Humility in American Grand Strategy


In his Senate confirmation testimony, Secretary of State Tony Blinken remarked, “Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership.” Why? “Because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad.” Indeed, sifting through the Trump legacy, the cumulative social, political, and cultural decay, humility would seem an imperative. Any effective U.S. strategy needs to discard the mindset that assumes U.S. interests subsume those of allies and partners, understand the limits of U.S. agency, and adopt an approach that factors in the interests of others to find an acceptable balance.

However, President Joe Biden’s well-intentioned but outmoded declaration, “America is back — we’re at the head of the table once again,” suggests a recycling of post-Cold War strategy that has been the exact opposite of humility. It has left a costly trail of unintended consequences, driven by the missionary hubris of American exceptionalism. Moreover, the conceit that the world has been on hold, waiting for the United States to return to the fold, rather than moving on, trying to cope with a multipolar world and an unreliable America, is delusional.



A sign of the times was a cautionary note from German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the occasion of Biden’s inauguration: “Don’t think that from tomorrow there will only be harmony between us.” She added, “There will also be arguments about how best to do things for our two countries.” Writing in the Financial Times, former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter summed up the U.S. challenge: “The Biden team must think hard about how to lead in this world and start from the presumption that the US is no longer an indispensable power.” To do so requires grasping the dynamics of a lopsided, multipolar world, knowing the bounds of U.S. leverage, and coming to terms with the constraints on American ambitions.

That would require a sea change in the assumptions used to formulate recent U.S. grand strategy. Grand strategy requires matching — and reconciling — means and ends, no small task in a dynamic and fluid period of history. Well before Donald Trump, the U.S. grand strategy of sustaining and defending predominance in the post-Cold War world had been a largely static zero-sum narrative of bureaucratic inertia resulting in continuity despite accumulated failures, some catastrophic, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008–09 financial crisis.

Post-Cold War U.S. strategies have all had a common object: sustaining primacy. Reflecting the brief “unipolar moment,” the leaked 1992 Defense Department Planning Guidance argued, “Our strategy must now focus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.” That has been downgraded to defending primacy, as tone and tactics have varied, but fast-forward to a recently declassified Trump Indo-Pacific strategy memo whose first sentence said the challenge is, “ How to maintain U.S. strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region.”

‘A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations’

The goal of perpetual primacy remains a core assumption, even though, as a practical matter, U.S. primacy has been gradually dissipating as economic power shifts from West to East, North to South, and as the gap between U.S. and Chinese military capabilities has narrowed. The history of 21st-century U.S. foreign policy is littered with illustrations of the limits of American power: President Barack Obama’s abandoned “redline” on Syria; a stalemate in Afghanistan; “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela yielding only maximum resistance and lingering confrontation; Trump’s tariffs, sanctions, and selective economic decoupling, which have been a net loss to the U.S. economy, while China accumulated record trade surpluses and fresh capital pouring into its bond markets.

A devotion to mission has been intrinsic to the American pathology since the Puritans arrived with their sense of Divine Providence. “There is,” wrote theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, “a deep layer of messianic consciousness in the mind of America.” This evolved from John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of “a Shining City on a Hill” to Reagan’s 1981 a “beacon of hope” speech to a mission civilisatrice, embodied in Woodrow Wilson’s WWI call to make the world safe for democracy. Niebuhr warned of the illusion of “managing history,” explaining that “modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.”

Or more simply, as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Yet Uncle Sam still doesn’t know his. Nary an event anywhere in the world occurs without the United States passing judgment. A coup in Myanmar, headlines scream, is “Biden’s challenge.” Many in Congress demand that Russia free opposition leader Alexei Navalny. By the end of the Trump administration, the United States had imposed more than 1,600 sanctions on individuals, companies, or nations. Yet desired changes in behavior have rarely occurred. The popularity of sanctions reflects the asymmetrical way primacy has dissipated. The U.S. military remains unrivaled, and the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is undiminished. But they are instruments of power that are often too blunt or ill-suited to resolve problems that are fundamentally political in nature.

If power is measured by achieving desired outcomes, however, the limited utility of these advantages is a measure of how primacy has ebbed. But the apparent threat of losing access to banks or to travel makes sanctions the default tool du jour of U.S. opprobrium. U.S. military predominance has spurred a proliferation of “gray zone” warfare — actions below the threshold where the United States would intervene — as no one wants to militarily confront the United States directly. On important problems, such as Ukraine and Myanmar, where U.S. interests are important but not vital, America’s ability to gain desired outcomes has often been frustrated. Humility would suggest a more cautious tempering of idealism with pragmatism that accepts the limits of leverage and chooses priorities.

In the meantime, the evidence of U.S. allies and partners moving on piles up. Take for example the European Union’s frenzied signing of new trade accords — E.U.-Japan, E.U.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations, E.U.-Mercosur — and most dramatically the recent E.U.-China investment accord that Beijing pointedly sought to finish before Jan. 20. This will complicate efforts to renew the trans-Atlantic partnership. In Asia, Japan finalized the Trans-Pacific Partnership among 11 nations, after the United States, which had pushed the accord as a pillar of its Asia strategy under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, rejected it in 2017. And the recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership among 15 countries includes virtually all U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific — except the United States. Vacating the economic space leaves a rather gaping hole in the U.S. “Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Yet with an unraveling international order, there is still an appetite for U.S. leadership, if only by default. The postwar order the United States engineered succeeded not just because the United States provided public goods or a security umbrella. It succeeded because the U.S. security umbrella at the time of the Cold War and even afterward in Europe and Asia, along with the establishment of a rules-based order that ensured relatively open markets, allowed the rest of the world to prosper and rise. The problem of this success is that as many of the “rest” rose, they wanted a say in how the international system is run. For Washington, it is a matter of executing a new, potentially harder role of trying to still steer the international order to U.S.-friendly outcomes but learning how to practice self-restraint, collaborative decision-making, pooling power to solve problems where interests intersect, and compromise to avoid a system breakdown and eventual conflict.

After the disasters of the endless Middle East wars, the near-death experience of the 2008 financial crisis, and renewed division at home culminating in the insurrection of Jan. 6, the Biden administration’s top challenge is reclaiming legitimacy and moral authority. Many U.S. foreign policy practitioners have a knack for forgetting past sins and moving on, disregarding as well the gap between America’s proclaimed virtues and sordid reality.

The rest of the world has a longer memory, and its vision isn’t clouded by the stories that Americans tell themselves about their supposed indispensability. As a columnist in the Irish Times put it: ”The world has loved, hated and envied the US. Now, for the first time, we pity it.”

When Exceptionalism Becomes Hubris

Most every country believes that it is exceptional: the Chinese and Iranians with their ancient civilizations; Russia as the last outpost of true Christian morality; Britain as the mother of parliaments; France with the Enlightenment and the “droits de l’homme.” Americans have constantly reinvented what they mean by democracy throughout the country’s history, but they are nevertheless confident about having the “shining city on the hill” that others will want to copy. This noble ambition seemed to be vindicated after the Second World War and in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Democracies sprouted and, despite some backsliding of late, the world remains very democratic by historical standards. Similarly, capitalism has triumphed even if China prefers state capitalism over liberal markets.

Using coercion — military and economic — to make others accept what the United States thinks is good for them has crept too often into America’s definition of exceptionalism. While America’s success after WWII and at the end of the Cold War in engineering a rules-based order that yielded peace and prosperity shows helping others to implant democracy is possible under the right conditions, there are plenty of other examples showing how it did not work. It is all well to state, as the recently published Interim National Security Strategic Guidance did, that the United States should “promote a favorable distribution of power” of democracies over authoritarians, but democracy is by definition organic — historically, the product of a burgeoning middle class demanding accountability. The United States can and has (in the cases of the Philippines and South Korea, for instance) tipped things at the margins, but caution should be the order of the day. Even under favorable conditions, such as after the end of the Cold War, we’ve seen democracies in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere backslide. Exercising humility should mean recognizing the pitfalls in pushing too hard instead of giving consideration to needed social transformations — such as growth of a predominant middle class — vital for sustaining democracy. Recent comments by Secretary of State Blinken that the United States will no longer try to force democratic change through military means suggest a learning curve, even if the White House’s recent strategic guidance and Biden’s overuse of the word “democracy” in his Munich Security Conference speech represent an entrenched idealism.

The Limits on Power

Fortunately, a practical side has operated at times to curb America’s ambitions. For example, John Foster Dulles criticized Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman for appeasing the Soviets and “losing China” and promised that President Dwight Eisenhower would pursue a policy of liberation, rolling back postwar Soviet gains in Eastern Europe. But once in office, the Eisenhower administration did little to help the Hungarians when they revolted in 1956, for fear of igniting a hot conflict with Moscow. The United States de facto coped with a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Such a bow to realism appears absent from America’s febrile China debate, where all-out competition is viewed as zero-sum.

U.S. pressure on Europe’s imperial powers also helped usher in a new era of decolonization, laying the ground for globalization and greater global prosperity. But those achievements were possible only if a Third World War was avoided. In the Korean conflict, Truman opted for realism and held back from widening the war with China.

The last three decades of U.S. hegemony — though rapidly waning — skewed U.S. thinking. Gone was the grand coalition that President George H.W. Bush so meticulously assembled for the first Gulf War when his son decided to invade Iraq in 2003. Then, the feeling by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon hawks was that the United States could do better if unencumbered with allies or partners. Even the British were sidelined in the planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, and world opinion was snubbed when the Bush administration did not persevere with a U.N. resolution authorizing the war. The combination of U.S. missionary impulse — to make the world “be like us” — and a strategy to maintain and defend primacy has been a recipe for hubristic interventions.

Mentalities are slower to change than facts on the ground. Americans have yet to absorb the changes around them, of a world increasingly less Western-driven. China’s reemergence heralds growing economic power in the developing world. Shedding a 1991 unipolar mindset is overdue. Trump left a destructive path everywhere with his “America First” approach.  The United States needs to again become realistic about what it can hope to accomplish and even then must relearn the lessons of working with allies and partners whose interests are often not identical to those of the United States.

Too many in Washington dislike the idea of a multipolar world for fear nobody would be in charge. There’s no question organizing coalitions and finding a stable balance in a multipolar environment is more difficult than in hegemonic or bipolar orders. But the assumption that differences are so wide with Russia and China that any agreement is impossible has already been disproved with the Biden decision to renew the New START accord. Washington and Moscow have a mutual interest in extending the nuclear weapons limitations. There was no need for a “reset with Russia,” just a mutual understanding that ditching the agreement would be costly and dangerous for both. Hopefully, it will lead to broader talks on cyber, hypersonics, the military uses of artificial intelligence, and other critical stability issues, as well as coaxing China and other nuclear states to join in the discussions.

The U.S.-Plus

Newly elected, Biden has the challenges, but also the opportunity, to redefine U.S. engagement in a multipolar, post-primacy world, setting priorities that unite the American public and at the same time rebuild America’s global standing. Mending division and dysfunction to, as Biden desires, lead “by the power of our example” is critical. For both efforts — at home and abroad — pushing the needle more toward humility than confidence is likely to be a more effective approach.

In a global dynamic where power is diffused (the rest of the world accounts for the other 77 percent of the world economy and 95 percent of global population), a major challenge is how to find a balance of interests that creates a larger sense of enfranchisement, reestablishing the legitimacy of U.S. power, with guardrails and shared expectations of behavior. For the United States, building coalitions requires understanding partners’ interests, goals, trade-offs, and the limits of power.

U.S. strategy thus must begin with a new mental map, to align means with ends in a pluralistic world. It means transitioning from a model of primacy to primus inter pares, a sharing of both power and responsibility. Polling data shows Americans want the United States to remain engaged, but also want others to do their fair share. This suggests that to the degree partners demonstrate burden-sharing, the U.S. public would see not just the costs but also the benefits of global engagement.

A starting point is the reality that international systems work to the degree major powers are invested in them. A grand strategy guided by this mentality would, for example, seek a balance of interests with China. It would use smart diplomacy to test the proposition that Beijing’s aspirations and its bottom lines may be different, and thus, Chinese interests may not always be incompatible with U.S. ones. Washington should not just assume all differences are set in stone, but also identify areas with some overlap. In the latter case, the United States would enhance its leverage both by its military and technological strength and building coalitions to counter-balance China. The collective weight of, say, the United States, European Union, Japan, and Australia on World Trade Organization reform is likely to roll back Beijing’s predatory industrial policies on subsidies and state-owned enterprises. But the United States must be prepared to compromise with the European Union, Japan, and Australia to achieve a common position, not assume they will always follow dictation by Washington.

In practical terms, it means that alliances are an important base line, and that power is situational. Ad hoc multilateralism is increasingly the key to problem-solving — a variable geometry of shifting issue-specific coalitions (e.g., the P5+1 on Iran, the Six-Party talks on North Korea, a major emitters group on climate). There remains a desire for credible U.S. leadership. This approach, with the United States enfranchising partners in decision-making to pool power tailored to specific global problems, would foster a wider sense of inclusion, legitimizing U.S. power, and would be more likely to sustain domestic support.



Mathew J. Burrows, Ph.D., serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He retired in 2013 from a 28-year career at the CIA and the National Intelligence Council.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Image: Adam Schultz