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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe AmericasWhy America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed

Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed

Author: Patrick Porter 

Affiliation: Department of Political Science and International Studies-University of Birmingham

Organization/Publisher: International Security 

Date/Place: May, 2018/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article  

Number of Pages: 39


Keywords: US, Grand Strategy, The Blob, Power, Primacy, Clinton, Trump



The writer attempts to explain the lack of change in America’s grand strategy. The article is divided into four sections. The writer begins by providing a logical justification for the consistency of American grand strategy, from which he makes predictions about American behavior since the Cold War. He then demonstrates how this theory explains similarities and differences between the Clinton administration and the first year of Trump’s presidency in terms of American diplomatic action.

The writer highlights four main elements of the US grand strategy: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, maintaining military dominance, securing and constraining allies, and incorporating foreign governments into organizations and markets created by the United States. These essential security responsibilities have been shown to be difficult to change. Some commentators have suggested that the United States adopt a different grand strategy of moderation, shifting responsibility, and accepting multipolarity, while others argue for maintaining the current grand strategy to maintain stability. The writer asserts that the stability of the US grand strategy stems from a combination of strength and tradition. Patrick Porter argues that in order for US grand strategy to change, two things would need to occur: a rapid shift in material circumstances and committed participants willing to bear local costs to drive the change.

The range of options available to decision-makers is limited by past events. Policymakers have stopped critically considering the context in which choices are made. While the process is not mechanical, preexisting assumptions about the United States’ position in the international system largely determine the course of events. Patrick Porter goes on to explain the origin of the habit of primacy. However, habit often prevents change in grand strategy because it prevents actors from altering it. Change often requires two things: committed agents of change who are willing to bear internal costs to promote it, and rapidly changing external circumstances that challenge the assumptions of the established order. Porter offers his prediction that in the years following the end of the Cold War, there will be a significant continuation of the US grand strategy, with the four pillars of predomination, affirmation, assimilation, and nuclear suppression remaining in place regardless of changes in presidential administrations.

Porter then discusses President Bill Clinton’s era, stating that the combination of power and habit provides a fundamental explanation for Clinton’s pursuit of primacy. When he took office, Clinton inherited a grand strategy focused on maintaining dominance. The United States aims to prevent the globe from returning to true multipolarity, particularly by preventing an adversarial force from rising to dominance in Eurasia. To protect these communities, the US serves as a security provider and guarantor, which helps to maintain peace, promote economic progress, and constrain its allies, preventing them from seeking independence and becoming competitors. Primacy requires a lot of action. Maintaining a position of dominance requires a global military presence. This makes the US more likely to use force frequently to maintain peace. During a time of turmoil, Clinton gained authority. He adopted the Bush administration’s policy, which held that the military’s role went beyond protection and prevention to ensure global dominance, prevent rivals from competing, keep partners in check, and support economic liberalization to reduce the need for others to protect themselves and prevent cycles of fear among neighbors. Some analysts have said that the Clinton administration was “on autopilot.” 

The international affairs apparatus and the assumptions it upheld during the Clinton administration were crucial in ensuring the survival of the American grand strategy. The policy administrators provided stability as few attempts to change the current approach were successful. Deeply ingrained assumptions also shaped the National Defense Panel’s review. Even this independent panel, tasked with evaluating the military position of the United States, blindly confirmed the assumption of American dominance. One of the major events during Clinton’s era was NATO expansion, which he saw as complementing the need to reform coalitions and promote market democratization. Traditionalist arguments were often used to oppose NATO expansion, expressing the belief that the United States should continue its support for Europe. Rather than being motivated by the opposing argument that NATO was unnecessary or outdated in a post-Soviet environment, much of the opposition was driven by concern that expansion could endanger this commitment. Clinton’s continuation of American grand strategy must also be seen as a populist move. There was not much support for a return to dominance.

The writer then discusses Donald Trump’s era and how Trump posed the greatest threat to the current security system since Nixon. He was elected as an outsider during a rise of opposition to the “Blob” and the costs and responsibilities of primacy. Trump vowed to break up longstanding alliances, make room for powerful enemies, allow nuclear proliferation, stop using military force frequently, and replace free trade with protectionism. Trump’s views on alliances and nuclear proliferation may not have been the main reasons voters chose him, but they did respond to his criticisms of free trade, lost wars, parasitic allies, and the negative effects of globalization on American workers. Trump’s administration was constrained by the “Blob” and habit, which caused his approach to American responsibilities abroad to be more traditional than expected. He criticized NATO as being outdated, costly, and unrelated to current security issues, which went against primacy. Trump changed both the language and substance of his stance on partners within a few months of taking office. Trump’s position, which has been held by every administration since Eisenhower, is that NATO is essential but participating nations should contribute more. The United States was positioned as the primary security provider in Trump’s geopolitical vision for the major centers of power. Trump’s America employs military superiority, upholds partnerships, and seeks counterproliferation – even at the risk of conflict – to thwart the rise of rivals and prevent a return to multipolar instability. The “Blob” has many perks, including the ability to challenge the legitimacy of actions that violate tradition and exert influence within the security administration as they plead with competent bureaucrats to resist the administration. For the writer, due to his nascent worldview, Trump was unable to overcome these challenges and instead quickly aligned himself with the establishment on military matters, though not on trade and protectionism.

Patrick Porter concludes by stating that it is difficult to change American grand strategy because of the “Blob’s” ingrained ideologies. Change is possible, but only in circumstances that are startling enough to challenge assumptions, and even then, only when a president is committed to changing primacy and is willing to bear its political consequences. Porter uses the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump to illustrate this point. In both cases, individuals ran for office on platforms of change during transitional periods that should have prompted reassessment. In Clinton’s case, the need for peace sparked a desire for change; in Trump’s, resource limitations and public anger did the same. Alternative grand strategies rarely entered the executive branch. Decision-makers tend to favor established entities. The internal examination was politically constrained and focused on how to implement primacy rather than whether to do so. Because it has been a superpower for so long, the United States is hesitant to question core beliefs and consider other options. The “Blob” believes that retrenchment-based grand strategies are not worthy of serious consideration and that the assumptions supporting primacy are valid. Therefore, the writer predicts that primacy will hold up well.

By: Zeina Akef, CIGA Research Intern



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