Being Realistic About Strategy

2020 Essays

Being Realistic About Strategy

Oct 30, 2019 41 min read

Being Realistic About Strategy
A U.S. Marine with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit stands atop the port side of the flight deck aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. T. T. Parish

Bill Hix

In the midst of peace, war is looked upon as an object too distant to merit consideration.

—Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De re militari

As this essay is written, America is reacting to a complex mix of international and domestic challenges. The U.S. and those aligned with it confront geostrategic rivalries characterized as great-power conflict, with a rising, revisionist China1 and a resurgent, revanchist Russia2 that act both independently and in collaboration.3 Growing and increasingly dangerous regional challenges manifest in nearly every corner of the globe. The scourge of terrorism, though diminished for the moment, remains.4 These challenges are further complicated by significant economic tension5 and daunting technological change.6 Diverging priorities and political discord at home7 and abroad8 often result in half measures and paralysis on large issues. The assumptions of the past have not worn well.9

These contemporary developments are complex, demanding, and dangerous. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell characterizes this period as “the most complex and difficult global security environment in our nation’s history.”10 Economically, Bloomberg recently reported leading investors are “bracing for protracted superpower conflict and adjusting their portfolios accordingly.”11 Exacerbating these challenges is a “technological revolution…unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”12 Indeed, Leon Panetta, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense, observed “The last time the global threat picture was this crowded and combustible was in the lead-up to World War I.”13 That combustion consumed the world in a catastrophe of world war, economic calamity, and political upheaval that spanned three decades.

America eventually prevailed, but its response, bereft of strategy, was at best reactive. The U.S. entry into World War I, more out of “passion and propaganda…than by realistic analysis [or] prudent…‘war planning,’” left the President and the nation “powerless”14 to “make the world safe for democracy.” On the eve of World War II, General Albert C. Wedemeyer has noted, “Washington seemed as confused and divided as the nation itself.”

I could find few if any concrete answers to… vital questions. So far as I could discover, no systematic official attention had been given them. No mechanisms for considering them in an orderly and informed way existed within the government. Indeed, I found little awareness or acceptance of the notion that supreme issues of war and peace required thorough analysis in the top echelons of the national government. An uneasy feeling came over me that the ship of state was rudderless in the storm; or, if the rudder were still intact, there at least were no charts and orders on the bridge to guide the navigator.15

Success came at an exceptionally high cost. For the U.S., this included the economic and social displacement of the Great Depression and the bloodiest period of war in its history.16 With nations across the globe suffering, on average, a 30 percent economic downturn, rising illiberal political movements, including fascism, socialism, and Communism; civil and global war; and, in the end, some 100 million dead,17 this 30-year period was perhaps history’s most consequential.

Yet in its aftermath, the U.S. prevailed in the no less dangerous four-decade Cold War at far less cost. Historically guided by doctrines,18 America’s response to the Cold War challenge was a unique act of grand strategy.19 Compelled by its new role as a great power and the existential, global post-war challenge posed by an increasingly aggressive and capable Soviet Union,20 America formalized its grand strategy of containment in President Harry Truman’s National Security Council Paper NSC-68. Refined by President Dwight Eisenhower and comprehensively leveraging the whole of statecraft,21 that grand strategy guided America’s successful response across nine presidential Administrations.22

The Cold War, despite many lesser crises, saw the U.S. avoid nuclear Armageddon and end that great-power conflict with a “whimper rather than a bang.”23 The question is whether the U.S. can engineer a similar outcome despite facing two collaborating great-power competitors24 and a host of other challenges as complex and volatile as any in history.25

Today’s great-power challenges, like those of the past, are contests of true consequence, as the global catastrophe of two world wars and the Cold War’s threat of nuclear Armageddon confirm. Today’s risks, posed by the centennial ambitions, capabilities, and actions of China,26 along with Russia,27 separately and in collaboration,28 are no less consequential. Indeed, they may well be greater as the world has not yet properly evaluated the risk.29

Given the magnitude of those challenges, America and others invested in a system that supports self-ruling government and market economics should seek to repeat the geostrategic success of our Cold War predecessors: retaining America’s global leadership, avoiding Armageddon, and preserving the principles that underpin that system. Fully realized, such an effort must be comprehensive, placing demands on every instrument of statecraft. The business of strategy is a complex one.

Why Strategy?

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat….

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The concept of strategy originated in ancient Greece30 and evolved over time, with the Romans, Chinese, and Europeans all adding to its understanding. Entering common use in Europe in the late 18th century, its framework expanded as national interests ranged continentally and then globally; weapons increased in sophistication, reach, and lethality; and the resources, reach, and instruments of statecraft grew. On the eve of World War II, Princeton’s Edward Meade Earle offered that “strategy is…an inseparable element in statecraft at all times.”31

In the modern era, strategy has extended beyond the realm of government and war. As Lawrence Freedman has observed, “Everyone needs a strategy…. [N]o serious organization could imagine being without one…. [N]o military campaign, company investment or government initiative is likely to receive backing unless there is a strategy to evaluate.”32

Yet, while many fields rely on strategy to guide their endeavors, none is more consequential than national security. It is here that the concept of strategy originated and evolved, and it is here that the interests of nations and life and death hang in the balance. Given history and the risk inherent in a world challenged by conditions uncomfortably parallel to those preceding World War I,33 it would seem prudent to “address causes rather than symptoms, to see the woods rather than the trees.”34

What Kind of Strategy?

In the realm of national security, however, the debate is spirited and unresolved. As strategy lacks an “agreed-upon definition…that describes the field and limits its boundaries,”35 authorities generally take one of two views on strategy and national security. One holds that strategy is solely the purview of war. The other advances a more expansive understanding.

In this debate, adherents of Clausewitz, author of the 19th century classic On War,36 maintain that strategy’s sole focus is war. This view, advanced by many,37 is exemplified by Oxford’s Hew Strachan: “[P]oliticians, who in practice exercise strategic responsibility, have been persuaded by neo-Clausewitzians that war really is the continuation of policy by other means. This is to elevate theory over actuality.”38 He continues:

Today strategy is too often employed simply as a synonym for policy…. Strategy has to deal in the first instance not with policy, but with the nature of war…. [W]estern military thought has been hoodwinked by the selective citation of…Clausewitz’s own introduction…that ‘war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.’ That…is not a statement about the nature of war.39

While Strachan acknowledges more expansive views,40 he is unconvinced. He asserts that “[s]trategy is about war and its conduct, and if we abandon it, we surrender the tool that helps us to define war, to shape it and to understand it.”41

Strachan’s skepticism would be familiar to Johns Hopkins’ Eliot Cohen, who rejects the very notion of grand strategy, specifically targeting Earle’s definition of grand strategy as “‘the science and art of controlling and utilizing the resources of a nation…to the end that its vital interests shall be effectively promoted and secured.’”42 Perhaps reflecting frustration over the Iraq and Afghan wars, Cohen maintains that the “lure of grand strategy reflects the frustration of military officers at the intractability of the problems they are assigned, and at what often seems to them the slackness of the rest of government”43 and asserts that “grand strategy is an idea whose time will never come, because the human condition does not permit it [and it] confuses the big idea with important choices.”44

For Cohen, containment of the Soviet Union was merely “policy…a more useful if less grand term”45 that proved inadequate in defining the U.S. response to the likes of the Suez crisis, Vietnam, or China’s opening. His analysis appears to ignore containment’s larger geostrategic success. Focused on the existential threat of the Soviet Union, as Kennan described,46 containment was more than mere policy. Comprehensively orchestrating all instruments of statecraft, this grand strategy enabled America to maintain its focus on the primary threat, notwithstanding countless crises. Reflecting Eisenhower’s view that in the “cold war…victory…could be as devastating as defeat,47 this grand strategy, balancing America’s strengths, guided successful resolution of that generational struggle.

While a thoughtful observer and strong advocate for military power, Cohen does not demonstrate that military-centered strategy is superior to a grand strategy. As Paul Kennedy concludes in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “the history of the past five hundred years of international rivalry demonstrates that military ‘security’ is never enough.”48 Moreover, a strategy that relies solely on military power would seem to be insufficient given the challenge of China, described by Cohen as “America’s greatest challenge,”49 and the complexities of Cohen’s other “distinct challenges.”50 It is notable that recent Defense Department,51 U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission,52 and other reporting cast China and the greater security environment as far more challenging than even Cohen found.53

Seemingly responding to Cohen, Freedman concludes that “[s]trategies are neither designed nor implemented in controlled environments…. [S]uccessful outcomes depend on trying to affect a range of institutions, processes, personalities, and perceptions…[to cope] with situations in which nobody [has] total control.”54 Consistent with this view, John Hopkins’ Hal Brands proposes that “[g]rand strategy is the highest form of statecraft…the intellectual architecture that lends structure to foreign policy” that is “essential to effective statecraft, but…so challenging as to be an illusion.”55

Illusion or not, an evolving concept of grand strategy emerged from the realities of a world either at or on the brink of war. “The expansion in the meaning of strategy and grand strategy spilled over the boundaries of war and peace, propelled by the increasing complexity of war,” writes Lukas Milevski. “Strategy—and grand strategy—evolved in reaction to the requirements posed by the actual geopolitical context”56 where the “distinction between war and peace [is] insignificant.”57 These observations are instructive as strategists consider today’s challenges and those on the horizon.

Consistent with “actual geopolitical context,” Brands delineates grand strategy as “[a] purposeful and coherent set of ideas about what a nation seeks to accomplish in the world, and how it should go about doing so.”58 In a new geostrategic environment of the sort described by Milevski, “[s]trategy is not merely the art of preparing for the armed conflicts in which a nation may become involved…. It is the rational determination of a nation’s vital interests…its fundamental…priorities” that guide “the narrower strategy of war planning and warfighting.”59

In an era of increasingly complex geostrategic conditions, the interplay between a grand strategy and a series of aligned and complementary functional and regional strategies would seem to provide a more agile and resilient approach to “what a nation seeks to accomplish in [this] world, and how it should go about doing so.”60 Such an approach acknowledges the complexities of this age, the unique and complementary nature of each instrument of statecraft, and the geographic, social, cultural, and historical distinctiveness of various regions.

While the Cold War era was fraught with unforeseen developments,61 it ended well. That outcome reinforces grand strategy’s value in the modern age while also exposing insights into the challenges of strategy development and key considerations for framing a strategy that can endure over the coming decades.

Considerations of Strategy

This comprehensive interpretation of strategy would give U.S. policy a measure of coherence and stability it has not had, and does not now possess, but which is utterly mandatory if our republic is to meet the challenges of the future.

—General Albert C. Wedemeyer, USA, Retired

While essential to dealing with complexity, strategy is difficult business. In Explorations in Strategy, Colin S. Gray identifies six difficulties: its “complexity,” its demands on “the intellect” and “the imagination,” its “unique physical and moral burdens,” “the uniquely pervasive and uniquely debilitating nature” of friction “in that realm,” and the fact that “success in strategy calls for a quality of judgment that cannot be taught.”62 As America repostures strategically, Gray’s analysis warrants careful consideration, particularly when assessing the qualities of those charged with developing and implementing strategy.

Noting Gray’s cautions, strategy also requires capacity. Albert C. Wedemeyer, principal author of the World War II Victory Plan and no stranger to the imperatives for and challenges of strategy, questioned “the adequacy of our national policymaking machinery to deal with the challenges of an increasingly turbulent and complex world.”63 He advocated more effective strategies, asserting that “all the [post–World War II] ordeals America has experienced…could have been much brighter” with more coherent strategies.64

The complexity of today’s challenges, however, demands that other considerations be accounted for as well. A recent study usefully noted that U.S. strategies have suffered systemically from unclear priorities, inattentive leadership leading to lowest-common-denominator decisions, poor links between objectives and resources, and are slow to respond to change.65 Its recommendations emphasize the necessity to involve leadership, account for politics, drive priorities, account for resourcing, align objectives across strategies, focus aims, and address risk.66

Mindful of history, the perspectives and insights reviewed above, and current and emerging challenges, several considerations should be taken into account in framing a strategy relevant to this era.

Interests. National interests, “the essential foundation for a successful American foreign policy,”67 can be characterized as vital, extremely important, important, and secondary.68 Interests are synonymous with priority, and strategies not aligned with interests needlessly expend resources and often fail at a high cost. “Only a foreign policy grounded in America’s national interests…will allow America’s leaders to explain persuasively how and why American citizens should support expenditures of American treasure or blood.”69 While central to our understanding of our priorities, understanding other nations’ interests is equally important. As British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston observed, “Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”70

American interests evolved rapidly in the early days of the Cold War. NSC 68 framed U.S. vital interests around national survival, avoiding war, and preserving America’s sphere of influence in the face of exhausted allies and a growing Soviet threat.71 With NSC 162-2, emerging from Eisenhower’s Solarium Project, expressions of national interests expanded, recognizing the importance of allies, the necessity of choices, the need to balance defense and economics, and the value of stabilizing nations and creating mutual interests.72

On the eve of the 21st century, the Commission on America’s National Interests found “five vital US national interests” that reflect those formulated some 50 years earlier:

  • Prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the United States or its military forces abroad;
  • Ensure US allies’ survival and their active cooperation with the US in shaping an international system in which we can thrive;
  • Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on US borders;
  • Ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment); and
  • Establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia.73

Even with this consistency, however, fostering a common understanding of these interests and the challenges to them, as well as building support for the actions and resources necessary to protect them, requires evidence, leadership, and communication. Unity on what comprises the nation’s vital interests is vital.

Mindful of Lord Palmerston’s judgment, strategy development must consider the interests of others. For example, the strategic concept of “offshore balancing,” relying on a regional power to check instability and counter hostile powers, depends on the alignment of national interests. The challenges of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War; the limits of ally or proxy commitment in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria; and issues of freeriding in alliances and coalitions all highlight the implications of conflicting or misaligned national interests. Mapping interests before acting prevents disappointment, overextension, and failure.

Leadership. As in most things, leadership is central to the development and execution of strategy. Leadership has both individual and international components. From an individual perspective, effective strategy depends on vested leaders. Leadership styles and priorities vary; therefore, process must conform to the leader in question. However, the absence of leader involvement leaves strategy subject to bureaucratic and external influences, risking failure. From an international perspective, alliances and coalitions rarely function effectively when ruled by committee. One member must assume the leadership mantle.

The formulation of NSC 68 originated from Truman’s staff because the President was not experienced in policy and planning and was wrestling with a host of domestic and international issues. Truman’s inexperience was not unique. In the lead-up to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt “had little time to consider grand strategy.”74 This bottom-up approach created an impetus for action, but it also resulted in an overly militarized grand strategy and a host of disconnected policies.

Eisenhower’s experience drove the top-down Project Solarium, resulting in a comprehensive strategy that prioritized economics and politics, buttressed by prudent military deterrence. Conversely, captured by Vietnam and domestic issues, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon allowed focus to slip. The result was military surprise as the Arab–Israeli War exposed superior Soviet military capabilities that nearly defeated Israeli forces, a reasonable proxy for American forces.75 Ronald Reagan hastened the Soviet collapse through a complex, balanced campaign of economic growth, military modernization, aggressive pressure in Europe, arms control, relentless political action, and unsparing political warfare. Engaged national leadership ensures effective strategy.

Absent America’s current global leadership role, any strategic approach is not likely to succeed. No nation or coalition with similar interests or values is likely to assume that role or capably bear that burden. Moreover, history has been unkind to declining powers in great-power transitions.76 Further, eras without strategic leadership have invited risk, including world wars. However, unlike during the Cold War, growing diversification of power,77 especially economic power, enables more to share this burden. Current and future allies likely resist this obligation.

Unity. The Constitution’s requirement that the Congress declare war and the Senate ratify treaties reflects the Framer’s intent that a degree of unity is required on questions of national interest and security beyond our nation’s shores. Developing, resourcing, and implementing a strategy that can resolve complex and enduring problems requires consent across political constituencies. Strategies without this consensus are invariably underresourced, lack resilience, and exploitable by an adversary.

This challenge is reflected in the reception accorded America’s most recent security and defense strategies. While addressing great-power conflict,78 and despite statements of their import,79 they are the subject of great criticism.80 Moreover, they neither reflect a consensus view, given a widening partisan gap in national priorities,81 nor enjoy consensus support within the nation’s political leadership.82

Problem Definition. Not all challenges, no matter how emotionally compelling, can be treated equally. At best, addressing low-priority or poorly defined problems can needlessly waste resources. At worst, such errors can mire the nation in distractions, exposing it to strategic surprise or risking political, economic, and strategic bankruptcy. Clarity on the problem and its relationship to national interest reduces this risk. Conversely, the absence of unity on the nation’s problems makes the coherent formulation and implementation of strategy less likely. This hinders the advancement of U.S. interests, creates opportunities for adversaries and other actors, and denies opportunities to the U.S. and its allies.

America is confronted by a complex mix of international and domestic challenges. Sorting these out is a function of probability and consequence. Some high-probability challenges are continuous, requiring careful prioritization and judicious response so that they will not distract attention from the most consequential. In the current environment, the challenges of China and Russia are existential, with economics and technology equally consequential as “technology has blurred the lines between national security and economic competitiveness.”83

China, both a Cold War adversary and partner of convenience, is now an expansionist, opportunistic power. Chinese strategic culture is asymmetric to Western tradition while involving the whole of statecraft.84 Its social-historical culture is likewise asymmetric.85 China’s approach is decidedly long-term. China was recently characterized as “climate change: long, slow, and pervasive, as opposed to Russia’s ‘hurricane.’”86 Its strategic ambition, not yet well understood, is to supplant America as the dominant global power by mid-century.87

China competes comprehensively. Economically, its gross domestic product (GDP) exceeds that of the U.S.88 Technology figures heavily for China, presenting a decade-long,89 Sputnik-like moment that can be existential. Over time, given the dominance historically accrued by technologically ascendant nations, China’s military will protect Chinese interests as they expand along the Belt and Road.90 Should China’s military modernization and institutional reforms succeed, its military will likely pose an existential military threat in 10 to 15 years.91 Should China succeed in supplanting the U.S., America’s very way of life will be at stake.

Russia, as the Soviet Union, was a deliberate, opportunistic, and expansionist power with checks and balances that controlled escalation. Today, Russia is a defensive, reactive, and declining power with a smaller, less balanced structure that dangerously fears and will resist decline. Its strategic and historical-social culture is not in the Western tradition. It is driven by perceived vulnerabilities, comprehensive views of power, and the need for immediate decisive advantage.92

While spanning Eurasia, Russia’s center of gravity remains west of the Urals.93 Russia remains focused on securing buffers and restructuring Europe’s balance of power. Its military is a priority: Its military creates a shield of perceived impunity behind which it wages an indirect campaign to unravel the European Union and NATO, seeking to improve its advantage in a divided Europe. Russia remains an existential threat, given its nuclear weapons, and its asymmetric political will and information power may create existential outcomes. Successful disintegration of Europe would invite instability and war, invariably pulling the U.S. across the Atlantic.

Economics remains an American strength. America and its allies must preserve, promote, and revise the market economic system that has significantly increased wealth, reduced poverty, and diversified economic power across the globe.94 Unlike the Soviet Union in the Cold War, China is proving to be a worthy economic adversary, with a GDP exceeding America’s.95 Economic security is national security as technology blurs the lines between national security and economic competitiveness.96 Further, success will demand constant demonstration of the value of liberty and market economics, as current debates on inequality and socialism highlight. The U.S. must take steps to sustain if not increase economic growth to create resources both to meet the economic and social expectations of its people and to support necessary effort across all instruments of statecraft.97 Allies must also reassess their economies and likewise increase the resources available to their nations.

Technology defines the 21st century socially, politically, economically, and militarily. In a period of change of greater consequence than the dislocating impact of the Industrial Age,98 the U.S. and selected allies must regain and preserve undisputed intellectual and developmental leadership in technology and proactively prepare the international system and society for the potentially dislocating impacts of this emerging age.

Assumptions. In lieu of facts, prudently employed assumptions enable foresight and narrow the degree of uncertainty over time; imprudent assertions create or obscure risk. Strategy is necessarily forward-looking and is only as good as the assumptions upon which it rests. Absent facts and evidence, assumptions allow the strategist to see the way forward. However, using overly optimistic projections merely hastens strategic surprise. When assumptions change, the strategies they underpin must change as well. Yet stubborn adherence to strategy despite changing conditions remains more the rule than the exception.99

To America’s benefit, Charles Bohlen did not fall prey to stubborn adherence to failing assumptions. In 1947, setting the predicate for containment, he observed that:

The United States is confronted with a condition in the world which is at direct variance with the assumptions upon which, during and directly after the war, major United States policies were predicated…. [H]owever much we may deplore it, the United States…must re-examine its major policy objectives…. Failure to do so would mean that we would be pursuing policies based on the assumptions which no longer exist….100

Today’s strategic process has not benefitted from such candid foresight. Despite decades of assumptions that discounted adverse outcomes,101 adversaries have been able to take advantage of American distraction. Although awareness is improving,102 technological trends can lead to optimistic assumptions on future conflict.103 To temper such optimism, strategists should carefully consider Lawrence Freedman’s The Future of War: A History, which chronicles the folly of short-war pundits and the consequences of their promoting hope rather than clear-eyed analysis.104

Methods. The instruments of statecraft are most effective when adequately resourced, employed comprehensively, and coordinated. Significant objectives are rarely achieved without the coordinated use of these instruments; without coordination, they can even work at cross-purposes. The resources and capacity of the agencies associated with each instrument must also be clearly understood; otherwise, strategies will fall prey to unrealistic expectations. Recognizing the truth of Eisenhower’s Cold War concern that “victory…could be as devastating as defeat,”105 America’s political, economic, informational, and technological instruments must lead and be backed by capable military power, prudently resourced, and mindful of Paul Kennedy’s great-power trap.106

Given its importance to national security, military power deserves a more focused review. Military power serves the nation by protecting, defending, and supporting America and its people, deterring physical—or, given the technologies of this age, nonphysical or virtual—attack on the United States and its allies.

In the face of indirect operations in peacetime, the military must create conditions that enable statecraft’s other instruments to create and sustain an environment in which American society, liberty, and market economies thrive. If America is attacked, military power should fight forward and defeat any attacker to defend the strength and viability of America’s society and allies and minimize war’s effects on the homeland.

However, the realities of war against an existential threat place a premium on deterrence, made real by the capability and capacity to fight and win. Deterrence enables other instruments of power to check and defeat China and/or Russia artfully, without direct conflict. While a militarized strategy is inadequate given the comprehensive and complex threats facing America, the other instruments of statecraft cannot succeed in the absence of a viable military strategy.

Accounting for these roles and emerging, new methods and means for war will require the military to posture accordingly. This is a complex undertaking, resolution of which exceeds the scope of this essay.

Resources. Resources enable action. An inadequately resourced strategy is merely rhetorical flourish, obscuring risk and inviting miscalculation by the nation and its adversaries. Conversely, resource-constrained objectives can also obscure risk. The phrase “strategy driven, resource informed,” while promoting the preeminence of interests over resources, loses credibility in the face of scarce resources. This requires a careful balance of disciplined ambition, risk, and resources, including the need to generate more. Absent that balance, any strategy rapidly becomes hollow rhetoric or worse.

In the concluding chapter of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy highlights the risk of imbalanced, overextended strategies, noting that they come with “dire implications for [a state’s] long-term capacity to maintain…its international position.”107 Reflecting that insight, Eisenhower weighted the economic and political over the military, relying on nuclear forces instead of a larger conventional military for deterrence. Reagan avoided Kennedy’s great-power trap by growing the economy, balancing America’s economic and military power, while creating additional resources to fund the so-called Reagan buildup, which built the modern military that delivered Desert Storm’s four-day air–ground war.

Strategies today require similar balances.


The international developments challenging the U.S. and the larger international system are daunting. Nevertheless, those challenges can be resolved, ending with a “whimper rather than a bang”108 through the development and implementation of comprehensive strategy.

This strategy must preserve America’s global leadership role and its military, economic, and technological advantages while preventing conflict, and success will demand leadership, clarity on America’s national interests and the challenges to them, a sense of common national purpose, adequate resources, foresight, and constant assessment and adjustment. It must be realistic regarding interests, risk, resources, and endurance. It cannot be narrowly focused on one aspect of statecraft, but rather should comprehensively orchestrate all instruments of statecraft.

Navigating this dangerous and complex period can repeat the geostrategic success realized by our Cold War predecessors: retaining America’s global leadership, avoiding Armageddon, and preserving the principles that underpin a system that promotes the consent of the governed and free markets. To do so, this effort must be comprehensive, placing demands on every instrument of statecraft. That is the business of grand strategy.


  1. The Honorable Kevin Rudd, “Understanding China’s Rise Under Xi Jinping,” address to cadets, United States Military Academy, West Point March 5, 2018, (accessed August 7, 2019); Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” address delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017, (accessed August 7, 2019), pp. 17, 25, 26, and 48; Gerry Grimstone, “Barclays Bank’s Grimstone on Market Volatility, U.S.–China Trade, Brexit,” Bloomberg Markets, November 19, 2018, (accessed August 7, 2019); Minxin Pei, “How China and America See Each Other and Why They Are on a Collision Course,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2014, (accessed August 7, 2019).
  2. Andrew Monaghan, “‘An Enemy at the Gates’ or ‘From Victory to Victory’?” Russian Foreign Policy,” International Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 4 (July 2008), pp. 717–733; Stephen R. Covington, “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare,” Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Paper, October 2016, p. 21, (accessed August 7, 2019); Sergey Lavrov, “Russia’s Foreign Policy: Historical Background,” Voltaire Network, March 5, 2016, (accessed August 7 2019).
  3. Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China–Russia Cooperation” (Seattle and Washington, D.C.: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2018); Thomas Wright, “The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable,” The Atlantic, September 12, 2018, (accessed August 7, 2019).
  4. Michael Morell, “Patrick Shanahan Faces More Challenges than Any Other Pentagon Chief,” The Washington Post, May 10, 2019, (accessed August 7, 2019).
  5. The World Bank, “The Global Economy: Heightened Tensions, Subdued Growth,” June 4, 2019, (accessed August 7, 2019).
  6. Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How to Respond,” World Economic Forum, January 14, 2016, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  7. Bradley Jones, “Republicans and Democrats Have Grown Further Apart on What the Nation’s Top Priorities Should Be,” Pew Research Center, February 5, 2019, /2019/02/05/republicans-and-democrats-have-grown-further-apart-on-what-the-nations-top-priorities-should-be/ (accessed August 27, 2019).
  8. “The Near Future: Tensions Are Rising,” in Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Global Trends, (accessed August 27, 2019); Stewart Patrick, “How U.S. Allies Are Adapting to ‘America First’: Trump and World Order at One,” Foreign Affairs, January 23, 2018, (accessed August 27, 2019); Chris Giles, “US Relations with Closest Allies Fall to New Lows,” Financial Times, June 10, 2018, (accessed August 27, 2019); “America and Its Allies Disagree on Huawei,” The Economist, February 21, 2019, (accessed August 27, 2019); Eric Johnston, “G20 World Leaders Agree on Some Issues, but Significant Gaps Remain Following Osaka Summit,” Japan Times, June 30, 2019, (accessed August 27, 2019); Agence France-Presse, “Who Needs the G20? Question Gets Louder in Osaka,” France 24, June 29, 2019, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  9. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, September 2002, p. 28 (accessed August 27, 2019); National Security Strategy, The White House, May 2010, p. 11, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  10. Morell, “Patrick Shanahan Faces More Challenges than Any Other Pentagon Chief.”
  11. Enda Curran and Bei Hu, “Traders Brace for New Cold War That Will ‘Last Our Careers,’” Bloomberg, May 30, 2019, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  12. Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
  13. Leon Panetta, “1 Big Thing: Global Threats Multiply,” Axios AM, June 1, 2019, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  14. Keith E. Eiler, ed., Wedemeyer on War and Peace (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), p. xvi.
  15. General Albert C. Wedemeyer, U.S. Army (Retired), “Memorandum on a National Strategy Council,” in Military Planning in the Twentieth Century: Proceedings of the Eleventh Military History Symposium 10–12 October 1984, ed. Lieutenant Colonel Harry R. Borowski, U.S. Air Force, Office of Air Force History, 1986, pp. 409–410, (accessed August 27, 2019). Emphasis in original.
  16. Fact Sheet, “America’s Wars,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, May 2017, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  17. Nadège Mougel, “World War I Casualties,” trans. Julie Gratz, Centre Européen Robert Schuman, REPERES, (accessed August 27, 2019); National World War II Museum, “Research Starters: Worldwide Deaths in World War II,” (accessed August 27, 2019).
  18. These “doctrines” include the Polk Doctrine, or Manifest Destiny; the Monroe Doctrine; and the Roosevelt Corollary.
  19. Ernest May, “National Security Council (NSC) 68,” in American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68, ed. Ernest R. May (Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1993), pp. 1–19, cited in Tami Davis Biddle, Strategy and Grand Strategy: What Students and Practitioners Need to Know (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, December 2015), p. 34, (accessed August 27, 2019); William Burr and Robert Wampler, “‘The Master of the Game’: Paul H. Nitze and U.S. Cold War Strategy from Truman to Reagan,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 139, October 27, 2004, (accessed August 27, 2019).
  20. “George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram,’” February 22, 1946, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, National Archives and Records Administration, Department of State Records (Record Group 59), Central Decimal File, 1945–1949, 861.00/2-2246, reprinted in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Eastern Europe; The Soviet Union, Volume VI, ed. Rogers P. Churchill and William Slany (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1969), pp. 696–709, (accessed August 28, 2019); Charles E. Bohlen, “Memorandum by the Counselor of the Department of State (Bohlen) to the Under Secretary of State (Lovett),” September 2, 1947, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, General; The United Nations, Volume I, Document 391, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, (accessed August 28, 2019).
  21. James S. Lay, Jr., “A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on Basic National Security Policy,” NSC 162-2, October 30, 1953, pp. 5–7, (accessed August 28, 2019).
  22. James M. Ludes, “The Russians Read Our Cold War Playbook,” War on the Rocks, November 3, 2016, (accessed August 28, 2019).
  23. Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap,” Foreign Policy, June 9, 2017, (accessed August 28, 2019).
  24. National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, p. 27, (accessed August 28, 2019); Wright, “The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable.”
  25. Panetta, “1 Big Thing: Global Threats Multiply.”
  26. Rudd, “Understanding China’s Rise Under Xi Jinping;” Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory,” pp. 17, 25, 26, and 48; Grimstone, “Barclays Bank’s Grimstone on Market Volatility, U.S.–China Trade, Brexit.”
  27. Monaghan, “‘An Enemy at the Gates’ or ‘From Victory to Victory’?” pp. 717–733; Covington, “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare,” p. 21; Lavrov, “Russia’s Foreign Policy.”
  28. Ellings and Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians, pp. ix–xv and 170–172.
  29. Liza Tobin, “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies,” Texas National Security Review, Vol 2, Issue 1 (November 2018), (accessed August 28, 2019); Grimstone, “Barclays Bank’s Grimstone on Market Volatility, U.S.–China Trade, Brexit.”
  30. Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 4.
  31. Edward Mead Earle, “Political and Military Strategy for the United States,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Vol. 19, No. 2 (January 1941), p. 7.
  32. Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. ix.
  33. Ana Swanson, “The World Today Looks Ominously Like Before World War I,” The Washington Post, December 29 2016, (accessed August 28 2019).
  34. Freedman, Strategy: A History, p. ix.
  35. Ibid., p. xi.
  36. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976).
  37. For example, Russell Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. xviii; Edward Luttwak, Strategy: the Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987), p. 4; Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2016), p. 206; Colin S. Gray, Explorations in Strategy (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 4.
  38. Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 6.
  39. Ibid., pp. 11 and 12–13.
  40. For example, Julian Corbett’s concepts of “minor strategy and major strategy,” J.F.C. Fuller’s grand strategy construct in which “the first duty of the grand strategist is…to appreciate the commercial and financial position of his country,” and B. H. Liddell Hart’s “‘pure strategy’ and ‘grand strategy.’” Ibid., pp. 15 and 33.
  41. Ibid., p. 42.
  42. Earle, “Political and Military Strategy for the United States,” cited in Cohen, The Big Stick, p. 204.
  43. Cohen, The Big Stick, p. 204.
  44. Ibid., p. 205.
  45. Ibid.
  46. “George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram.’”
  47. Dwight Eisenhower, quoted in John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) pp. 135–136.
  48. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500–2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 539.
  49. Cohen, The Big Stick, p. 99.
  50. Ibid., p. 195.
  51. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019,” pp. i–iii, (accessed August 28, 2019).
  52. Chapter 2, Section 2, “China’s Military Reorganization and Modernization: Implications for the United States,” in U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2018 Report to Congress of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, 115th Cong., 2nd Sess., November 2018, p. 205, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  53. National Defense Strategy Commission, Providing for the Common Defense, The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission, released November 2018, p. vi, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  54. Freedman, Strategy: A History, p. 609.
  55. Hal Brands, “Introduction: The Meaning and Challenge of Grand Strategy,” in What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 1.
  56. Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 71.
  57. Ibid., p. 71.
  58. Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy?, p. 3.
  59. Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, “Reflections on Strategy in the Present and Future,” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 869.
  60. Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy?, p. 3.
  61. The Suez crisis, Vietnam, and the opening of China, not to mention the many wars of national liberation, the expansion of democracy, the 1973 Arab–Israeli war, oil embargoes, international terrorism, the advent of the information age, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, and numerous proxy conflicts.
  62. Gray, Explorations in Strategy, pp. 8–11.
  63. Wedemeyer, “Memorandum on a National Strategy Council,” in Military Planning in the Twentieth Century, p. 409.
  64. Ibid., p. 411.
  65. Center for Strategic and International Studies, International Security Program, Formulating National Security Strategy: Past Experience and Future Choices, Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2017, p. X, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  66. Ibid., pp. XII–XV.
  67. Commission on America’s National Interests, America’s National Interests, July 2000, p. 1, (accessed August 31, 2019).
  68. Ibid., pp. 6–8.
  69. Ibid., p. 2.
  70. Lord Palmerston, speech in the House of Commons, March 1, 1848, Oxford Reference, (accessed August 31, 2019).
  71. James S. Lay, Jr., “A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” NSC 60, April 14, 1950, pp. 12, 41, 50, and 63, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  72. Lay, “A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on Basic National Security Policy,” pp. 9, 13, 14, 19–20, and 22–23.
  73. Commission on America’s National Interests, America’s National Interests, p. 20.
  74. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 19.
  75. Major General Donn A. Starry, “October 1973 Mideast War,” May 12, 1975, declassified August 29, 2007, p. 2-6, General Donn A. Starry Papers, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, Box 59, Folder 3. See also (accessed September 4, 2019).
  76. Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “Thucydides’s Trap Case File,” (accessed August 29, 2019); for a graphic version, see (accessed August 29, 2019). See also Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydises’s Trap? (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
  77. Mike Patton, “U.S. Role in Global Economy Declines Nearly 50%,” Forbes, February 29, 2016, (accessed August 29, 2019); U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Country Comparison: GDP (Purchasing Power Parity),” in The World Factbook, (accessed August 29, 2019); Pricewaterhouse Coopers, The World in 2050: Will the Shift in Global Economic Power Continue?” February 2015, p. 11, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  78. National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, p. 27; James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, U.S. Department of Defense, p. 2, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  79. Jim Garamone, “Shanahan Stresses National Defense Strategy in First Meetings as Acting Secretary,” U.S. Department of Defense, January 3, 2019, (accessed August 29, 2019); Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, “An Update on American Diplomacy to Advance our National Security Strategy,” testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, July 25, 2018, (accessed May 14, 2019).
  80. Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “The National Security Strategy Is Not a Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, December 19, 2017, (accessed August 29, 2019); Elliott Abrams, “The Trump National Security Strategy,” Council on Foreign Relations Blog Post, December 17, 2019, (accessed August 29, 2019); “Brookings Experts on Trump’s National Security Strategy,” Brookings Institution, December 21, 2017, (accessed August 29, 2019); Gregory D. Foster, “The National Defense Strategy Is No Strategy,” Defense One, April 4, 2019, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  81. Politico and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Americans’ Priorities for the New Congress in 2019,” December 2018, (accessed August 29, 2019); Jones, “Republicans and Democrats Have Grown Further Apart on What the Nation’s Top Priorities Should Be.”
  82. Kevin Schaul and Kevin Uhrmacher, “The Issues 2020 Democrats Are Running on, According to Their Social Media,” The Washington Post, updated June 24, 2019, (accessed August 29, 2019); Elias Groll and Lara Seligman, “Democrats Clash on Top National Security Threats,” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2019, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  83. “Transcript: Henry Paulson on ‘Face the Nation,’ CBS News, May 12, 2019, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  84. Personal observations from engagements with People’s Liberation Army and Central Military Commission representatives.
  85. Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, (New York: The Free Press, 2003).
  86. Rob Joyce, senior National Security Agency cybersecurity adviser and former White House cybersecurity coordinator, quoted in Joseph Marks, “The Cybersecurity 202: U.S. Officials: It’s China Hacking that Keeps Us up at Night,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2019, (accessed August 30, 2019).
  87. Tobin, “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance;” Grimstone, “Barclays Bank’s Grimstone on Market Volatility, U.S.–China Trade, Brexit.”
  88. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Country Comparison: GDP (Purchasing Power Parity).”
  89. Grimstone, “Barclays Bank’s Grimstone on Market Volatility, U.S.–China Trade, Brexit.”
  90. Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council, “Report on the Work of the Government,” delivered at the Third Session of the 12th National People’s Congress on March 5, 2015, (accessed August 29, 2019).
  91. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019, pp. i–iii; U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2018 Report to Congress of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, p. 205; National Defense Strategy Commission, Providing for the Common Defense, p. vi; Tobin, “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance;” Li Keqiang, “Report on the Work of the Government.”
  92. Covington, “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare,” p. 5.
  93. Russia remains historically and contemporarily centered west of the Urals ethnically, linguistically, culturally, geographically, and economically.
  94. Max Roser, “Economic Growth,” Our World in Data, 2019, (accessed August 30, 2019); BlackRock, “Shifting Economic Power,” (accessed August 30, 2019); Dan Steinbock, “The Global Economic Balance of Power Is Shifting,” World Economic Forum, September 20, 2017, (accessed August 30, 2019); Joe Myers, “Which Are the World’s Fastest-Growing Economies?” World Economic Forum, April 18, 2016, (accessed August 30, 2019), Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Global Extreme Poverty,” Our World in Data, substantive revision March 27, 2017, (accessed August 30, 2019); Our World in Data, “The Visual History of World Poverty,” (accessed August 30, 2019); Joe Hasell and Max Roser, “How Do We Know the History of Extreme Poverty?” Our World in Data, updated February 9, 2019, (accessed August 30, 2019); Linda Qiu, “Did We Really Reduce Extreme Poverty by Half in 30 Years?” PolitiFact, March 23, 2016, (accessed August 30, 2019); United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015,” United Nations, released July 2015, (accessed August 30, 2019); Andrea Peer, “Global Poverty: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help,” World Vision, updated November 21, 2018, (accessed August 30, 2019); Klaus Schwab and Claude Smadja, “Power and Policy: The New Economic World Order,” Harvard Business Review, November–December 1994, (accessed August 30, 2019); Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Diana Beltekian, and Max Roser, “Trade and Globalization,” Our World in Data, last revised October 2018, (accessed August 30, 2019).
  95. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Country Comparison: GDP (Purchasing Power Parity).”
  96. “Transcript: Henry Paulson on ‘Face the Nation.’”
  97. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p. 539.
  98. Swanson, “The World Today Looks Ominously Like Before World War I.”
  99. Center for Strategic and International Studies, International Security Program, Formulating National Security Strategy, p. X.
  100. Bohlen, “Memorandum by the Counselor of the Department of State (Bohlen) to the Under Secretary of State (Lovett).”
  101. Thomas G. Mahnken, Grace B. Kim, and Adam Lemon, Piercing the Fog of Peace, Developing Innovative Operational Concepts for a New Era, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2019), pp. iv–v and 39–48; The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, p. 28; National Security Strategy, May 2010, pp. 2 and 11.
  102. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019; Chapter 2, Section 2, “China’s Military Reorganization and Modernization: Implications for the United States,” in U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2018 Report to Congress of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission; National Defense Strategy Commission, Providing for the Common Defense, p. vi.
  103. Mahnken, Kim, and Lemon, Piercing the Fog of Peace, pp. iv–v.
  104. Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History, (New York: Public Affairs, 2017), pp. xix, 7, 10, 11, 15, and 23.
  105. Eisenhower, quoted in Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, p. 91.
  106. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p. 539.
  107. Ibid., p. 539.
  108. Allison, “The Thucydides Trap.”