Good Luck With That Grand Strategy

Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on a resolution requesting information from the Biden administration on Ukraine funding, on Thursday, November 17, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

Thought leaders and foreign policy veterans can’t stop themselves from writing about the new era of great power competition with China and America’s lack of a grand strategy. Gen. James Mattis wrote about it in 2015. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton penned an opinion piece about it earlier this year. The RAND Corporation has a Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy. Universities are adding grand strategy programs—Yale, Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Texas, and most recently Florida, to name a few. Would-be diplomats and policy wonks are poring over writings of Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and Henry Kissinger. They debate the Thucydides Trap and the clashes that often result from a rising power’s efforts to replace a ruling power. 

Efforts to ensure American strength and containment of those who most threaten the rules-based order are laudable. Democrats seek to channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republicans invoke the spirit of Ronald Reagan. Each landed upon a whole-of-government approach to face the challenges of their times, be they Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or Soviet totalitarianism. 

However, the lessons of World War II, let alone the Cold War, are growing distant. Just by attrition, cold warriors are increasingly scarce among American policymakers. While some three-star generals and admirals began their careers under Reagan, many did not start their service until George H.W. Bush became president in 1989. Those commanding Army divisions or aircraft carrier strike groups began their careers under the elder Bush or Bill Clinton. Few intelligence analysts have any memory of the Cold War, and fewer diplomats do. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was in high school when the Soviet Union fell.

Historical amnesia is one factor for American neo-isolationism, but politics play an even bigger role. Populism fuels division, and that division is only growing. Americans are increasingly wary of defending nations under attack by revisionist regimes. The United States used to rally against aggressors from invading and annexing their neighbors, but the trend appears to be coming to an end. We came to the aid of South Korea, South Vietnam, and Kuwait. Americans similarly refused to tolerate ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe. Clinton had Republican support in his defense of Bosnia and Kosovo. The breakdown of consensus over Ukraine and Taiwan is likely a sign of things to come unless American leaders begin to prioritize the national interest above the national political debate. 

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