Panelists question prospects for ‘grand strategy’

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Despite an effort to plan, the habitual reliance on old scripts and the impossibility of predicting future events leave U.S. foreign policy vulnerable. A grand strategy might offer a roadmap toward achieving the nation’s intersecting, and sometimes conflicting, goals abroad.

“Presidential administrations have long sought the holy grail of having a grand strategy,” Nick Cullather executive associate dean of the IU School of Global and International Studies and panel moderator, said.

IU faculty member Sarah Bauerle Danzman discusses grand strategy. At right is Phillip Zelikow.

IU faculty member Sarah Bauerle Danzman discusses grand strategy. At right is Phillip Zelikow.

As part of the IU School of Global and International Affairs conference “America’s Role in the World: Issues Facing the Next President,” panelists considered the feasibility of creating an American grand strategy and what role such a strategy would play in national security.

Panelists in the seventh session, “National Security and Grand Strategy,” included Fred Cate, vice president for research and Distinguished Professor of Law and C. Ben Dutton Professor of Law at IU; Sarah Bauerle Danzman, SGIS assistant professor; Gen. Gene Renuart, retired air force general and commander for the North American Aerospace Defense Command; James Steinberg, dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University; and Philip Zelikow, the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Panelists agreed that a grand strategy would aid international policy making. But formulating a strategy is only the first step, they said.

“Presidents bring strategies to office,” Zelikow said. “But in reality, it’s a lot of improvisation.”

Historically, most presidential candidates lack the foreign policy experience necessary for a grand strategy. Regardless, they bring a worldview that shapes their administration’s decision making.

While presidential advisers help create implementation plans, presidents create their administration’s broad international objectives based on their personal worldviews, Steinberg said.

Creating a grand strategy requires the president to consider all the global players, the interactions between the U.S. and these players and the internal domestic politics of each player.

Despite the odds, officials regularly weigh, or attempt to weigh, all factors when making foreign policy decisions. But even the most concerted efforts that consider the lessons of history inevitably fall short.

“We are 100 percent wrong at predicting the future,” Renuart said.

Cate suggested starting smaller.

“We should abandon the word grand,” Cate said. “Strategy is desirable, necessary and achievable.”

For Zelikow, a comprehensive strategy must address a changing political order in the post-Cold War world.

“We are entering a new era of world history,” Zelikow said.

The distinction between domestic and foreign policy is increasingly blurred, he said, and the domestic policy of foreign countries, allies or not, impacts U.S. interests at home and away.

Any attempt at a grand strategy today must also include a response to some American weariness of globalization.

“I think that the concern about globalization is misplaced,” Danzman said. “But it reflects that the U.S. has failed at explaining trade policy to the electorate.”

A modern grand strategy must address the training and rehabilitation of displaced workers, alongside growing concerns of cyber security and global access to clean water.

The panelists acknowledged the overwhelming obstacles facing a grand strategy but suggested that the first steps toward a feasible plan begin today.

“Don’t just think about a grand strategy in the abstract,” Steinberg said. “We need to think about the choices we are making now and their impact in the long term.”

Cullather and Danzman are also available for comment on the 2016 election season. You can learn about their expertise and more at Decision 2016, a comprehensive online media guide for elections resources at IU.

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