A grand strategy is a calculated relationship on thepart of a country’s leaders of ends and means in the face of potentialinternational opponents. It is sort of a conceptual road map, describing how toidentify, 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, theyserve to identify clearly the main interests and goals,and the challenges orthreats for realizing those interests. They put forward the exact policyinstruments through which the challenges are overcome and goals areaccomplished.
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 tobe successful. Foreign policy strategists have to know what they want, but theyalso need to be flexible on how to pursue it and achieve that fine balance. The basic strategy types typical for the United Stateswithin the international system are the following: retrenchment, containment,regime change or rollback, engagement, accommodation, offshore balancing,nonintervention, which will be explained in detail below. Retrenchmentis a strategy thataims to decrease a country’s international and military expenditures andcommitments. This can be made through reducing defense spending, moving awayfrom alliance obligations, withdrawing from military actions abroad or bycombining all these aspects together.
Strategic placements are not entirelyremoved, but reduced cost and commitment are preferred. This strategy type isespecially attractive in periods of fiscal constraint and austerity. However,it may not always work as planned. Sometimes the desire to reduce costs maytrigger even more strategic and international risks which eventually imposeeven greater costs. Containmentis aboutcreating geopolitical counterbalance around a certain opponent through militaryactivities with allies, but also with economic and diplomatic support. It is adefensive strategy, aiming to prevent expansion and deter aggression.Containment was applied several times throughout US history, before and afterthe 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 bealso combined with negotiations if the circumstances allow that. Nevertheless,this strategy requires perseverance and strength in order to be effective. Regimechange or rollback is a strategy referring to theoverthrow of a hostile government.
This is the most straightforward strategytype and can be implemented either directly or indirectly. American politiciansusually aim at replacing unfriendly governments and styles of leadership withmore friendly ones. This strategy is typical for the George H. W. Bush erain relation to Panama and was also utilized by Obama in Libya. Every policytool, from the most basic all the way to full-scale war can be put intopractice for toppling a certain regime. The indirect rollback includes covertactions together with high military, economic and diplomatic pressure forsecuring the final goal. It can also be combined with containment.
There are alsostrategies of engagement, which are distinctively classified as they containsome contrasting core assumptions. Engagementas integration is a strategythat involves encouraging economic interdependence, political liberalizationand membership in international institutions, whereby numbing potentiallyhostile regimes and making them more cooperative and democratic. The Open Doorpolicy of US towards China is a classic example. US often employs this strategyboth towards its enemies and allies, as it is rooted in the liberal assumptionsabout international politics. Then comes the other type of engagement strategy – engagementas bargaining, which is based on a number of different assumptions.
It involves the mutual exchange of interests and concessions, throughnegotiation, compromise, promises and sometimes threats.1 Bargaining is not a strategy by itself, as itis combined with other strategies or may not be implemented at all. It actuallymeans negotiating with the purpose of advancing certain national interests. Ifopponents accept a bargain that promotes those interests, diplomaticnegotiations should be embraced. However one must also take notice thatskillful adversaries may use diplomacy to hinder or delay the progress ofAmerican national interests and goals.Accommodation is a type of strategy that means unilateralconcessions with the purpose of changing or satisfying the aggressive demandsof a potential adversary. It differs from bargaining which contains mutualconcessions with no expectations of changing the other actor’s behavior.Attempts for accommodation often start with one-way concession (some costlygesture of good will) towards the target state, in the hope of causingreconciliation or friendship.
There are great risks involved in this strategy.For instance, the target actor may accept the gains offered and then makingother demands. If the opponent’s behavior is not changed for the better, itgains even more power and basically the main sources of conflict remain toexist.
Accommodation is also known as appeasement.Offshorebalancing is a strategymajorly preferred by the leading foreign policy realists among whichChristopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape and Stephen Walt. It is when agreat power uses favored regional powers to check the rise of potential hostilepowers. Under this strategy, America would maintain reduced land forces, relyon its military advantages at sea and air, embrace sharp reductions in its armyand marines, avoid counter-insurgency operations and abstain from internationalprojects involving military occupation or governance of developing countries.
2 Noninterventionis the avoidanceof military, economic and diplomatic endeavors which is also known as anti-intervention, non-entanglement or disentanglement. This strategyimplicates 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 formost of its history. The United States came to have a much more activeinternational presence with their joining in both world wars. This strategy canbe the most risky and costly of all. Namely, Americans generally think thatopen, liberal, democratic international order is in the interest of UnitedStates. That order is not able to be maintained by itself, as it requiresguidance and protection, which cannot be achieved by following the strategy ofnonintervention.
American disentanglement would only provoke instability andwar, as authoritarian regimes would be able to pursue their ambitions withoutcontrol and induce potential conflicts overseas. The United States has never followed only one of theabove mentioned strategies, but usually it relied on hybrid strategies that combine the advantages and disadvantages ofpure strategic types. Generally speaking, nonintervention was pursued before1941, containment was central during the Cold War and regime change was typicalfor the George W. Bush times. However, America’s strategy was always a hybridor mixture of several options, which differed in degree and emphasis. Forinstance, containment was indeed prominent during the Cold War, butintegration, regime change and bargaining were also used depending on aparticular region. Each president of the United States has its owndoctrine for conducting the realm of foreign policy- the Carter doctrine, theReagan doctrine and the Bush doctrine, all represent the foreign policystrategy of the president and the administration in charge. There are manyunusual theories in regards to the nature and flexibility of Obama’s foreignpolicy.
Various analysts have identified the following core elements of the so-calledObama doctrine: § Engagement(Robert Singh) § Leadingfrom behind (Ryan Lizza) § Dronestrikes (David Rohde) § Akinder, gentler empire (Robert Weiss) § Alack of genuine strategic thinking (Leslie Gelb)The spectrum of these elements and the fact that theyall are much reasonable, proves “the ambiguous quality of American foreignpolicy under Obama”. 3 Maybethe most reasonable one from the list above is the one from Leslie Gelb (PresidentEmeritus at the Council of Foreign Relations), who thinks that Obama lacksgenuine strategic thinking in his approach – something with which not manyother critics would agree with. However, that doesn’t mean that Obama had no strategywhatsoever. Should the term “grand strategy” be defined a little less firmly,it could be indeed seen that President Obama had a sort of implied grandstrategy, which he followed quite regularly since entering the Oval office. That Obama strategy is one of “overarching Americanretrenchment and accommodation internationally, in large part to allow thepresident to focus on securing liberal policy legacies at home.”4 Meaningthat he focused on US retrenchment and accommodation by sometimes combiningdifferent strategies like: containment, engagement, assertion, integration andeven occasional regime change. In a nutshell he aimed to reduce US militarypresence abroad, make amends with international enemies and focus ontransforming the domestic policies.
This is not only in line with Obama’s principles forleading foreign policy, but also with his ambition for realizing certaindomestic purposes. He believed that domestic needs should be prioritized morethan in the time of the Bush administration, all with the goal of accomplishingprogressive domestic policy legacies. Domestic political considerations arecentral to the American political system and US foreign policy is neither madenor understood in ignorance of them. However, in the case of Obama, these domesticpriorities are the highest and have a significant effect over his foreignpolicy decisions.
On one occasion, the president himself revealed the heart ofhis doctrine, saying that he looks to “transform this nation”, “end wars” andfocus on “nation-building right here at home”.5 It doesn’t mean he had no strong principlesfor world politics, he simply allocated less resources, time and intellectualcapacity for the international strategies.Obama mainly views foreign policy in the sense ofwhether 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 domesticlegacy. Their fear is that foreign entanglements may threaten the goal.”6This perspective has numerous implications for American grand strategy.
Firstly, security expenditures were shifted towards social and economicspending. Secondly, it means moving away from partisan political debates onnational security. Thirdly, new and potentially costly internationalinterventions were to be avoided. It is evident that Obama was worried thatforeign entanglements and national security issues might detract time andcapital from realizing his domestic agenda. That is why he mostly focused on international accommodation and retrenchment in implementing the USgrand strategy. He genuinely stood for a more moderate Americanpresence abroad. He thought that through accommodating potential adversaries’interests and wishes, he would turn them into friends or something other thanopponents.
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 havea role to play in preserving the peace…waris sometimes necessary.”7Essentially, he believes thatreal and comprehensive international cooperation is achievable, shouldopponents listen and accommodate one another. His formula for developing suchcooperation 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 bythe adversarial country. The goal is reaching mutual agreement, reducing thetension and increasing the international cooperation. He also believes thatinternational accommodation complements US strategic retrenchment and promotesUS national interests.
Generally speaking, during his term of office Obama didcut spending, reduced foreign commitments and avoided new militaryinterventions overseas. In his opinion, that decision liberated nationalresources to be more focused on building the economy at home and workingtowards establishing the domestic reforms. Although accommodation and retrenchment are the mostdominant strategic practices, still this administration also makes use of anumber of hybrid strategies, differing in degree, time and place. For instance, containment is implemented withrelation to North Korea, Iran and China. Regime change or rollback was used inLibya against Gaddafi in 2011. Bargaining and engagement as integration waspursued with China and Russia. Nonintervention was recently followed in someparts of Africa. Obama’s grand strategy was well accepted by thegeneral public at home, but internationally it did not work as planned.
Namely,there was disconnect between its “ineffectiveness internationally and itspolitical effectiveness at home.”8 Having all this in mind, if the goal of the Obamadoctrine was securing domestic progressive policy legacies over healthcare, gayrights etc., strengthening his party coalition and preventing conflicts inAfghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and East Asia to diminish his reform agenda athome, then the grand strategy worked fairly successfully. 1 Dueck, C.
(2015). TheObama Doctrine, American Grand Strategy Today. Oxford University Press. NewYork: USA.2Ibid.3Ibid.
4 Ibid.5Ibid. 6″Lexington,” Economist,December 1, 2012.7Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of theNobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2009. 8Dueck, C. (2015).
The ObamaDoctrine, American Grand Strategy Today. Oxford University Press. New York:USA.