The United States has never been more connected to the global community than it is today. The federal government negotiates multilateral trade agreements, conducts military operations across borders, spies on friend and foe and enters into complex environmental pacts. As war and poverty drive people from their homes on practically every continent, politicians propose starkly different paths to a secure future.
These events may feel chaotic or, to those who remember recent history, simply reflective of the last half century. Either way, it’s worth stepping back to take the long view. In fact, historical analysis can shed light on the underlying forces at work and help make sense of a picture that is simultaneously life-threatening and hopeful.
“I argue that World War I was the crucible for all this,” says Christopher McKnight Nichols, Oregon State University historian. “The world had become so interconnected that the future of war and conflict was devastation. Everyone coming out of what they then saw as The Great War had grand strategies because they knew that the next war was going to be worse. Whoever it was; wherever they were. And that’s only amplified today.”
A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nichols was named a 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellow in support of his work advancing scholarship on U.S. international relations.
The concept of a grand strategy — an ambitious organizing principle for the exercise of global power — is about big ideas, says Nichols, about connecting means and ends. “A grand strategy,” he explains, “is a long-term intellectual framework that structures a big, capacious foreign policy world view.”
In May, Nichols hosted the Rethinking Grand Strategy Conference at Oregon State to bring together scholars who are looking at the evidence for grand strategies in American history and politics. Before the meeting, he sat down with Terra’s Nick Houtman to discuss the lessons we can glean from scholarship on grand strategies. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Terra: Where does the term “grand strategy” come from?
Nichols: In political science, “grand strategy” is language that comes from the Prussian general and theorist Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz and British military theorist Basil Lidell Hart. It refers to a long-term intellectual framework of the relationship between means and ends that, taken together, forms a big, capacious foreign policy world view. Not small things.
One of the classic examples from the 20th century is containment, which was articulated by George Kennan (American diplomat and political scientist) as an intellectual foundation for the containment — that is, prevention of the spread — of Soviet communism. Its strength was that it was adaptable yet specific. Even so, Kennan later recanted some of the ways it was used and developed, particularly in terms of rejecting so-called proxy wars. But a grand strategy like containment is useful as a broad way of understanding relations between countries, setting objectives and defining diplomacy over time and under changing conditions.
Usually it’s related to hard power, military and diplomatic power. One of the purposes of this conference is to historicize what we mean by grand strategy, to show the deeper archival accounts of where people thought they were developing grand strategy and to expand what it means to talk about grand strategies.
Terra: Does grand strategy have relevance beyond diplomacy and the military?
Nichols: We’ll explore that in the book coming out of this conference. What was the civil rights grand strategy? It wasn’t just domestic. There was a global civil rights strategy. You can go back to W.E.B. Du Bois (African-American writer and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) within the context of the global color line. The color line “belted the world,” as Du Bois memorably argued; it was much bigger than just achieving equality at home. We’ll also have a public health scholar from Yale who directs their grand-strategy program. What does a public health global grand strategy look like? For example, was the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — as begun under George W. Bush to combat global HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria — a grand strategy?
Limited to military and diplomatic power, the downside of the “grand” is the lofty. We might say it’s not a grand strategy unless you declare and declaim that it is. Kissinger had a grand strategy. Some argue that Kennedy never figured his out. There’s something to this too, a sense that renaissance people do grand strategy. They’re not just narrow thinkers; they’re the broadest, most capacious liberal minded policymakers. But it seems to me that we make a mistake historically and in the present to locate grand strategists exclusively, or just largely, among the ranks of politicians and diplomats.
Grand strategy is also a set of coursework that has developed over the last 20 years and proliferated in the last decade. Yale pioneered it. There are programs now at Duke; the University of Texas, Austin; all the service academies. One goal of our conference is to help set the agenda for this coursework. We aim to look at how the historical development of grand strategy, particularly in war time and also somewhat in peace time, in conception as well as execution, and in contexts outside of more traditional realms of analysis can widen our understandings of this history and, perhaps, help us to develop better ways forward in the future.
Terra: Where are scholars going with this? Why does this matter?
Nichols: The first grand strategists were only talking about war. In this scholarship as well as in terms of training and military history, generally there is a three-part sequence: strategy, tactics, and operations. The first wave of writing on grand strategy really emanated from political science and military analysis. Part of our motivation as historians is to do serious historical analysis from the 18th century to the present to first, construct a new history, and second, critique and recast ahistorical uses of the concept of grand strategy.
For example, some of the scholarship has argued that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson were poor grand strategists but that they had a grand strategy. My reading of that era (1940s-early 1950s) is that they were developing an ad hoc framework for the unfolding Cold War that was absolutely not a grand strategy, because it was inherently flexible and fluid at the moment.
Some of this research seeks to create order from the chaos of the past and impose a kind of false order, pretending that policymakers had some better capacity for knowing. At the conference, we are bringing in great historians and a few others from complementary disciplines. Our work aims to show how a grand strategy — or strategies — unfolded and shaped international policy or transnational actions.
The relevance of grand strategy made a major impact in the 1990s, which was when the Clinton Administration did this initiative called the Kennan Sweepstakes. It was an attempt to bring all these policymakers together to come up with a name that would represent the Clinton Doctrine, nothing less than a new U.S. grand strategy for the post-Cold War world. The process was incredibly successful in that it helped the Clinton Administration to develop a guiding doctrine. It was incredibly unsuccessful in the naming process. The term became “democratic enlargement.”
By that was meant a political philosophy of the U.S.’s proper role in the world being to help promote globalization, global interdependence, and U.S.-led free trade economics. It wasn’t about hard power use at all. This term and this moment in the 1990s, then, is a great way to understand the rise and search for grand strategy. It’s actually something that policymakers think a lot about. It’s about their legacy.
Another element of this case in the 1990s as well as the 1940s example reveals is that the quest for grand strategy can be important for a democracy. That is, it makes transparent to the public, both in the U.S. and publics abroad, what the core principles of the nation’s foreign policy are. You understand quickly from “containment” what the roles are. That’s why “democratic enlargement” doesn’t work as well. It isn’t obvious. It is in some ways, but not enough.
There’s a rhetorical element at work here too, about how to refine those core principles down to a clear idea that we can trot out to a broader public to show why something like a humanitarian intervention in a place like Rwanda mattered. “Democratic enlargement” didn’t help with that and Bill Clinton often remarks that his biggest policy regret of his presidency was not intervening to stop the genocide in Rwanda. The rhetoric of democratic enlargement via economics did help with getting more McDonald’s into China, that is more trade overall, and pushing back a little bit on human rights, but only a little post Tiananmen through the 1990s.
Terra: Who are the practitioners of grand strategy thinking? Does it go beyond government and military officials?
Nichols: After World War I, I argue in my paper for the conference, peace internationalists absolutely had a capacious grand strategy for world peace, world organization in the 1910s and 1920s. They come out of the war and attempt to substantiate that in international bodies, international law and new treaties. They’re generally not seen in any of this literature, but it seems to me that if you want to understand what grand strategies are in these intellectual frameworks, you really have to open that narrative up to look at these kinds of figures and groups who have not been studied or explored in this way, and how they changed their ideas, their successes, their failures, the peoples and organizations they worked with, the ones they don’t.
We’ll have the people who are normally included in this research too, such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger; they have to be there. In my own work I’m combining Woodrow Wilson with Jane Addams (early president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, first U.S. woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize). Here’s a policymaker and here’s a peace activist. How did their internationalisms fit together and how did they not? In what ways did the worldviews and policies that resulted from WWI constitute grand strategies that then helped to shape the geopolitics of the 1920s and 1930s and beyond?
Speaking of the stakes and long-standing relevance of grand strategy, one critique of Barack Obama has been that he doesn’t have a grand strategy. It’s so much out there that my co-editors on the book decided that as historians, we really need to grapple with it and decide how we talk about it. One of the scholars at the conference will be discussing the parameters of an Obama Doctrine as one of “ascendant ideas” about pragmatism and flexible responses. But yearning for grand strategy isn’t just limited to presidents like Eisenhower, or Clinton, or policymakers such as a Kissinger or Kennan. Clearly there are other grand strategies out there. This is one of my own main motivations to convene this conference and write this book. In the historical record there are diverse people, so many other folks with big lofty views about world-shaping foreign policy of nation states, even transnational actors like WILPF. They’re not empowered actors of the state but, I argue, they do not have to be in order to conceive and implement grand strategy.
Terra: How do today’s populist movements on the right and left affect the development of a modern grand strategy?
The history of foreign relations generally is the history of elites. They are the people who are most often in power and often the most cosmopolitan in their thinking about cross-border relations. One thing that is disheartening to me is that, according to most polls, Americans today are so poorly versed on the world, from geographies to languages to the presidents of countries with whom we’re allied. It should be no surprise that foreign relations still remains a bastion of elites, especially for Americans. Poll after poll concludes that American don’t care much about it.
One of the things that somebody like Donald Trump is actually pretty good at doing is articulating a robust, straightforward foreign policy view. Not one that all people are getting behind, but I think there is a core of consistency to it. It’s a protectionist, punitive, unilateral, isolationist position that is really appealing to many people. Still, it reflects a vague, reactionary populism, rather than a more thorough grand strategy along the lines of Cold War containment or doctrines articulated by presidents Monroe, Wilson and Truman. My sense is that we see similar patterns on the American political left, too, related to a less interventionist and less hubristic U.S. presence in the world in the wake of the Iraq War and now fifteen years after 9/11.
I wonder how populist trends in technology — the 24-hour news cycle, the way polling affects the stances that politicians take, the shifting to extremes — has reduced the time horizon of politics, and particularly long duration foreign policy, so that thinking capaciously about the 50-year time horizon of something like climate change is difficult. The imperatives don’t line up for them to take a long-term action.
To articulate a grand strategy that says your great-grandchildren will live in a better world because of these things, but if they constitute sacrifices between now and then or some other set of policy choices, the stakes and incentives seemed to line up a bit more directly in the Cold War than they do today, for many reasons, including the geopolitics of the era and today’s populist movements, new technologies …
Terra: How do grand strategies affect our relationships with international bodies such as the U.N. or the World Bank?
After World War II, there was a virtually bipartisan consensus for a kind of engaged U.S. internationalism for world leadership — in the United Nations, NATO, the IMF. All of the Bretton Woods system in terms of economics. Not all of that is good, but there was plenty of good that came with it. It was a structure that organized the world. Donald Trump, among others, is challenging assumptions about the strategic utility of these bodies and systems, which gives us an opening to talk about whether the U.S. should continue to take a leadership role in these international bodies and in the economic and security structures that undergird world organization today. That has constituted a kind of grand strategy that has endured, what we might call U.S. hegemonic internationalism….
You can think of what containment meant. We’ll keep the Cold War cold, in terms of so-called great power wars, but here are the limits. There are alliances for diplomacy and security. There are more liberal and more hawkish versions of it — domino theories, proxy wars, covert operations, and much more. But, within that, you can get a conceptual hand hold on it because of the centrality of a containment vision, matching means and ends in terms of a longer term set of objectives of counter-pressure against the spread of Soviet communism. Does the U.S. have that today? Do the British? What is the Russian grand strategy? Maybe what we are all sharing in the world system is that there is so much noise in the system and fewer obvious long-duration major threats that it’s reduced a great deal of foreign relations to a shorter, less grand, time horizon. On the other hand, if we broaden our horizons to public health, race, peace activism, development and foreign assistance, there are a great many long-term grand strategies seemingly at work in the world today with roots in both the near and distant past.
Terra: What do you hope to accomplish with the conference?
One of the things we want to develop is an expanded and historically grounded definition of “grand strategy.” We want to historicize what we mean by the term, to show the deeper archival accounts of where people thought they were developing grand strategy, or not, to broaden what it means to talk about grand strategies in the past, present and future.
Historians know there’s a lot that’s missing in current scholarship. There also is a tremendous amount we can build on. We hope to find consistencies and differences that extend across U.S. and world history, to think deeply together, and to deliberate how Americans have debated different sorts of strategies, grand and otherwise, and what their impacts have been when they’ve been applied. And we will consider definitions of usefulness. Are there insights from the past that we should take particular notice of — should, for instance, Obama or the next president attempt to define and implement a grand strategy?