The Magazine

Take Up the Slack

Is grand strategy governed by ambition or politics?

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By CHRISTOPHER LAYNE
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Grand strategy is about how states use their military, economic, diplomatic, and soft power resources to gain security and advance their interests in both peace and war. Here, Peter Trubowitz offers a theory of executive choice to explain how American presidents decide between grand strategic alternatives. His executive choice theory is based on the insight that grand strategy is the combined product of both domestic political factors (Innenpolitik) and the balance of power and geography (Realpolitik) and incorporates two variables: geopolitical slack, which measures the degree of external threat to U.S. security at any particular point in time, and preferences of a president’s party/coalition for guns versus butter.

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The ultimate test of any theory is its explanatory power, and Trubowitz’s discussion of postwar grand strategy illustrates why executive choice theory lacks a strong explanatory punch. John Lewis Gaddis has commented, “Few historians would deny, today, that the United States did expect to dominate the international scene after World War II, and that it did so well before the Soviet Union emerged as a clear and present antagonist.” The United States not only expected to dominate the post-World War II international system, it did so.

Since 1945 the objective of U.S. grand strategy—consistently pursued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike—has been to obtain preponderant power in the international system. We succeeded in creating the Pax Americana because it enjoyed (to use Trubowitz’s term) enormous geopolitical slack thanks to our military capabilities, geographical advantages, and international economic dominance. The more powerful states are, the more ambitious their grand strategies will be, and since 1945 the United States has used its military and economic power to establish, and maintain, hegemony over the three regions that have mattered most to it strategically: Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. American power, not executive choice theory’s domestic variables, explains the unbroken continuity in U.S. grand strategic aims since World War II.

To be sure, Trubowitz is correct to remind us that both Realpolitik and Innenpolitik drive U.S. grand strategy. But his model does a poor job of capturing the salient Innenpolitik features of postwar grand strategy, which has been fundamentally guided neither by electoral politics nor by guns-or-butter preferences. Trubowitz overlooks an important point: Postwar presidents have not been free agents in the realm of grand strategy. Their maneuvering room is sharply circumscribed by powerful bureaucracies and elites that determine the broad contours of grand strategy. As Michael Mandelbaum has pointed out, the foreign policy elite defines the “tacit boundaries” that “determine what may be legitimately proposed and carried out to further the national interests of the United States.” 

The remarkable consistency of postwar grand strategy is attributable to the fact that the American foreign policy elite is bipartisan and shares a common vision of America’s world role. The embrace of a grand strategy of hegemony is explained by our commitment to Wilsonian ideology (democracy and an open international economy) and the outward-looking economic interests that are important bases of support for both parties. And Trubowitz’s discussion of grand strategy under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush illustrates executive choice theory’s shortcomings: Citing the Clinton administration as an example of strategic “under-reach,” Trubowitz argues that Clinton sought to downplay external ambitions for domestic reasons. But the facts belie this interpretation. During the Clinton years, the foreign policy establishment was determined to use the massive augmentation of our relative power (resulting from the Soviet Union’s collapse) to widen both the geographical and ideological scope of American power through NATO expansion and the policy of democratic enlargement. Under Clinton, the United States engaged in two Balkan military interventions to revive NATO—the instrument of American hegemony in Europe—and rescue the alliance from post-Cold War irrelevance.

Trubowitz also unfairly overstates the role of domestic politics in driving George W. Bush’s grand strategy, especially the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. To be sure, there is much to criticize about the Bush II administration’s grand strategy; but Trubowitz errs in claiming that it was driven primarily by considerations of electoral advantage. In the aftermath of 9/11, Karl Rove may have thought that the GOP could use the club of “national security” to get the political upper hand on the Democrats, but that is not the reason why the Bush administration prosecuted the war on terror. (Al Gore doubtless would have done something similar in response to 9/11.)