Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” In other words, leaders must create a conceptual framework from which their policies and actions will flow.
The concept of “grand strategy” is a reference from which a nation’s historical, cultural, economic, diplomatic, and military thought is brought to bear to create a strategic synthesis. In confronting the threat posed by China, America needs a grand strategy that preserves our essential national sovereignty while embracing our inheritance of Britain’s strategic imperative to defend the freedom of the commons.
The English military theorist Sir Basil Liddell Hart once opined that “grand strategy forces policymakers to look beyond the war to the subsequent peace.” Without such a synthesis defining the national interest, policy-making is reactive, often haphazard, and always dangerous. We are then reduced to what President Obama summed up as his strategic outlook — “don’t do stupid sh**” — while muddling from crisis to crisis.
Assuming we want the U.S. to plan like Ike rather than flounder like Barack or Joe, where should we look for guidance? Often, it’s wise to begin at the beginning.
David Morgan-Owen argues that the modern concept of grand strategy arose not in the aftermath of the two great world wars but with the struggle of Imperial Britain to control the “Empire’s anxieties over its global security challenges.” This was particularly highlighted by Britain’s dealings with the emerging German Empire.
Even at the height of their ambitions in the late 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm I and his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, were haunted by Great Britain. On the European chessboard, the island kingdom, wielding its significant economic and military might with strategic flexibility, had already laid Napoleon low — a clear warning to Berlin.
During the Congress of Berlin in 1878, called to settle the aftermath of the Russo–Turkish War, Bismarck, whose armies had conquered Denmark, Austria, and France in less than a decade, would not even proffer a suggestion unless it had been blessed by Queen Victoria’s first minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Indeed, upon the old conjurer’s arrival at the Berlin summit, the usually laconic Bismarck yelled across the hall: “There is the Man!”
In 1904 Lord Esher, confidant of King Edward VII, contrasted the differences in strategic outlook between the global British superpower and its European-centric rival Germany. The issues confronting Berlin, he noted, were “simple and stable compared with those affecting our world-wide Empire, and they are purely military. There is, on the other hand, hardly any point on the earth’s surface which can change ownership, and certainly not a modification in the relative power of two foreign states, can take place without affecting the National Strategy of Great Britain.”
Shortly after his unceremonious dismissal by the vainglorious Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bismarck was asked his vision of the coming 20th century. The iron Prussian replied tersely, “The North Americans speak English.” He envisioned that the might of the British Empire, which reached every continent and ocean, would slowly transfer to the young American colossus with its nearly limitless manpower and industrial genius. Britannia ruled the waves, and so too would the United States.
At the start of the 20th century, Britain faced rising challenges on all sides. Multiple power centers were emerging around the globe — America, Germany, Japan, and a rapidly industrializing Russia. Populations in the British Empire were showing early signs of restlessness, and conflicts such as the Boer War were sapping British energy. Whitehall had to pivot, albeit without losing sight of its grand strategy — protect the global commons and deny one power domination of the continent. London strengthened its military and trade relations with France, Russia, and Japan and, more importantly, ended its competitive antagonism with the United States. British diplomacy stressed cooperation, not benign hegemony.
As a result, when the ultimate challenge came in the middle of the century, Churchill warned the Axis that the new world with all its might would come to the rescue of the old. He was right. And upon Britain’s exhaustion from victory in World War II, the United States comprehensively inherited the mantle of leadership, including a military, cultural, and economic global reach.
Today, China represents a more ominous long-term threat than Germany did 120 years ago. If we are to adjust to this reality, we must pivot as the British did. China is surrounded by nations with thousand-year memories of Chinese aggression and imperialism. In the last 60 years China has fought wars with Vietnam (it lost) and India. Those nations, as well Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, and even the Philippines, are open to American support and investment to protect them from the new mandarins. Strengthening them weakens Beijing.
Western opinion is moving against Beijing, and the COVID disaster has accelerated the trend. China has now been added to NATO’s agenda. In the Pacific, the focus must be on America’s enhancing the sovereignty of its partners. We must increase air, space, and maritime operations and make China think first about its home waters. This also means making it easier for our partners to share and obtain the military capabilities they require — breaking down the Cold War guardrails that made it difficult for allies such as Japan and Australia to take advantage of American power and technology. There is no reason why America cannot expand Boris Johnson’s D-10 formula to add Asian powers to the G-7 and formally anchor western Europe in the Indo-Pacific. Deterring China is a global task.
Grand strategy in the Anglo-American historical tradition is not a panacea. International relations are always riven with uncertainty and difficult decisions. There will always be a Vietnam or a September 11. But we can do better than resign ourselves to simply muddling through from crisis to crisis. If we develop a strategy rooted in the understanding that a sovereign America is an indispensable actor on the world stage, and challenge our adversaries with strategic cooperation, the world — particularly China — will be put on notice.