What Obama Gets Right and Wrong on Grand Strategy


In recent months, national security experts from Henry Kissinger on down have criticized the Obama administration for lacking a grand strategic plan. The absence of a grand design, however, is not the cause of Obama’s foreign policy problems. It is the administration’s inability to learn from its mistakes and adapt to unexpected circumstances that is to blame for the president’s grand strategic shortcomings.

Despite the publication of a long-delayed National Security Strategy earlier this month, Obama signaled in a recent interview that his foreign policy vision is not based on an overarching design to accomplish a long-term goal. As he readily admitted to Vox, he aims for small incremental changes rather than the pursuit of a grand design: “…you take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.” Contrary to what many strategy scholars contend, Obama’s emergent approach to grand strategy is actually more sensible than the pursuit of an overarching design. In general, the connection between grand designs and successful grand strategies is far less clear than many experts simply assume.

For example, even during the Cold War, America’s grand strategy came more from an emergent process rather than being the product of farsighted designs. Scholars have shown how George Kennan’s original designs had far less influence in shaping containment than today’s pundits and policymakers assume. There was no single “grand design” that guided U.S. policy during the Cold War, but rather a continuous process of formulating and implementing strategies (plural, as John Gaddis famously titled his study of containment) by different administrations, based partly on their respective “lessons learned” from crises in Greece, Turkey, Berlin, Korea, and Vietnam, among others. Any good strategy must evolve with the context in which it is applied, and containment was no different, as Kennan himself recognized.

It’s not the incremental process of strategy-making that plagues Obama’s foreign policy, it is rather the administration’s failure to learn and adapt as effectively as previous U.S. policymakers did during the Cold War. An adaptive strategy approach, somewhat similar to Obama’s own understanding of how to navigate today’s fluid international environment, is exactly what top management consulting firms like the Boston Consulting Group recommend. These ideas challenge the national security orthodoxy by showing that, in turbulent environments, “successful strategies emerge from practice rather than from analysis and design.” However, successful strategizing in the absence of long-term plans is dependent on how well policymakers learn from their actions. “The most important thing a government can do is learn,” the Boston Consulting Group argues. The Obama administration, alas, showed a remarkable inability to learn from some of its early mistakes and misconceptions about how the world works. That needs to change if the president wants to leave behind a world “a little bit better” than he found it, to use his own definition of his goals.

The latest National Security Strategy rightfully notes America’s unique responsibility as the sole liberal global superpower, and the administration used the word “leadership” almost to a fault in its efforts to rebut the “leading from behind” criticism. Much like all the other post-World War II grand strategic frameworks, the National Security Strategy hints at the unique role the United States must play to maintain the current American-led liberal world order. However, when the strategy goes on to discuss how we lead, it reveals Obama’s initial vision of “equitable burden-sharing” has not changed despite six tumultuous years in office:

American leadership means wherever possible leveraging other countries, other resources, where we’re the lead partner because we have capabilities that other folks don’t have. But that way there’s some burden-sharing and there’s some ownership for outcomes.

This restrained vision of global leadership is about as far as one can get from the Kennedy-esque “pay any price, bear any burden” approach to lead the free world during the Cold War. Obama’s approach sounds more reasonable in theory, but in practice it did not bring the expected results.

Indeed, the biggest grand strategic shortcoming of the president’s six years in office is failing to learn that the “burden-sharing” theory of global leadership is ineffective when it comes to the most important decision a president needs to make: the use of force. The administration still believes that effective global leadership is possible without having to shoulder a large and disproportionate amount of the costs of global security requirements. In Libya, the administration achieved its short-term objectives with minimal costs due to “burden-sharing,” but that approach also meant there would be no long-term U.S. leverage and hence set the stage for Benghazi, a raging civil war, and a haven for myriad terrorist groups. In Syria, the administration failed to learn that waiting on the sidelines, practicing “strategic patience” as the new National Security Strategy calls it, in fact reduced U.S. options down the road rather than preserving or expanding them, something that is also evident in Ukraine. As long as the administration continues to refuse to provide NATO military assistance to Kiev, Putin and his paramilitary allies will continue the carnage and further destabilize Eastern Europe, a region that since the fall of the Berlin Wall has served as an exemplar for a transition from decades of tyranny to peace, prosperity, and a pro-Western orientation.

On all of these issues, Obama could profitably learn from another Democratic president who had a tough time initially with his use of force decisions, and who was similarly criticized for “ad-hocism.” President Bill Clinton learned from his early failures, however, and eventually understood that America’s European allies will not be able or willing to stop the carnage in Bosnia without decisive U.S. leadership, including sustained airpower and eventually 20,000 U.S. peacekeeping troops as part of a NATO contingent. Later on, Clinton did not wait as much to launch military strikes on Kosovo and set up a chain of events that removed Serbian dictator Milosevic and finally brought relative peace to the Balkans. Clinton’s justification of the intervention showed his ability to adapt and change some of his initial views on the use of force: “We learned that in the Balkans inaction in the face of brutality simply invites more brutality, but firmness can stop armies and save lives. We must apply that lesson in Kosovo before what happened in Bosnia happens there, too.”

The Clinton administration, thus, started with a theory of “assertive multilateralism” and “burden-sharing” with the United Nations and others, but a learning process led them to a very different view of the security responsibilities of a leading global superpower by the end its tenure. It is not too late for the Obama administration to learn this lesson as well.


Dr. Ionut C. Popescu is an Assistant Professor in the Robertson School of Government. He earned a PhD in international relations from Duke University, where he wrote a dissertation on design and emergence in the making of American grand strategy. His articles appeared in Orbis, Armed Forces Journal, Joint Force Quarterly, and Contemporary Security Policy.