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No Strategy, No Doctrine, No Organizing Principle?

When crises emerge, critics charge that Obama should act more quickly and more aggressively, or they argue that no US interests are involved and the US should decline any intervention. Headlines often claim that the administration has no strategy, no doctrine, or no organizing principle. But for those who study the field, Obama's is an easily recognizable strategy.
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When crises emerge, critics charge that President Obama should act more quickly and more aggressively, or they argue that no US interests are involved and the US should decline any intervention. Headlines often claim that the administration has no strategy, no doctrine, or no organizing principle.

But for those who study the field, Obama's is an easily recognizable strategy. Digging deeper into the critics' claims, it becomes clear that the authors either lack basic knowledge of national security strategy or think their preferred strategy is the only real strategy.

A vigorous debate took place after the Cold War that drew in the most knowledgeable strategic thinkers. George Kennan's strategy to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of communism, formulated in the late 1940s, no longer served as an organizing principle. Contestants in the 1990s debate hoped to provide a new clarity of purpose to guide government action in the coming decades. Some called the competition the Kennan Sweepstakes, but there was no clear winner, and administrations bounced from strategy to strategy.

By 1996 it was possible to summarize the post-Cold War debate. Andrew Ross of the Naval War College and Barry Posen of MIT captured the debate in a single, 50-page article in International Security, the most prestigious outlet in the field for rigorous analysis. After digesting the myriad of books and articles, Posen and Ross found that every nuanced strategy fell into one of four clearly identifiable clusters -- isolationism, selective engagement, cooperative security, and primacy.

One thing distinguishing the strategies is the belief that aggressive action on the world stage either increases American security or increases the threat. Cooperative security (hawkish liberal internationalists) and primacy (neoconservative unilateralists) lean strongly toward the former. Isolationism and selective engagement lean strongly toward the latter.

A second thing distinguishing the strategies is military force posture. Cooperative security and primacy deploy the force forward operating at a high tempo. Following different paths, both arrive at the US playing the role of global policeman. Isolationism and selective engagement favor bringing the force home and holding it in reserve for employment when narrowly defined vital interests are threatened.

A third thing distinguishing the strategies is cost. Cooperative security and primacy require a large force and large off-budget appropriations for operations abroad. Isolationism and selective engagement allow for a smaller force, a shift of forces from active to reserve status, and considerably lower costs for off-budget military operations.

Isolationism is poorly named and the label is tossed around as a dismissive by those who prefer a more aggressive, militarized foreign policy. Its formal meaning in the strategy community is "a military, not a political or economic, withdrawal to the nation's borders." The troops are brought home and held in reserve to fight when narrowly defined vital interests are threatened. Libertarians on the right, civil libertarians on the left, and paleoconservatives tend toward isolationism in varying degrees, and it appeals to many in the public. It finds very little favor inside the Beltway.

Selective engagement, as articulated by Robert Art of Brandeis University, is a broad framework that leaves considerable flexibility for presidential action. Presidents can differ in how selective they are in their engagement and they can differ in how they engage. Selective engagement is a strategy that Eisenhower would recognize. After WWII, just as after WWI, the Republican Party championed a return to isolationism. Ike offered to stay out of the presidential race if Taft would abandon isolationism. Eisenhower remained engaged and expanded international treaty organizations, but he was very selective in his use of force, often preferring economic over military force.

Selective engagement holds military force in reserve and uses force when vital interests are challenged. It avoids military interventions where only peripheral interests were involved and instead limits its response to diplomatic and economic efforts. It intervenes, however, when domestic politics demand it or when the probability of success is high and costs are low. Otherwise, selective engagement is based on cold calculation of self interest and lacks the passion that energizes cooperative security and primacy.

Selective engagement, like isolationism, favors a smaller military footprint abroad. President George H.W. Bush's three national security strategies and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell's national military strategy increasingly called for declining forward basing and increasing engagement with home-based forces rotating forward on temporary deployments. Both welcomed a greater role by allies like Germany and Japan, and both spoke positively of working through international institutions, something generally thought of as part of cooperative security. The president was scheduled to roll out the new strategy on August 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. The strategy rollout was cancelled, and the strategy never implemented, although strategy documents continued to evolve.

Another variation of selective engagement is offered by yet another respected strategic thinker, Christopher Layne of Texas A&M, under the name offshore balancing. It is also called a tipping strategy with the US entering late to tip the scales, as it did in the two world wars. The US is the balancer of last resort. The Obama administration chose to tip the scales in Libya with the Libyans carrying the main effort backed by France. Hawks called for stronger intervention while others claimed no US interests were involved. The administration favors strikes and raids over invasion and occupation.

It is Layne's strategy that shines a light on the strategic shift the Obama administration is attempting to affect. Rather than global cop enforcing rules around the world and carrying the primary enforcement burden, "allies" are expected to invest more in their own defense -- to become genuine partners rather than protectorates. The US is attempting a new burden sharing arrangement and it uses international institutions like the UN and NATO to aggregate power rather than relying on a US preponderance of power, thus adding the preference for operating through international institutions from cooperative security.

You might question the relevance of a strategy debate from the last century, indeed, the last millennium. Fair question. The post-Cold War debate had a certain timeless quality to it. The four strategies very well describe US behavior since its founding. The world continues to evolve and strategists continue to strategize, but the newer proposals are largely variations on one of the four bedrock strategies. The current debate isn't producing new strategies; the debate is about which strategy should govern US behavior now.

Selective engagement has an impressive list of respected adherents. Stephen Walt of Harvard is a strong voice frequently arguing from this position. Michael Mazarr, professor of national security strategy at the National War College, argued in 2012 for the need to rethink national strategy in "The Risk of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency" and, after leading the National Defense University's Strategy Study Group, proposed a Strategy of Discriminate Power in 2013. The strategy has much in common with the Bush and Powell strategies, including smaller military footprint forward, more selective use of force, and working through international institutions to aggregate power.

It would be an exaggeration to say that a clear consensus is building among strategic thinkers, but some heavyweights have aligned behind selective engagement. Apparently President Obama and Vice President Biden concur. The costly military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have convinced many that the US needs to be far more selective, i.e., restrained and focused, in its use of force. The global economic downturn argues for reduced military spending, again requiring additional restraint in the use of force. And the US's decreasing portion of the global economy -- peaking at the end of WWII and in continual decline since -- argues for shifting burden to other wealthy states and to the principle stakeholders.

There are many ironies in American politics today. One of them is that the public does not support the US playing global cop and simultaneously they don't support the Obama administration's selective engagement strategy that rejects the global cop role. Critics of selective engagement in the 1990s debate predicted that presidents would have a hard time explaining which peripheral crises needed a response and which didn't. The strategy would appear fickle and would lose public support. Apparently the critics were right in this regard.

Alongside claims that Obama has no strategy are claims that under Obama, the US has become an unreliable ally. These come from those favoring the US playing global cop and from our protectorates who prefer to think of themselves as stalwart allies, of which there are few. The burden shifting that is taking place will take time and is going to be painful for those who will have to devote a greater portion of their economy and citizenry to their own defense.

There is no "right" grand strategy. If there was there would be no debate. Each of the four strategies has strengths and weaknesses. Commentators are perfectly justified in advancing their own preferred strategy. But those who claim there is no strategy aren't qualified participants in the debate.


Robert J. Art, "A Defensible Defense: America's Grand Strategy after the Cold War," International Security (Spring 1991): 5-53.

Robert J. Art, "Geopolitics Updated: The Strategy of Selective Engagement," International Security (Winter 1998-1999): 79-113.

Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, "Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy," International Security (Winter 1996-1997): 5-53.

Michael J. Mazarr, "A Strategy of Discriminate Power: A Global Posture for Sustained Leadership," The Washington Quarterly, 37, no. 1, (2014): 137-150. Look here.

Michael J. Mazarr, "The Risk of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency," The Washington Quarterly, 35, no. 4, (2012): 7-22. Look here.

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