The U.S. Grand Strategy: Policy and Planning

In recent weeks four influential reports on U.S. foreign policy have been published: the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy of the USA (NSS, December 18); the Department of Defense’s (unclassified) quadrennial  National Defense Strategy: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (NDS, January 17); Containing Russia: How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations (January 19); and Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review NPR, February 2).

The NSS was supervised by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster while the two Pentagon reports have the imprimatur of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.  For its part, the Council on Foreign Relations has served for almost a century as the “imperial brain trust,” harmonizing the views of government officials, the corporate elite, and academia.  Therefore, considered within the context of recent actions and policies of the Trump administration these reports are authoritative and provide a roadmap for American foreign policy in the coming years.

It should come as no surprise that the three governmental reports illustrate Trump’s accommodation to the foreign policy establishment and corporate America with respect to their core objectives and interests.  More significantly and notably, they show that this establishment is becoming increasingly consolidated on the basis of a forward strategy that seeks to revise a host of unfavorable economic and military developments and reassert American primacy in all regions.

Both the NDS and NSS—the key “grand strategic” reports—contain important elements of realist doctrine.  The NSS asserts that “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition has returned.” Russia and China  are identified as revisionist powers.  Calling for a strategy of “principled realism,” the NDS asserts that that “inter-state competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

Yet, while the reports invoke some of the language and symbolism of classical realism, they are not fundamentally realist or mercantilist, but rather consistent within the doctrine of the “open door” that has been the overarching objective of American foreign policy since the 1890s, and especially since 1945.  For example, the NSS does call for a “fair and reciprocal international economic system” and it also endorses bilateral trade treaties.  At the same time, however, it affirms the “vitality of our alliances and partnerships,” opposes “closed mercantilist trading blocs,” and seeks to “break down trade barriers.” While some U.S. commentators have objected to the relative absence of human rights rhetoric, the reports have generally elicited  strong support throughout the foreign policy establishment, not least from Donald Trump’s  erstwhile harshest “liberal internationalist” and neo-conservative critics.

Barack Obama's call for “strategic patience” In his 2015 NSS Report was derided by the hawks as “leading from behind.” By contrast, the  present NSS proclaims that the United States will “respond to our enemies quickly and decisively, and, when necessary, to fight, to overpower, and to always, always, always win.”   It seeks to “expand the competitive space through the use of “more lethal force, strong, bedrock alliances and partnerships,”  to “generate decisive and sustained military advantages.

The NDS envisions American primacy in every region.  It affirms the defense of a “strong and free Europe,” based on the sanctity of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. No retreat from the Carter Doctrine is planned for the Persian Gulf: the U.S. seeks to “consolidate gains we have made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere;” a region “not dominated by any power hostile to the United States and that contributes to stable global energy markets and secure trade routes.”  In Asia, the NDS proposes to expand alliances and partnerships towards a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

The Trump administration's actions and policies thus far have been consistent with the reports:  in Europe, the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine coinciding with Kiev’s de facto withdrawal from Minsk 2; in the Middle East, the intended permanent U.S. military occupation of the oil-rich eastern Deir e-Zor province as prelude to partition;  with respect to Iran the de facto maintenance of sanctions through the creation of uncertainty that discourages investments.  Although Washington appears likely to take significant protectionist measures against China in areas such as steel and intellectual property during 2018 these will be justified  as responses to plausibly predatory trade practices.  The Trump administration has not launched a fundamental assault on the global trading order, and will not do so in the future.

The NPR confirms the continuation of the $1.2 trillion nuclear modernization program of the Obama Administration, now expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2046, including enhanced ballistic missile defenses and low-yield nuclear weapons.  While noting that both China and Russia are pursuing nuclear modernization programs the NPR fails to recognize that these programs are driven in large part by the development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses that was given impetus by George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002.  The report marks a significant departure from the Obama Administration’s stated goal of reducing reliance on the nuclear arsenal.  It seeks to “supplement” the arsenal with two new lower-yield missiles, thus increasing the probability of their use.  Notably, it contemplates the use of nuclear weapons in the case of “non-nuclear strategic attacks” on infrastructure. 

Co-written by Robert Blackwill and Philip Gordon, high-level officials respectively from the Bush and Obama administrations, and with a forward by CFR President Richard Haass, Containing Russia is an inflammatory document.  On the front cover Vladimir Putin is depicted offering a toast with a champagne glass.  Announcing that “the United States is currently in a second cold war with Russia” and that “Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election constituted an attack on American democracy,” the first section sets out a number of mostly unproven accusations concerning “Russiagate,” drawing parallels between Russia’s alleged actions with respect to the 2016 elections, the 9/11 attacks, and the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.  These actions, they argue, should set the United States “on a different path regarding its relations with Moscow… Russia’s intervention should not be seen as just another of many stumbles in U.S.-Russia relations over the decades but as a historic turning point.”

Criticizing the responses of the Obama and Trump administrations  to Russia as “limited and ineffective,” the CFR report recommends an extensive list of containment policies, some of which have already been implemented, including electoral and cyber counter-measures, censorship of Russian media, further limits to Russian access to Western loans and technology, implementation of sanctions on the defense, mining, and energy sectors as already authorized by Congress, additional equipment and combat troop deployments in eastern Europe, provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine, increased NATO exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas, and additional missile defenses in eastern Europe.    

Self-consciously bi-partisan, Containing Russia is an important signpost in the consolidation of the foreign policy establishment around a forward strategy, achieved partly through fanning the flames of anti-Russian sentiment.  It suggests that the divisions over foreign policy during the Obama presidency that were reflected in his hesitations over Syria and Ukraine have been largely overcome.  The corollary is the precipitous decline of the U.S. peace movement in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, now weaker than at any time since the mid-1960s--also in part a result of the conflation of anti-Trump and anti-Russian discourse.  In a post-Trump era, it is possible that this discourse will tempered if U.S. policy towards Russia is reset  on a more rational, geopolitical basis.  Here it is notable that the NDS distinguishes between Russia as a regional competitor and China as a hegemonic rival:  Russia seeks to “change Middle East security and economic structures in its favor while maintaining veto power over nations on its periphery.”  By contrast, China “seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”  

What is clear from each of these reports is that at the present time the U.S. elite has no intention of retreating into a “balance of power” world organized around spheres of influence and shared economic leadership.  This is not only a matter of egoism or imperial psychology.  The power and profits of an corporate America depend on continuous expansion into a world economy  that is organized on the basis of U.S. hegemony.  The reports do not, of course, indicate whether the forward policy can succeed.  As the NDS candidly acknowledges, the world has moved into a phase in which “every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.”  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.