Stress-Testing the Foundations of American Grand Strategy


How solid are the assumptions underpinning American grand strategy? How valid are the key ideas that U.S. officials have about how the world works? Such assumptions represent the intellectual foundation upon which American statecraft rests. If the foundation is solid, American strategy has a decent chance of success. If the foundation is shaky, American strategy may collapse.

After one of the most surprising presidential elections in generations, the need to reexamine core strategic assumptions has become ever more pressing. Since the Cold War, the United States has pursued a grand strategy centered on maintaining America’s global primacy and extending the liberal international order. That grand strategy, in turn, rested upon a set of optimistic assumptions about the sustainability of American dominance and the direction in which the world is moving. Now, however, those assumptions are coming under greater strain than at any time in a quarter-century, thereby casting the future of American grand strategy into greater doubt.

Assumptions and Post-Cold War Grand Strategy

Since the end of the Cold War, America has pursued an ambitious grand strategy aimed at shaping the international system. Every president since George H.W. Bush has committed the United States to maintaining American primacy and expanding the liberal order that originated in the West after World War II. Every president has likewise committed to proactively meeting emerging or resurgent threats that might disrupt such a favorable order. And notwithstanding important variations, every president has done all this through initiatives that remained broadly consistent over time. These include preserving America’s unequaled military capabilities and alliance commitments, supporting the spread of democracy and globalization, and using tools including military force to address major threats to the international system and U.S. interests.

One reason that American grand strategy has remained fairly stable during the post-Cold War era is that the assumptions underlying it have also remained stable. Assumptions are the received wisdom among the policymaking elite — the intellectual axioms on which policy rests. They may be, for example, the core beliefs that policymakers hold about the nature and direction of the international system, their baseline views on a country’s particular role within that system, or their unstated “theories” about how some action will lead to some desired result. And crucially, although assumptions may sometimes be stated explicitly, they more often remain in the background, creating the implicit intellectual guidelines within which policy debates occur.

Many of the dominant assumptions that have framed U.S. policy in recent decades emerged most fully after the Cold War, the point at which the United States gained uncontested international preeminence, and the last time there was a fundamental transformation of the international system. Today, however, several core assumptions are under increasing doubt, as we discuss here and in greater detail in our new article, “Stress-Testing American Grand Strategy” in the latest issue of Survival.

Assumption #1: American Military Primacy Today, in the Future, and Everywhere

The post-Cold War era has been defined by unrivaled U.S. military primacy at the global level. That primacy has also been evident in virtually every key strategic theater, where America could deploy combat power superior to what any challenger could amass even within its own regional “backyard.” This military asymmetry has been a fundamental enabler of America’s post-Cold War strategy, underwriting its overseas presence and security guarantees and enabling numerous interventions to confront challenges to America’s vision of international order. Yet even though American primacy remains impressive today at the global level, that greater challenges to that primacy loom as key regional balances have shifted against the United States.

A two-decade Chinese military buildup is rapidly changing the military balance in East Asia, for instance, threatening U.S. access to the area within the first island chain and complicating America’s ability to intervene in contingencies involving Taiwan and other allies and partners. In eastern Europe, Russian military modernization has allowed Moscow to achieve local overmatch along NATO’s eastern frontier and to contest the U.S. ability to defend its allies should conflict break out. Looking beyond Russia and China, the proliferation of precision-strike capabilities, integrated air defense systems, and other advanced capabilities are threatening or at least decreasing American superiority.

The strategic implications of all this are not reassuring. In the future, this trend will undoubtedly complicate U.S. decisions about how and whether to use force by promising far higher costs and risks should conflict occur. Likewise, it will make it harder for the United States to uphold its alliance commitments in Europe and East Asia, thereby unnerving allies while perhaps tempting rivals. More broadly, because military power casts a shadow over diplomacy, this trend could well mean that Washington and its allies will find it more difficult to prevail on important issues of regional or international affairs. Should America’s military primacy come under greater fire, we should expect greater challenges and greater uncertainties to the international system itself.

Assumption #2: The Best Allies

America’s post-Cold War overmatch has not derived solely from its own strengths, but also from those of its allies in Europe and Asia. In 1994, those allies commanded 47 percent of global GDP and 36 percent of global defense spending. This was on top of America’s 24 percent and 38 percent, respectively. During this same period, Russian power was in free-fall, and other U.S. competitors could muster only mere fractions of the global wealth and power wielded by the “free world.” This situation created great benefits for U.S. policy.

It meant that most key allies were less dependent on American protection than they had been during the Cold War and that they were now security exporters that could contribute significantly to out-of-area military interventions. More broadly, it meant that Washington could generally (although not always) count on having the most powerful second-tier countries on its side on crucial issues of international order.

Since the early 1990s, however, much has changed. The share of global GDP possessed by core U.S. allies in Asia and Europe had fallen to 39 percent by 2014. Their share of global defense spending had fallen to 26 percent. Many U.S. allies — particularly in Europe — gutted their military capabilities, shedding large portions of their air, naval, and ground forces. Meanwhile, the combination of rapid economic growth and double-digit annual percentage increases in defense spending carried China rapidly up the global power rankings, giving it 11.4 percent of global GDP and 11.4 percent of global military spending in 2014 — shares far larger than any single U.S. ally. And while Russia remains an economic basket case, its own military modernization has allowed Moscow to reassert local primacy along NATO’s eastern flank. The assumption that America’s allies are the most powerful, capable, and dynamic countries in the world after America has thus become far more tenuous.

The broadest implication of this shift is that the advantages that Washington has enjoyed by dint of having such powerful allies are waning as the liabilities of its alliance relationships become more pronounced. As evidenced by the Libya war of 2011 and the counter-Islamic State campaign today, U.S. allies have become far less capable of contributing to out-of-area interventions. Moreover, as U.S. allies’ power declines relative to their chief competitors, they are becoming more dependent on the Pentagon to protect them at a time when American military power is itself under strain. Finally, the relative decline of those countries that have most closely shared the U.S. vision of a liberal international order can only weaken that order at a time when illiberal powers such as Russia and China are challenging it in increasingly assertive fashion. America’s allies still add tremendously to U.S. power and provide pronounced geopolitical advantages, but the relative dynamism of those allies is fading, which will only complicate the calculations of U.S. policymakers in years to come.

Assumption #3: A Wealthy and Integrated China Will Be a Democratic and Peaceful China

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. officials have understood that an increasingly powerful China could eventually challenge U.S. interests and dominance in East Asia and perhaps globally. But Washington assumed it could avert this danger by promoting constructive change in Chinese politics and policy. American officials have wagered that as China becomes richer, it will become more democratic, because an increasingly prosperous population will demand a greater say in how it is governed. U.S. officials have equally wagered that as China becomes more integrated into the global economy, it will become more peaceful, because it will have less incentive to upset a system that has served it so well.

But what if this grand geopolitical wager does not pay off? China has indeed become far more prosperous in recent decades: Its GDP rose from $359 billion in 1990 to $10.35 trillion in 2014, and its per capita GDP skyrocketed from $316 to $7,587. Yet politically, China has not become more liberal. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Communist Party has rejected any opening toward a more pluralistic system. It has assiduously repressed civil society and human rights activists while strictly censoring information flows.

Nor does China seem to be becoming more reconciled to the existing order. The past several years have witnessed a pattern of increasingly disruptive Chinese behavior, manifested in expansive maritime claims; efforts to seize and even militarize disputed features in the South China Seas; the use of economic, military, and paramilitary coercion against countries from Japan to Indonesia; and efforts to undermine U.S. alliances in East Asia. All of this has unfolded in the shadow of a continuing military buildup that certainly seems to bode ill for the regional status quo. China is changing, but not in the ways U.S. policymakers have long expected.

Should these trends continue, the resulting challenges could be profound. At the very least, U.S. strategists would have to confront sharper tradeoffs between engagement with China and efforts to preserve American primacy and the contours of the U.S.-led international order. And over time, Washington might find that rather than facing a China that has become more democratic and more peaceful, it faces an authoritarian, revisionist China that American policy has done much to empower.

Assumption #4: Great-Power War is Obsolete

During the Cold War, the world lived in fear of a great-power nuclear conflict. Yet after the Cold War, it became increasingly common to think that great-power wars were things of the past. This assumption was based on several sub-premises, ranging from the decline of antagonistic ideologies such as communism to the apparently pacifying effects of globalization. This assumption is now being tested, however, as the specter of great-power war returns.

Russia and China — two key powers that were never fully reconciled to the post-Cold War order — are pushing back against that order more assertively than ever before. Vladimir Putin has used force to halt the feared spread of Western influence and institutions into the former Soviet space. He has used Russia’s military power to intimidate U.S. allies on NATO’s eastern flank. China is using military and paramilitary forces to coerce U.S. allies, adjust maritime boundaries by force, and exert pressure on neighbors from Japan to Vietnam. Both Moscow and Beijing, moreover, are developing warfighting capabilities and strategies designed to deny Washington access to their “near-abroads” and to prevail in a limited military conflict. In other words, neither Russia nor China is acting like it believes great-power war is obsolete. Nor, for that matter, is the United States, as the Pentagon invests in a “third offset strategy” meant to re-establish American military dominance vis-à-vis great-power rivals.

At present, of course, few analysts believe that either Russia or China wants war with Washington, and there are still powerful brakes on great-power conflict. But what is clear is that America again has great-power rivals, that those rivals are willing to assert themselves even at risk of heightened geopolitical tensions, and that the risk of great-power conflict has therefore reached a higher level than at any time since 1989.

Assumption #5: The Unstoppable and Irreversible Advance of Democracy

When the Cold War ended, democracy was on the march. The number of electoral democracies rose from 39 to 120 between 1974 and 2000. That this trend is irreversible has been a guiding assumption of post-Cold War strategy. Washington assumed that the world will continue to democratize and that this progression would make the world more peaceful, prosperous, and stable.

Today, however, democracy’s future has become cloudier. In countries from Venezuela to Turkey, illiberal leaders have taken power through democratic means and then set about dismantling the checks and balances that constrained them. Illiberal great powers such as Russia and China have been pushing back against the spread of democracy in their own neighborhoods, opposing anti-authoritarian regime change overseas (in Syria, for instance), and touting the benefits of their own centralized models.

Even in the West, democracy’s prospects seem less certain. The rise of illiberal right-wing governments in Hungary and now Poland has created pockets of quasi-authoritarianism within NATO and the European Union, as the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath have raised questions about whether democratic systems can deliver the economic goods. As a result, the number of democracies in the world has roughly plateaued since around 2006, and as one expert notes, Freedom House statistics show “that in each of the eight consecutive years from 2006 through 2013 more countries declined in freedom than improved.” Democratic stagnation — even recession — is underway.

In the coming years, this phenomenon will likely complicate American strategy. It may confront U.S. policymakers with the challenge of dealing with political illiberalism within America’s core alliances and make it harder to rally opposition against authoritarian rivals such as Putin. This scenario may also heighten the difficulties and costs of promoting democracy and human rights overseas and force American policymakers to reassess how much emphasis to place on these efforts. Finally, a continued democratic recession could undermine one of the fundamental enthusiasms underlying post-Cold War statecraft — the idea that history is moving inexorably in America’s direction — and cast the country into a far more competitive ideological climate.

Assumption #6: Globalization is Inexorable

Just as American policymakers have been bullish on democratization, they have also assumed that the advance of globalization is inexorable, beneficial for humanity, and favorable for the United States. But is globalization’s advance as inexorable as previously thought? There are at least four reasons to think that the answer may be no.

First, although a true economic meltdown was averted less than a decade ago, the global financial crisis signaled that the international financial and economic system is perhaps less resilient than commonly thought to the sort of systemic crisis that disrupted globalization before. Second, the British vote to leave the European Union has shown that institutions commonly associated with globalization may be more fragile than previously believed. Third, as demonstrated most recently by Donald Trump’s electoral victory, political processes in America and throughout the West are revealing profound disillusion with economic integration as well as broader national and societal openness. Fourth, the return of serious great-power frictions has revived the possibility that geopolitics might once again thwart globalization or cause leading powers to take a more zero-sum approach to foreign economic policy.

In these circumstances, it is becoming easier to see how globalization might be challenged or even potentially reversed in the coming years. If this were this to occur, it would significantly complicate a U.S. foreign economic policy that has made promoting globalization its overarching raison d’etre in the post-Cold War era, while also significantly distorting the broader American conception of where the world is headed.

Assumption #7: Technology Will Save Us  

A final source of long-term U.S. optimism has been the belief that technological change is basically good for the flourishing and freedom of people around the world and that the United States is best placed to exploit such change. Today, however, this assumption is being tested in important ways.

In the political sphere, technological advances have sometimes empowered individuals to challenge dictators over the past decade — but they have also empowered dictators to repress citizens. Internal security services in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries have used activists’ Facebook profiles to map and disrupt protest networks and they have used advances in information technology to better surveil opposition groups. In China, Communist Party officials have worked to seize the “commanding heights” of the internet by using the state’s technological prowess to monitor incipient discontent, censor threatening information, spread propaganda, and harass and intimidate dissidents. There remains a lively debate on whether the forces of liberalism or illiberalism are more effectively harnessing technology, but it can no longer simply be assumed that the former will triumph.

A similar and well-documented dynamic exists in the military sphere. Since the 1990s, China has been a “fast follower,” harnessing technological innovation and intensive resource investments to make enormous strides in capabilities needed to contest U.S. primacy. Hostile non-state groups such as Hezbollah have gained access to weapons systems — from man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to guided surface-to-surface rockets — that allow them to wield capabilities once the sole preserve of states. Meanwhile, the proliferation of “leaderless” terrorism demonstrates how extremist groups have harnessed the power of the internet to achieve radicalization and mount difficult-to-disrupt attacks over great distances. Across several dimensions, technology is narrowing the power gap between the United States and its adversaries, raising pointed questions about who will win the future after all.

Can America Cope?

Since the end of the Cold War, American strategy has been rooted in bullish assumptions about where the world is headed and about the feasibility of sustaining U.S. dominance. Now, however, the world is changing geopolitically, economically, and ideologically, in ways that are often increasingly disadvantageous to the key tenets of American statecraft — and that portend an increasingly difficult and dangerous international environment in the future.

Does this mean that America’s post-Cold War strategy is doomed and that radical retrenchment is required? Not necessarily. Key assumptions of U.S. globalism have been tested before — after Vietnam, for instance — and American leaders gradually made the adjustments needed to reinvigorate U.S. strategy. The question is thus whether America can mobilize its still-preeminent capabilities to effectively address a more challenging world. And the answer to that question bears on a final, longstanding assumption: that decline is a choice that America can reject because the U.S. political system will ultimately support the decisions and sacrifices needed to sustain a strategy of primacy.

But what if this assumption is also being undermined? What if the American political system has become less capable of enabling good grand strategy? One hardly needs to be an alarmist to wonder whether this may be the case.

In recent years, the American defense budget has come under relentless pressure, as historically high levels of political gridlock and polarization prevented necessary long-term compromises on tax rates and entitlement reform — and even prevented smarter cuts that preserve the Pentagon’s ability to use declining resources in a flexible way. Moreover, if the 2016 presidential election is any indication, the American political system seems to be becoming more resistant to free trade and globalization. And, of course, that campaign culminated in the election of a president who — rhetorically, at least — seems to reject or at least question key elements of American globalism. It is enough to make one wonder whether America’s post-Cold War strategy is running out of political steam.

Here as in other areas, one should not overstate the problem. Public opinion polling paints a somewhat brighter picture. Polls taken in 2015 and 2016 show that public support for American internationalism remains (superficially, at least) fairly strong. And it may be that the political system will, over the long run, continue to produce leaders and policies that sustain U.S. leadership.

But given recent trends, it is hard not to worry that this most fundamental assumption of U.S. grand strategy — that the country can effectively cope with its problems — may be becoming shakier as well. Were this assumption to be further undermined, it would significantly compound the effects of all the other global changes discussed here — and augur a bleak future for U.S. policy and the post-Cold War order it supports.


Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.  Peter Feaver is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University.  This article is derived from a longer study, titled “Stress-Testing American Grand Strategy,” recently published in Survival.

Image: U.S. Air Force

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