and democratic. Worldmaking, but for the many rather than the few.

Recognizing grand strategy as worldmaking matters because as our individual and societal choices narrow (or become more awful), it’s not because the world is just mysteriously getting worse. It’s because state power allows it (or directly causes it) to be that way, sometimes in spite of elites’ best intentions; we can and should be holding them accountable.

Accountability doesn’t just mean prosecuting war criminals, though that would be quite novel. It means putting forward a better vision for how state power ought to be wielded, on behalf of whom, and at whose expense. Those are questions that no US grand strategy has ever been willing to face directly.

This article is cross-posted at Van’s newsletter.