A Case for A Sustainable U.S. Grand Strategy: Retirement without Disengagement for a Superpower

by Jeong Lee, a freelance writer. This article originally appeared on “The Strategy Bridge” on February, 16th, 2015 and is re-posted by permission.

This blog commentary is based on a policy paper I wrote for the U.S. National Security Policy class at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. I am especially indebted to my professor, Dr. David Goldfischer, who encouraged me to explore this theme.


Dr. Richard D. Hooker Jr., Director for Research and Strategic Support, and Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University defines grand strategy as:

[…] the use of power to secure the state […] [which] exists at a level above particular strategies intended to secure particular ends and above the use of military power alone. — R.D. Hooker, Jr, “The Grand Strategy of the United States“, INSS Strategic Monograph, National Defense University, October 2014.

However, the problem with this definition, as Dr. Hal Brands argues, seems to be that grand strategy “is one of the most slippery and widely abused terms in the foreign policy lexicon […][because the term is] often invoked but less often defined.” For this reason, Brands believes that the discussion of grand strategy has become all too often “confused or superficial”.

As if to bear this out, the discussion of U.S. grand strategy by both the neocons such as Robert Kagan and liberals such as David Rothkopf seem to be bereft of proper geostrategic contextualization due to fervent dogmatism, and is out of touch with today’s geopolitical realities. Part of the absence of nuanced contextualization can be understood in light of the fact U.S. foreign policy and its grand strategy are grounded in the ahistoric inclinations of its citizens.

Contrary to Kagan’s belief that the United States “cannot retire” from its superpower status because “America’s world order […][still] needs propping up,” U.S. grand strategy should focus on homeland security. Setting one’s house in order does not necessarily mean isolationism. Rather, it means deftly balancing both hard power and soft power at the disposal of the U.S. It also means adopting the “role of exemplar over that of crusader” to rejuvenate its national strength and to bolster its legitimacy abroad.

Since the Cold War ended, foreign policy and defense mavens have been debating what shape U.S. grand strategy should take. Some scholars such as Eugene Gholz, et al warned of “hefty premiums sap[ping] U.S. prosperity” should the U.S. continue to meddle in the affairs of other nations. Chalmers Johnson, writing a year before 9/11, warned of potential “blowback” which he saw as the “byproduct [of] reservoir of resentment against all Americans […] that can have lethal results.” Still, neoconservative commentators like Robert Kagan and even liberals like David Rothkopf envisioned a world transformed in America’s image with the aid of globalized economy and with the puissant might of the U.S. Armed Forces that would champion the cause of democracy. Even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have discredited the utility of force as an instrument of forced democracy, many still hold fast to the belief that the United States must continue to provide global leadership because they believe that to refrain from the role as the sole hegemon in the world is to invite chaos both abroad and at home.

Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.

Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.

For instance, Kagan’s 2014 essay in The New Republic entitled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire” argues that, “[t]he broad acceptance of American power […] created a unique situation in the world.” He goes on to argue that U.S. leadership, “could not conform to a theory because it could not be replicated. It was sui generis.” Throughout the middle part of his essay, Kagan offers his interpretation of how the U.S. rose to become the unipolar hegemon in the latter half of the 20th Century and the early 2000s. Although Kagan rightly concedes that U.S. strategic internationalism meant to secure its geopolitical interests “was not selfless or altruistic”, he continues to emphasize the notion of the United States as the “indispensable nation” destined to preserve the liberal order. To underscore this point, he cites the U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989 and in Somalia in 1993 as examples of benign military interventions whose purpose it was to “defend and extend the liberal world order.”

However, citing such examples overlooks the fact that, more often than not, U.S. interventions in places like Somalia has led to failed states, or even worse, to political and military blowback for the United States whereby military debacles were construed by non-state actors such as Al-Qaidaas evidence of American weakness“. Furthermore, Kagan seems to exhibit symptoms of what the leading international relations scholar Robert Keohane has dubbed the “disease of the strong” when he quotes Dean Acheson who argued that the U.S. grew accustomed to “operat[ing] in a pattern of responsibility which is greater than our own interests”. In short, Kagan’s 2014 essay demonstrates how “[t]he mix of realpolitik and ideological ma[kes] for policy confusion [when it comes to U.S. grand strategy because] at times the threat is instability, at others it is contrary values”.

So Kagan was partly right but mostly wrong. He is right that the supposed willingness and ability to play the role of world police from the latter half of the twentieth century until now had little to do with “the special virtues of the American people”. He may also be right to note that “[t]he presence of American troops acted to remove doubt by potential aggressors that the United States would fight if its allies were attacked”. In short, the world order which we inhabit is rife with ambiguities and contradictions. But Kagan does not seem to understand, when he uses the metaphor of a gardener to describe the supposedly unique role of the United States as guarantor of the global liberal order, that the gardener may eventually burn out, or die from exhaustion. Nor does he seem to understand that a democratic government takes time to mature on its own.

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

The question, then, is, what should a sustainable U.S. grand strategy look like? Formulating a strategy that is grounded in pragmatism begins with the recognition of limits of national power — both hard and soft. Even Rothkopf, who urged the United States to, “export the American model” cautioned that the United States should “recognize its limitations […] [because it] cannot assure every outcome”. Although critics such as Tom Engelhardt, and retired Marine Major Peter J. Munson Chalmers Johnson, and Andrew Bacevich caution against using military force to spread U.S. values abroad, they do not mean that the United States should disengage entirely from the world. But rather the new grand strategy should adjust to the emerging strategic environment. This adjustment entails adroitly balancing soft power with hard power so that the U.S. may achieve its geostrategic objectives without relying on military might as its first resort.

To that end, the United States should first withdraw its military presence from both the Middle East and East Asia. As Toby Jones argues in his 2011 piece for The Atlantic, the U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East may be possible because “protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to global markets is far less necessary than it once was” since the world has plenty of oil. While Gholz et. al. claim that “allowing a regional hegemon to seize significant quantities of Gulf oil would constitute a threat to America’s prosperity,” Jones makes the case that prolonged deployment or permanent presence in the Persian Gulf may lead to “the militarization and destabilization” of the Middle East.

Where East Asia is concerned, a continued U.S. military presence may not be necessary because Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are fully capable of defending themselves without U.S. military aid. Although former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that South Korea will continue to need U.S. troop presence due to the threats emanating from North Korea, what he and other analysts often overlook is that the existing tension between the two Koreas can be peacefully resolved through diplomatic recognition of North Korea as a sovereign state, so that the United States can foster trade and keep the North Korean ruler accountable to international norms.

This leads to my second recommendation, which is that the United States Armed Forces should reorient their focus towards homeland security rather than towards costly military presence abroad. At a time when the U.S. has withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan and at a time when the U.S. Armed Forces still face drastic budget cuts due to the ongoing sequestration, it makes no sense to maintain more than 1,000 bases around the world.


Third, and perhaps most important, the United States should rely on diplomacy to accommodate its admirers as well as its rivals. In essence, this is what I mean by deftly balancing hard power with soft power. Brzezinski, in his 2012 book, “Strategic Vision“, argues that the United States may avert “global instability” by embracing what he calls “an ambitious transcontinental geopolitical vision” which entails promoting the expansion of the West while balancing the East. Although it is questionable whether such undertaking may “enhance the appeal of the [U.S.] core principles,” there may be some truth to Brzezinski’s argument. First, continued belligerent posturing towards China through aggressive military maneuvers and presence in the Pacific may backfire in that it may provoke China. Even more important, Brzezinski’s argument warrants attention in that it speaks to the potential role of the U.S. as a diplomatic champion and an exemplar. To Brzezinski’s argument, I should add that, in addition to peacefully engaging China and other major powers such as Russia, the U.S. should seek diplomatic solutions to counter nuclear proliferations by rogue state actors such as Iran and North Korea.

Another option is for the United States to bolster its homeland security apparatuses to counter the threat of terrorism at home. While non-state actor groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the Islamic State/Daesh are opposed to Western values, they do not pose a direct existential threat to the United States because none of these groups possess conventional capabilities commensurate with Western militaries. Moreover, while some argue that it is best to contain terrorist threats abroad to prevent another 9/11, they blithely ignore the fact that terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 stemmed from the failure to anticipate terrorist attacks at home. With an expanded reserve components of the U.S. Armed Forces due to force structure changes under sequestration and improved intelligence and surveillance capabilities, the U.S. can monitor and prevent terrorist attacks from within. However, should such measures prove inadequate, the U.S. can contain threats posed by non-state actors through multilateral police action with the cooperation of its allies.

To sum up, U.S.-President Barack Obama perhaps understood it best when he told the graduating U.S. Military Academy cadets last year that “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions”. The United States should remain and will continue to remain a major power in an increasingly multipolar, and depending on one’s perspective, “chaotic” geostrategic landscape. In the future, the U.S. grand strategy should entail less emphasis on military interventions abroad and more emphasis on homeland security and diplomatic prowess.

A grand strategy that is based on restraint and national interests will lead to fewer wars in distant lands. The fewer wars the United States fights, the more money and lives it will save. Even better, the fewer wars the United States fights, the more likely the global community will appreciate its restraint and sober humility with which it approaches relations with other nations. In the long run, a grand strategy that is grounded in pragmatism and self-awareness will likely benefit both the United States and the global community of which it is a part.

About Jeong Lee

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, History, International, Jeong Lee.

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