Strategy as Appetite Suppressant
It is tempting to compare successful national strategies to unicorns: They both seem mythical. But while good strategies might be rare, they are very real. And despite the impressions left by recent history, they are possible. There are multiple meanings and purposes for grand strategy; as grand plans, as a set of macro principles, or as patterns of state behavior, as Nina Silove detailed. However, there is a fourth meaning and this purpose now rises to the forefront in salience. This is the role of good strategy as an enforcer of disciplined realism or appetite suppressant.
The current manifestation of U.S. grand strategy is found in the 2017 National Security Strategy, which bears the signature of President Donald Trump. That strategy advances four core national interests via an extensive set of 99 priority actions. The 2018 National Defense Strategy is aligned with its parent strategy in terms of great power competition with China and Russia. Both of these documents — the latter of which I worked on — were crafted with a clear diagnosis of the major challenges facing the United States and with distinctive priorities to advance the nation’s interests. It is not as clear that either strategy is being implemented as written, or that Congress supports the explicit priorities of American grand strategy. It is increasingly obvious that neither document is driving the use of America’s military or budgetary decisions.
Hal Brands noted in his seminal book on the topic that implementing any strategy presents a number of contradictions and tensions. The most perplexing is the inherent tension between the need for adaptability to ever-changing conditions and the disciplined application of precious resources to assigned priorities. Right now, Washington’s strategies suggest that flexibility is winning over focus.
Most strategically astute historians stress the need for adaptability in the implementation of any strategy. The late Colin Gray always stressed two principles in force planning, adaptability and prudence. Hew Strachan notes that strategy operates within an interactive relationship that occurs in an inherently dynamic and changing context. Successful strategies are emergent rather than rigid. “Like a vessel under sail,” notes retired Army strategist Rick Sinnreich, “grand strategy is at the mercy of uncontrollable and often unpredictable political, economic and military winds and currents, and executing it effectively requires both alertness to those changes and constant tiller correction.”
The making of strategy should be seen as an iterative exercise with learning and synthesis. When strategy becomes rigid and unbending, it ill serves the nation, depriving it from responding to failed assumptions or unforeseen opportunities. Thus, contingency is a fundamental consideration in strategy execution, since not every situation can be anticipated accurately. And no one can predict every reaction of an opponent.
Focus and Discipline
However, the need for adaptability should not be an excuse for failure to execute a sound strategy and to undercut the logic of a strategy. Adaptability should be based on the invalidation of key assumptions or unexpected tasks. The most common fault in strategy implementation is found in failing to make clear priorities and to orchestrate resources according to those choices. This is what separates good strategy from bad strategy. Strategy ought to distinguish between the critical and the merely desirable. It consciously allocates resources to focus attention and means on only those things that must be done. Thus, one of the side benefits of a well-grounded strategy is that it serves as an appetite suppressant. If a country were so rich that it did not need to make such tradeoffs, it would not need a strategy. But the essence of strategy is the allocation of scarce resources to desired objectives.
Changes to the National Defense Strategy’s threat and regional priorities regarding China and Russia should be based on a conscious tradeoff, one that recognizes the opportunity costs and increased risks to our vital interests in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. The president has consistently sought to reduce force levels in ongoing theaters, but those reductions appear elusive and resources (training, maintenance, flight hours, intelligence assets, etc.) expected to be realigned to higher-priority missions are being used for near-term tasks and lower-order missions. The National Defense Strategy is being undercut in its implementation, not by limited resources, but by a lack of discipline. Right now, I sense that U.S. strategy execution reflects too much of the Obama-era priorities and too little strategic focus. The tiller corrections are not responding to unanticipated winds and currents.
Region by Region
Since U.S. military superiority is less pronounced than it was in 1991 and has even less of a technological edge in 2020, there should be more pressure on policymakers to husband power and invest wisely. But this is not happening today. As Rebecca Friedman Lissner noted in these pages, “Foreign policy commitments become self-reinforcing over time as assumptions become taken for granted, U.S. policymakers determine that U.S. credibility is at stake, and issues develop constituencies in the national security bureaucracy.” We see the reality of this assessment today in three places, the Middle East, Africa, and the Arctic.
The Middle East
The Middle East and nearby Afghanistan have been the focal point for U.S. engagement for the last two decades. The National Defense Strategy assigns the region as the Pentagon’s third priority, though currently some 70,000 troops are there with 14,000 reinforcements sent last year, purportedly to enhance deterrence against Iran. News accounts suggest consideration was given to additional reinforcements of an additional 14,000 U.S. forces. There are surely important interests in stabilizing the region, but after trillions spent on Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the Sahel), there is far less support for the region, and little evidence to contend additional U.S. engagement will bring about desired objectives at an acceptable cost. As former Amb. Martin Indyk wrote recently, with few interests at stake, the United States can and should “finally set aside its grandiose ambitions for the chaotic region.”
Stability in the Middle East is an important interest to regional partners and the global economy. This theater sits at the confluence of three identified challenges to U.S. security: a source of violent extremism, a home to a malign actor that actively seeks regional hegemony, and an area of influence competition among the great powers. But not every Chinese base, exercise, or trade project requires a military response. Nor does every unfurled black flag represent a threat to the U.S. homeland. The rallying cry of great power competition ought not be a fig leaf for business as usual in the Middle East.
At present, the Pentagon is assessing calls to reconsider planned force reductions in Africa. Some members of Congress think this would be a big mistake and undercut our French allies who are making progress against violent extremists. Some contend that these force deployments are needed to counter China’s presence. Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has concluded that force reductions in West Africa “would have real and lasting negative consequences” for U.S. partners there. Some 1,400 troops are reportedly on the continent, no doubt promoting stability and backstopping our diplomatic and developmental efforts. It is true that violence from Islamist extremist groups is on the rise, and Russia has made inroads in the region. Few of the advocates for sustained U.S. presence however can point to critical interests being served. The NDS summary lists Africa as a priority, but it is last of six. Fortunately, as research from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies shows, there are strategies to limit Moscow’s influence and impose costs that do not include robust military options.
As the ice in the Artic melts, American interests warm up. Conditions in the Artic are changing. In response to Congressional tasking, the Pentagon recently issued an Artic Strategy, and critics of the strategy want more resources committed. What exactly are the vital and important national interests served by investing in the Artic? How strong are these interests relative to countries like Russia with its huge defense infrastructure to protect, and a vast Economic Exclusion Zone to exploit? How do these interests stack up with unmet security requirements in the Pacific or Europe? Certainly, the need to protect Alaska is clear, and we should not ignore international law and norms regarding transit and shipping. But a disciplined strategist will find it hard to conceive of clear benefits from a sizable investment of scarce security resources there.
A period of great power competition should force policymakers to husband both U.S. military deployments and procurement funding to the defined objectives of the U.S. national defense strategy. Clear priorities are how strategists deal with alignment. The Pentagon’s senior leadership understands this. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently noted that proposed deployments in Africa cannot be viewed in isolation, absent consideration of their impact on other priority theaters and missions. The same is true for calls for increased force levels in the Middle East and the Artic. The question is not whether these new and unplanned deployments are good things to do; the strategic question is whether or not they are more important now than the priority tasks in the strategy for which the forces and modernization programs were originally allocated to.
We can no longer afford to dissipate resources for general or global stability. Given flat defense budgets, rising national debt levels and associated interest costs, and reduced alliance cohesion (Turkey’s illiberalism and Philippines in particular), greater discipline from Washington is needed today. Both force levels and modernization requirements at the Pentagon remain unfilled. The Pentagon’s own sponsored wargames reveal numerous vulnerabilities in U.S. defense posture. The Navy appears committed to its 355-ship fleet, but the Administration’s cut to the Navy ship procurement budget to just 8 ships makes no progress towards that goal. The rationale and design of that fleet and the shipbuilding plan have not yet been approved by Secretary Esper, who wants to study its design and costs. This level barely allows the Navy to sustain its current force. The U.S. Army is outgunned and outranged in major system-to-system comparisons with Russian equivalents. Is that less important than Africa or the Artic?
While we are dissipating our efforts, Beijing’s concerted efforts in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and hypervelocity missiles are making progress. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy recently testified that America’s military needs to step up modernization and stop overinvesting in readiness and legacy capabilities rather than the future, with the sense of urgency and scale called for in the National Defense Strategy. Her testimony is supported by a recent report from the Center for a New American Security that concluded that “critical areas of U.S. policy remain inconsistent, un-coordinated and under-resourced and—to be blunt—uncompetitive.”
This is not news to the Defense Department. Esper, in his remarks at the Munich Security Conference placed the right emphasis on China. In his Congressional testimony on the FY21 proposed defense budget, Esper also observed that the United States is still over-emphasizing counter-terrorism, and needs to get the balance right between competition with major powers and countering extremism to fulfill the National Defense Strategy.
I am all for continuous assessment and adaptation of strategy but changes should be deliberate, not blindly indifferent to the resulting consequences. If, however, the goal is to restore U.S. military readiness and modernize \ U.S. armed forces to deter sophisticated opponents, then strategic discipline must be sustained. As argued compellingly by Kath Hicks, it’s time to make politically tough choices, embrace innovative thinking, “and ask the armed forces to do less than they have in the past. The end result would be a less militarized yet more globally competitive United States.”
At the end of the day, strategy is about the choices and tradeoffs that constraints impose upon policymakers. Washington should avoid dissipating assets in contexts where its interests are not critical or where competitors have vital interests at risk and geostrategic advantages. As Mackenzie Eaglen stressed in these virtual pages, the Pentagon needs to learn when to “just say no.” But this involves more than the Pentagon. Both the White House and Congress have roles to play to discipline missions and investments. Even in an era of great power competition, the United States needs clear criteria for when to respond to Chinese or Russian influence efforts in Africa, the Middle East, and the Artic. Not every Chinese infrastructure project is a threat to the free world, and not many of Putin’s pronouncements constitute an attack on the West that warrants response.
A strategy should document choices and clear prioritization, and its implementation should strive to align means to ends. The Pentagon laid out its case in the National Defense Strategy, but that strategy accepted a measurable degree of risk that left little margin for lower priorities. At this time, focus and discipline should come to the fore as watchwords for U.S. political leadership. The treasury is not limitless, and the availability of ready forces and modernized platforms is not endless. Applying these finite resources in pursuit of peripheral missions curtails the ability of the Defense Department to pursue higher order objectives, especially in Asia. It will take a concerted degree of focus at the top to restrain the impulses that derail sound strategy and undermine its coherence. To avoid that, U.S. policymakers should take stock of rising risks and take an appetite suppressant pill.
Frank Hoffman, a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks, is employed at the National Defense University (NDU) where he researches and teaches national security strategy. In 2017 he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an advisor, and was on the National Defense Strategy Task Force. He earned his Ph.D. in War Studies at King’s College, London. These remarks reflect his own views and not those of NDU or the Department of Defense.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Her name is Michèle Flournoy, not Michelle.