Very occasionally someone expresses an idea whose applicability far outdistances the purposes of its invention. So with the famous remark of an Italian Communist nearly a century ago: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, wrote Antonio Gramsci during the early 1920s; and “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.” Gramsci would probably not have approved of my appropriating his remark, which was about Europe’s civilizational order, to describe the current plight of U.S. grand strategy, and how it applies to the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), but it fits the case much too well to ignore. How so?
The old post-World War II U.S. grand strategy is dead, not by failure or deliberative rejection, but by success and subsequent inanition. Because it has died that way, so quietly and in such relatively calm and serene circumstances, no replacement for it has arisen.
That grand strategy is easy to summarize and very important to understand, if one is to grasp the tenderness of the present moment: Provide common security goods to the world in order to prevent the rise of an illiberal hegemon in either Europe or East Asia, and thus prevent yet another major 20th-century war. Do it politically/diplomatically with the consent of an array of partners, formally and not, so that one erects what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad shrewdly called in 1986 an “empire by invitation.” Do it militarily by forward deploying U.S. forces mainly at the brackets of Eurasia to suppress destabilizing regional security competitions that would-be hegemons could leverage to their advantage, and suppress with them the arms races and weapons-of-mass-destruction proliferation incentives that go with such competitions.
This post-World War II U.S. grand strategy was a continuation by the advent of other means of the twin anti-hegemon grand strategy first articulated at the very end of the 19th century, when the United States first became a global power. The brainchild of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, the original strategy depended not on a web of alliances or forward deployment of military assets, but rather on riding the coattails of the Royal Navy and on self-help. The latter included the building of a formidable U.S. Navy and the completion of the Panama Canal, a toggle switch connection the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific fleets.
This version of the strategy, sensible enough on paper, failed twice in reality: first with the threat of a German hegemony in peninsular Europe that ultimately drove U.S. leaders to enter World War I as an associate of the Allies; and then again with the onset of the Pacific War, and then general world war for the second time, in December 1941. Note that before the 1945-48 period, the MENA region played virtually no role in U.S. strategic thinking. Peninsular Europe and, secondarily, East Asia, composed the strategic real estate that U.S. leaders and planners cared about. Those were the places that threats to the American “world island” could arise; the importance of the Middle East before the age of oil was negligible to American strategists, and anyway America’s closest ally, Great Britain, commanded most of what needed commanding and controlling in the relevant maritime setting. What was left was missionary activity and some trade, neither of significant concern to strategic planners.
As already asserted, the post-World War II version of the twin anti-hegemon grand strategy is now dead. It is dead despite the oft-misleading presence of the dry husk of the old order in inertial military and intelligence budgets, legacy force deployments, and aged treaties and institutions founded in vastly different circumstances. That presence in the Middle East includes major U.S. military installations in Bahrain and Qatar, and lesser military and intelligence-gathering assets in several other Arab countries. Despite political problems in the bilateral relationship, major U.S. military assets remain in Turkey. Before 1978-79, significant assets existed in Iran. Israel is a special case of bilateral cooperation in intelligence gathering and operations, but without significant U.S. military assets in-country.
That presence or footprint overall, specifically the physical manifestation of U.S. strategic purposes, led some observers to insist for decades on either misunderstanding or deliberately misrepresenting those purposes. Despite the ebb and flow of an economic nationalist aspect of U.S. foreign policy, Pax Americana was never mainly about material self-aggrandizement. It served what its originators and subsequent stewards saw as America’s enlightened self-interest, which entailed preventing a major-power war in a nuclear-weapons age, and at the same time enabling what they thought were inherently anti-bellicist liberal values of free trade and democracy to expand for the benefit of all societies that chose freely to hold fast to them.
It was natural that many foreign observers, including in the Middle East, misunderstood these American aims. Americans were Westerners and Christians, like the British and the French, earlier the Portuguese and the Dutch, later the Italians and the Germans. Whereas the Western empires had been classical mercantilist imperial powers, competing with one another to exploit the less powerful and technologically sophisticated, Americans had mounted the modern era’s first anti-imperial national liberation movement: in 1776. America’s was a civic nationalism befitting an Enlightenment-infused immigrant culture, not a bloodline nationalism like those of “old world” Europe. The very concept of enlightened self-interest, meaning that one could do well and do good at the same time, and that positive-sum relationships were both possible and desirable, came out of the twin revolution of the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation in whose very womb America was formed. It replaced the old zero-sum, pre-Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest mentality of most ancient times and places. But these ideas being foreign to most Middle Easterners, including elites, they were often not credited because they were not well understood. So to those peoples and elites American power often looked as imperial as had British and French power before it.
This is the origin of critics, including some American ones, ritualistically calling U.S. post-World War II policy imperial, and in recent decades reciting numbers as to how the U.S. Navy budget, for example, exceeded that of the next six or seven states, as if to suggest the unbridled militaristic nature of U.S. policy. The sources of anti-Americanism are many, and they include American policy mistakes (Vietnam, for example) and sins of arrogance and self-absorption. But they summed to the fact that critics never remarked of the U.S. provision of global common security goods that doing so required the main instruments of U.S. forward deployment–the Air Force as well as the Navy–be able to do things by way of providing reassurance and deterrence that no other state’s forces were called upon to do.
They also never remarked that because U.S. defense spending was relatively high the defense spending of many dozens of other states, allies, associates, and bystanders alike, could be relatively much lower than it otherwise would likely have been.
This was in the national U.S. interest, to be sure: In a raw balance-of-power world U.S. defense spending would have had to be vastly higher to achieve less security for itself and its allies. But it was also in the interests of many other, including relative free-riders. The free-rider “problem” was baked into the Cold War application of the grand strategy knowingly; it bound the fortunate partner tighter to U.S. diplomatic discipline, whether at the United Nations or in more general terms.
So were trade agreements often deliberately favorable to partners; that, too, bound them more tightly to American strategic leadership, so that they would not be tempted to wander or hedge within the bipolar Cold War context. At the time America was so rich relative to others that using commercial largesse to help allies was judged a small and wise price to pay for larger purposes. Now, with American economic advantages ebbing considerably, that legacy existence of free-riders often also enjoying trade benefits negotiated years ago has become tinder for populist political demagogy, as clearly evidenced in Trump Administration attitudes toward Germany, Japan, and other allies.
Those critics who have long disparaged the liberal values this arrangement was designed ultimately to promote were usually engaging in either propaganda or fact-independent ideological thinking. Those who actually shared those values, or claimed to, but made such claims anyway were usually engaging in willful ignorance or outright stupidity.
What Has Changed
The old strategy is dead for essentially four extrinsic reasons, reasons described by changes in the world outside the United States, and for one intrinsic reason with multiple sources.
It’s dead, first and most importantly, because the animating fear that brought the strategy in its postwar form into being–Soviet Communism–is no more, and no other monolithic, telegenic substitute has arisen in its stead since 1991: neither apocalyptical Islamist terrorism nor, quite yet, a richer, more powerful, and differently oriented China.
It’s dead because the key Western alliance bloc, in Europe, has subsequently lost its leadership, collective verve, and in its expanded post-Cold War dispensation even its raison d’être–to be the organizing template for a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Perhaps worse, Europe now suffers from a slough of shifting crises, all tied up in the self-inflicted perplexities of a European Union that cannot go forward but dare not go back. That continental despondency, now magnified by its own set of illiberal populisms, cannot but affect the underlying timbre of the Atlantic relationship as a whole, which was never merely transactional or military/security by definition but always civilizational in scope. Meanwhile, the U.S. Cold War-era alliance structure in Asia, always looser, less internally integrated, and less culturally resonant than in Europe, was never up to the challenge yesterday that China may become tomorrow.
As to the MENA region, the collection of U.S. relationships in that part of the world was even looser, less formal, and less culturally resonant than in East Asia. The United States never joined the ill-fated Baghdad Pact, and never succeeded in creating a Middle Eastern equivalent for NATO, to be called CENTO. Rather, it was split at different times between relying on its allies, mainly Britain, and doing the job itself; between the special relationship with Israel as it evolved especially after 1969-70 and its desire to have simultaneously good relations with the Arab countries to limit Soviet penetration of the area; and between the pre-Islamic Revolution in Iran period and the burgeoning sectarian layer of enmity in the region that developed after. Moreover, the military aspect of the policy became more prominent in the MENA region over time, despite the fact that within U.S. grand strategy MENA was always only an instrumental addition to the real strategic estate package.
MENA became important to wider U.S. strategy only after the British withdraw “east of Suez” in 1971, more so after the trauma of the October 1973 Middle East War, and especially after the epic year 1979 that saw the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, the Iranian Revolution and the temporary but shocking seizing of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious radicals, and then on Christmas Day the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The MENA region only mattered in the first place as the oil age came of age as a supply of cheap and reliable energy that would enable the economic vitality of U.S. allies in Western Europe and the Far East. It did not matter as a first tier priority in and of itself before 1979. After that, starting with the Iran-Iraq War, the region sucked in U.S. attention and ended up catalyzing more and diverse military activity than it ever had in Europe and even than it had in Asia with the Korean and then the Vietnam War. For those who like irony, this one is hard to top.
The old strategy is dead, too, third, because the post-Cold War rise of non-Western socio-economic success stories of several sorts has given developing states more options, models, sources of succor, and ways to hedge diplomatic bets. There are no such success stories in the Middle East, save for Israel, which is small and sui generis and so really doesn’t count for a model. But many Middle Eastern states can now look to what they suppose is a Chinese model to achieve economic success under authoritarian aegis. That imagined option did not exist two decades ago.
It’s dead, fourth, because the old state-centric order has been giving way slowly but ineluctably, it seems, to transnational dynamics both beneficent and dangerous for which the latter-day implementers of the old strategy have no intellectual or viable institutional purchase.
And never mind that the impetus for these myriad diverse dynamics, which most observers rather lazily have called “globalization” over the past three decades as they focused narrowly on the economic aspects to the exclusion of all others, has been more made-in-the-USA than anywhere else. No surprise there: That’s the way the contradictions of success always work, in the longer run, to undermine the conditions that give rise to it.
Biden-Harris to the Rescue?
All this is why a Biden-Harris Administration, should it be sworn in for duty on January 20, cannot breathe new life into the old strategy even if wishes to do so. But from what we know of its thinking in political utero, so to speak, it will try to resurrect a tinkered-with form of it, only to find that its old and breezily optimistic assumptions will not stand well before a different and more demanding global reality. Let’s see how.
We know something about those assumptions thanks both to Biden’s enduring volubility and because his long-time aide Antony Blinken–who rode that relationship into becoming Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration–and others have recently spoken and written of things hopefully to come (see Walter Russell Mead, “Biden’s Foreign-Policy Blast from the Past”, Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2020, and Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, “Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019).
Mark first that, to its credit, “Team Biden” thinks in terms of statecraft. Statecraft and diplomacy are often taken for synonyms; they aren’t. Diplomacy concerns only relations with other states; statecraft concerns the conscious integration of domestic and foreign policy assets, so is prior to and essential for diplomacy. No great power can have a coherent foreign policy unless it has a strategy, for policy is a means to achieve strategic objectives. But strategy in turn rests on clarity about higher-level goals: What kind of nation in the world do Americans want to be, and what kind of society do they wish to build at home? These questions are inseparable, and the answers to them constitute in turn–or should constitute–the foundation for strategy.
So what is Biden’s statecraft thinking? It is classic Democrat Party old-think held to heart with classic American can-do optimism. Its domestic policy basis stipulates a regulated market economy, a same-size or larger (hence more expensive) government, and an operational political palette that includes all hues of key centre-left Democratic Party interest groups. This formula is presumed able to generate broad economic growth, keep Party fractures from widening beyond repair, and so serve as the domestic basis for underwriting the exercise of liberal internationalism abroad.
But this is a version of liberal internationalism with realist ballast. A Catholic with a Jesuit education, Biden knows that multilateral international institutions do not produce peace, but rather that peace underwritten by liberal-minded powers produces multilateral institutions. Thus, while his preference is for kind and gentle diplomacy over the coercive variety, he would display, deploy, and depose of military means when necessary. That is the right formula for bringing most of the world’s major states into good-enough alignment with core U.S. objectives. So the essence: In this field of foreign policy dreams, if you rebuild it, they will come.
In other words, Biden believes that all the pieces necessary to an effective post-Trump policy have remained in place all along. The problem has not been China’s rise any change in the normative context of international politics. It has been only the absence of indispensable U.S. support for the system that American power and persistence birthed after World War II. The corollary, unstated assumption: The Obama Administration’s foreign policy was fine; no big problems there.
So the “to do” list after January 20? Simple: Strengthen the existing alliance system–expanding it as necessary and possible–and marshal it to deter bad and incentivize good behaviour on the part of China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and other potential troublemakers. Use the system, too, to handle global challenges that transcend the conventional state-centric system.
There’s nothing wrong with the intention here. But alas, all the premises of the Biden approach are questionable, most important among the problematic being the hope that getting back to “normal” is actually possible.
It isn’t. The cumulative result of being without a “devil” enemy since 1991 is, in Europe for example, the lassitude that has come to characterize the Transatlantic relationship. It cannot be remedied in the context of a virtually leaderless European Union now forced to confront its own existential dilemmas. In Asia, China is not only richer and stronger; it is also both differently minded about the world beyond China and arguably less stable internally at the same time. Most important, the successful old grand strategy of providing security goods to the global commons requires two conditions to be stable over time, and neither is in prospect.
First, every so often American power must be used, and used effectively, for its credibility depends on the sagacity of the judgement wielding American strength as well as on that strength itself. Allies, adversaries, and bystanders alike need to be reminded occasionally that the United States has thick skin in the game. Second, American policy must be sustained at home by credible attestations that the policy enfolds a morally transcendent purpose. America will not engage in a sustained manner in the face of sacrifice and danger solely for purposes of extended self-defence and lucre. Here the real problems with Team Biden’s optimism emerge.
American power has not been demonstrated effectively in recent years, and its military might, while impressive on paper, is increasingly less so upon objective close inspection where it really matters–say, around China’s littoral, and relevant to protecting sealanes of communication from the Gulf to East Asia. China’s Navy cannot provide the level of security that U.S. power has long provided, but it may soon be able to disrupt the security of sealanes between the Gulf and America’s key energy-dependent Asian allies: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and others while China’s own energy needs are fulfilled by overland pipelines now under construction. In a crisis, designed inter alia to destroy the U.S. position in the western Pacific by severing the connections between the United States and its allies, that level of capability could be sufficient for the purpose.
Alas, successive U.S. administrations have under-capitalized the U.S. Navy and Air Force, the two key instruments of the U.S. forward-deployed grand strategy, while stuffing the Army with cash to fight futile land wars in Asia Minor. A Biden Administration will cut the defence budget significantly for a clutch of domestic political, financial, and temperamental reasons. Nor can it quickly compensate for less money with a less cronyism-afflicted acquisition system that produces deficient deployment postures–including for the 5th and 7th Fleets. Just one debacular use of U.S. military power under a President Biden, especially in Asia but also in the MENA region, could crash the entire pretence of the strategy, and the associated policy meant to advance it.
Morbid geopolitical symptoms are liable to emerge from a Biden Administration’s attempt to not boldly go where America has already been before, the world meanwhile having moved on. And it is because the unredeemable demise of the old ways will go unrecognized, perhaps for years, that a futile crisis of wishing will prevent a new and more effective U.S. grand strategy from being born.
Gramsci’s hat would tip to us; he would have no choice but to recognize the applicability of his own genius to a case he himself could never have imagined.
The Predominance of the Intrinsic
But the more profound reason the old grand strategy is gone is the one intrinsic to the United States. America, “the nation with the soul of a church” as G.K. Chesterton remarked, is in another of its self-deprecatory moods. As already noted–but it is worth repeating because of its outsized importance–America cannot sustain for itself a constructive, active international role unless its inner virtue, its exceptionalism, lights its way into the wider world. Extended defense and commercial advantage alone are not enough for a preternaturally secure “world island” of immense size and riches. There has to be a transcendental purpose involved; that is the kind of story for which Americans traditionally have been willing to countenance sacrifice and risk.
But no exceptionalist language has come from the White House for at least a dozen years. Barack Obama refused to affirm it and Donald Trump has actively, if atavistically, disparaged it. Americans are so bitterly divided that no common purpose for living together in a single political community is evident, arguably for the first time in American history even to include the Civil War years. America’s sense of unity has always been forward looking, always been about what we will do, what we will build together, about how we define the next frontier. No such spirit is evident today among a cacophony of accusations of bad faith.
It is useful, perhaps, to dispense first with some common explanations that do not pass serious scrutiny. One often hears, for example, that Americans now shy away from an active international role because of economic woes, the sense that we can no longer afford our outsized role and have too many problems at home to deal with. Many people do believe that, but this is wrong: Plenty of money to support a global strategy exists that, as before, would have the United States do well and good simultaneously. We don’t have aging infrastructure, poor schools and too-expensive underperforming health care because we have troops in Germany or an airbase complex in Qatar, for example. Nonsense on stilts, and very bad math, is that.
Some point to the supposedly “endless wars” of the post-September 11, 2001 Middle East as a factor in American internationalism fatigue. Many believe that, too. But those wars are not actually endless; Americans are just a lot less patience than they used to be for cultural reasons. Nor have the wars and related small tactical/diplomatic deployments, as in Syria, been particularly costly in American lives. It is rather that they have either not been clearly and cleanly won (Iraq, Afghanistan) or were misconceived in the first place and made things worse (arguably Iraq, too, and Libya), and that American leaders of both parties have failed to articulate their purposes in context and in ways that people find both credible and persuasive. Americans would have fought World War II for fourteen instead of four years had it been necessary, because they understood the moral and practical stakes involved. It is the broader failure of leadership, not the narrow failure of the wars as such, that have contributed to the sense of frustration and gloom.
The nation is clearly in the doldrums, and since foreign policy is a projection of domestic politics and culture, that matters in a political system as noisy and porous as that of the United States. We’ve been there before; some will remember the “malaise” Carter period of the late 1970s. America is producing large lava flows of irrationality, too, at both political extremes, but that isn’t new either: some will remember the 1968-70 period, and will remember that it was not until the early 1980s that the nation really shook off its self-inflicted bad mood and got its act together again. Historical epochs don’t work like light switches; they take time to weave and wander through political life.
It is likely, then, that not until the current Gramscian interregnum gives way to another American self-reinvention–assuming for the moment that it will–that a new grand strategy will come explicitly into view, and be saddled up to practical purposes. What it will look like cannot be predicted in the absence of omniscience about the future circumstances that will inevitably shape its specific contours. Sorry: I’m an analyst, not a prophet.
What that means for the MENA region is fairly straightforward, but not very encouraging: No real strategic logic will guide U.S. behavior in the region. Even if experts in the government know what is going on and are paying professional-level attention, it won’t mean that political leaders will listen to them, or care. American leaders at various levels will therefore be mainly reactive in their policy impulses and decisions, and their behavior seen together may well appear, and actually be, inconsistent, random, and unpredictable.
What if anything is different about the context into which the gloom and irrationality are falling this time around? Getting that straight is the only way to parse how the United States might again reinvent itself and emerge stronger and more formidable than ever. So if the superficial and self-serving don’t avail as explanations for what’s gone wrong, then what really is the cause of the present swoon in the American national spirit?
Patience is a virtue. All will be revealed, next time.