Saturday, May 01, 2010

Walter McDougall on "American Grand Strategy"

Walter A. McDougall

My old Berkeley professor Walter A. McDougall (though now at the University of Pennsylvania) has recently published an article -- "Can the United States Do Grand Strategy?" -- in The Telegram (No. 3, April 2010).

The paper originated as a question posed by a student in the spring of 2003, asking McDougall how long he expected the United States to remain dominant in the world. Off the cuff, he replied:
It all depends on whether the United States is as exceptional as we like to believe. If the United States follows the pattern of all previous powers, then demographic or technological trends, new foreign threats, strategic folly, overextension, domestic decadence, or sheer loss of will must hurl it into decline, perhaps within fifty years. If, however, our institutions, values, and national character really do amount to a new order for the ages, a potent mix enabling the United States to reinvent itself and force other nations to adapt to the challenges posed by us, then the republic may stay on its asymptotic trajectory.
That was his measured response, but he had second thoughts on the matter:
I stopped there [in my response], but as I walked to my office I recalled Arnold J. Toynbee's historical law to the effect that empires die by suicide, not murder.
With that gloomy note, McDougall open his reflection on whether or not America is capable of conducting any grand strategy, and he quickly turns to a similarly gloomy view, namely, that a grand strategy capable of keeping a nation from suicidal despair is simply impossible for a democracy:
Democracies, especially the wild and vast American one, do not do grand strategy, or else cannot do it very well or for very long: such was the famous judgment rendered by Tocqueville 170 years ago.
McDougall, however, does not entirely agree, and speaking as a historian of diplomatic relations, he argures:
[T]he historical record would seem to indicate, first, that the United States can and has embraced grand strategies (even during the eras once scorned as isolationist), second, that strategies based on realist premises have been mostly fruitful, and third, that strategies based on idealist premises have been mostly abortive.
In this view, McDougall situates himself between neoconservatives and paleo-conservatives:
Robert Kagan, the neoconservative heavyweight, does not agree [with my skepticism about idealism]. Indeed, he is devoting years to a two-volume history of U.S. foreign relations seemingly to debunk interpretations such as my own -- albeit without so much as a footnote to the scholarship he dismisses. Dangerous Nation, Kagan's first volume, covers the century down to 1898 during which neutrality, unilateralism, and reticence seemed to characterize U.S. foreign policy. On the contrary, Kagan labors to argue, the American people have believed ever since their nation's inception in their mission to liberate the whole human race, not just by example but exertion abroad. In short, George Washington was a neo-con. The sometimes explicit, but always implicit message of Kagan's books and columns is that the true and abiding U.S. grand strategy is to export democracy, free markets, and human rights in what amounts to universal regime-change. Now, there are prophecies of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth where swords are beat into plowshares and lions lie down with lambs. For a few years after the Cold War there were also Hegelian prophecies of an end to history thanks to the ideas that conquered the world. But grand strategy is not usually thought of as a faith-based initiative. Or does Kagan really believe the U.S. government knows how to pacify and develop Fallujah or Kandahar? If so, he ought to inspect how little billions of dollars in urban renewal have achieved over forty years in the United States' own inner cities. What is more, even if such Global Meliorism, with or without guns, were a viable option for terrorist sanctuaries under U.S. occupation, what strategic relevance can nation-building theory possibly have for such sources of geopolitical angst as Iran, China, and Russia?

Andrew Bacevich disagrees with my interpretation of the U.S. foreign policy traditions and grand strategies for the opposite reason than Kagan. While agreeing with us that American isolationism is a myth, Bacevich rejects both my emphasis on geopolitics and Kagan's emphasis on ideology in favor of an economic interpretation. Indeed, his paleo-conservative critique of what he calls the new U. S. militarism and empire revives the New Left revisionism of William Appleman Williams. That "Wisconsin" or "Open Door" school was not strictly Marxist, but it did advance a mono-causal economic theory for what Williams called the tragedy of U.S. diplomacy. The real motive for U.S. foreign policy during all eras of history was not security or liberty, but the capitalist appetite for new markets, resources, and customers, at home and increasingly abroad. So the American Dream was real, but therein lay tragedy because in order to meet the growing expectations of a growing population the United States was ineluctably drawn to imperialism that belied its liberationist rhetoric. Keenly aware of the consumerism and seductive advertising lurking behind this national tragedy, Bacevich blames the United States' grand strategic folly on the iron triangle of business, political, and military elites who alone benefit from the nation's peripatetic crusades. Indeed, the statistics he cites on U. S. debt and over-extension suggest a Ponzi scheme at the end of its tether. In sum, the United States has indeed pursued a grand strategy ever since 1776. But far from being ideological, benign, and destined to triumph, as Kagan suggests, it is material, malign, and destined to ruin.
McDougall doesn't agree with either extreme, but he seems rather more distant from Kagan, based on his own pessimism concerning idealist aims to reform the world:
I think it is because my training was that of an old-school European historian, which gave me an outside vantage point from which to view U.S. shibboleths more objectively than do U.S. historians. I suspect my training in European history also inclines me to think about foreign policy in terms of realism, balance of power, contingency, tragedy, irony, folly, unintended consequences, and systemic interactions -- all of which are foreign if not repugnant to U.S. citizens. Finally, I am a Vietnam veteran skeptical of nation- and state-building, winning hearts and minds, and making the world over in the United States' image.
To temper their enthusiasm for idealist schemes, suggests McDougall, America's national security agencies should keep posted on their walls the list of ten strategic blunders identified by the business strategist Richard Rumelt:
1. Failure to recognize or take seriously the fact that resources are scarce
2. Mistaking strategic goals for strategy
3. Failure to recognize or state the strategic problem
4. Choosing unattainable or poor strategic goals
5. Failure to define the challenge competitively
6. Making false presumptions about one's competence
7. Loss of focus due to too many stakeholders and bureaucratic processes to satisfy
8. Inaccurately determining one's areas of competitive advantage
9. Failure to realize that few people have the cognitive skills needed for strategy
10. Failure to understand the adversary
To which, McDougall adds an eleventh strategic blunder:
11. Failure to understand ourselves
Avoiding strategic blunders seems more important than formulating strategic aims, McDougall would seem to imply, and he ends his article on a poetic, if somber note implying much the same:
To cite a Samuel Huntington metaphor told me by Jim Kurth, the most a wise statesman can do is imagine his ship of state on an infinite sea, with no port behind and no destination ahead, his sole responsibility being to weather the storms certain to come, and keep the ship on an even keel so long as he has the bridge.
How long can such a ship sail on with no port even for repairs, and with maintainance forced to be done at sea . . .

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At 6:43 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

While I was in China, I saw a news report about the Chinese government's estimation that it would need 40 years to reach Korea's level of development and another 40 to reach that of Japan and the West. I admired how the Chinese government articulated long-term goals and kept them in mind.

Our electoral system doesn't support long-range planning. It's a wonder that the House of Representatives gets much done, considering that members face re-election every two years. On second thought, maybe it's a blessing that they can't get much done.

Social Security and Medicare are set to go bankrupt by 2015, yet neither party will dare make the tough choices of cutting benefits and/or raising taxes to sustain these programs. Few in my generation will enjoy a long, golden retirement, but that may not be such a bad thing. Don't people have a natural obligation to be productive for as long as they can? For most of human history, people worked to the extent that they were able for as long as they were able. I've reset my long-range thinking to that expectation.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I also long ago figured out that I'll be working till I die because when I stop working, I'll starve to death.

Thanks for sharing in my pessimism.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:47 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

Don't call it pessimism, Jeffery. You and I compare ourselves to others a half-generation or generation older, but if we look back further, we can appreciate how good we have it. A few decades of work followed by a couple decades of retirement is but a blip in human history, just like the stay-at-home mom in a house full of appliances.

Jeffery, I would love to have a long retirement, but I am not entitled to it, so rather than feeling pessimistic about working into my senior years, I am approaching it with a positive attitude. Work means daily contact with others, physical activity, and new challenges to keep my mind sharp. I'm a little more fortunate than you are because I live in a country with less apparent age bias in hiring and retention. Ironic, isn't it?

BTW, one reason why I'm feeling optimistic is that I might be a first-time home owner. I'm going to look at a cute one-bedroom cottage in an unincorporated village near the city where I work. No garage, no basement, no picket femce, but there is a mature, shady tree in the front yard and space for some spirea, forsythia, and azalea bushes.

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Working through my old age is fine, so I was a bit tongue-in-cheek about that.

Where I feel pessimistic is about our nation's ability to make rational decisions about Social Security, Medicare, and the incipient Health Care as these become more costly and the government goes broke.

Can the Europeans even make rational decisions about their system?

But good luck, by the way, with your home ownership.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:16 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Sonagi92: It's not that our electoral system doesn't support long-range planning. The problem is cultural. We have a middle-class, creation-centric and radically liberal Whiggish political system, but a degenerate consumer/proletarian culture. The solution is to reinvigorate just a few rudimentary puritanical instincts, not a tall order, really; but if we fail to do so we are doomed.

At 4:18 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

McDougall's list is excellent, BTW.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The most important item on his list is number 11:

"Failure to understand ourselves."

That's been my number 1 failing, in fact.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:42 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Off topic

Since I am paying out the ass to receive Medicare, I don't know how they are going to go broke. It is costing about 25% of what private insurance cost and I have to pay for a supplemental plan because Medicare doesn't cover the cost of everything as if I had one plan. With 100 millions people in the plan, only gross mismanagement would put it in the red. It is also my understanding that the administration cost is about 1/3 of private insurance is and since it isn't profit making ( we can't say that any savings will not go into the general fund to pay other stuff) it should be sustainable.certainly by 2015. That's assuming that all boomers will live a long as they think they will.

There should have been a surplus of tens of billions of dollars in Social Security if boomers had insisted on an accounting and made that an issue. That SS deduction has supported more war than our other taxes.

Done with rant.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, this probably hits the nail on the head:

"[O]nly gross mismanagement would put it in the red."

I admit to having no specialized knowledge. I merely repeat what I read in the papers . . . which have, sometimes, been known to be wrong.

Jeffery Hodges

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