Ask your average foreign policy expert to name a grand strategy and the answer is almost invariably, “Containment. It's the strategy that won the Cold War.” If so, then with the Cold War era that containment served barely visible in the rearview mirror, America appears to need a new grand strategy.
Finding that new strategy is a career maker -- a guarantor that the smart or lucky person who proposes it will be remembered with the likes of George Kennan and Paul Nitze. So the search commenced for a successor strategy. It shows plenty of creativity, zeal and trial balloons. However, no one has calculated or stumbled on the winning formula yet. Perhaps it's time to revisit our assumptions.
Let's assume that containment alone did not win the Cold War. That means containment was merely a holding action against an aggressive and expansionist enemy while something else significant took place. Checking Soviet expansion did help keep much of the world, especially areas of strategic interest, either free or nonaligned. But playing defense alone does not and cannot win. Trying to prevent the rise of potential challengers is exhausting, morally bankrupt, unworthy of a nation conceived in greatness, and almost certain (if history is any guide) doomed to fail. There was another strategy at work, a much older one, that finally came to fruition while containment kept our primary adversary at bay.
The United States won the Cold War by outperforming the USSR. Its military jumped a generation ahead of the Soviet military. Its capitalist economy created vastly more individual and collective wealth than Soviet communism. Its liberal political system held far greater philosophical legitimacy and provided a richer political experience for its citizenry. The United States government behaved more honorably in its foreign relations and held far greater moral authority than the evil empire could hope achieve with its propaganda. The Soviet Union could not compete with American performance and collapsed from the effort. When the dust settled, the United States stood alone as the world's only superpower.
America won the Cold War by pursuing the grandest of grand strategies: a longstanding strategy of attainment. This strategy was in place from the Founding Fathers through manifest destiny into and through the twentieth century and it proved wildly successful. Seeing the danger, Soviet leaders quickly sought peaceful coexistence, but a segment of American society disagreed vehemently. However, ingrained reluctance to strain national budgets for international aims such as the defeat of communism reflected America's preoccupation with its own growth and initially restricted enthusiastic pursuit of rollback. So the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations practiced containment as a holding action. For a few years Nixon and Ford sought stable balances of power, but these strategies soon proved insufficient because something was amiss in the thinking underlying them.
The social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought this insufficiency to the fore. While most accounts of this era examine changes in American domestic life, the effect on U.S. grand strategy was no less transformative. American society rejected the amorality of realpolitik and stopped turning blind eyes to the dirty business of Cold War sub-war maneuvering. Americans demanded something better from their government. They sought a grand strategy based on the idea that the United States remained fundamentally a different, better system and destined for something greater than shady subterfuges and endless superpower stalemate.
The decision by the Carter and Reagan administrations to capitalize on American moral, military, and economic strength and compete vigorously turned the tide of the Cold War. Refusing to accept peaceful coexistence, moral equivalence, and stable balances of power, they pushed for confrontations designed to undermine Soviet strength: the Afghan conflict, export controls on vital petroleum technologies, arms races, and the strategic defense initiative. Confronted directly by American power, the Soviets were unable to compete at the same level and ultimately conceded the contest.
This strategy of attainment capitalized on the United States' significant advantages, including its educated and innovative population, access to international trade, geographic position, and ingrained ingenuity. The residents of other systems found something compelling about the American system and way of life. They concluded the Americans were on to something good and forced radical change upon their own governments to emulate the United States.
Misguided by the notion that containment alone won the Cold War, in the days following the Soviet collapse our American strategists got it wrong. They needed to account of the fundamental changes brought about by the loss of a credible competitor to American primacy. However, the strategy that needed to be discarded in addressing challenges of the new era was not that of winning by outperforming America's adversaries, but the strategy of containing them. The environment in which the United States could attempt great things in international politics evolved at precisely the moment in which American strategists stopped prescribing them.
Fortunately, this situation can be corrected. The American moment can still become an era of great attainment. It simply requires acceptance of a single proposition: the current superiority of the American model. Throughout American history, we have not had much difficulty thinking ourselves different and somehow better, the world's exceptional nation. However, our academic training teaches us that this kind of thinking is dangerous. Presuming one’s own systemic superiority is arrogant and somehow “unscientific.” To accept the superior performance of the American system requires accepting that international politics is not a science. The units of measure –- states -- are not and can never be fundamentally equivalent, nor can the conditions of international politics ever be repeatable. Therefore strategy making based on the belief that one is being scientific will be flawed. The academic treatment of systems as morally, functionally, and qualitatively equivalent prevents good strategy. Different systems are different, some perform better than others, and the evidence indicates the American system currently outperforms all others.
American strategists must swallow their training, accept that we’re either very right or very lucky, and keep going with our winning strategy. There are other governmental and societal systems out there, and some of them are pretty good at performing for their citizens. The United States' post-Cold War grand strategy should be to continue to create the conditions of fair competition in which the superiority of the American system can prevail. If a better model arises in a rising power and threatens American superiority, then we’ll discover it, learn from it, and adapt our strategy as necessary. Until then, the challenge for American grand strategists is to concentrate on fine-tuning the American system and have the courage and faith to see their grandest grand strategy through to new heights of greatness.
The next article will focus on ways to continue to implement this strategy.