By Phil W. Reynolds
Sometimes the best grand strategy is to do less. The recent arguments that the U.S. is lacking a grand strategy is all around us, not least to Kori Schake of King’s College, who writes about “the damage President Donald Trump and his team have done to America’s standing in the world” in The Atlantic this past week. Undoubtedly Trump’s twittering and policy position flip-flopping have made the world leery of anything coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but not even, Trump can reverse half a century of multi-polarity.
Most opinions have been voiced over a perceived decline in American power, either hard power (on the right) or soft power (on the left) and the lack of a grand strategy to maintain the status quo. Thankfully, many have come from the rarified air of academia, and thus brook no concern. Most are op-eds that are little read, or think-tank compendiums that play to various constituencies. The Washington Post has eulogized the thing, The Atlantic has demanded a return to American exceptionalism, the L.A. Times has fronted a return to ‘spreading democracy’, and the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman exulting in the Obama doctrine of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’. The Heritage Foundation has chimed in. Amazon has well over a thousand books listed with grand strategy in the title. It seems a rather powerfully and interesting idea.
This desire for a ‘grand strategy’ is firmly rooted in the good wars of the past, and the easy-to-digest bipolarity of the cold war. It helped that Fascism was easy to define, understand, and observe. The Soviet Empire was similar in singular ability to use government force to control people’s lives. The West, with its traditions of individual freedoms and rights to private property, could easily determine the need to pay any price for confrontation.
The problem with the cold war grand strategy, situated as it was in a singular bi-polar world, is that it theorized a world in which the U.S. was a hegemon. In practice, it was predicated on hard power, and tough bargaining with partner countries that left little doubt about the new American economic empire. In this kind of world, mistakes are made, like Vietnam and Iraq.
Enter Schake: In the Middle East, Iran is seizing British flagged oil tankers, and in Northeast Asia, Chinese and Russian planes flew over contested airspace, before being engaged by a South Korean fighter, and Australia is taking the lead in working with smaller partner nations. The world has gone mad and the U.S. is nowhere to be seen is her analysis. However, Schake’s research is considerably trifling.
This is wrong. The U.S. policy since George Marshall announced his plan in 1947 has been one of keeping U.S. allies strong, and making smaller partners stronger. In international relations theory, this is known as ‘off-shoring’, which Schake, as a professor of War Studies should be aware. The theory of multipolarity, when translated into action, sees a world in which many nations take up the challenge of securing themselves. This ‘off-shoring’ of security requirements sees many powers, not just one hegemon, which as described earlier, is assuredly as imperialistic as anything the Romans ventured. Specifically, sharing the responsibilities of security throughout the world make other countries less inclined to bandwagon against the strong. In this light, the events of the past weeks can be viewed quite differently
Schake sees the lack of U.S. participation, particularly in the Persian Gulf as a weakness. This is not the case. The U.S. position vis a vis the Iranian nuclear deal is well known, and not that popular with U.S. allies and partners. Now, Iran has British and French frigates, operating quite apart from the U.S., watching closely its actions. But this is only analysis of the first degree. The British Army is firmly embedded in the U.S. Central Command, along with her Navy in the subordinate Naval Forces Command headquartered in Bahrain. British, French and Australian ships have been operating with the anti-piracy Task Force 150 and 151 in the Arabian Gulf for years. The British and French operate seamlessly with the U.S. Far from being a sign of U.S. weakness, having British and French ships patrolling the Gulf is a significant plus-up of Allied power in the region.
If armed force is to be used, this time it will not be U.S. intelligence bludgeoning Allies into agreement, as in Iraq. Now it will be British and French sailors sparking the debate in their home countries. Agreement for the use of force will simply be much easier to achieve. This makes the U.S. position much stronger.
As for Schake’s despair over Australia’s role in the Pacific, it should suffice to say that an active duty Australian officer is a deputy commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific, the organization tasked with overseeing training with partner and Allied countries. Australian soldiers are present for all the major U.S. training exercises, and routinely take the lead in working with the island countries of South Pacific. Australia is an exceeding strong ally, trusted, and certainly makes the U.S. position stronger in the region.
The last incident involving the Chinese and Russian violation of Korean airspace, was not mentioned by Schake, but serves to illustrate my case. The South Korean story is one of the greatest in the history of U.S. foreign policy. From 1953 onward, the Koreans have grown stronger, exercising constantly with U.S. forces. Far from what the pundits have said, for many years it has been the Korean Army, not the U.S., that has kept the peace on the peninsula. In light of many armistice violations the South Korean government has restrained itself, a feat of strength, not weakness. When confronted by Chinese and Russian planes in their airspace, the Koreans and Japanese responded, not by asking for U.S. assistance, but standing on their own. The U.S. has worked for years to create a sense of understanding between the Korea and Japanese governments and armed forces, not easy given their own colonial history. Their response to this most recent incident makes the U.S. position much stronger.
To recap: A multipolar view of the world inclines far more towards justice than one in which the U.S. jealousy protects her position. The British and French are firmly in the U.S., and NATO camp, and are defending their democracies, not docile parroting of the U.S. position. In Asia, Liberalism is anchored by Korea, Japan and Australia in a grand arc. This is not the work of Trump, but the sum of endless work over decades to make the U.S. safer. The week’s events are vindication of this ‘offshoring’ grand strategy.
Phil W. Reynolds is a visiting scholar at the Center for Futures Studies, University of Hawaii. He specializes in Global Politics and Security Studies. Dr. Reynolds is the author of “Ouroboros: Understanding the War Machine of Liberalism.”