Strategies of Attainment


In this era of disruption, the accelerating pace of change is propelling the world towards a historic inflection point. The liberal international order is in crisis, as geopolitics has returned with a vengeance. Not since the end of the Cold War have we faced a more complex and daunting set of foreign policy challenges — including the resurgence of great power competition with Russia and China, a 30 Years War engulfing the Middle East, the rise of populist movements across the West, the persistence of the terrorist threat, and the economic and social challenges created by inequality and the uncertain future of globalization.

Alarmingly, the United States today fundamentally lacks a comprehensive strategy to deal with the transformative forces surging across the globe. The approach taken across multiple administrations has been largely tactical and reactive, and focused on the urgent rather than the important. Simply put, our leaders can’t see the forest for the trees. What is needed is a new, whole of government approach that bridges our partisan political divide and responds to the challenges of the moment. To do this, however, it is vital for America to draw from its own best traditions and rediscover the lost art of statecraft.

Such an approach must begin with a critical appraisal both of today’s global environment and the American response to it. Though the strategic imperative could scarcely be more pressing, too often the tyranny of the inbox crowds out the mindshare necessary for truly innovative thinking. Policymakers must change course. As a first step, we can begin by stepping back and asking ourselves: What problem are we trying to solve?

The Middle East is a case in point. Still absorbing the reverberations from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the arbitrary Sykes-Picot borders are proving untenable in numerous corners of the region. While the full significance of the upheaval now taking place will take decades to be understood, some things are apparent. For starters, American leaders need to recognize that our power to dictate the internal evolution of foreign societies is limited. The truth is that democracy is about more than elections, and liberal institutions do not emerge overnight. At the same time, history teaches us that American inaction can have consequences that are as grave as U.S. action. In the meantime, the lack of a comprehensive strategy for the broader region that links means to ends is apparent from the deserts of Libya to the mountains of Afghanistan. While there is no military solution to the conflicts roiling this region and we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past, it is past time for Washington to redouble our efforts to stabilize the Middle East. This, in turn, requires that we set priorities. All too often in this part of the world, it seems, we are playing checkers while our adversaries are playing chess.

The same is true for Russia. The deterioration in the West’s relationship with the Kremlin has deep historical roots. To understand Putin, it is necessary not just to read Marx and Lenin, but also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Kropotkin, Babel, Turgenev, and Gorky. Americans need to recognize that Russia is not going to become like us anytime soon and that we do not possess the same values. Yet at the same time, it would be naïve not to hold open the door for an improved relationship based on the critical interests we do share. In charting this path, solidarity with our transatlantic allies must be our starting point. That was the foundation for our victory in the Cold War, and while there are important differences between that era and our own, some of its lessons remain as relevant as ever.

Even as we develop strategic approaches to the Middle East, Russia, and Europe, American policymakers must not neglect the extraordinary challenges—  and equally extraordinary opportunities — posed by a rising Asia. It is now obvious that China is going to be a competitor, not just a partner, but one with which we are deeply intertwined. The stakes could not be higher as the dynamic between Washington and Beijing will determine the fate of what is likely to be the most important relationship of the 21st century. Other evolving centers of power will also prove deeply influential, including old allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as new partners like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Ultimately, there is no reason that Asia cannot be big enough for everyone — keeping in mind that, at the end of the day, the business of Asia is business. But that interdependency shouldn’t obscure the hard truth that this is a region where America has been falling behind. It is time therefore for Washington to increase its engagement across Asia, including by reexamining the potential for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Law of the Sea Treaty — keeping in mind that there is a reason why the Chinese character for “danger” also means “opportunity.”

Finally, we cannot forget the generational challenge posed by terrorism. What is not generally appreciated is this is a war not just of arms but also of ideas. It is imperative that we as Americans do not overreact to the threat of terrorism, or imagine it to be bigger than it actually is – after all, more people die every year from slipping in their bathtubs than by terrorist attacks in the United States. At the same time, we must acknowledge the reality of a small band of dedicated fanatics who want to enslave every American, obliterate our freedoms, set fire to our cities, and drink the blood of our pets and other domesticated animals. Unfortunately, Washington continues to under-invest in the instruments of soft power that are so necessary in this fight. The results are as predictable as they are avoidable.

In light of these and other global challenges, how should the United States respond? A comprehensive, strategic approach to today’s world must bring together a number of efforts.

Articulate a vision. As America’s peer competitors pursue cutting-edge technology and disruptive capabilities, it’s not an overstatement to say that the United States is approaching a Sputnik moment. In response, we need a Marshall Plan that retakes the strategic initiative in a comprehensive way. If ever there was a time for a 21st century Manhattan Project, it is now.

Focus on the economy. America’s ability to project power in the world ultimately starts at home. Our leaders should grow the economy by boosting innovation, putting into place pro-growth policies, and recognizing that our debt represents a national security challenge. So too does the widening partisan divide, which undermines our credibility in the world and needs to be addressed. Political leaders must confront the looming entitlements crisis while also reforming the tax code and ensuring fiscal discipline, all while keeping faith with the generations to come. One hopeful approach would be to encourage the growth of public-private partnerships, thereby tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, which is the true foundation of our national greatness.

Embrace American values. The United States cannot do everything, everywhere, and cannot right every wrong. But in the face of grave offenses to our universal values, we must be on the right side of history. When this requires military action, we should work by, with and through allies and partners and use all the tools in our toolkit to spur meaningful change. The use of American military force should always remain the last option, but our leaders must also be certain to keep all options on the table. Key to all our efforts is the need to pursue our national interests while never losing sight of our values.

Deepen engagement. The demand for American engagement in the world has never been greater. The United States must be more than simply a city on a hill; it should set global agendas and lead countries in common effort – while retaining a decent respect for the opinions of peoplekind. The American people are understandably tired of war, but they also must understand that vacuums will be filled by adversaries and the forces of chaos. While addressing the very real challenges posed by an array of potential adversaries, Washington must also identify the multiple issues on which genuine interdependence can produce positive-sum outcomes, while retaining the option to act unilaterally when we must.

Reform international institutions. Our institutions are fundamentally failing to meet the challenges of the 21st century. At a time when information goes viral with the stroke of a tweet, we must make existing institutions nimbler, bring new stakeholders into them, and create new arrangements that give rising powers a seat at the table of global politics.  To do any less risks remaining analog in a digital world.

Appoint a senior-level coordinator. The return of geopolitics and the crisis of the liberal international order, together with the American inability to construct strategic approaches, simply beg for the appointment of a senior-level coordinator to take ownership of strategy and work it through the interagency. Such a “czar” should break down silos and stovepipes, and work at the intersection of security and economics, politics and information. With ready access to the president and clear lines of authority, the coordinator will be able to galvanize high-level attention to the lack of strategy and make strategy a national security priority.

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The world today is growing smaller and the only constant is change. History has stopped ending, and when the story of our era is written, it may well be said that we are simultaneously present at the creation but also at the destruction. Which narrative emerges more dominant is the question–a question that ultimately is up to us to answer.

We’ve seen this question answered before. The wise men charting a new global course some seven decades ago forged critical institutions like the United Nations, NATO, SEATO, and the International Tin Council. The world without their steady hand would have been more dangerous and less free. They were visionary, they were bipartisan, and they were strategic, and the qualities they exhibited so vividly are sorely needed today.

And that is why there is simply no substitute for American leadership. The next six months are critical, perhaps only exceeded in importance by the six months that will follow. We must quickly develop a comprehensive strategy that will address every one of the world’s challenges and opportunities, and then redouble our efforts to execute it. Only by doing so may we usher in the world of tomorrow our children deserve. The future starts now.


C. Lee Shea served in senior strategic planning roles at the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon, and is president of the Center for Advanced Strategic Policy Initiatives.

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