America Needs a Grand Strategy

COMMENTARY Global Politics

America Needs a Grand Strategy

Jul 23rd, 2021 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Robert L. Wilkie

Visiting Fellow, Center for National Defense

Robert L. Wilkie, former secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, joined Heritage as a visiting fellow.
China represents a more ominous threat than the Soviet Union did. Nando Pizzini Photography / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The rise of China, revanchist Russia, and militant Islam have convinced some that the world is far too complicated for traditional strategic thinking.

With respect to an American grand strategy, there must be an acceptance of America’s unique position as the indispensable nation. That is not the case with Biden.

If we want to confront the immediate and long-term challenges of our adversaries, we need leaders who will embrace the necessity of creating a grand strategy.

America’s basic strategic posture has not changed since it inherited Britain’s mantle of world leadership during World War II. Preserving national sovereignty and independence while simultaneously ensuring countries can freely navigate the world’s oceans and airspace continue to be essential for the safety and prosperity of the United States. 

But threats are rising from all corners of the world. Now more than ever, America needs a robust foreign policy shaped by a grand strategy. Indeed, the free world needs America to have such.

The rise of China, revanchist Russia, and militant Islam have convinced some that the world is far too complicated for traditional strategic thinking and that, by continuing its feckless global involvement, the United States only causes more problems. They argue that we should accept a restricted role in global affairs. 

They could not be more wrong.

>>> Why America Needs a Grand Strategy

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a seismic impact on strategic thought; the “end of history” seemed nigh. In 1993, then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake said that the challenge for American policymakers was to win the new “Kennan sweepstakes.” He was referring to the 1946 “Long Telegram” written by George Kennan, a young American diplomat in the Soviet Union who warned the State Department about the mortal threat Moscow posed to the postwar world order. Kennan’s clear-eyed assessment of the brutish Soviet regime became the foundation for America’s containment strategy, which held Moscow in check for 45 years until the Soviet Empire collapsed. Lake argued that we needed a replacement strategy for the new, post-Soviet era. 

We certainly do not have one. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have traveled from George H.W. Bush’s New World Order to Trump’s America First. For the current administration, the only operative guidance seems to be a continuation of the Obama Administration’s policy: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” 

As we speak, tomes are flowing from pro-Biden think tanks and Oxbridge and Ivy League lounges arguing that Lake was wrong. According to the enlightened intelligentsia, America does not need a grand strategy since that only works in a predictable political environment such as the bipolar world of the United States and the Soviet Union. Such thinking is divorced from historical and practical reality. Name one period since Waterloo that was peacefully predictable. 

The 1970s were a case in point. The world assumed that the United States was on an inevitable decline riven by problems at home and indecisiveness abroad. Moscow made the mistake of underestimating American resilience. Yet Ronald Reagan stepped forward with a cold and honest assessment of Soviet weakness and an economic and military vision that eventually brought Moscow to its knees. 

The axiom that a battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy does not negate the necessity of having that plan in the first place. It ensures that the commander’s organization understands his intent and provides the rationale for resources that must be marshaled to see that objectives are met. Planning for battle conditions the mind. 

Any plan—any strategy—must start with a clear sense of place, purpose, and objective. With respect to an American grand strategy, there must be an acceptance of America’s unique position as the indispensable nation. To lead well, you must believe in the country you serve. 

It is not clear if that is the case with this administration. In April, Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Laura Thomas-Greenfield, embarrassed the United States by denouncing her own nation before the U.N. Human Rights Council, declaring that “the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.” 

One month earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken retreated in the face of a vituperative attack by the Chinese Foreign Minister at a conference in Alaska. The minister condemned America’s alleged suppression of human rights within her own borders, but Blinken could only mouth faculty pieties about America’s “imperfections” in response. His inability to be anything but defensive about his own country set the tone for what to expect in the next four years. 

How can America cope with a rampant China or Iran’s theocratic fanatics when her own leaders do not believe that the country is worth defending, even rhetorically? If they will not stand for a nation grounded in the universal principles of human dignity and individual freedom and a record as the one nation in history to offer a helping hand to all the peoples of the world including our enemies, where will they stand? 

China represents a more ominous threat than the Soviet Union did. If we are to adjust to this reality, we must pivot now. Strengthening nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines with thousand-year memories of Chinese aggression and imperialism would weaken Beijing while strengthening America’s hand. 

Sadly, the Biden Administration appears not to understand this, as it did not take long for it to signal American weakness in the Pacific. Yes, it sent the secretary of defense to Asia to reassure our allies—who retain memories of Obama-era indifference—that Joe Biden is cut from a different cloth. Yet at the same time, the administration was submitting a defense budget reflecting a net loss in buying power. The incongruity was not lost on nations looking to stand together with Washington to prevent Chinese military dominance of the Pacific. 

The same attitude applies to the Middle East, where Arab states—via the Abraham Accords facilitated by the Trump White House—buried age-old animosities toward Israel to stand together against the mullahs in Tehran. Throwing away years of progress, the Biden White House has signaled it will return to the Obama-era policy of appeasing Iran and its proxies.  

>>> China Transparency Project

Even in Europe, the message is one of retreat. The Trump Administration halted Russian aggression in Ukraine by providing Kiev with weapons able to kill Putin’s tanks, helicopters, and planes. The Biden-Harris Administration has unilaterally halted the flow of military supplies to Ukraine, in the hope that Moscow would reciprocate. Putin in the meantime continues to wage war on the cyber commons vital to American security.

In London, our most important ally was left flabbergasted by a president who could not comprehend that Northern Ireland was a constituent part of the United Kingdom and not a province of the Irish Republic. The Canadians are reeling from the loss of thousands of oil and gas jobs as America relinquished this energy partnership with the stroke of a presidential pen. Even French President Emmanuel Macron has warned America to keep her woke presidency on Washington’s side of the Atlantic. All of this means that America is now led by those who believe they exist to manage national decline rather than lead the world. 

Grand strategy cannot guarantee the preservation of American values and the security of our vital national interests. Developing a clear set of strategic guidelines, however, would signal to the world that America is engaged, and that national decline is not our mindset.

International relations are always riven with uncertainty. But we need not consign ourselves to a fate of lurching reflexively from crisis to crisis, with no lodestar to guide our responses. If we want to confront the immediate and long-term challenges of emboldening adversaries, we need leaders who will embrace the necessity of creating a grand strategy rooted in the firm conviction that America is the indispensable leader and defender of the free world.

This piece originally appeared in American Greatness