Wanted: A New Grand Strategy

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, December 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Wanted: A New Grand Strategy


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


Byline: Fareed Zakaria

The next U.S. president faces a unique opportunity to put in place an architecture of peace for the 21st century.

Barack Obama's campaign for president began with his opposition to the war in Iraq. But before last week's terror attacks in India, the subject of foreign policy had disappeared, almost completely overshadowed by the economic crisis. This doesn't mean that international issues will be ignored. No doubt the national-security team Obama is announcing this week will be quick to tackle the many issues in their inbox, and will likely do so with intelligence and competence. There are enough problems to occupy them fully--Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda, Iran, Russia--and they will face unexpected crises like the Mumbai assaults. But we must hope that as president, Obama does more than select a good team, delegate well and react intelligently to the problems that he will confront. He must have his administration build a broader framework through which to view the world and America's relations with it-- a grand strategy. At this moment, the United States has a unique opportunity to push forward a vision that aligns its interests and ideals with those of most of the world's major powers. But it is a fleeting opportunity.

Grand strategy sounds like an abstract concept--something academics discuss--and one that bears little relationship to urgent, jarring events on the ground. But in the absence of strategy, any administration will be driven by the news, reacting rather than leading. For a superpower that has global interests and is forced to respond to virtually every problem, it's all too easy for the urgent to drive out the important.

Strategy begins by looking at the world and identifying America's interests, the threats to them and the resources available to be deployed. By relating all these, one can develop a set of foreign policies that will advance America's interests and ideals. When the unexpected happens, one can respond in ways that are aligned with these broader objectives. One uses the urgent to pursue the important. Or, to put it another way: never let a crisis go to waste.

How to think strategically? Dick Cheney provides an example--a negative one. In the wake of the Cold War, Cheney's staff at the Pentagon produced a draft document that was a self-conscious effort at grand strategy. Allegedly written by the then Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the Defense Guidelines unabashedly declared that America sought supremacy and freedom to maneuver across the globe. "Our first objective is to prevent the emergence of a new rival," it said, "and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." What is most important, the draft noted, is "the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S." and that "the United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated."

The draft proved much too aggressive and unilateral for George Herbert Walker Bush, who ordered that it be toned down. It was a strange document in many ways, a throwback to a world in which "dominating a region" and "controlling resources" were seen as sources of lasting national power. (China has done neither, and yet by developing its economy has become the world's No. 2 power.) But the ideas in the paper provided a powerful organizing ideology for many conservatives, and laid the basis for George W. Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy. Part of the appeal of this strategic framework was that it accurately read the world of the 1990s. While many strategists and politicians were speaking of an emerging multipolar era, the Defense Guidelines recognized that right then, American power was unrivaled.

Any attempt at a grand strategy for today must also begin with an accurate appraisal of the world. …

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