The Case for Strategic Discipline During the Next Presidency


The election of Donald Trump has produced no small amount of anxiety around the globe. President-elect Trump has alarmed longstanding partners by suggesting that he was more interested in building walls than defending America’s friends, that NATO was obsolete, and that nuclear proliferation might be a good thing. Judging just from the headlines of foreign newspapers, you would think that the extant world order had already been shattered.

For example, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer writes that the U.S. election means goodbye to the West and America’s global leadership. Carl Bildt, former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden, wrote before the election that it’s time to head for the bunkers. Former British governor and now Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten thinks the United States has abdicated its leadership role: He writes, “The Western order cannot exist without the US playing this crucial role. As a result, the future of the West itself is now at stake.” The global order is unravelling in Martin Wolf’s assessment at The Financial Times.

Europe is no longer safe, according to one analyst on the other side of the Atlantic. To another, unpredictability is dangerous, and since “Donald Trump’s victory has buried NATO, collective defence and deterrence can only work if they are not subject to speculation.” Robin Niblett of Chatham House laments the combination of Brexit and Trump’s election because they “signal the end of Anglo-American leadership of the global economy.” Anne Applebaum bemoans a world in which America’s automatic response to every crisis is not assured and “The West as we know it is nearing the end of its life.”

Concerns are more muted in Asia. But “down under,” one Australian holds the United States had let its friends down and left them “mourning the death of an idea called America.” In The Atlantic, Hugh White asks, “Does fulfilling the post-Cold War vision of U.S. leadership matter enough to the American people for them to shoulder these costs and risks for decades to come?” White thinks it is far from clear that it does.

But of course, concerns about the implications of Trump’s foreign policy are not limited to allies. One does not have to look far for Cassandras closer to home. Henry Kissinger finds that for the first time in 50 years, “the future relationship of America to the world is not fully settled.” The head of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, advises that America resist the isolationist temptation. Charles Krauthammer contends that America is in decline and has become irrelevant in the Middle East. Trump may well accelerate the trends begun under Obama to significantly reduce America’s role in the world, writes Francis Fukuyama. Ironically, the author of The End of History thinks that we may now face “a political disruption that will in time bear comparison with the collapse of Communism a generation ago,” and that the ultimate consequence is an acceleration of U.S. decline. Observers decry the end of the Pax Americana that they believe ushered in 70 years of prosperity.

Others in the risk forecasting community find Trump’s unique combination of unilateralism and a short-term transactional approach to be destabilizing. “The Era of American Global Leadership Is Over,” according to the insightful Ian Bremmer from the Eurasia Group:

American power, once a trump card, is now a wild card. Instead of a superpower that wants to impose stability and values on a fractious and valueless global order, the U.S. has become the single biggest source of international uncertainty.

How should the new administration reframe U.S. grand strategy and deal with these contending viewpoints? Michael Mazarr correctly argues that the American grand strategy debates ring hollow and that the new administration must rethink the basic organizing concepts for America’s role in the world. “The debate between primacy and offshore balancing,” Mazarr writes, “needs to give way to a new dialogue over ideas to manage the multiple dilemmas of the emerging strategic environment.” As Patrick Porter notes, American statecraft need not be handcuffed between two flawed extremes as strategies, that of “hiding from the world or dominating it.” I concur with both, since the strategy options under debate stark opposites that add more heat than light, obscuring the basic choices that America faces. There is a better equilibrium point somewhere between rampant retrenchment and unbridled hegemonic primacy. Several years ago, Mazarr offered a thoughtful option called discriminate power. I offered forward partnership. Others have called for pragmatic engagement as a guide, which includes building up NATO allies.

The Trump administration should examine these options, but it may want to start with what  Bremmer labeled in his book as “Moneyball America.” This is a strategy that should appeal to someone with a business background who is used to a more transactional relationship with clients and competitors. Using this strategic lens to examine U.S. interests and potential crisis responses, America would exercise (in Bremmer’s words) a “cold-blooded, interest-driven approach … designed to maximize the return on the taxpayer’s investment.” The United States would continue to invest in a powerful military, but would reshape it to meet specific threats and would limit its use. It would exploit its economic might unimpeded by painstakingly negotiated trade agreements. No longer would the United States unilaterally assume the role as the global policeman of the current world order, Instead, it would calculate its national interest more narrowly and respond more prudently on a case-by-case basis.

Moneyball requires a disciplined decision-making process that includes inputs from experts, including the intelligence community as well as allies and partners. We do not yet know how the new administration will adapt the machinery of state, but the demands of moneyball are a tall order, even for those who have mastered the “art of the deal.” Moneyball as a strategy emphasizes economic strengths and tools, but does not shy away from the use of force when necessary. As Bremmer captured it, this approach “demands that we fight when and where we choose—and on our own terms.” This could be result in less extensive U.S. engagement in each of the world’s regions, and it might make America more reactive than today’s forward presence and basing structure.

Under the Moneyball strategy, different crises might be handled with a more fluid formation of coalitions/partnerships and with a clearer understanding of contributions and costs. Such a strategy of creating and leading the “coalitions of the willing and able” would require deft diplomacy. It would also place more demands on the National Security Council to assess risks and define the liabilities involved in each contingency instead of simply assuming that our leadership and credibility are at stake in every global flashpoint. This is not an easy strategic approach to manage or explain, and it could easily be mishandled. Its benefits, however, are notable. Executed effectively, it would sustains American alliances, as their security and stability are key to U.S. prosperity. This point must not be lost. If “America First” becomes “America Alone,” we will live in a world that is more hostile to American values and its most vital interests.

This potential strategy replaces the idea America as the global enforcer. Critics of both the Obama doctrine and of Trump want to extend that role and the primacy (largely in military terms) that it is based upon. The Obama approach is often mischaracterized as “retrenchment,” but almost any strategy that attempted to balance ends and means could be described as a retreat from hyperactive and costly tragedies of the George W. Bush presidency. Obama’s cautious strategy and recognition of America’s overextension should not be so blithely dismissed. The United States should not engage in a costly and quixotic quest to sustain hegemony for its own sake. Washington should repair the economic foundations of U.S. strengths and shape an international order that responds to geopolitical dynamics. The more disciplined methodology implied in moneyball could turn out to be more strategic than its crass name implies. It could also be stabilizing and more efficient than presumed by the advocates of liberal interventionism. As I wrote in these pages reviewing Joe Nye’s Is the American Century Over? the United States needs to be more discriminate in judging its core interests and more disciplined in applying force and resources to secure them.

As argued in Eliot Cohen’s timely new book, wielding a “big stick” but being prudent and responsible with its use will be far more conducive to global order than imagined. If the United States gets its fiscal house in order, it will also be more sustainable over the long haul.

Interventionists would be wise to acknowledge their own biases and mistakes. They have overestimated America’s capacity to change societies by military force and underestimated the impact of globalization in social, economic, and political terms.  Globalization has had positive economic benefits, but it has also stressed job security and undercut the social cohesion of some societies. It is these forces, unleashed unwittingly, that resulted in Trump’s political rise and have roiled forces of populism and nationalism as a threat to global stability.

America has been a successful superpower, as noted by Hal Brands. He is right that there has been a strong element of continuity in U.S. grand strategy. But the strategic context that the United States must now operate in (less public support, weaker allies, much higher debt, etc.) undercuts the utility of the past. As Mazarr has noted, we should not try to restore a unilateral or U.S.-dominated system that promotes our norms and values and seeks to impose our notion of democracy universally. That would be Sisyphean and only accelerate a greater collapse of order. What we need is a different strategy that helps us navigate “the more diversified, pluralistic system that is now materializing.” As Brands has stressed, strategic discipline is the key.

Overall, the doomsayers from abroad should take a deep breath. Yes, major power competition is rising, and the potential for terrorism and mass violence is sharply higher. But existential threats are few, and America remains a prosperous and very powerful country. While I have a dystopic viewpoint about the increased risk of conflict in general, I am far more upbeat about America’s long-term prospects. The United States will be not the sole superpower, but primus inter pares in a messy, multi-polar world. The unique “unipolar moment” was just that, a fleeting moment or passing stage of history. Rather than “triple down” to reestablish the unipolar moment and stale shibboleths from the Cold War, Washington should recognize how hubristic and costly the past 15 years has been and instead double down on strategic discipline.

Greater complexity and more uncertainty should not be conflated with greater danger. Much of America’s future success depends on strategy and its execution by the new Trump administration. There is a lot of continuity in U.S. strategy over the past 70 years, despite the numerous challenges that Mr. Trump has thrown at conventional thinking. While the president-elect has challenged many fundamental assumptions (not entirely a bad thing), the combination of Congress, cabinet official inputs, and the advice of its partners still count for something. The confluence of these factors will refine our understanding of U.S. core interests and determine how those interests are advanced and protected. The new consensus and compromises needed to reframe America’s role and strategy for executing it will soon emerge. I suspect that the new administration will find out that the world does not organize itself and that other major powers do not bow to Washington. Until then, some patience and a brown paper bag are the best antidotes to strategic hyperventilation.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor of War on the Rocks, and serves as a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.  These comments are solely his own and do not reflect the policy or positions of the U.S. government.