Finding X
The quest to outline the U.S.’s future grand strategy


Jim Lacey

At any given moment, there are several thousand persons feverishly working to produce the holy grail of strategy documents: the next X article — that is, the equivalent of George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which was bylined simply “X.” In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, strategists have wiped out entire forests in failed attempts to produce the one single document that will set America’s grand strategy for the next generation or two.

When it became apparent that the Soviet Union’s collapse did not represent “the end of history,” and therefore did not abrogate the need for a new strategy, Samuel P. Huntington stepped in with his “clash of civilizations” paradigm. In brief, Huntington claimed that as different civilizations increasingly interacted, they would find each other so repellant that engaging in acts of xenophobic genocide would prove irresistible. His thesis was cast adrift when it was observed that Asian civilization was focused on getting richer, Western civilization (particularly in Europe) was in no hurry to fight anyone, and African civilization could not fight the others even if it were disposed to do so.

For a short time, Arab collapse gave life to Bernard Lewis’s The Crisis of Islam as a new organizing principle. But not all of the Islamic world was having problems (look at Indonesia, for example), and Lewis did not account for the four-fifths of the world that is not Islamic.

The rise and fall of these paradigms led many strategists to believe their best hope of becoming the next X was to explain the strategic implications of globalization. The first to make a splash as a strategic apostle of globalization was Thomas Barnett. In The Pentagon’s New Map, he laid out an idea for a “SysAdmin” force. This force, consisting of military units contributed by the globalized powers, would go into non-globalizing countries and forcibly bring them into the 21st century. That sounded good, at least until Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated what a fiendishly difficult and thankless task it is to bring countries locked in a medieval mentality into the modern age.

With muscular options waning in popularity, Joseph Nye stepped in with Soft Power, which called on America to make itself so attractive that others would rush to follow our lead. We would be the beacon whose light would guide the world. Unfortunately, instead of following the light, some rather unsavory persons rushed to extinguish it. When it came to actual global influence, “soft power” too often translated into “no power.”

On the other hand, while “hard power” was second to none when it came to focusing world attention, it was difficult to control, messy, and resented, and it often led to shooting wars, which most prefer to avoid. Rather than choose between the two, clever strategists created “smart power,” supposedly combining the best ideas of both schools. With smart power, America would always get its way in the world without any messiness. Nirvana!

Not quite. It seems that “smart power” translates to using all the means at our disposal (military, economic, diplomatic, etc.) in “smart” ways — as opposed to dumb ways, presumably. As a slogan, “smart power” is great, but it does not get policymakers any closer to answering the big questions: What is the magic formula for mixing all these national assets together, and toward what goals should we apply them? In other words, what choices are the “smart” ones?

Why has it been so devilishly hard to develop a clear vision for America’s 21st-century grand strategy? For one, the field is populated by a number of what I call smart idiots. I understand that we want imaginative thinkers in this field. But at the same time, some folks just should not be allowed to leave their Dungeons & Dragons boards and venture into strategic formulation.

For instance, in one U.S.-government examination of the future I found the following:

— “By 2030 the corsairs of the Caliphate will have defeated the combined fleets of the United States, China, Australia, Japan, and India and swept the eastern Pacific of opposing forces.”

● “U.S. actions will be hampered by Hollywood stars mobilizing opposition through use of ritual self-immolation.”

● “The U.S. government, desperate to redistribute the nation’s wealth to the poor, will stop spending for defense and surrender to our enemies.”