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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To find the real drivers of the Bush grand strategy, a good starting point would be Jim Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans. As Mann describes, during the Clinton years, those who became George W. Bush’s key policymakers articulated a muscular, expansionist vision of a U.S. grand strategy that would capitalize on unipolarity to extend American power and ideals into Central Asia, the Middle East, and further into Eastern Europe, while simultaneously preventing China and Russia from emerging as peer competitors capable of challenging U.S. dominance. Doubtless, 9/11 made it possible to muster support for this grand strategy, but domestic politics was a facilitator, not the driver, of the administration’s policy. Moreover, as the Iraq surge demonstrated, even when public opinion shifted against the Iraq war, President Bush was willing to pay a high domestic political cost to stick with his grand strategy.

What does Trubowitz’s executive choice model tell us about future U.S. grand strategy? Here, he is more on the mark—up to a point: The Obama administration is engaged in grand strategic retrenchment in order to focus on perceived domestic needs, and President Obama does seem to favor this policy because of the recession’s impact, U.S. dependence on foreign capital inflows (especially from China), and the looming risk of a fiscal meltdown during the next decade. But the administration’s policy in the war on terror certainly illustrates the power of the foreign policy establishment to keep grand strategy on a hegemonic path.

Trubowitz assumes that the international system is still unipolar and that the United States enjoys “a level of ‘geopolitical slack’ that was inconceivable a few short decades ago.” He believes that the grand strategic issue for the United States in the coming decades will be how best to use the geopolitical slack unipolarity confers. But whether the United States can sustain its hegemony is an open question, and Politics and Strategy does not offer an answer.

Christopher Layne, Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M’s George H. W. Bush School of Government, is the author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present.