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No Angel in Our Whirlwind
The concept of grand strategy comes to us from the German military writer Carl von Clausewitz. Tactics, said Clausewitz, was about winning battles; strategy was about winning campaigns and wars. Grand strategy was about deciding what wars to fight. Tactics was for generals and other officers; strategy was the business of the general military headquarters; and grand strategy was for ministers and kings.
Not anymore. Clausewitz’s vision of leadership and strategy dates from the image Joseph Addison developed to describe military leadership in his 1705 poem “The Campaign,” on the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Blenheim. Addison depicts an organizational, professional heroism that reflected the new realities of the modern world. Leaders no longer showed their courage as Homeric heroes had done in personal combat, but in their cool-headed ability to shape gigantic events. As the Battle of Blenheim raged, Addison wrote that Marlborough:
Amidst confusion, horror, and despair,
Examin’d all the dreadful scenes of war:
In peaceful thought the field of death survey’d,
To fainting squadrons sent the timely aid,
Inspir’d repuls’d battalions to engage,
And taught the dreadful battle where to rage.
So when an angel by divine command
With rising tempests shaks a guilty land,
Such as of late o’er pale Britannia past,
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleas’d th’ Almighty’s orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm.*
That may have been the way things worked at Blenheim and on the Prussian general staff, but it is not the way things work in America today. There is no angel in our whirlwind, no central guiding intelligence organizing American foreign policy into a coherent whole. Our civil society is larger, more dynamic, and more global in its reach than anything Clausewitz saw in Germany, and our officials are weaker than the elite that governed Germany in Bismarck and Clausewitz’s day. Clausewitzian grand strategy requires long-term thinking; American officials are condemned by the realities of domestic politics to short-term thinking tied to election cycles and, for presidents, the two-term limit. Conventional Clausewitzian grand strategy also requires central direction. A Bismarck could ignore the German Reichstag and, with his thirty-eight years in power in first Prussia and then the Ger- man Empire, subordinate the bureaucracy to his will. No American president, much less secretary of state, ever gets this kind of power. Then there is Congress, a collection of whirlwinds in which angels are notably scarce, consisting of two houses each with its own set of rules, procedures, and powerful committees, and each jealous of its own powers and eager to check presidents and impose the (sometimes conflicting) visions of its power-
* Joseph Addison, “The Campaign,” in The Works of the English Poets, with Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, ed. Samuel Johnson (London: H. Baldwin, 1779), 23:51–67.
ful members and constituencies on American foreign policy.
The ever-shifting views of public opinion set and reset the boundaries of the possible for officeholders. When an American president is doing well in the polls, he can defy Congress and impose his will on the process; when the poll numbers fall, so does his power in Washington. As a result, American foreign policy reflects the vector of the impulses and interests, convictions and half-conscious biases of large numbers of people. It is a mall, not a boutique—a conglomeration of sometimes competing retailers offering a wide variety of products to a miscellaneous assemblage of consumers from every race and class rather than a single store with a focused strategy targeting a handful of carefully selected items for a narrow market. Nobody wants everything in the mall, and everybody thinks some of the merchandise on display is just awful, but most people can find something they like.
The foreign policy of the American government, however, is only one part of a much broader and more influential enterprise: the foreign policy of the American people. Billions of butterflies flap their wings to shape this mighty storm. There is the business world, including everything from corner grocery stores to giant corporations active across the entire surface of the globe with annual revenues larger than that of many member states of the United Nations. Those are the various types of media ranging from television networks to the blogosphere, and there are all the commentators, editors, owners, and reporters in the media, each pursuing a vision of how to see and shape American foreign policy. There are labor unions, ethnic organizations, chambers of commerce, churches, synagogues, human rights lobby groups, environmental organizations, antisweatshop organizers, foundations, humanitarian relief organizations, and dozens of other types of associations, often with conflicting agendas. They all seek to influence the foreign policy of the American government on various issues with various degrees of intensity and commitment; they also often carry out foreign policies of their own. Often, these private foreign policies are undertaken to counteract official policies of the U.S. government. Whatever the government is doing, Croatian Americans are supporting Croatia’s efforts to flourish as an independent nation. Governors of American farm states drop in on Fidel Castro with the hope of opening new markets for their state’s agricultural produce and of widening the loopholes in the U.S. embargo against the communist island. American corporations are seeking to change the trade policies of foreign countries. The American labor movement has an extensive network of relationships with labor movements in other countries. George Soros created the Open Society Institute in part to change the way central and eastern European countries were governed as they made the transition from communism. American environmentalist groups, sometimes in alliance with environmentalist groups in other countries, work to pressure foreign governments to control pesticides and pollutants, protect endangered species, and stop killing whales and cutting down tropical rain forests.
All of these efforts by policy makers, lobbyists, and citizens’ groups are intentional attempts to change the world, but the most profound impact that the United States has on the rest of the world often comes from activities where we have no conscious intention to affect the rest of the world. We are minding our own business, we allow ourselves to think, hardly considering the consequences of our choices on others. The managers of an American pension fund, focusing on the financial well-being of their beneficiaries, can set off a crisis in some strategic country because they decide its bonds are no longer a safe investment. If American consumers decide that a synthetic fiber makes a more attractive halter top than natural fiber materials, there can be serious political and economic consequences abroad. If American capital markets become more efficient, allocating capital with greater effectiveness so that the average return on capital increases, then other countries will start to feel pressure to make similar changes in their own systems of capital allocation. If a powerful retailing technique, like franchising fried chicken and hamburger fast-food chains, catches on in the United States, then the chains will acquire the ambitions and the marketing know-how to change the eating habits and the merchandising patterns of other countries. The development of new computer software or a system like the Internet will change how the rest of the world does business. Opening the doors of higher education, the professions, and business to women in the United States creates all kinds of pressures in other societies, putting feminism on the agenda in other parts of the world, but also making the business environment tougher and more competitive because women are newly entitled to get into the game.
More profoundly, because the United States is such a powerful economic force in the world and because it is committed to let capitalism and free market enterprise develop relatively unhindered by government regulation, the United States helps set the economic agenda for most of the rest of the world. Foreign governments, companies, and consumers must live in a world capitalist system whose pace and intensity are largely (though not entirely or exclusively) set by innovations tried and decisions made in the United States.
Finally, American grand strategy has another quality that a Clausewitz would find disturbing: a messianic dimension. For many generations most Americans seem to have believed that American society was the best possible society and that the rest of the world would be better off if they became more like us. From very early in our history missionaries and others have gone off to help foreigners understand this better. But the national messiah complex reached a new high after the invention of nuclear weapons. Now that nuclear war, or the use of new and ever-proliferating types of weapons of mass destruction, threatens the continuation of human civilization, or even of human life, the American project of world order–building is increasingly seen as a matter of life and death for the whole human race. Those who hold this view believe we cannot allow the world to simply go on as it did in the past, with nations and civilizations dueling for supremacy heedless of the cost in human suffering. In the end it is not possible to understand either the American foreign policy debate or the passions it generates in a democratic society without understanding the great stakes for which so many of us think we play.
Partly because our overall role in the world is so complex and so little subject to the conscious control of any single person, when Americans think about foreign policy, we usually think about specific issues rather than the broad general shape of America’s place in the world. We debate trade policy, the war in Iraq, the role of the UN Security Council, but we seldom step back to discuss the fundamental architecture of America’s world policy as a whole. This is beginning to change. After September 11, and even more with the debate over the Second Gulf War, we have started to see a national debate over our engagement with the rest of the world. The controversy over the foreign policy of the Bush administration was caught up, as it should have been, in a much broader debate over what I am calling the American project: the overall impact of American society (including our government) on the rest of the world.
Just because we don’t have a Bismarck directing our national destiny from decade to decade doesn’t mean that our engagement with the world doesn’t have a shape. We do not live in a Tolstoyan world where individual leaders and intentions have no weight. It matters who the president is. If Theodore Roosevelt and not Woodrow Wilson had been president when World War I broke out, American and world history might have taken a very differ- ent turn. Ideas also matter. Without neoconservativism, George W. Bush might be choosing among a different set of options. The point is not that individuals and individual ideas do not count, but rather that so many indivi- duals and ideas matter in American foreign policy that what the nation is doing is generally larger and more complex than what any individual intends or, perhaps, understands.
More than this, over the long term, American foreign policy is not just random noise—280 million monkeys tapping furiously on 280 million keyboards. There may not be an angel in our whirlwind, but the whirlwind’s progress is not a random walk. Over time, we can see patterns and structures in America’s encounters with the world—both in the foreign policy of the government and when we consider the broader engagement of the nation as a whole. Security interests and economic interests have a way of making themselves felt, and American society continually tries to express certain values and ideas through its interaction with the rest of the world.
This means our grand strategy cannot be read in documents and speeches, even those emanating from senior officials. Those documents express intentions and hopes, but they only sometimes and to a limited extent describe what the United States will actually do in a given situation. The grand strategy of the United States is something that we fundamentally have to infer from the record of what we have done in the past—a project of historical scholarship and deductive reasoning, doing our best to connect the dots to see what kinds of pictures we made. Because American foreign policy is determined by so many competing forces with often contradictory agendas and different power to affect different issues, these pictures are always going to be a bit fuzzy and we will never quite settle the controversies about what the United States actually did or intended at any particular point in the past.
To move from the historical study of what our grand strategy has been to think about what our grand strategy can or should become is to take on new realms of uncertainty. If American foreign policy is shaped in part by economic and social forces in American society beyond the control of governments and policy makers, then a view of American grand strategy must necessarily also be a view of where American society is headed: where our social, cultural, religious, technological, and economic development is taking us. To that we must add a view on how the rest of the world is changing—as a whole, and in different regions of interest to the United States. Do we like or dislike the ways in which the various elements of global society are changing, and what, if anything, can we do to further the changes we like and retard those we don’t?
If my studies in American history have taught me anything, it is this: No matter what I or any other student writes, we are never going to have the “perfect foreign policy” that fully reflects a single master plan for what we should do in this world. No one, not Human Rights Watch, the CEO of Halliburton, or even the editorial board of the Weekly Standard, is going to clamber into the driver’s seat and act like Addison’s angel who, “pleas’d th’ Almighty’s orders to perform, rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm.”
At least not for long. There will always be contradictions, tensions, and uneasy compromises in what we do. On the whole, I think that is a good thing. The world is a complicated place and America is a complicated society. We probably need a complicated foreign policy; we certainly have one.