Grand Narratives and Grand Strategies Between the Wars

by Chris Borgen

Following up on my previous post, and as Peggy pointed out, one of the themes in America Between the Wars is the struggle to “define the era” since the fall of the Berlin Wall and to provide a grand strategy, much in the same way as George Kennan’s “X” article had provided the intellectual underpinnings for the policy of containment of the USSR.

Even if the efforts to define the era turned out to be, in Daniel Benjamin’s words, a “waste of time” because “[i]t wasn’t what you were going to call it that was important but what you were going to do,” (p.71), it is still an issue we struggle with. We still have debates about how to define the current international system (as opposed to defining our response to the threats within that system). Are we living in the Post Cold War? The Post Post Cold War? The Post 9/11 Era? The Long War?

It’s all just semantics unless if the various terms signify a real difference in world view. For example, someone who (still) calls this the Post Cold War world may imply that the changes caused by the Cold War–the foundering of the USSR, the rise of the newly independent states, the rise of China, etc.–are the defining characteristics of our time. And, consequently, these are the issues on which we should focus. Someone who calls this the 9/11 World or the Long War (perhaps—I don’t want to imply that this is specifically Ben Wittes’ world view) may consider the rise of non-state actors as being the primary threat around which our new grand strategy should be organized.

Of course, US strategy can’t respond to China or Russia or al Qaeda. It needs to be able to answer all threats and issues. The issue of definition is one of emphasis. In a world of resource constraints, what should be #1 on the agenda? Why?

So, in this sense, ideas matter. (See Judith Goldstein and Robert Keohane’s book Ideas and Foreign Policy for an in depth consideration of how ideas affect foreign policy and vice versa.) A telling comparison is between the Clinton foreign policy team of the early years as opposed to his economic team led by Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Chollet and Goldgeier quote an NSC official who said of the economic team: They “were a group wielding disproportionate power because they had an intellectual concept and discipline.” (emphasis mine.) Having an overarching world-view is not the only reason Rubin and Summers were especially effective. But it helped.

America Between the Wars brings back to the foreground the Washington-insider debates of the 1990’s. While Kennan had suggested to the Clinton team that they set aside finding a “bumper sticker” and instead write a few good paragraphs, it is clear that the foreign policy wonks were in theoretical overdrive. Chollet and Goldgeier’s narrative discusses, among other essays, speeches, and memos: Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, Tony Lake’s “democratic enlargement” speech, Michael Mandlebaum’s “foreign policy as social work” critique, Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol’s “benevolent global hegemony,” Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy, Madeleine Albright’s “assertive multilateralism” speech, as well as memos by Dick Cheney, Lawrence Eagleberger, and others. The problem with the 1990’s was not that we had too few ideas. The problem was choosing which one or ones we should emphasize in our actual policies.

Daniel Benjamin was right: it’s not what you call it, it’s what you do about it. (Even Kennan’s strategy of containment would not have amounted to much were it not for the Marshall Plan, NSC-68, etc.) However, whether or not you even perceive a problem can affect your policy response. In 1993 pretty much all the foreign policy elites across the political spectrum thought Somalia was a strategic backwater. In the revisionist history of some conservatives, they now say Somalia was the front line in a new war being waged by al Qaeda (and this was missed by the Clinton Administration). But few people had actually appreciated the danger of failed states like Somalia or Afghanistan because these issues (and the risk of terrorism) were not significant factors in any of these theories (except, perhaps for Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy and The Ends of the Earth and Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War, which I understand was much-read in the DoD of the 1990’s).

So, one lesson I take from America Between the Wars is that in the interplay of ideas and foreign policy, it is the decision to adopt a worldview and act on it that makes it seem accurate in retrospect. You need to get people to see the world as you see it in order for an era to truly seem as such. In the early days of the Cold War, many Americans had to be convinced that Russia was a threat. At the time, there was no general agreement that “containment” was required or even wise. A grand strategy rarely just rises out of the fog. You need to adopt it and sell it.

A second, related, lesson is that you need to choose your worldview carefully. We need to be careful about what we missed and what we are missing in our description of world events. If you don’t factor in certain threats, then those threats may end up overtaking you and your theories about the international system. Conversely, if you don’t factor in certain aspects that are in your favor, then you may squander opportunities.

The strength of grand theory—that it helps organize responses and resources—is also its weakness: you find yourself responding to a simplified model and not the real world.

And finally, third: I am skeptical when one claims they have “no worldview” or “no grand theme.” Those who claim not to have a particular “vision” are often merely blind to their own ideological bias. Despite the “vision thing” disclaimer of the Bush I Administration, Scowcroft and Baker actually hewed a fairly traditional realist strategy, with some nods to multilateralism. They shied away from the internal affairs of states, they placed military issues at the top of foreign policy, they down-played economic issues and human rights, they emphasized great power diplomacy and largely ignored events of the “periphery.” If this needed a bumper sticker, I would call it “Business As Usual.”

The problem was that their worldview factored out many of the key issues that would define the post 11/9 world. Whatever that is.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/07/08/grand-narratives-and-grand-strategies-between-the-wars/

2 Responses

  1. I think a one word bumper sticker for what is going on right now is

    “repression” –

    political and cultural rights being repressed (worldwide and great power unanimity to not fight for such rights) and the greater transfers of wealth to elites operating to repress the middle classes and the poor in the West in favor of great accumulation of wealth and modest improvements for the lower classes in the East with the concomitant reduction of economic and social (labor organizing etc) rights worldwide.

    Best,

    Ben

  2. One book that you don’t mention in your discussion of how we might characterize the current era of transition, is Bobbit’s Shield of Achilles. He argues that the strategic changes often associated with epochal wars lead to constitutional changes, both in terms of the structure of the state and the system of states, and that we are in the middle of such a constitutional change now.

    The strategic innovations that won the “long war” (which, in contrast to your use above, he uses to refer to the struggle between communism, fascism, and democracy, from 1914 to the end of the Cold War in 1990) are leading to the transformation of the nation state (which only emerged from state-nations at the end of the 19th century) into what he calls the market state. How different states may adapt to that transition will vary, and those variations will affect their strategic options and postures, which will in turn impact on the threats faced by the US and others in the West.

    If he is right, then the challenge is not simply adopting a worldview, developing a grand strategy to match it, and making sure that other buy into it, but rather ensuring that one’s world view conforms to the reality that is emerging.

    His book certainly confirms the connection between ideas and foreign policy, arguing that strategy, law, and history are inextricably linked.

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