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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe End of Grand Strategy: America Must Think Small

The End of Grand Strategy: America Must Think Small

Authors: Randall Schweller, Daniel W. Drezner, and Ronald R. Krebs

Affiliation: Ohio State University, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, The University of Minnesota

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: May/June 2020/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word count: 3516


Keywords: America, Grand Strategy, Trump, U.S. Foreign Policy, George Kennan.



The turmoil caused by President Trump’s speeches and policies have forced many experts to question and discuss the primary principles of US foreign policy for the first time in decades, especially with the decline in the basic assumptions of the liberal internationalism that has dominated this policy since the end of the Cold War. Perhaps, the concept of “The Grand Strategy” was one of the most prominent topics of these discussions. Despite some political and ideological differences among the authors of this study, they argue here that the concept of the grand American strategy has become a mere delusion, and that the US should abandon the attempt to formulate a grand strategy and think small at lower levels by dealing with the issues of the world separately with a solving problems perspective. After all, the grand strategy is a road map for how to match means with ends. It works best in a predictable environment and a world in which policymakers have a clear understanding of the distribution of power, with the existence of a strong internal consensus on aims and national identity, and stable national political-security institutions. In today’s world these factors no longer exist, and for this reason the attempt to formulate a coherent, effective and long term grand strategy seems something futile. The authors detail the current world politics’ transformations, along with those that have distinguished American society and US domestic policy, trying to prove that such transformations impose on American foreign-policy elites and national security advisors the necessity of giving up the illusion of “playing the role of George Kennan of the twenty-first century,” because today’s world is no longer similar in its characteristics to Kennan’s world, and the time has come to act without a grand strategy. On the global level, power in world politics is no longer the same as before, land accumulation is no longer a source of power, power is no longer monopolized by the state actor alone, and the way in which power is exercised has changed; countries became more concerned with achieving wealth while avoiding catastrophic military rivalries, as well as rarely has military force achieved national aims or solved problems. Also, the spread of power all over the world has created a world that lacks order and predictability, as it is a world that gradually descends into disorder and non-polarity, i.e. one, two or even multiple big powers cannot control international relations; such is a world in which the grand strategy cannot act well. On the domestic level, Schweller and his colleagues point to the sharp divisions that the American nation knows at the level of society and experts/policy-elites, which makes it impossible to think according to a grand sustainable plan. Today, the US is experiencing a societal cultural revolution with its multiple races and cultures, which has made Americans without a common national narrative as American historians have stopped writing about “the nation” for decades, according to journalist Jil Lepore. The sharp political polarization and growing populist tendencies at home have made matters worse, as foreign policy experts become less important in the eyes of society and politicians as a populist president like Trump uses the hyper authority of the president in shaping a common narrative of national security; as Trump has shown, one president can radically transform the country’s grand strategy by limiting the ability of other institutions to curb him, which institutions were already subject to erosion given the growing public skepticism and lack of confidence in establishment and elites alike due to prior missteps. All of this hinders foreign policy elites from reaching a consensus on a coherent, effective and sustainable grand strategy. Finally, Schweller and his colleagues believe that American strategic thinkers are living the last stages of grief over the grand strategy, so going forward without a major strategy requires adopting two principles: decentralization and a gradual tendency to change. Extremely volatile and rapidly changing circumstances require decentralized decision-making networks such as that of smart companies, as well as the appreciation of regional knowledge and confidence in expert opinions is the best way to deal with hotspots, emerging problems and defusing crises before they escalate. Moreover, organizational change must go hand in hand with cultural change. “We” must allow rapid adaptation to change circumstances. In operational terms, this may mean transferring responsibility from Washington DC to theater leaders, special envoys, and experts rather than making more critical decisions from the White House only, as long as the ultimate objective is to improve the performance of the country’s foreign policy.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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