The Foreign Policy Debate 2012 and Grand Strategy

10/22/2012 11:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2012

Monday's presidential debate focused on foreign policy. Rarely do such debates actually refer to a grand strategy, instead talking about crises and countries piecemeal. The audience is left to infer a strategy if there is one. Below, I'll first sketch out the strategy options and then attempt to place the candidates' views into that framework.

There are only a handful of grand strategies available to the United States in the twenty-first century. In their classic forms, one or another of them has been employed since the eighteenth century. They were updated in a spirited debate after the end of the Cold War, and recent efforts have added little if anything. We will be choosing one when we vote in the presidential elections.

Grand strategies are generally categorized as being either realist or idealist. The realist strategies elevate the state over international institutions, and they focus on state acquisition and use of power in pursuit of national interests. The idealist strategies--pursuing an ideal not currently in existence--see security as a shared responsibility and favor working through international institutions. The strategies differ in how they distinguish between vital and peripheral interests, on the threshold for military intervention, and on whether aggressive foreign policy creates more problems than it solves.

Classic isolationism has three components defining the U.S. role in the world: (1) nonintervention with military force, (2) restrictive, nationalistic trade policy including protective tariffs, and (3) restrictive immigration policies. Isolationists tend to see aggressive foreign policy as causing threats to national security rather than solving them. Isolationism defines vital interests very narrowly and sets a very high threshold for military intervention.

Isolationism was the preferred strategy from the birth of the nation until WWI.

How much is enough? Isolationists accept the need for defensive power, military power sufficient to defend the homeland, and little else. Today's neo-isolationists might argue for a nuclear deterrent, a force to defend the borders, and a conventional force concentrated in the National Guard and Reserve for those once-in-a-generation mobilizations to protect narrowly defined vital interests, survival.

Classic collective security is premised on the idea that states pursuing power advantage led to the world wars. Idealists believed that states pursuing selfish interests and aggregating power through secret treaties led to power imbalances and war. Instead, idealists believed that preventing war was a collective responsibility. They hoped to (1) establish a pattern of international cooperation on global issues through international institutions, (2) establish a pattern of great power intervention, even when their vital interests are not threatened, that would eventually deter aggressive wars, and they (3) favored free trade and refuted the "beggar-thy-neighbor" nationalistic, protectionist trade policies they believed had led to major wars.

Woodrow Wilson attempted collective security after WWI through the League of Nations but was overruled by a Republican Senate that retained a preference for isolationism. Roosevelt attempted collective security after WWII through the United Nations and was more successful. Truman entered Korea under a UN resolution and without congressional authorization.

The Clinton administration updated collective security to something called cooperative security. A greater emphasis was placed on preventing countries from acquiring (not just using) power sufficient to wage aggressive war against neighbors. The strategy called for military intervention to prevent states from acquiring potent conventional and nuclear forces.

How much is enough? Cooperative security requires a military force sufficient to defend the homeland, ensure U.S. vital interests, and an additional force to contribute to international efforts. Cooperative security defines vital interests very broadly and sets a low threshold for military intervention.

Professor Robert Art coined the term "selective engagement" at the end of the Cold War. It can be seen as a specific version of a classic balance of power strategy. It shares the isolationist belief that an aggressive foreign policy creates threat and the belief that states balance against power, but it differs believing that the U.S. must remain engaged internationally. Thus the name, selective engagement--stay engaged internationally but be very selective in the use of force. Professor Christopher Layne offered an even more restrictive strategy called offshore balancing with the U.S. in the role of balancer of last resort. Art's strategy forward deploys a larger force than Layne's. These strategies set a higher threshold for intervention than collective security but a lower threshold than isolationism. They shift the burden from direct military intervention to coercive diplomacy. When vital interests are threatened, the U.S. will not be alone. For example, threats to the flow of cheap oil from the Middle East threaten all oil-dependent countries. Based on shared national interests, power can be aggregated into a coalition of the willing sufficient to balance against the threat.

Alexander Hamilton favored a strategy with the U.S. balancing between France and Great Britain without permanent allegiance to either.

Interventionist presidents Truman, Johnson, and Bush 43 were followed by presidents elected to end wars. And Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama all tended toward some form of balancing and selective engagement. Following the end of the Cold War, Bush 41 appeared to be moving in that same direction. Both the president's national security strategy document and JCS Chairman Powell's national military strategy document were in line with Layne's strategy. Troops would return home and forward presence would be reestablished through temporary rotations of forces as long practiced by Navy and Marine forces. Iraq invaded Kuwait the day the president was to announce the new strategy. The speech was never given and the strategy never implemented. The successful eviction of Iraq from Kuwait under UN authority instead encouraged a new optimism for collective security or something closer to Art's selective engagement.

How much is enough? A selective engagement strategy would require enough force to defend the homeland and a war winning force to defend somewhat narrowly defined vital interests. Forces include a nuclear deterrent, a standoff capability to support coercive diplomacy and a balancing force to tip the scales when only peripheral interests are threatened, and a war winning conventional force organized, trained, and equipped to deter, and if necessary defeat, a military threat to vital interests. A significant portion of the forward deployed Cold War force would be redeployed to the U.S. Like isolationism, there would be a greater reliance on the National Guard and Reserves.

The last strategy is often referred to as primacy or hegemonic primacy. It, too, has a classic version and a post-Cold War update. Under this strategy a state wishing to maintain its dominant position must have a preponderance of power rather than defensive or balancing power. It is a strategy followed by past great powers like Great Britain and Rome.

An example is provided by proposals to determine the necessary size of the old British Navy. A two-power standard was adopted in 1889 and a three-power standard in 1902. That is, the number of capital ships should exceed the next two or three largest navies--a preponderance of power at sea. The U.S. currently spends more on its military than the next 14 countries combined--a 14-power military based on cost. That's nearly 40 percent of worldwide expenditures.

The modern version of primacy came in response to the end of the Cold War to preserve the unipolar moment. The primary threat to U.S. security was seen as the rise of a peer or near-peer competitor. Primacy rejects the established theory that states balance against power and replaces it with the belief that states balance against threatening power. The challenge, then, is to maintain the preponderance of power while being seen as a benign hegemon. By the benign extension of global security, no other power need enter into an arms race to challenge U.S. primacy.

The Bush 43 administration campaigned on selective engagement but shifted to a form of primacy after 9/11 and quickly went beyond primacy. The U.S. forced regime change in Iraq after failing to receive UN authorization was not interpreted as the behavior of a benign hegemon. Rather than primacy's objective of preserving the unipolar moment, the beyond primacy strategy sought to exploit the unipolar moment to forcefully spread democracy without the risk of provoking conflict with a competing superpower.

How much is enough? The force must be sized to assure global security. Primacy, like all the alternatives, requires a nuclear deterrent. Like collective security, and unlike isolationism, it requires a war-winning conventional force on active duty. Like collective security, the force is likely to be consistently engaged around the world rather than standing at the ready as under selective engagement.

Some argue that there is little difference between cooperative security and primacy. They share the belief that international activism reduces threats to U.S. national security. One has an initial preference for acting through established international institutions like the UN but will act unilaterally if the institution is uncooperative. The other has an initial preference for acting unilaterally but will accept the contributions of a coalition of the willing. One pursues diplomatic solutions before resorting to military force while the other is quicker to intervene militarily. Both rely on preponderance of power. Both strategies include the option for discretionary, preventive war.

No presidential administration will be entirely consistent with any of these strategies. The world is too complex, and these are only thumbnail sketches of strategies. But administrations generally exhibit a central tendency toward one strategy or another. A vigorous scholarly debate took place after the Cold War came to a close, but scholars don't make policy; elected and appointed officials make policy. Among policy makers, isolationism is a dismissive, pejorative term, and it is a label applied to neo-isolationists and inaccurately applied to those advocating selective engagement. These more restrictive strategies have greater appeal with a war-weary electorate in hard economic times.

Obama has demonstrated a tendency towards selective engagement, perhaps acting as balancer of last resort. Romney has no record to evaluate, but his forming national security team is dominated by primacy advocates from the Bush 43 administration. There is, however, at least one important adviser that comes from the selective engagement camp. You most likely will be choosing between selective engagement and primacy strategies when you vote in November.

Everything above was written before the debate. It was my intention to attempt an evenhanded placement of the two candidates in the context of the grand strategies presented above based on their debate statements. It was pretty tough to do, but I could see some subtle differences that are better explained with the material I developed in an earlier article on burden sharing.

First, professionals think in terms of four distinct expressions of grand strategy. (1) Declaratory policy is what we'll say we'll do. (2) Employment policy is what we actually do with our force. (3) Deployment policy is where we position our forces to reflect our strategic priorities. And (4) force development policy is what force we maintain and what force we are developing. Declaratory policy is talk, very important talk, and that's all we have from the debate. Let's be fair, both candidates can talk, but only the incumbent president has a record on the other three expressions of strategy. If I had only one chance to characterize the difference between the two is that they agreed on many objectives, but Romney wanted quicker progress toward those objectives.

I heard from both a little bit of the protectionism from the isolationist strategy. That's understandable given tough economic times.

Obama talked more about working through international institutions characteristic of collective security, but not much. Romney hinted at less interest in working through the UN based on the blocking tactics of Russia. Both talked of inhibiting the spread of nuclear weapons, but that's characteristic of multiple strategies.

The question about responding to the conflict in Syria revealed a bit of daylight between the two. Obama expressed greater resistance to involvement limiting engagement to diplomatic efforts and providing humanitarian assistance. Romney expressed a preference for arming insurgents but expressed an understanding that we don't really understand the various factions. I think the distinction is best explained in my article on revolutions rather than this article on grand strategy.

The other distinction between the two candidates is best explained in the article on burden sharing. Again, Obama has employment policy to evaluate, and Romney doesn't. Obama has been consistent in his position on burden sharing in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Syria. He said the Syrian people must bear the primary burden. We have only declaratory policy from Romney. In general, there wasn't much light between the two. And, in general, Romney expressed only one increment more aggressive behavior than Obama.

As for deployment policy, Obama has drawn down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and is shifting freed resources to the Pacific. Romney expressed no specifics in this regard.

There were more easily identified differences between the two on force development policy. Romney proposes a much greater investment in growing the force. Military expenditures have been reasonably stable, with annual increases, under Obama. Romney proposed an increase in expenditures considerably greater than has been requested by the military.

I'm disappointed that I didn't learn much, and I have to stick with my pre-debate guess. Obama's strategy is most closely aligned with selective engagement and a high threshold for direct military intervention as evidenced by four years in office. Romney expressed a somewhat lower threshold for military intervention, not much, as evidenced only in speech. The key is in the advice that will be provided by Romney's national security team and Romney's response to that advice.

Best wishes in your voting.