4 Options for U.S. Grand Strategy Going Forward

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

One of the most critical—yet underappreciated—aspects of foreign policy any state must grapple with is its grand strategy. As we’ve investigated, a grand strategy is an outline for how a state manages its resources as a means toward its ends. Whether these ends are oriented towards conquest, security, the prevalence of a particular ideal, or economically motivated, every state requires a grand strategy if it is to survive in the modern world. So, as a global superpower, what options are there for U.S. grand strategy? Not only in the current geopolitical climate, but also as we look to the future?  

Restraint 

After 20 years of occupation in Afghanistan, it’s understandable for many Americans to desire a departure from military interventions abroad and instead focus on diplomacy. A 2021 report from the RAND Corporation says that implementing the realist grand strategy would require the U.S. to “adopt a more cooperative approach toward other powers, reduce the size of its military and forward military presence, and end or negotiate some of its security commitments.” 

A restrained stance relies more on diplomacy to resolve conflicts and encourages other states to take the lead in their own security so the U.S. can focus solely on vital interests. What would the shift to restraint look like? Through this approach, the report says, the country would have a smaller military, fewer security commitments, and a higher bar to initiate an armed response.  

Among the most famed of the “restrainers” is MIT professor Dr. Barry Posen. In his book, aptly titled “Restraint,” Dr. Posen argues “The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on unnecessary military preparations and unnecessary wars, billions that it can no longer afford. The wars have needlessly taken the lives of thousands of U.S. military personnel and hurt many thousands more.” 

NDISC Principal Dr. Eugene Gholz, alongside his co-authors Daryl Press and Harvey Sapolsky, expressed their endorsement of the grand strategy in their 1997 article “Come Home America” in which they said, “The United States intervenes often in the conflicts of others, but without a consistent rationale, without a clear sense of how to advance U.S. interests, and sometimes with unintended and expensive consequences.” 

Deep Engagement 

While it is contradictory to restraint, the deep engagement strategy is also viable. Citing Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, Jeffrey Friedman outlines the four core elements of the grand strategy: 

  1. The U.S. maintains military power sufficient to defeat any other state. 

  1. Provide security commitments to allies such as NATO, Japan, and South Korea. 

  1. Leverage the benefits of this protective network to financially benefit. 

  1. Participation and leadership in the rules-based international order. 

The deep engagement strategy is an expensive one. As Friedman notes, the United States spends more than $1 trillion on its foreign policy agenda per annum.  

Brooks and Wohlforth can count themselves among the deep engagers when they say, “Revoking security guarantees would make the world and the United States less secure. In Asia, Japan and South Korea would likely expand their military capabilities if the United States were to leave, which could provoke a dangerous reaction from China.” 

Liberal Internationalism 

20221025 Ndc Grandstrategyrestraint 600x400
Through a grand strategy of Restraint, the U.S. would pursue diplomatic solutions to conflict.

While deep engagement may sound like the status quo, the U.S. currently does not adhere to the deep engagement strategy—the current grand strategy is liberal internationalism—in fact, Friedman says that President Trump was an exception to many modern Presidents when his “behavior was largely consistent with the prescriptions of deep engagement” rather than liberal internationalism. 

If this is the U.S.’s current approach to grand strategy, it’s especially important for us to understand what this strategy entails. International liberalism refers to the belief that states should achieve multilateral agreements between each other, uphold rules-based norms, and spread and embed of liberal ideals—in particular, liberal democracy. The liberal internationalism model does allow for states to intervene in other states in pursuit of liberal objectives and humanitarian aid, though violence is positioned as the last resort. 

Unfortunately, the liberal international model’s flaws must not be overlooked: the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the bombing of Yugoslavia represent dark times in the grand strategy’s history. 

President Woodrow Wilson is considered among the first modern liberal internationalists—in particular through his work establishing the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton also subscribe to this grand strategy. 

Conservative Primacy 

Does global security hinge on the decisions and actions of the United States? Is the U.S. the world’s sole hegemon? If this is the case, the U.S. should adopt a grand strategy of conservative primacy. Paul Avey, Jonathan Markowitz, and Robert Reardon say that while there may be disagreements and differences between members of the group, “conservative primacy formulation of all types combine classical liberal assumptions and hegemonic stability theory to arrive at more assertive grand-strategic prescriptions. These prescriptions rest on a variant of hegemonic stability theory that combines ‘benevolent’ and ‘coercive’ elements.” 

Conservative primacy, like liberal internationalism, favors the promotion of liberalism, especially democracy in opposition to authoritarianism, and capitalism and free trade against communism. Unlike liberal internationalism, though, which prioritizes diplomacy and negotiations, “proponents of conservative primacy do not rule out spreading democracy by the sword” such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Arguably, there were undertones of conservative primacy at play when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee of our enduring national interest” [emphasis added]. 

U.S. Grand Strategy 

The latter three of these grand strategies are part of the hegemonic stability theory, which posits that “international economic openness and stability is most likely when there is a single dominant state.” Restraint, on the other hand, argues that a state can secure its own survival by preventing another state from accumulating enough power to topple them. 

Like all good theories, this can also be charted in a two-by-two: 

 

International institutions critical to secure U.S. interests 

Yes 

No 

Domestic institutions critical to secure U.S. interests 

Yes 

Liberal Internationalism 

Conservative Primacy 

No 

Deep Engagement 

Restraint 

*table courtesy of Texas National Security Review 

 

As you can see, looking forward there are many options available for U.S. grand strategy. Which policy appeals to you? Are you ready to learn more and make your voice heard on a larger scale? The Notre Dame International Security Center helps students build a platform for learning about International Relations, Foreign Policy, and Grand Strategy. If you want to learn more, we hope you’ll contact us