America’s so-called “unipolar moment” quickly passed. Our uncontested preponderance was not an illusion, but neither was it a permanent reality. History has returned, and so geostrategic challenges and macroeconomics have come back to the forefront of policy considerations. Now we purportedly live in a “post-American world” characterized as “nonpolar” or chaotically “apolar.” Others suggest we prepare for a post-American era, one in which American decline, absolute or relative, is both inevitable and irreversible. In the space of five years we have been transformed from “Goliath” to a “Frugal Superpower” by the same author.1
The United States’ quite public fiscal and political debate on priorities and waning power decline has led to calls for a new American grand strategy. Such a strategy “is the direction and use made of any or all the assets of a security community, including its military instrument, for the purposes of policy as decided by politics.” Some scholars suggest that America suffers from a grand strategic deficit or that its strategic apparatus is rusty at the discipline of having to sort out priorities rather than outspend our rivals.2
In the face of rising challenges, broadening missions in new domains, and reduced resources, a true grand strategy is needed to preserve and extend America’s ability to advance and protect its national-security interests. Recent scholarship on the importance of coherent grand strategies in the past suggests that effective ones are an all-too-rare phenomenon. Professor Williamson Murray of the Naval War College observes that “the history of the past century certainly underlines the importance of a coherent approach to grand strategy, one that is flexible, realistic, and above all connects means to ends.” But the same history, he notes, reveals the development and application of solid strategy “has rarely been the case.”3
A Continuum of Options
The purpose here is to assess the most prominent grand-strategy options in the public marketplace of ideas. The inherent difficulty of placing many scholars within a single school of thought is acknowledged but necessary for presentation and comparison.4 These options include the following four alternatives—and a fifth offered as a sustainable synthesis particularly well suited to America’s geostrategic position.
Strategic Restraint. Advocates of a more restrained foundation for U.S. grand strategy have combined forces in the past few years. This approach is consistent with U.S. foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s, with the exception of interventions in Latin America.
The strategy focuses largely on defense of the American homeland (missile defense and border security) and eliminates most forward-stationed forces. The foreign-policy orientation of this approach is sometimes labeled as “new-isolationist,” but it does draw from a foundation of conservative and libertarian scholars. Rather than isolationist, actually, this school more accurately subscribes to clear limits about the role this country should play and accepts the need for the United States to conceive of ways to shape rather than own or control international problems and politics. It holds that the United States should be “more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies.”5
“Retrenchment—cutting military spending, redefining foreign priorities, and shifting more of the defense burden to allies—is the only sensible course,” proponents assert, if only to recharge our national batteries to renew America’s legitimacy and solvency. Such a strategy would arguably be less costly, with major savings coming from reduced forward-deployed forces and a somewhat smaller force structure.6
Offshore Balancing. A number of advocates across the political sphere are promoting a more classical strategy of offshore balancing. This policy would forgo most if not all formal alliances, and like strategic restraint, the removal of most forward-based forces. Forward-deployed naval forces, however, could pick up the slack in terms of maintaining access to key regions, preservation of the global commons, and critical choke points.
Offshore balancing is recommended by a wide range of strategists and academics as the best grand-strategy alternative to military primacy for the United States. “A strategy of preponderance is burdensome, Sisyphean, and profoundly risky,” Dr. Christopher Layne, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, maintains. As an alternative, he proposes offshore balancing, which embraces multi-polarity, regional competition, and instability as geopolitical facts of life. In particular, Layne wants to stop incentivizing dependency and argues that the United States instead should help allies “develop their militaries to provide for their own national and regional security.”7
To its advocates, offshore balancing has three particular virtues. First, it would significantly reduce (though not eliminate) the chances that the United States would get involved in another conflict like Iraqi Freedom. Second, offshore balancing rejects the use of military force to reshape the politics of a region or to conduct engagement projects. This strategy would rely on local allies to contain their dangerous neighbors, as their own interests dictate. Finally, as the offshore balancer, the United States would be in the position to husband its own resources, keeping its powder dry until absolutely necessary.8
University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer is another advocate for this option:
We should build a robust military to intervene in those areas, but it should be stationed offshore or back in the United States. In the event a potential hegemon comes on the scene in one of those regions, Washington should rely on local forces to counter it and only come onshore to join the fight when it appears that they cannot do the job themselves.9
Such an approach is efficient but not sufficient. It is fairly reactive and presumes the United States can regain access when regional powers and friends have proved they cannot match up to the task.
Selective Engagement. This is a traditional strategic option, more discriminate in the use of force and also, as its name implies, more selective about where U.S. interests are defined and protected. Selective engagement was the underlying rationale for the Pentagon’s Regional Defense Strategy in the 1990s and the formulation of the Base Force after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
Selective engagement has four major elements. First, it is a proactive strategy that seeks to shape events, not simply react to the actions of others. It accepts the notion that working toward a stable international environment is in U.S. interests. Second, not surprisingly, the strategy is discriminate in the sense that U.S. interests are prioritized on a regional basis and on alliances rather than seeking global dominance and overstretch. The strategy is also selective in when and how it applies military force. It stresses interests over universal values, and holds that waging war is reserved for vital and highly important interests rather than humanitarian interventions or civil wars, unless U.S. strategic interests are directly threatened. Finally, it eschews the use of force to spread democracy by force of bayonets or boots on the ground.10
Brandeis University Professor Robert J. Art argues that this approach is both politically feasible and sustainable, steering “a middle course between not doing enough and attempting to do too much; it takes neither an isolationist, unilateralist path at one extreme nor a world policeman role at the other.”11 Selective engagement therefore calls for discipline in the exercise of power, avoidance of excessive ambition, and deftness in diplomacy to forge coalitions for action.
The weakness of this approach has been the lack of attention to emerging, transnational threats and other post–Cold War challenges. Military forces in this strategy retain some forward presence and a high proportion of active-duty personnel forward-stationed in a few key regions, and the option requires a robust joint force and resourcing levels almost as high as the Department of Defense’s programmed Future Years Defense Program.
Assertive Interventionism. A fourth strategic option, characterized by the greatest degree of unilateral action and highest propensity to use military forces, seeks to dissuade competitors from challenging U.S. interests. Assertive interventionism preserves preponderance of power but largely in the military domain. It vigorously uses the military to promote democracy and state-building. Because it seeks primacy and has the highest deployment and employment tempos, it is the most expensive strategic option.
Assertive interventionism was not evident in the policy or strategic foundation for the George W. Bush administration when it initially it came into office. However, the threat presented on 9/11 forced the administration to reassess its assumptions and to take a new tack as shown in its planning for what became Operation Iraqi Freedom. While the Bush administration was initially resistant to employing military force to abet nation-building or institutional re-engineering projects, it eventually evolved into a promoter of armed Wilsonianism. Assertive interventionism became the operative U.S. national approach after 9/11. “America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat and more secure when freedom is on the march.”12
In general, this approach requires a large standing military with high levels of readiness, a forward-based presence of credible combat forces, and a larger defense budget.
These four options and the synthesis proposal are graphically compared in the table at left.
Synthesis: Forward Partnering
How can America advance and secure its interests (not simply preserve defense spending for its own sake) in the face of rising powers and a slowly eroding relative power base? I contend that we will be more secure, and global stability more sustained, if the United States shifts to a strategy of “forward partnering,” a synthesis of the historical major approaches used by great powers in the past. American strategic experience reveals numerous successful precedents with such hybrid strategies.13
Forward partnering blends the discipline and concentrated resources of the selective-engagement school with the freedom of action and reliance on naval assets of offshore balancing. The “selective” component will husband scarce resources and forces, but our partnerships will retain American commitments to friends and allies.
This approach rejects the distance hurdles and reactive character of strategic restraint and the belated responsiveness and anti-collective-security aspects of offshore balancing. It does however accept the need to engage broadly with designated partners and friends to preserve regional stability—but without extensive forward-stationed forces. The strategy focuses on critical national interests in the global commons, ensuring access to critical markets and resources for ourselves and our partners.
As suggested by the name, this strategy operates forward with alliances and partners to leverage cooperative and preventive actions to preclude conflicts. It uses forward-deployed naval power and special-operations assets to generate and sustain preventive actions and promote true partnerships (vs. dependents). This approach envisions exploiting command of the commons to both generate and sustain freedom of action for our alliances and partners.14
The focus of the strategy is preserving a stable and rule-based international system. I agree with colleagues that there are numerous inherent advantages of the international system currently in existence that are worth defending. As one team has concluded, “The system itself is so conducive to U.S. needs and interests that renewal and sustainment of that system should be one of our primary aims.”15 But we do not need to do so alone. The United States should continue to serve as the managing partner of the larger concert of nations seeking to preserve this system. This grand strategy seeks to prevent problems early, and it is consistent with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s arguments in favor of informal concerts of seapower to generate maritime and economic advantage.16
In the 21st-century security environment, a premium will be placed on mechanisms for collective action and problem solving, as well as sustainable defense investments. Enhanced collective-security mechanisms will require the adaptation of American partnerships and alliances. The alliance-security architecture that was so successful in the Cold War is under some stress and subject to criticism. “Today, the United States is over-invested in alliance relationships that are no longer well aligned with our interests,” one critic says, “or the willingness of current partners to support common action and genuinely shared risks.”17 Such criticism overlooks the enormous operational contributions made by NATO allies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet it is fairly clear that while working with others is strategically necessary, some allies are declining in their ability to contribute in the face of severe economic distress. The answer lies in adapting old alliances and networks from protectorates to true partnerships with shared obligations.18
Harvard’s Stephen Walt believes that this approach is ideal for maintaining our influence and position:
It husbands the power on which U.S. primacy depends and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. By setting clear priorities and emphasizing reliance on regional allies, it reduces the danger of being drawn into unnecessary conflicts and encourages other states to do more to help us. But it is not a passive strategy, and does not preclude using the full range of U.S. power to advance core American interests.19
Military Force Design
The force-design implications of this defense strategy suggest the following:
• It places a priority on naval-maneuver assets and special-operations forces to generate both strategic and operational freedom of action in priority regions and the ability to exploit the global commons to shift resources flexibly.
• It prioritizes long-range maritime and aerospace power-projection platforms to generate and sustain access to critical regions and flashpoints.
• It would extend capability to control the global commons (including cyberspace) and critical international trade links.
• Naval forces would be structured to ensure sea control, access, and the providing of crisis response with tailored expeditionary assets.
• The United States would maintain a highly ready but small and flexibly mobile crisis-response posture that would exploit its freedom of maneuver to be wherever it was needed.
• Partnership with allies could focus on maximizing collective capabilities with U.S. provision of critical enablers such as command-and-control and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance.
• The approach would preserve credible combat power-projection ability from the continental United States to provide strategic reassurance with decisive joint combined-arms force.
• Access to bases and airfields, and necessary logistics support, is maximized as part of the mutual benefits of partnership. But base ownership and permanent stationing ashore in foreign countries is minimized.
• Forward-stationed ground forces in Europe and Asia would be reduced further. Forces may be retained where declaratory policy and treaty commitments are not sufficient to deter aggression.
In sum, a strategy of forward partnering reassures allies and builds up partners, with limited footprint and maximum freedom of maneuver. Since the exact character and location of the next crisis cannot be determined and preventive efforts may not always succeed, such freedom of maneuver is increasingly valuable. To the degree practicable, U.S. involvement will be devoted to collective efforts of prevention and the maintenance of the international system via an array of formal and informal partnerships. Forward-stationed forces would be reduced in order to gain the greatest degree of strategic freedom of action over fixed positions or intensive protracted conflicts. Commitments would be sustained and routinely exercised, and force-capability packages worked out to ensure that collectively there are no gaps between requirements and partners’ tool kits.
This strategy is certainly relevant to the realities of geography in the Indian and Pacific theater. As we pivot from Central Asia and the Middle East to this region, our engagements and focus will concentrate foremost on the Pacific. This strategy is also very relevant to the Persian Gulf, where vital interests in energy resources are balanced against political sensitivities about U.S. military presence.
A Necessity, Not a Luxury
The search for a sustainable strategy that serves our core strategic interests is needed. We do not have the fiscal resources to simply eliminate all forms of risk. Thus, in a world of declining resources and rising and potentially assertive powers, the necessity for priorities is becoming more apparent. The time for trade-offs, choices, and hard calls that are the essence of strategic reasoning is now.
We will be the world’s most prominent power for decades to come. But that position will not contribute to America’s strategic priorities without conscious and deliberate effort. Our core interests, including a stable international system that favors access to the global commons, as well as markets and resources, must be secured and advanced. This mandates the preservation of our global reach and flexible forward engagement. We need neither be shy nor modest about our contributions to national security. American sea power is not a luxury, it’s a strategic necessity.
A strategy of forward partnering offers a framework to generate greater coherence between the ends, ways, and means of American security. It is consistent with our new strategic guidance and geoeconomic reality, especially in Asia and the Middle East.20 And most important of all, forward partnering defines priorities for shaping American power and its armed forces—for the 21st century instead of the last.
1. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment, America and the World,” Foreign Affairs, 1990/91; Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment Revisited,” The National Interest, Winter 2001/2002, 5–17. Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: Norton, 2009). Richard Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity, What Will Follow U.S. Dominance,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008. Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World Government in the 21st Century (New York: Public Affairs, 2005); Michael Mandelbaum, The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (New York: Public Affairs, 2010).
2. Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18. John Lewis Gaddis, “What is Grand Strategy?” Karl Von Der Heyden Distinguished Lecture, Duke University, 26 February 2009.
3. Williamson Murray, “Thoughts on Grand Strategy,” in Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich, and James Lacey, eds., The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 4.
4. Inspiration for this approach can be attributed to the seminal article by Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security, Winter 1996/1997, 5–53.
5. Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky, “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation,” International Security, vol. 21, no. 4 (Spring 1997), 5–48. Barry R. Posen, “The Case for Restraint,” The American Interest, November/December 2007, 7–17. Another articulate spokesperson is Christopher Preble, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2009).
6. Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. MacDonald, “The Wisdom of Retrenchment: American Must Cut Back to Move Forward,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2011, 33. Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” CATO Institute, Policy Analysis no. 667, 21 September 2010.
7. Christopher Layne, “Offshore Balancing Revisited,” The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2002, 233–248.
8. For arguments for offshore balancing, see Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing,” International Security, vol. 22, no. 1 (Summer 1997), 112–124; John J. Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design,” The National Interest, January/February 2011, 31–34; John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001), 257–259; and Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from1940 to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
9. Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design,” 31.
10. The primary proponent for this school of thought is Robert J. Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003). See Robert J. Art, “Selective Engagement After Bush,” in Michèle A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, eds., Finding Our Way: Debating American Grand Strategy (Washington, DC: Center for New American Security, June 2008), 25–41.
11. Robert Art quoted by Shawn Brimley in Finding Our Way, 18.
12. George W. Bush cited in Mackubin T. Owens, “The Bush Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of Republican Empire,” Orbis, Winter 2009, 23–40.
13. Colin Dueck, “Hybrid Strategies: The American Experience,” Orbis, Winter 2011, 30–52.
14. Abraham Denmark and James Mulvenon, eds., Contested Commons: The Future of American Power in a Multipolar World (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, January 2010).
15. Shawn Brimley, Michèle A. Flournoy, and Vikram J. Singh, “Making America Grand Again” in Finding Our Way, 135.
16. Jon Sumida, “Alfred Thayer Mahan, Geopolitician,” in Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy, Colin S. Gray and Geoffrey Sloan, eds. (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003), 53, 58.
17. Kori Schake, “The Allies We Need,” American Interest, May/June 2011, 45–55.
18. James Thomas, “From Protectorates to Partnerships,” The American Interest, May/June 2011, 37–44.
19. Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 223.
20. Leon Panetta, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership, Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 5 January 2012).