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America’s New Grand Strategy, Part 1: Internationalism and Beyond

By Oliver DeMille

The United States is currently experiencing a Grand Strategy Crisis — and the most powerful nation in the world since the Roman Empire better get it right.

Such a crisis typically comes along once a generation, when the nation drops its old grand strategy and selects a new one.

Unfortunately, this significant change, which has happened three times in U.S. history and will likely occur again in the next two decades, is hardly noticed by the large majority of the people.

It affects them in many ways, but most people don’t know about it until it’s too late to change.

For those who lead a nation, the grand strategy is more than a set of guidelines or even a list of goals or objectives.

The grand strategy is a vision of where a nation wants to go, of what it seeks to accomplish in the world — a vision shared by its decision-making elite.

A grand strategy is the guiding principle for foreign policy and nearly all international relations for a nation.

“How” to achieve the grand strategy is a subject of ongoing debate among the elites in any free nation, but “what” the strategy should be is only considered on those rare occasions when a nation decides to drastically shift gears.

In such times, big changes occur. In the United States we have shifted grand strategies three times:

  1. between 1776 and 1796, from the Revolutionary War through the ratification of the Constitution;
  2. between 1856 and 1876, from the rise of Lincoln through the Civil War and into Reconstruction;
  3. and again from 1929 to 1949 during the Great Depression and World War II.

Past Grand Strategies

In each case, once a grand strategy was adopted, national leaders pursued it until world events required significant changes.

The American Founding generation rejected the Royalist grand strategy of increasing the power, wealth and empire of the Crown, and instead adopted a grand strategy of Constitutionalism, also known as Republicanism or Manifest Destiny.

This grand strategy held two major themes: First, the founders expected the United States to expand naturally and spread the new American system of free, limited, representative government from the Atlantic states all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Secondly, through example, they wanted the nations of the world to see the success of this free model and embrace it.

This grand strategy was not always implemented perfectly, but it guided American policy.

After the Civil War, U.S. leaders adopted a strategy of Nationalism: the focus shifted to increasing American national strength and status in the world.

Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were among those who helped pursue this strategic vision.

“America must take its place as a leader of nations,” became the sometimes spoken but always central focus of the U.S. policy elite.

At the end of two devastating world wars and a bleak depression, U.S. decision makers again adopted a new grand strategy — Internationalism.

The focus of this grand strategy was simple: use international organizations, treaties, international diplomacy, conferences and cooperative arrangements to make the world safe for democracy and capitalism.

The idea was to contain communism, keep it from spreading, and simultaneously support the spread of democracy and capitalism as far and wide as possible.

Hopefully, if the strategy worked, communism would not only stop growing but its support around the world would begin to diminish, to be replaced by democratic-capitalism.

In short, the foreign policy history of the United States might be summed up as Constitutionalism, then Nationalism, and finally Internationalism.

Internationalism became woefully outdated in the early 1990s — and the world found out just how outdated on September 11, 2001.

Proposed Grand Strategies

Amazingly, however, few have engaged the current vital discussion about America’s new 21st Century grand strategy.

This is partly because the grand strategy is considered and chosen by the intelligentsia — the average American doesn’t even know what the phrase means.

Another reason the grand strategy is little discussed now is that the electronic media has made any controversial policy a point of major political, partisan and societal conflict.

Few politicians today want to engage the firestorm of announcing a new grand American direction. Still, more of us need to be involved in the conversations that are occurring.

At least five proposals, some explicit and others more informal, have been made which purport to be new grand strategy proposals, but three of them are more tactical than strategic.

First, though it was informally introduced as a strategy, George Bush may have been outlining a grand strategy change in his “Axis of Evil” speech.

Certainly the full eradication of terror is a change in tactics, but to what end? What is the goal of the ongoing war on terror?

If it is to make the world safe for democracy and the spread of capitalism, it is a new tactic for the old strategy of Internationalism.

Besides, to truly end terrorism would require using U.S. might to restructure and redirect the leading terrorist-funding and supporting states in the world, including possibly Saudi Arabia and nuclear powers China and Russia.

Nothing in the “Axis of Evil” speech or since seems to advocate such a strategy. Just beating up on the smallest terrorist states, as much as they may deserve it, leaves terrorism healthy and growing.

Unless the Axis of Evil includes China, Saudi Arabia, former states of the USSR Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and over 20 other nations, a few attacks on weak opponents hardly amounts to a moving, visionary national grand strategy.

And in any case, the Obama Administration has shown little inclination to continue this overarching policy.

A second proposal was outlined by Ambassador Mark Palmer in his book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil (affiliate link). Ambassador Palmer goes well beyond the Bush Administration and suggests that America adopt as its national purpose the ousting of all dictators in the world by 2025.

He argues that dictatorship is the true evil in the world, and that democratic nations led by the United States and its President should strategize and implement a plan to get rid of all dictators everywhere.

He even lists the dictators by name, and gives a suggested tactical approach to ousting each — some peacefully, others by sanction and pressure, still others by force.

This proposal is not really a new strategy, but simply the tactical application of Cold-War Internationalism to a different enemy — dictators instead of communists.

A third strategy was suggested by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He called it a “Strategy of Partnerships” and argued that the world should be kept basically the same as it is — the U.S. at the head with its allies, intervening “decisively to prevent regional conflicts,” and embracing Russia, China, and other powers in a world that increasingly adopts American values.

This would be accomplished by partnerships which put “us at odds with terrorists, tyrants, and others who wish us ill” and to whom “we will give no quarter.” At the same time, we will be “partners with all those who cherish freedom, human dignity, and peace.”

Powell’s “Foreign Affairs” article, published in January of 2004, leaves some glaring questions. The whole point of Internationalism was to encourage partnerships with those seeking freedom and peace.

But Powell said nothing about what the partnership would do, what their goals would be, except the same old Internationalism that we’ve been pursuing since 1945.

Powell’s argument, while claiming to explain the Bush strategy, was actually less of a change than Bush’s “Axis of Evil” or Palmer’s proposal to rid the world of dictators.

All three proposals have pros and cons. But none of them really proposed a new grand strategy for the United States—something at the level of change from Royalism to Constitutionalism, Constitutionalism to Nationalism, or Nationalism to Internationalism.

These first three proposals just redirect, rekindle and rehash (respectively) the grand strategy we’ve followed for 50 years — Internationalism.

To be continued…

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Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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America’s New Grand Strategy, Part 1: Internationalism and Beyond