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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWhy American Strategy Fails: Ending the Chronic Imbalance Between Ends and Means

Why American Strategy Fails: Ending the Chronic Imbalance Between Ends and Means

Authors: James A. Winnefeld, Michael J. Morell, and Graham T. Allison

Affiliation: The US Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: October 28, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 2500


Keywords: American Strategy, Ends, Ways, Means, Hierarchy of Interests and Priorities




In this article, the authors try to shed light on the main reasons that led to the failure and dispersion of previous US strategies, and then suggest an appropriate approach to avoid repeating previous mistakes. They identify the main reason as the growing imbalance between four classic variables required by foreign policy to maintain a balance: 1. Ends (i.e. the goals that the administration is trying to protect and advance); 2. Ways (the strategies, policies, concepts, and methods used to achieve these goals); 3. Means (the elements of national power that enable those ways); 4. The global landscape in which the three previous variables interact ( i.e. the global security, economic, and political conditions in which other actors also seek to achieve their interests). According to the authors, if the administration lets this existing imbalance between the four variables grow without being recognized or addressed, it will lead to widening gaps between the ambitions of the US and the ability of the US to achieve them. This, in turn, creates increased strategic risks, and will be the most difficult foreign policy test that the US will face (in the coming stage) since the early years of the Cold War. The article calls upon policy professionals to strictly define a list of priorities regarding the US’ interests. Given that previous administrations did not compile hierarchically a list of priorities, the result was a dispersion in pursuing the vital ends, an unjustified expansion over time towards non-vital goals, and the use of costly human and material resources to achieve them—as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan when the US was gradually drawn into the trap of engineering two societies from within and chase down every new emerging threat or opportunity after it had gone for specific goals in the first place. The authors advocate the necessity of developing a framework to address threats and choices in a hierarchy based on five levels: 1. The survival of the country as a free democracy; 2. The prevention of catastrophic attacks on the country and its citizens; 3. Protecting the international order with its liberal institutions and the leadership role of the United States;  4. Ensure the security and support of allies and partners who play a major role in the security, prosperity, and superiority of the United States over rivals; 5. Protecting and expanding universal values, in other words expanding democracy itself. The strict, clear, and permanent identification of interests and priorities would increase the rigor of decisions regarding the provision of resources necessary for national security, expose narrow interests, and reinforce reasonable judgments regarding the use of force if necessary. Consequently, this will prevent the making of a small problem into a big one (with the resulting negative impacts on the US’ resources and its essential supreme vital interests). Finally, the article calls for leadership to be concerned with the variable of ways of obtaining necessities, as it is most important, especially when resources are limited and are not sufficient to navigate comfortably in a turbulent world. When the current strategic ways become insufficient, leaders will need to muster courage and invent new ones or update the old ones. “In almost all cases, new ways will require shifts in allocation of means among the elements of national power and within the institutions that actually employ them. Nonetheless, the next administration has an opportunity to reset the ways it uses each element of U.S. national power to better serve the United States’ ends,” as the authors argue. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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