A Solarium Exercise in Strategic Choice


Ian Bremmer, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (Portfolio, Penguin Group, 2015).


Early in 1953, President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower realized that he needed to develop a consensus on U.S. strategy towards the Soviet Union and a common narrative from competing factions in the U.S. government. He set up Project Solarium, a planning exercise with three task forces assigned to develop and present distinctly different strategic approaches. These included “containment,” “roll back,” and a final hard line option that relied less on allies and more upon nuclear preeminence. Each team presented their proposed strategies, with strengths and weaknesses, to the National Security Council in the summer.

This effort is considered a classic case in executive strategic planning and there have been recent calls for modern day Solarium projects by policymakers and scholars.

Such an exercise for America’s strategic options in the 21st Century has just been undertaken, but by one man. This new book, penned by Ian Bremmer — the prolific head of the Eurasia Group — defines the basic choices. Bremmer has been a provocative thinker and well recognized risk analyst for some time. This book is a follow up to his last bestselling Every Nation for Itself. In that book, the United States was depicted as debt-burdened, and both less willing and less able to support a stable international system via its traditional role of global sheriff. In such a leaderless world, every nation fends for itself.

In Superpower, Bremmer offers the reader three distinctive choices and acknowledges the comparative elements of his options, their benefits and their downsides. Each of his three notional strategies represent recognizable approaches to U.S. security, which will no doubt soon manifest themselves in stump speeches by the growing crowd of presidential contenders. Bremmer devotes a full chapter detailing the parameters of each notional approach.

Independent America argues that it’s time for Washington to drop the heavy burden of carrying the leadership and security role it has taken on. This option would allow the United States to declare independence from being responsible for trying to solve everyone else’s problems at our expense. Rather, as suggested long ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Walter McDougall, America would lead by example, invest in itself, and build upon its own strengths.

In the second approach, entitled Moneyball America, Bremmer presents a strategic perspective inspired by the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his unconventionally meticulous system of baseball decision-making. A Moneyball America would exercise a “cold-blooded, interest-driven approach … designed to maximize the return on the taxpayer’s investment.” Strategy would ignore domestic and foreign pressure and concentrate on efficiency. The United States would continue to invest in a powerful military, but would dramatically reshape it to meet emerging threats and limit its use to the constraints of the Powell doctrine. This approach would preference economic tools of influence, including U.S. energy resources and trade agreements. America would withdraw from Europe, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa and replace high-risk security pacts with investment and trade partnerships. No longer would the United States unwaveringly defend all of the norms and historic partnerships of the current world order.

In the final option, Indispensable America, Washington would remain the central power and continue to promote and actively defend the values and institutions on which today’s global stability was built, and on which it increasingly depends against the dynamics of an interdependent world that is under challenge by geopolitical tensions, economic dislocation, and socio-cultural crises in the Middle East.

The reader is encouraged to make his own choice from these three detailed courses of action. Some might accuse Bremmer of taking a Goldilocks approach, one too cold and one too hot and one just right. But he does not stop with just the three options, and concludes with a surprising recommendation: it’s time for Independent America. But this is an evasive hope. We cannot escape the world’s problems by turning inward. We may not be a small global village in a world getting increasingly smaller, as suggested by Professor Patrick Porter of Exeter University, but we do have interests outside our shores. Retreat (there is no other word for it), is a false option. Rather than enhancing our security, this option of turning inward would eventually undercut America’s security and prosperity. We’ve made that mistake before, in the 1930s, and we all paid a price for it.

The Moneyball approach may be too constraining. The Powell doctrine’s questions are useful questions for policymakers contemplating an intervention, but they are not principles for grand strategy. Given the Powell doctrine’s inflexible criteria for action and complexity of modern threats, its rigid conditions may prove increasingly impossible to satisfy. Even when the criteria justify military action, the threat may require a different degree of force than decisive, in-and-out oriented force. Moreover, Bremmer’s proposed abandonment of historic partners like Japan and NATO may undermine trust, impede future partnering efforts, or drive old allies towards U.S. rivals.

Nor is Indispensable America a sustainable strategy, without substantial alteration of U.S. domestic priorities.

We offer a fourth option to Bremmer’s solo Solarium. Instead of futilely seeking autarky, applying the cold calculations of Moneyball, or lusting for dominance, the United States should think about America the Discriminate Power. This is a disciplined strategy, with specific tradeoffs among the instruments of national power, and detailed ideas about how to maximize our security for the resources we appear to be willing to allocate to our foreign policy and national security. Overall, we must be more deliberate and more discriminate about which aggressors and which threats we take on.

Unlike Moneyball, Discriminate Power is not short-term or merely transactional in character. Nor does it dump our traditional allies in favor of the illusion of strategic independence. Rather than deep engagement on a global level, it seeks Selective Engagement and focused security investments that defend core U.S. interests. As Bremmer himself noted in one chapter: “Americans cannot solve every problem, but this does not excuse us from the responsibility to solve the ones we can, for our own benefit and for the world. We can’t hold ourselves above and apart from others.”

The real option will be exposed to the sunlight of the upcoming electoral process. No doubt, domestic policy considerations will dominate the 2016 debates — they usually do. Hopefully there will be bandwidth to debate what role America desires to play in the world, and how it might go about securing this nation’s interests in a dynamic and multipolar context. Bremmer’s exercise is an extremely useful test of the basic questions we should be prepared to ask our presidential candidates. Anyone interested in America’s future, or anyone working for a candidate’s foreign policy team, should find at least one chapter in Superpower of great interest.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University, a member of the Board of Advisors at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. Ryan Neuhard is a student at the College of William and Mary, and currently serving as a research intern at NDU. These remarks are their own and do not reflect official DOD or U.S. government positions or policy.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army