A grand strategy is a calculated relationship on the
part of a country’s leaders of ends and means in the face of potential
international opponents. It is sort of a conceptual road map, describing how to
identify, prioritize and match national interests against potential threats.
Usually such strategies may not be completely coordinated and well-planned.
Grand strategies have several aims. First of all, they
serve to identify clearly the main interests and goals,
and the challenges or
threats for realizing those interests. They put forward the exact policy
instruments through which the challenges are overcome and goals are
accomplished. Policy instruments might be for instance: diplomatic missions,
economic sanctions, armed intervention and foreign aid. When ends and means are well matched a strategy is considered to
be successful. Foreign policy strategists have to know what they want, but they
also need to be flexible on how to pursue it and achieve that fine balance.
The basic strategy types typical for the United States
within the international system are the following: retrenchment, containment,
regime change or rollback, engagement, accommodation, offshore balancing,
nonintervention, which will be explained in detail below.
is a strategy that
aims to decrease a country’s international and military expenditures and
commitments. This can be made through reducing defense spending, moving away
from alliance obligations, withdrawing from military actions abroad or by
combining all these aspects together. Strategic placements are not entirely
removed, but reduced cost and commitment are preferred. This strategy type is
especially attractive in periods of fiscal constraint and austerity. However,
it may not always work as planned. Sometimes the desire to reduce costs may
trigger even more strategic and international risks which eventually impose
even greater costs.
creating geopolitical counterbalance around a certain opponent through military
activities with allies, but also with economic and diplomatic support. It is a
defensive strategy, aiming to prevent expansion and deter aggression.
Containment was applied several times throughout US history, before and after
the Cold War era. The most famous use was the containment of the Soviet Union,
as it was a typical representation of balance of power diplomacy. It can be
also combined with negotiations if the circumstances allow that. Nevertheless,
this strategy requires perseverance and strength in order to be effective.
change or rollback is a strategy referring to the
overthrow of a hostile government. This is the most straightforward strategy
type and can be implemented either directly or indirectly. American politicians
usually aim at replacing unfriendly governments and styles of leadership with
more friendly ones.
This strategy is typical for the George H. W. Bush era
in relation to Panama and was also utilized by Obama in Libya. Every policy
tool, from the most basic all the way to full-scale war can be put into
practice for toppling a certain regime. The indirect rollback includes covert
actions together with high military, economic and diplomatic pressure for
securing the final goal. It can also be combined with containment.
There are also
strategies of engagement, which are distinctively classified as they contain
some contrasting core assumptions. Engagement
as integration is a strategy
that involves encouraging economic interdependence, political liberalization
and membership in international institutions, whereby numbing potentially
hostile regimes and making them more cooperative and democratic. The Open Door
policy of US towards China is a classic example. US often employs this strategy
both towards its enemies and allies, as it is rooted in the liberal assumptions
about international politics.
Then comes the other type of engagement strategy – engagement
as bargaining, which is based on a number of different assumptions.
It involves the mutual exchange of interests and concessions, through
negotiation, compromise, promises and sometimes threats.1 Bargaining is not a strategy by itself, as it
is combined with other strategies or may not be implemented at all. It actually
means negotiating with the purpose of advancing certain national interests. If
opponents accept a bargain that promotes those interests, diplomatic
negotiations should be embraced. However one must also take notice that
skillful adversaries may use diplomacy to hinder or delay the progress of
American national interests and goals.
Accommodation is a type of strategy that means unilateral
concessions with the purpose of changing or satisfying the aggressive demands
of a potential adversary. It differs from bargaining which contains mutual
concessions with no expectations of changing the other actor’s behavior.
Attempts for accommodation often start with one-way concession (some costly
gesture of good will) towards the target state, in the hope of causing
reconciliation or friendship. There are great risks involved in this strategy.
For instance, the target actor may accept the gains offered and then making
other demands. If the opponent’s behavior is not changed for the better, it
gains even more power and basically the main sources of conflict remain to
exist. Accommodation is also known as appeasement.
balancing is a strategy
majorly preferred by the leading foreign policy realists among which
Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape and Stephen Walt. It is when a
great power uses favored regional powers to check the rise of potential hostile
powers. Under this strategy, America would maintain reduced land forces, rely
on its military advantages at sea and air, embrace sharp reductions in its army
and marines, avoid counter-insurgency operations and abstain from international
projects involving military occupation or governance of developing countries.2
is the avoidance
of military, economic and diplomatic endeavors which is also known as anti-intervention, non-entanglement or disentanglement. This strategy
implicates the use of neither sticks nor carrots for achieving the goals set.
Possibly this was America’s strategy in regards to Europe and mainland Asia for
most of its history. The United States came to have a much more active
international presence with their joining in both world wars. This strategy can
be the most risky and costly of all. Namely, Americans generally think that
open, liberal, democratic international order is in the interest of United
States. That order is not able to be maintained by itself, as it requires
guidance and protection, which cannot be achieved by following the strategy of
nonintervention. American disentanglement would only provoke instability and
war, as authoritarian regimes would be able to pursue their ambitions without
control and induce potential conflicts overseas.
The United States has never followed only one of the
above mentioned strategies, but usually it relied on hybrid strategies that combine the advantages and disadvantages of
pure strategic types. Generally speaking, nonintervention was pursued before
1941, containment was central during the Cold War and regime change was typical
for the George W. Bush times. However, America’s strategy was always a hybrid
or mixture of several options, which differed in degree and emphasis. For
instance, containment was indeed prominent during the Cold War, but
integration, regime change and bargaining were also used depending on a
Each president of the United States has its own
doctrine for conducting the realm of foreign policy- the Carter doctrine, the
Reagan doctrine and the Bush doctrine, all represent the foreign policy
strategy of the president and the administration in charge. There are many
unusual theories in regards to the nature and flexibility of Obama’s foreign
policy. Various analysts have identified the following core elements of the so-called
from behind (Ryan Lizza)
strikes (David Rohde)
kinder, gentler empire (Robert Weiss)
lack of genuine strategic thinking (Leslie Gelb)
The spectrum of these elements and the fact that they
all are much reasonable, proves “the ambiguous quality of American foreign
policy under Obama”. 3 Maybe
the most reasonable one from the list above is the one from Leslie Gelb (President
Emeritus at the Council of Foreign Relations), who thinks that Obama lacks
genuine strategic thinking in his approach – something with which not many
other critics would agree with.
However, that doesn’t mean that Obama had no strategy
whatsoever. Should the term “grand strategy” be defined a little less firmly,
it could be indeed seen that President Obama had a sort of implied grand
strategy, which he followed quite regularly since entering the Oval office.
That Obama strategy is one of “overarching American
retrenchment and accommodation internationally, in large part to allow the
president to focus on securing liberal policy legacies at home.”4 Meaning
that he focused on US retrenchment and accommodation by sometimes combining
different strategies like: containment, engagement, assertion, integration and
even occasional regime change. In a nutshell he aimed to reduce US military
presence abroad, make amends with international enemies and focus on
transforming the domestic policies.
This is not only in line with Obama’s principles for
leading foreign policy, but also with his ambition for realizing certain
domestic purposes. He believed that domestic needs should be prioritized more
than in the time of the Bush administration, all with the goal of accomplishing
progressive domestic policy legacies. Domestic political considerations are
central to the American political system and US foreign policy is neither made
nor understood in ignorance of them. However, in the case of Obama, these domestic
priorities are the highest and have a significant effect over his foreign
policy decisions. On one occasion, the president himself revealed the heart of
his doctrine, saying that he looks to “transform this nation”, “end wars” and
focus on “nation-building right here at home”.5 It doesn’t mean he had no strong principles
for world politics, he simply allocated less resources, time and intellectual
capacity for the international strategies.
Obama mainly views foreign policy in the sense of
whether it protects or risks his domestic policy agenda. As the Economist noted in December 2012: “Mr.
Obama and his team believe that his outstanding task is to secure a domestic
legacy. Their fear is that foreign entanglements may threaten the goal.”6
This perspective has numerous implications for American grand strategy.
Firstly, security expenditures were shifted towards social and economic
spending. Secondly, it means moving away from partisan political debates on
national security. Thirdly, new and potentially costly international
interventions were to be avoided. It is evident that Obama was worried that
foreign entanglements and national security issues might detract time and
capital from realizing his domestic agenda. That is why he mostly focused on international accommodation and retrenchment in implementing the US
He genuinely stood for a more moderate American
presence abroad. He thought that through accommodating potential adversaries’
interests and wishes, he would turn them into friends or something other than
opponents. In no way is the president a strict pacifist and as he said in his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “the instruments of war do have
a role to play in preserving the peace…war
is sometimes necessary.”7
Essentially, he believes that
real and comprehensive international cooperation is achievable, should
opponents listen and accommodate one another. His formula for developing such
cooperation is not through the typical promotion of democracy and economic interdependence,
but through the mutual accommodation of interests, sparked by American example.
This means that the United States first makes some gesture of good will/
concession/ accommodation, whereby expecting another concession to be made by
the adversarial country. The goal is reaching mutual agreement, reducing the
tension and increasing the international cooperation.
He also believes that
international accommodation complements US strategic retrenchment and promotes
US national interests. Generally speaking, during his term of office Obama did
cut spending, reduced foreign commitments and avoided new military
interventions overseas. In his opinion, that decision liberated national
resources to be more focused on building the economy at home and working
towards establishing the domestic reforms.
Although accommodation and retrenchment are the most
dominant strategic practices, still this administration also makes use of a
number of hybrid strategies, differing in degree, time and place. For instance, containment is implemented with
relation to North Korea, Iran and China. Regime change or rollback was used in
Libya against Gaddafi in 2011. Bargaining and engagement as integration was
pursued with China and Russia. Nonintervention was recently followed in some
parts of Africa.
Obama’s grand strategy was well accepted by the
general public at home, but internationally it did not work as planned. Namely,
there was disconnect between its “ineffectiveness internationally and its
political effectiveness at home.”8
Having all this in mind, if the goal of the Obama
doctrine was securing domestic progressive policy legacies over healthcare, gay
rights etc., strengthening his party coalition and preventing conflicts in
Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and East Asia to diminish his reform agenda at
home, then the grand strategy worked fairly successfully.
1 Dueck, C. (2015). The
Obama Doctrine, American Grand Strategy Today. Oxford University Press. New
December 1, 2012.
Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the
Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2009.
Dueck, C. (2015). The Obama
Doctrine, American Grand Strategy Today. Oxford University Press. New York: