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For at least a century, US grand strategy has had five principle goals. It is in how they are pursued that foreign policy changes from one era to the next.

In a previous Survival article, I argued that, contrary to widespread belief, the United States has been pursuing at least one pillar of an implicit grand strategy since the end of the Cold War: building the democratic peace.1 The democratic peace has informed most major US foreign-policy initiatives over at least the last two decades, and rightly so: it has many strengths to recommend it, including its harmony with values the American electorate broadly shares. But championing liberalism is only one component of US grand strategy. There are four others: defending the American homeland from attack, maintaining a favourable balance of power among the great powers, punishing rogue actors, and investing in good governance and allied capabilities abroad.2 Like support for democracy, these broad goals are well within the mainstream of US foreign policy; they enjoy bipartisan support, and have been remarkably consistent for decades.

In fact, these five pillars together are a fairly accurate description of US grand strategy since at least the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, though some have occasionally overshadowed others. Many of the key weaknesses of US foreign policy in the mid-twentieth century, such as its open-ended support of right-wing dictatorships, its failure to understand the nature of the Vietnam War and its blindness to the emerging jihadist movements around the world, can be understood in part as a natural consequence of Washington’s single-minded focus on balancing against the Soviet Union, to the neglect of other goals. By contrast, the strengths of American foreign policy are evident when it pursues the full range of objectives relevant to US national security interests.

It is in the manner of pursuing these goals that US foreign policy changes from one age to the next, as do the threats to which US policy must respond. Today, the United States faces three principal threats. Firstly, the pre-eminent threat to the United States, and to the global liberal order more generally, is the presence of powerful, autocratic states armed with nuclear weapons. Unlike during the Cold War, when the United States faced only two nuclear autocracies, it may soon face five: not just Russia and China, but also North Korea, which has tested a nuclear device, Iran, which may well be on the way to doing so, and possibly even Pakistan. All of these states are at least uncooperative with, if not outright hostile to, the United States. A second threat that did not exist during the Cold War comes in the form of failed states and the rogue actors that operate from them, such as pirates, organised criminals, drug cartels and terrorists. Thirdly, there is what counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen has called the ‘global Islamist insurgency’:3 campaigns by violent jihadist militants and terrorists to eject the Western influences from ‘Muslim lands’, overthrow secular governments, replace them with jihadist regimes, and eventually establish the supremacy of their brand of Islam across the world.4

Defending the homeland

In response to these threats, American policymakers should first ensure the physical safety of American lives and territory. Presidents George Washington and John Adams made the creation of the first national-security and homeland-defence organisations a top priority for the new government, establishing the Department of War in 1789, the US Navy in 1797 and the Department of the Navy in 1798. (The US Army predated the government itself.) These organisations’ roles were originally closer to what today would be called homeland defence – protecting the territorial integrity and physical safety of the United States – although this was taken to include guarding American lives, property and honour abroad. President Adams fought a quasi-war with France in 1798 to defend America’s neutral trading rights, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison ordered attacks on the Barbary States of North Africa in 1805 and 1815 to protect American shipping, and Madison led the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom to stop the latter’s impressments of American sailors.

Homeland defence as we understand that term today was relatively lax before the twentieth century because of the United States’ unique geographic position, separated by two oceans from the other major powers of the world. In the nineteenth century, responsibility for homeland defence continued to lie with the military. The US Army, for example, led campaigns against Native American tribes who resisted American expansion. During the First World War, the US government created, but then disbanded, its first dedicated intelligence agencies, and passed the Espionage Act to guard against undercover foreign agents. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assumed responsibility (and sometimes abused it) for investigating cases of espionage. And in 1924, Congress established the US Border Patrol to regulate growing waves of immigration. It wasn’t until after the Second World War, however, that the US military and intelligence community established a worldwide network of reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities to prevent another surprise attack like the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was established in 1961 to provide for ‘the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles’.5 In 1983, President Ronald Reagan initiated efforts to develop a ballistic-missile defence system in response to the threat of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.

Each stage in the development of US homeland-defence capabilities grew in response to specific threats against American territory and lives. Today, thanks to new technology and globalisation, there is a great diversity of threats against American territory and lives than ever before. While a land invasion from a hostile power is as unlikely as ever, the United States is at risk from ballistic missiles, nuclear, chemical or biological weapons (deployed by missile or otherwise), terrorist attacks and, because of the increasingly network-dependent nature of much of the US economy and infrastructure, cyber attack. In response, the United States must develop appropriate defensive capabilities, including border-, port- and cyber-security measures, and missile defence.

For example, the United States must protect against non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, who seek to do immediate physical violence to Americans on American soil, by securing its borders and ports, and enforcing reasonable immigration regulations. Much of this has improved since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Congress established the Transportation Security Administration in 2001 and the Department of Homeland Defense in 2002, and in 2004 authorised the near-doubling of the US Border Patrol with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. The FBI consolidated its counter-terrorism and other programmes into a National Security Branch in 2005, the same year its Terrorist Screening Center began compiling and disseminating the ‘No Fly List’ and the ‘Terrorist Watch List’. Illicit travel has been made more difficult through the adoption of biometric passports by much of the world over the last decade (including the United States in 2006). The immigration regime, however, is still in need of a broad overhaul to allow the free flow of migrant labour, visiting students and highly skilled talent while preventing illegal entry by terrorists and drug traffickers. And port security, divided between the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration, is relatively undeveloped, with programmes such as the Container Security Initiative too small compared to the mission with which they are charged.

Additionally, the US government must protect against the possibility of a rogue, accidental or even state-authorised launch of a ballistic missile with a nuclear, chemical or biological warhead against the United States, its bases abroad or its allies (this being the most likely immediate threat to American interests in case of war with one of the nuclear powers) through a functional missile-defence capability. As mentioned, the United States has been researching such capabilities since 1983; it withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, and in 2004 announced it had deployed the first components of an operational national missile defence. Funding for missile defence has since stagnated and technical difficulties remain formidable, but the benefits of even such research and development that continue are clear: it forces rivals into an expensive arms race in which the United States has a clear advantage; increases the technical and financial difficulties of threatening the United States with ballistic missiles; and lessens the usefulness of building and maintaining such weapons in the first place.

Finally, the United States must protect against cyber espionage and cyber attacks, such as those launched by criminal groups based in Russia and China in recent years, as well as those carried out by WikiLeaks since its founding in 2006 and by the hacker group Anonymous since around 2008. No cyber attack has yet caused widespread loss of life or property – WikiLeaks’ cyber-espionage seriously compromised America’s intelligence-collection capabilities, but otherwise the main effects have been limited to some inconvenience to industry and government computer systems – but that is no reason for complacency. The first successful, large-scale cyber attack may be too costly not to take seriously. Although basic cryptology (overseen by the National Security Agency’s Central Security Service since 1972) has been a part of American information-assurance efforts for decades, more sophisticated cyber-defence initiatives are in their infancy. President George W. Bush approved a Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative in 2008; President Barack Obama appointed a Cybersecurity Coordinator in 2009; and that same year the US military established Cyber Command to protect US military information systems.6 All these efforts are so recent that it is unclear what effect they have had yet.

Maintaining the balance of power

Protecting the homeland is not the end of national security policy, as if policymakers could responsibly concern themselves only with erecting as large a wall as possible against immediate physical dangers while ignoring threats brewing abroad. For example, while it would be prudent to erect a national missile-defence system to guard against attack by one of the nuclear autocracies, it is even better to manage relations with those powers to prevent a war in the first place. That is why the United States should, as a second pillar of its grand strategy, pursue a series of interlocking, reinforcing and tailored strategies of balancing and engagement with the great powers, especially the nuclear autocracies.

Great-power rivalry is an enduring feature of world politics and American foreign policy. In the United States’ first decades of existence, the country pursued a balance between the United Kingdom and France, the great powers of the day. Washington allied with France against Britain to gain independence, but negotiated with the British separately at the war’s end in violation of its prior agreement with France. Presidents Washington and Adams then distanced the country from France by issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality (1793), signing the Jay Treaty with the British (1794), and fighting a small naval ‘quasi-war’ with France (1798–1800) to assert its right to neutrality. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe then tilted back towards France: they embargoed British trade (1807) in a dispute over neutral rights, which contributed to another short war (1812–15) with the United Kingdom over the latter’s impressments of American sailors. For three decades, the consistent goal was to prevent either European power from gaining unacceptable leverage over American interests and independence. Similarly, in the twentieth century the United States fought two hot wars and one cold one to prevent any power or alliance of powers – Wilhelmine, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Nazi, Italian, Japanese or Soviet – from imposing hegemony over Europe or Asia. The goal was to prevent the material resources of half the world from falling into the hands of a rival. Between the Second World War and the Cold War the United States simply swapped certain key enemies and allies, first allying with the Soviets against the Germans and Japanese before then allying with the Germans and Japanese (and others) against the Soviets in a classic example of power balancing.

The Cold War itself was a conventional great-power rivalry between the two pre-eminent powers of the mid-twentieth century. In that sense, it did not differ greatly from the conflicts of the multipolar world that preceded it, except in the number of participants. Indeed, the supposedly bipolar Cold War competition was strongly influenced by the independent initiatives of other powers. The People’s Republic of China was initially aligned with the Soviet Union because of their shared communist ideology; the former fought against the United States in the Korean War (1950–53) and acquired nuclear weapons in 1964. However, not wanting to be a Soviet satellite and mistrustful following border clashes in 1969, it shifted away from the Soviet Union and towards the United States following President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972. The move altered the global balance of power not only away from the Soviet Union and towards the United States, but also away from Europe and towards Asia as China raised the profile of the region through its defection. Similarly, India and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) represented a significant proportion of states in the international system that hoped to resist pressures to join either side, compelling the superpowers to vie for the developing world’s loyalties through aid, investment and sometimes coercion. The movement was thus a form of balancing by the Global South against the North.

A foreign policy based on power balancing may strike some scholars and policymakers as out of touch or anachronistic. It has been fashionable in security studies to argue that conventional war is dead, great-power conflict is over, competition now occurs through trade instead of war, ‘wars amongst the people’ constitute the new face of war, and non-state actors define world politics.7 These intellectual fashions tend to take a small phenomenon, such as the rise of non-state actors, and over-generalise them as if they were the dominant feature of the system. This tendency has led commentators to vastly under-appreciate the persistence of old-fashioned, conventional, state-centric threats, particularly great-power rivalry and conventional war.

Take the case of Russia, still one of the world’s leading autocracies. While Russia no longer purports to be leading a global revolution to overthrow all capitalist states, modern Russia cannot be said to have friendly or peaceful intentions towards the United States and its allies. In fact, Russia’s contemporary ideology, which could be described as authoritarian and nationalist, mixed with a soft imperialism, remains highly troubling. Russian officials have been fairly clear about their intent to balance against the United States, oppose unipolarity and revive Russia’s hegemony over its near-abroad. US and Russian interests clash most clearly in Eastern Europe, especially the Baltics and Ukraine. Russia was probably behind a cyber attack on Estonia, a NATO ally, in 2007, and in 2008 it invaded Georgia, which had been promised future NATO membership. As President Vladimir Putin’s popularity at home erodes, it is not hard to imagine him allowing a foreign crisis to spiral dangerously to win nationalist plaudits.

China clearly poses a greater danger today than during the Cold War. Sino-US relations went through two phases during the Cold War. From 1950 to 1972, the United States and China were declared enemies and fought to a very bloody stalemate in the Korean War, but the overt hostility was less dangerous because of China’s crippling economic weakness. From 1972 to 1989, the countries’ mutual hostility lessened considerably, but at the same time China’s power began to grow quickly as it liberalised its economy and modernised its armed forces. So far, the United States has never faced a China that was both powerful and hostile, but China’s economic and military modernisation has clearly made it one of the great powers of the world today. Among its qualifications for this status are its nuclear weapons, a ballistic-missile capability and aspirations for a blue-water navy. Chinese policymakers, like their Russian counterparts, continue to speak openly about their intent to oppose American unipolarity, revise the global order, and command a greater share of global prestige and influence. There are several flashpoints where their revisionist aims might lead to a militarised crisis with the United States or its allies, including Taiwan,8 the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. Moreover, US relations with China are prone to regular downward spikes, as during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the 1996 Taiwan crisis, the EP3 incident in 2001 (in which an American signals-intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet), and the anti-satellite missile test in 2007, to say nothing of annual US weapons sales to Taiwan. A militarised crisis with China is more likely today, and would carry greater consequences, than at almost any point since the Korean War.

In addition to Russia and China, there are now up to three more nuclear autocracies hostile to the United States. North Korea and Iran are avowed enemies of the United States, while Pakistan is teetering on the brink. Pakistan and North Korea tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and 2006, respectively, and Iran is almost certainly going to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. All three states have invested in medium- and long-range ballistic missiles that could hit US allies; and, despite the failure of North Korea’s recent missile test, the United States must take seriously the possibility that any of the three countries will soon be able to produce missiles that could hit the US homeland. Additionally, because of their technological inferiority and relative conventional weakness, the Iranians, North Koreans and Pakistanis have worked to level the playing field by investing in unconventional and terrorist capabilities.

Power balancing is thus a necessary and vital instrument in the US policy toolbox. The goal of American balance-of-power efforts should be to prevent any of the rival states from acquiring enough power to threaten the existence of the United States, its allies or the liberal world order. In practice, that means, firstly, forestalling an Axis-like alliance between any two (or more) of them, such as a Russo-Chinese or Sino-Pakistani alliance. Such a combination, while unlikely at the moment, would seriously compromise the United States’ freedom of action and threaten the liberal world order. Secondly, and more relevant for day-to-day policymaking, it means preventing any of the nuclear autocracies from illegitimately expanding their influence through conquest, subversion or intimidation. The nuclear autocracies have long records of pursuing such policies, including Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its use of gas supplies to bully Ukraine; China and North Korea’s regular threatening of Taiwan and South Korea respectively; and Iran and Pakistan’s continued support for militants and proxies across the Middle East and South Asia. Allowing these policies to succeed would reward aggression, thereby ‘constructing’ an international system in which aggressors accrue power and eventually dominate non-aggressors.9 The clear solution is to construct a different kind of system, one in which aggression is met with collective resistance. Thus, the United States and its allies must balance against efforts by the nuclear autocracies to expand their influence.

The most cost-effective means by which the United States seeks to balance the other great powers is by maintaining alliances with fellow democracies around the world. America balances Russia through NATO, and balances China and North Korea through a network of alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan. These alliances anchor regional stability and threaten unacceptable cost to Russia, China and North Korea for any aggression or expansionism. Both sets of alliances are deep and long-lasting, and maintaining and deepening them has rightly been, and should continue to be, part of normal business for the US national security establishment. Both, however, face challenges. NATO has been watered down by taking on ever more missions, including cyber defence, counter-piracy and peacekeeping, and weakened by uneven burden-sharing in out-of-area operations in Afghanistan and Libya. It risks drifting into an all-purpose talk-shop whose chief effect will be to bestow the positive glow of multilateralism on American initiatives. Refocusing the Alliance on its main mission – European defence – should be a priority. Meanwhile, the Pacific patchwork of criss-crossing bilateral and trilateral treaties is uncoordinated and suffers from disunity, a potential weakness in America’s position in that theatre. American policymakers might explore the possibility of formalising a general Pacific Treaty Organisation (PTO) to mirror the North Atlantic one. That would require overcoming understandable historical grievances between, for example, the South Koreans and Japanese, which, as the example of post-war Franco-German rapprochement illustrates, would be difficult but not impossible.

The American position in the Middle East and South Asia is weaker than in Europe or East Asia. Washington has relatively fewer reliable allies there with which to partner against Iran and, potentially, Pakistan. Israel is a rich, powerful and democratic Major Non-NATO Ally in the Middle East, but the US–Israeli alliance has limited freedom of action and regional influence because of Israel’s poor relations with the Arab world; and despite Israel’s technological superiority it may be simply too small to contribute meaningfully to a major war with Iran. Saudi Arabia might be willing and able to gather a coalition of Arab states to cooperate with the United States against Iran, but the kingdom may be an unreliable partner: its refusal to liberalise at home risks political instability, while its inability to diversify away from an obsolescing natural resource risks economic stagnation. Almost a half-dozen other states in the region – Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain – are designated US allies, but are unlikely to be able or willing to anchor a regional strategy. Indeed, the usefulness of any of the Arab states as a US ally is increasingly questionable considering the declining importance of the Middle East and regional states’ general refusal to side openly with Washington on any major issue owing to their fear of their own populations.

If the Arab Spring proves to be the hoped-for dawn of liberalism in the Middle East – something that remains to be seen – it may be a boon for the United States’ ability to secure its interests in the region. President Obama was right when he (somewhat belatedly) told the Arab world in May 2011 that ‘we support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.’ That is why, Obama said, ‘it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy’.10 Unfortunately, it is unclear what tools the United States has to affect the course of the Arab Spring aside from rhetorical support, civil-society training programmes and elections monitoring. Having used up its political capital on the war in Libya, the United States and its Western allies seem unable to muster a coalition to intervene in the much more strategically important war in Syria. For now, at least, the key event in the Middle East for a generation is largely beyond the United States’ influence.

Washington’s partner in South Asia is, ostensibly, Pakistan, but Islamabad has clearly been hesitant to support US interests in the region and, in fact, has often acted against them. Elements within Pakistan have encouraged the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, while others continue to support militant and terrorist groups and to play an unhelpful role in Afghanistan. Nor is it clear that the civilian government that took power in 2008 has full control over Pakistan’s foreign and defence policy. In 2011 US–Pakistan relations deteriorated sharply following the shooting death of two Pakistanis by an American contractor in January, the unilateral American raid against Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in May, and the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air-strike on a border outpost in November.11

The American strategy of relying on supposedly moderate or pro-US elements within Pakistan is increasingly questionable. To hedge against a possible collapse of support for the United States within the Pakistani government and the latter’s slide into open hostility, Washington should seek to diversify its position in South Asia by cultivating and strengthening ties with other states in the region. For example, Washington’s close relationship with Kabul – newly formalised by the US–Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement and Afghanistan’s designation as a Major Non-NATO Ally – and its growing ties with New Delhi suggest that the United States has alternatives for basing key facilities and sharing intelligence. Afghanistan, for one, would be just as good a location for basing assets to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance of militant networks in South Asia, and a superior one for basing assets oriented towards Russia and Iran.

Bolstering ties with India, the world’s largest democracy and a rising economic superpower, presents an almost irresistible wealth of benefits for the United States in both South and East Asia. As I wrote in my earlier article,

With a large talent-pool of educated, English-speaking youth, [India is] a potentially valuable US trading partner. Compared with China, its rise is likely to be more sustainable. Its population is and will remain younger, thanks to its lack of a repressive one-child policy. Indians with grievances are free to express them legally in speech and print and through the ballot box, and can hold protests and rallies without as much fear of a violent crackdown from the government. India’s growth has benefited from more innovation in high-end, information-technology industries, compared to China’s heavily state-directed infrastructure investment.12

In addition, India shares Washington’s concerns over China and jihadist terrorism.

Democracy and the great powers

A critic may question why the United States should balance only against the autocratic powers, such as Russia and China, and not the emerging democratic ones, including India and Brazil. After all, the United States does not have an established alliance with any of these states and, in the case of India, has a history of cold, aloof relations, if not outright diplomatic rivalry. Theoretically speaking, in the traditional realist’s view, domestic politics and ideology do not affect state behaviour, and alliances are formed on the basis of interest, not belief. If that is true, India’s rise to power could be seen as a potential threat equal to China’s; and a grand strategy premised on partnering with democracies against autocracies as dangerously naive and moralistic.

The traditional realist case is overstated, however, and it is not even clear if realists actually believe it. Stephen Walt, a prominent international-relations scholar and self-proclaimed realist, rightly noted decades ago that states do not balance against raw power, but against power that they perceive to be threatening. Threat, in turn, comprises in part a state’s perceived intentions: states that Washington believes have an intention to harm the United States are a threat; those that lack hostile intent are not a threat.13 This is a classic case of scholarship confirming common sense. The United Kingdom is one of the most powerful states in the world today, with one of the largest economies and most sophisticated technological industrial bases in the world, a blue-water navy, nuclear weapons and an expeditionary military capability. Yet US policymakers have not seen a need to balance against Great Britain since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, rightly believing that the United Kingdom does not have hostile intentions towards the United States.

What realists miss is that policymakers understand ideological solidarity to be a signal for friendly intent, and thus common interests. US–UK relations are an example of the democratic peace theory in action: democracies do not fight each other in part because they see the world and define their interests in similar ways, and apply their domestic norms of peaceful dispute resolution to international relations between democracies.14 Therefore, what is true about US–UK relations can be said about democratic powers generally. Policymakers interpret power as threatening or non-threatening depending on whether they believe it is rightly or wrongly wielded; that is, according to the ideology that governs its exercise. Illegitimate power is threatening, while legitimate power is safe. Policymakers’ definition of what counts as an ‘interest’ or what constitutes a ‘threat’ is itself partly shaped by ideology.

American policymakers thus believe, with good reason, that Indian power is in the safe, legitimate, just hands of the democratically elected Indian government, while Chinese power is in the untrustworthy hands of the unaccountable, autocratic Communist Party dictatorship. That is why American policymakers understand Indian power to be safer than Chinese, and why they should seek to partner with India but balance against China. Nor is this a uniquely American or democratic inclination: many regime types tend to promote their own system of government and ideology to increase their influence in other states. Catholic and Protestant powers did so during the Wars of Religion, as did France during the Napoleonic Wars and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe after the Second World War. Iran has attempted to do the same in its neighbourhood since 1979, long before the United States and United Nations undertook democratic peacebuilding in the post-Cold War era to spread global liberalism.15

As I claimed in my earlier article, ‘the growth of democracy abroad alters the balance of power in the United States’ favour’.16 It does so by producing new democratic allies. The first wave of democratisation (in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century) converted the United States’ original great-power rivals, the United Kingdom and France, into allies during the First World War. The democratisation of post-war Germany and Japan, and their conversion into allies of the United States during the Cold War, achieved the same thing in the twentieth century. Later, the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe after the Cold War again expanded the list of American allies, many of whom contributed to the multinational coalition against al-Qaeda after 2001.

Do no harm

A cautionary note is in order. In pursuing a favourable balance of power, American policymakers must be on guard lest they create the very problem they seek to avert: an anti-American alliance among two or more of the nuclear autocracies. Too aggressive a posture towards America’s rivals could push them into one another’s arms. Balancing, understood rightly, tolerates and accepts other powers’ legitimate interests. American policy towards the Soviet Union, the most powerful and overtly hostile enemy the United States ever faced, never aimed at forced regime change, and American policymakers rightly sought at almost all costs to avoid war rather than provoke it. In some cases the United States even sought productive engagement with its rivals, as when skilful American diplomacy helped peel China away from the Soviet Union and facilitate its rapprochement with the United States – an example of a classic divide-and-conquer approach to great-power politics.

Similarly, today, the United States should seek peace with the nuclear autocracies, aided by carefully drawn and explicitly communicated red lines protecting regional allies and interests, playing each autocracy off the others and looking for opportunities to reconcile outstanding interests. A grand bargain with Iran, for example, in which it verifiably gave up terrorism and nuclear weapons in exchange for trade, energy assistance and international legitimacy would be worth exploring, as would a peaceful resolution with China over the status of Taiwan (accomplished with Taiwanese consent) or with Russia over Ukraine. Such bargains are unlikely – especially with North Korea, a country where regime change may eventually become necessary – but the same could be said of most worthwhile diplomatic breakthroughs, and American policymakers would be foolish not to be open to them should the opportunity arise.

Punishing rogue actors

Great-power rivalry and traditional state-centric threats are not the only threats to American interests in the contemporary security environment. New, emerging and unconventional threats from hostile non-state actors operating in weak and failed states, including pirates, terrorists, drug traffickers and organised criminals, are also a major concern to the United States. The third pillar of US grand strategy should be to counter the threat from hostile non-state actors through law-enforcement and military operations.

These kinds of threats have often been overblown. There is nothing new about pirates and terrorists, for example, and they have rarely been more than a nuisance. However, their ability to threaten the United States has been magnified through technology, globalisation and state failure. Travel and communication has become easier, weapons technology more lethal, and state failure more widespread, giving such actors more space to operate with impunity, while US and allied border, port and infrastructure security has not kept up. Osama bin Laden and Julian Assange did massive harm to the United States in ways inconceivable for a non-state actor during the Cold War; the same may soon be true of the drug gangs in Mexico. But even without another 9/11 or crippling cyber attack, the aggregate effect of an increasing number of hostile non-state actors throughout the world raises the cost of sustaining the global liberal order, slows the gears of normal diplomatic and economic exchange, and heightens suspicion and uncertainty.

The United States has a long history of undertaking targeted military or law-enforcement action against hostile non-state actors, both domestically and internationally. The aforementioned military actions against the Barbary pirates and Native American tribes were only the earliest precursors. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson ordered a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, a Mexican insurgent who attacked American towns along the US–Mexico border, and in 1927 US Marines embarked on a six-year war against the insurgent forces of Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino. The FBI has fought a decades-long war against the Mafia, a transnational organised criminal outfit, from its early attempts to inderdict bootlegging during the Prohibition era to its ongoing attempts to counter contemporary drug smuggling, gambling and other activities. American forces reportedly aided in the capture of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, a transnational Marxist insurgent and terrorist, in 1965, and Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, in 1993, long before the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011.17 Indeed, during the Cold War, the United States assisted in numerous counter-insurgencies against communist guerrilla movements around the world.

Over the last decade, the United States has spearheaded a number of multilateral initiatives to coordinate global action against hostile non-state actors. For example, it successfully championed UN Security Council Resolution 1373 in September 2001, intended to galvanise unprecedented worldwide action against terrorist groups. The resolution obligated all states to crack down on terrorist financing (coordinated from the US side through the Department of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence), deny safe haven to terrorist groups, and share information about terrorist groups with other states.18 Similarly, Washington established the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003, a voluntary coalition of states that work ‘to stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their delivery systems, and related materials’, according to the US State Department.19 The US-led Joint Interagency Task Force South is a similar multilateral organisation dedicated to countering transnational drug trafficking in South and Central America.20 Combined Task Force 151, organised under the US Central Command’s Combined Maritime Forces in 2009, is a multilateral counter-piracy coalition in the Gulf of Aden,21 and Interpol helps coordinate the worldwide fight against transnational organised crime.

These initiatives are worthwhile, if sometimes unwieldy because of their multilateral nature. The United States would be wise to retain the capability to operate unilaterally when necessary – as, for example, it does in some counter-terrorism efforts coordinated by the Department of Defense’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Additionally, the United States and the international community may want to expand the list of rogue actors at which it targets such efforts. For example, at the 2005 World Summit the international community signed up to enforce the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, a norm legitimising international intervention to stop genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, but has yet to establish an implementing task force or agency to target genocidaires or war criminals. The UN’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, or the US Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, should be charged with the responsibility to initiate a ‘genocide watch’ to warn the world of impending crimes, and a ‘war criminal watch list’ akin to the terrorist watch list to facilitate the global pursuit and capture of wanted international criminals. Or, to take another example, the continued existence of a transnational human-trafficking trade – or slaving, to use its older and still-accurate label – is a blot on the international community, hardly alleviated by the existence of a UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. The issue is ripe for a US-led coalition similar to those targeting pirates and terrorists.

Investing in good governance

Preventing threats from developing in the first place is an area where the United States and the international community have much more work to do. The underlying conditions that enable hostile non-state actors to operate thrive in poor, weak and failed states.22 State failure incubates serious threats to regional and international order, including transnational insurgent movements (Liberia, Uganda), organised crime and drug-trafficking networks (Southeast Europe, Central Asia), piracy (Somalia, Southeast Asia), pandemic disease (AIDS), and ecological disaster, to say nothing of the occasional global terrorist organisation (Afghanistan, Yemen). Time and again, history demonstrates that state failure, when left unaddressed, causes demonstrable harm to neighbours, entire regions, and occasionally the international order itself.

In response to these threats, the international community has few good options. The United States and its allies could simply ignore the problems, allow anarchy to consume failed states, and pay ever-higher costs to isolate themselves and launch targeted strikes against increasingly powerful rogue actors. But this option is short-sighted, ignores the realities of globalisation, and is sure to cost more in the long run than is necessary.23 On the other end of the spectrum, the international community could resurrect a trusteeship or mandate system under which regional powers assume responsibility for keeping order in their respective neighbourhoods. This option, too, is unrealistic, because there is no political will for renewed imperialism, by whatever name, among either the great powers or the developing world.

Between these two extremes lies a moderate solution, however. The least-bad alternative for the international community, and the fourth pillar of US grand strategy, is to address the root causes of poverty and state failure to foster the growth of responsible and accountable governance in the places where it is most sorely lacking. In the best scenarios, such interventions take the form of civilian aid and development assistance for states that are merely poor; examples include the work done by inter-governmental organisations such as the World Bank, the Asia Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and US bureaucracies including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Collectively, these organisations have undertaken decades of non-coercive development and aid provision to poor states.

For states recovering from conflict, intervention can take the form of peacekeeping, reconstruction and stabilisation operations. At the extreme end, it can include an international transitional administration (as in Kosovo or East Timor) or a military occupation for states that have been overthrown or destroyed (as in Iraq). The United States more or less invented this form of intervention when it occupied Cuba following the Spanish–American War to facilitate Cuban independence from Spain. Instead of annexing the island, as it did other territories seized in the war, the United States rebuilt infrastructure, set up a new government, oversaw four elections, and then left. It undertook similar efforts in other places, including Haiti (1915–34) and the Dominican Republic (1916–24), to prevent state failure from inviting in European influence that might threaten the Panama Canal. More well known (and more successful) were US efforts through the Marshall Plan and the occupations of Germany and Japan to limit the growth of communist influence in post-war Europe and Asia. After the Cold War, the international community embraced the reconstruction and stabilisation missions carried out under the aegis of the United Nations (and sometimes NATO) in places such as Namibia, Nicaragua, Mozambique, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere.

Periodically, critics complain that stabilisation interventions are too expensive, peripheral to vital interests or simply impossible. These criticisms are most common in the aftermath of difficult, costly or failed interventions, including those in Somalia, Angola and Liberia in the 1990s, or the US-led efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. But such criticisms rely on over-generalising from a few famous examples of failure or difficulty. More than a century of experience has made it clear that development assistance and reconstruction and stabilisation missions are a necessary response to the threat of failed states. They represent a strategic investment in weak states to increase their capacities – such as their ability to provide public security, defend their borders, produce and sell goods, and suppress illicit activities (including terrorism and organised crime) – and a pragmatic exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests. While such interventions are difficult and costly, they are far from impossible, and the international community appears to be improving its track record and internalising lessons learned from hard experience.

Of course, the United States and its partners do not have the ability or interest to intervene and fix every failed state, nor do they have enough money to bring prosperity to every developing country. American policymakers must take a hard look at where weak states most clearly threaten American interests, or where underdevelopment most damages American opportunities. Near the top of the list must be Mexico, whose war with the drug cartels threatens to spill over into American territory and deplete the resources of one of America’s top trading partners; and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, whose lawless regions offer safe haven to terrorists with global reach. US aid, equipment and training to Mexican and Afghan law-enforcement and security forces should thus be a top priority for American foreign aid. (It is unclear if opportunities exist for the United States to give meaningful help to Pakistan or Yemen.) Also near the top of the list must be India’s perennial struggle against rural poverty. As a fellow democratic great power and a rising economic superpower, India might anchor stability in South and East Asia and form a lasting and prosperous trade relationship with the United States; but its seeming inability to improve its infrastructure, aid poor farmers or rid itself of corruption is holding it, and the world, back. US civilian aid to India could be among the most strategic uses of American aid in the world.

There are two potential post-conflict stabilisation missions that would be exceptionally challenging and strategically important. The first is Syria. If Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls, the international community will need to mount a large and wide-ranging intervention to facilitate post-conflict political reconstruction, secure the country’s chemical weapons, meet the humanitarian needs of the population, and guard against attacks by Ba’athists or Iranian proxies. A hands-off approach like that used in post-Gadhafi Libya is certain to empower Iran and Sunni extremists and likely to lead to another civil war in the post-Assad scramble for power.

But the largest and most challenging potential reconstruction and stabilisation mission is in East Asia. If the United States is forced into war with North Korea, or if North Korea collapses from within, the international community, led by South Korea, must be prepared to mount one of the largest and most challenging interventions since the Second World War to feed the population, handle mass refugee flows, administer the country and chart a course for its political future while simultaneously securing its nuclear weapons and related materials, defending against unconventional attacks by North Korean intelligence and military personnel, and assuring China that its security interests will be respected. The sheer scale of a North Korean intervention would make the occupation of Iraq pale by comparison; preparing for it should be a high priority for the UN and its partners.

Lesser priorities might include Moldova, Transdniestr, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which may currently be serving as way-stations for organised crime, drug smuggling and sex slaving into Europe; and Somalia, which offers safe haven to pirates (although that threat is not yet of a magnitude to justify the large effort that would be required to rebuild the country as a whole). Moreover, the United States should not oppose UN interventions in other weak and failed states such as Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Côte d’Ivoire. These states’ weaknesses do not currently threaten the United States or its allies, and so Washington need not lead stabilisation efforts there in a time of austerity. But instability, left unaddressed, can spread, and widespread state failure can eventually become a systemic threat to the liberal world order. Investing in stability, even in regions of peripheral strategic importance, can eventually create the opportunity to invest in democracy and thus a future US partner. That is why Washington should encourage UN interventions in any state that needs international assistance, even in peripheral regions; it should even, if possible, support the UN with money, equipment and trainers.

Support to the UN raises another issue. Along with investing in good governance in other states around the world, the United States should also invest in global governance: that is, institutions and treaties that help coordinate international action on issues of global concern. Paramount among global concerns are environmental challenges, including climate change, pollution of the air and sea, pandemic diseases and the extinction of species used for food and medical research. While these are not (yet) as immediately threatening to the United States as terrorists and nuclear powers, any of them might easily reach proportions that threaten national security in the twenty-first century. Indeed, some states are already more threatened by rising sea levels (the Maldives) or the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Uganda) than by conventional military threats.

Although states give up some autonomy when they participate in international regimes, it is (usually) worth the trade-off: international regimes are less costly and more effective than unilateral efforts and help increase predictability and transparency. For example, American participation in and support for the World Health Organisation extends the US ability to forestall the threat of pandemic disease much further than it would reach alone, while its participation in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank give it leverage in coping with international economic crises. For similar reasons, it should find a way to overcome its reservations on the Convention on the Law of the Sea and, when political conditions allow, lead efforts to negotiate a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Championing liberalism

In my previous article I outlined the many benefits to the United States from the spread of democracy abroad, including the fact that

democracies are less likely to use violence against their own people and therefore less likely to draw in outside intervention. They rarely sponsor international terrorism. Democracies have better long-run economic prospects, rarely experience famine, and produce fewer refugees than non-democracies, which means they require less international aid, are more likely to trade with and invest in the United States, and are more likely to become centres of innovation and productivity.24

In terms of its relationship to the other pillars of grand strategy, fostering global liberalism improves the balance of power in the United States’ favour; provides a framework for reconciliation in weak and failed states; and is a crucial component in US efforts against the global jihadist insurgency.

The promotion or defence of democracy is not a new priority for American policymakers: it has been a staple of US foreign policy at least since Woodrow Wilson made self-determination a stated war aim of the First World War. It was again invoked in the Atlantic Charter in 1941 to explain the Allies’ goals in the Second World War, and enshrined in the Truman Doctrine (which held that the United States would come to the aid of any democracy under threat of attack or subversion) in 1947. That same year, US Secretary of State George Marshall explained that the purpose of the economic recovery plan that bore his name was ‘to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist’.25 President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, establishing human rights and self-determination as key principles by which states would judge each other’s conduct, and in 1983 Ronald Reagan founded the National Endowment for Democracy. President Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, invoked the democratic peace in his published national security strategy.26

Critics have sometimes doubted the feasibility of democracy in other cultural settings, a reasonable stance given the complex ties between culture, history and habits of governance. However, the past few decades of democratic growth have made such doubts increasingly difficult to sustain. In fact, the contemporary era marks the high tide of democracy in all of recorded human history, and the tide continues to rise. In the post-Cold War era, a higher proportion of states are democratic, and a larger percentage of the human population is living under democracy, than ever before. There are stable democratic states on every settled continent and in every major cultural bloc.27 Democracy is rarely easy, but it is far from impossible.

Despite the United States’ long history of supporting democracy abroad, it lacks a reliable toolset and systematic approach to help it proactively identify strategic democracies in which to invest around the world. The first and most important consideration is to maintain a healthy democracy at home, a vital goal beyond the scope of foreign policy (and this article). The second is to help sustain and defend established democracies through alliances such as NATO and the Pacific alliances, as discussed above. The third is to help strengthen emerging, weak, poor or fragile democracies through aid and technical assistance, which broadly overlaps with the effort to fix failed states and empower poor countries (also discussed above). This is the most complex and difficult task of democratisation, opportunities for which have expanded dramatically in recent decades as the number of states transitioning to democracy has been matched only by the epidemic of state weakness and failure throughout the developing world.

USAID’s Office of Democratic Initiatives, founded in 1984 (renamed the Office of Transition Initiatives in 1994), is the primary means by which the United States provides such assistance, along with supplying funding for the publicly chartered, non-governmental National Endowment for Democracy and its implementing partners. The newly inaugurated Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) should be a useful tool for prioritising and streamlining US development efforts, including democratisation assistance, particularly if, as I have noted elsewhere, it identifies those countries where fostering democracy would do the most to advance US interests.28 Strategically investing in new, poor or emerging democracies such as India, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil could go a long way toward strengthening emerging democratic great powers, the liberal world order, and the US position in those regions.

Countering the global jihadist insurgency

The five pillars of US grand strategy complement and reinforce one another. Indeed, they must work together to work at all; too much emphasis on one at the expense of the others will result in a lopsided and ineffective foreign policy. For example, focusing only on state-centric threats and the balance of power risks allowing non-state actors to penetrate American defences and inflict catastrophic harm on American lives and territory, as al-Qaeda did in 2001. Focusing only on rogue actors to the neglect of great-power relations, on the other hand, risks allowing other states to expand their influence through coercion or intimidation, as Russia did in 2008. And launching military strikes against rogue actors without addressing state failure amounts to little more than an endless succession of tactical operations without an overarching strategy to solve the problem the enables rogue actors to operate in the first place.

This is nowhere more evident than in the US efforts against the global jihadist insurgency. The global jihadist movement is not composed of a single institution or group with formal membership. Rather, it is a menagerie of terrorist groups, insurgencies and state institutions motivated by a broadly common ideology and shared vision that is hostile to the United States, its ideals and its way of life. The original al-Qaeda organisation is only the most famous part of a movement that also includes Pakistani groups such Lashkar-e-Tayiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan; Afghan groups such as the Taliban and Haqqani network; al-Qaeda franchises such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb; and Middle Eastern groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah. These groups sometimes coordinate at the tactical level for individual operations, but do not take orders from a single, unified hierarchy. Osama bin Laden was not the Vladimir Lenin of a proto-jihadist super state; he was more akin to Karl Marx, a famed ideologue who inspired scores of movements in his wake.29 In addition to these non-state actors, some groups in the jihadist movement are sponsored by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), powerful nodes in the jihadist network.

It is crucial that the United States and its allies prevent any violent jihadist movement from seizing state power anywhere else in the world. Another jihadist regime, whether in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan or elsewhere, would provide additional safe haven and state resources for jihadist groups, significantly magnifying the threat they pose to the United States. Their victory in Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, or in Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth, would be a major threat to global order. That said, the United States cannot aim at the military defeat of the entire movement and all its parts, which would require US troops in combat everywhere from Morocco to Indonesia. Rather, the United States should take direct action only against actors who directly target Americans while, as David Kilcullen argues, simultaneously seeking to ‘disaggregate’ the collection of jihadist movements by severing the fundraising, communications and travel links between them, and supporting local counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism efforts led by local governments.30

That suggests that the goals of US-led global efforts against the jihadist movement should be, firstly, to thwart attacks by jihadist groups; secondly, to defeat central nodes, such as al-Qaeda, that tie the disparate networks together or aspire to global operational reach; thirdly, to prevent any jihadist group from seizing additional state power; fourthly, to prevent Iran or Pakistan from using jihadist groups to expand their influence; fifthly, to empower local security forces across the world to defeat local jihadist chapters; and finally, where possible, to roll back the size and influence of jihadist groups and ideology. In other words, the US strategy against the jihadist movement is simply to implement its grand strategy as a whole. It must defend the homeland by making it harder for jihadists to travel to the United States. It must take direct action against rogue actors, including jihadist terrorist groups. It must balance against Iran and Pakistan to limit their ability to use and empower jihadist groups. It must empower local governments through aid, assistance and training, to shrink the space in which such groups can operate. And it must champion liberalism as an alternate ideology.

The United States has made significant progress protecting the homeland through initiatives including the aforementioned terrorist watch list and biometric passports. It has also made progress degrading al-Qaeda’s capabilities by evicting it from Afghanistan in 2001 and through the alleged drone programme since 2004.31 It has also provided substantial assistance to other states, including Pakistan, to bolster their security forces (though in Pakistan’s case that policy should be re-evaluated, along with US policy towards the country as a whole). In some instances Washington has intervened to prevent a jihadist group from taking power, as when it reportedly aided the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to topple the Islamic Courts Union.32

This helps put the war in Afghanistan into proper strategic perspective. Afghanistan is vital to American national security because it provides a platform from which to directly target al-Qaeda and other militant groups in South Asia. Indeed, Afghanistan’s value to the United States only increases as US–Pakistani relations deteriorate: Afghan territory may soon be the only territory from which US forces and its drones can operate. Additionally, the war in Afghanistan is vital to American security because preventing the Taliban from retaking power is a top priority, just as it is to prevent any jihadist group from taking power in any other state. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would almost certainly become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other militant groups. The US strategy in Afghanistan, often unfocused and under-resourced, nonetheless eventually hit upon probably the most important initiative in recent years: training the Afghan army and police to lead the fight against the Taliban and affiliated groups, allowing American troops to take a supporting role. Despite many setbacks, this strategy is likely to secure the United States’ most important aims in South Asia – that is, if President Obama or his successor can resist political pressure to withdraw too quickly.

The United States might reap even greater benefit in the long run if it succeeds in stabilising the security situation, as this will create an opportunity to invest in improving Afghan governance and democracy. That, in turn, would help foster an example of democracy in the Muslim world and craft a long-term partnership with a democratic state that borders both Iran and Pakistan. That scenario would be difficult to achieve given the current state of Afghan governance, but not impossible. Of particular importance would be the composition and mission of the United States’ post-2014 stay-behind force and future levels of foreign aid. It is unclear, for example, if US forces will continue to support rural counter-insurgency operations or fund civilian capacity-development programmes, both of which could have a dramatic impact on Afghanistan’s long-term future and American interests in South Asia. The alternative is to settle for ‘good enough’ stability held together by a strong Afghan army and a weak Afghan state, which is not a reliable solution.

Regardless of the outcome in Afghanistan, promoting democracy should remain a key part of US global efforts to undermine jihadist movements. In any conflict a successful strategy must include an attack on the rival’s ideology and the advancement of a competing set of ideas; that is a standard part of psychological operations, or what is now called strategic influence. The United States and, much more so, its allies and partners across the world must engage in a war of ideas and persuade the peoples of the world that liberalism is superior to jihadist ideology. President Bush articulated the strategy well when he told the National Endowment for Democracy in late 2005 that a key ‘element of our strategy in the war on terror is to deny the militants future recruits by replacing hatred and resentment with democracy and hope across the broader Middle East’. Democracy undermined terrorism, he said, because, ‘if the peoples of that region are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end’. This, in turn, would enhance US security: ‘By standing for the hope and freedom of others, we make our own freedom more secure.’33 The controversy that attended the invasion and occupation of Iraq should not detract from the basic validity of democratisation as a component of the strategy against violent jihadist movements.

US national military strategy

The grand strategy outlined here is ambitious and broad in scope – it amounts to sustaining the global liberal order that has held for 70 years – but it need not break the bounds of what is fiscally possible. Proposals for the future force structure and global deployment of the US military vary widely, from retrenching and withdrawing most troops stationed overseas to reverting to the global presence maintained by the United States during the Cold War. Currently, the US military maintains about 90,000 troops in the Middle East, 80,000 in Europe, 70,000 in East Asia and 70,000 in South Asia. The figures for Europe and East Asia are the lowest they have been since 1945; they have been reduced by 77% and 44% respectively since 1988.34 The figures for the Middle East have fluctuated widely since the 1991 Gulf War; and the figures for South Asia are just below their all-time peak, reached during the surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2010–11.

Much of the debate about the US military’s global posture hinges around a decades-old debate about how many wars the United States needs to be able to fight simultaneously.35 Since the Second World War, US military planners have argued that they need the ability to fight two major theatre wars at the same time. The two-war doctrine has become something of an idée fixe. The idea was reasonably defensible during the Cold War, when the US could plausibly have faced simultaneous crises in, for example, Germany and Korea, or Germany and Cuba. The Obama administration’s new defence guidance goes to great lengths to claim that the United States will continue to be able to fight two wars, if not at the same time.36 But it fails, like every defence strategy has for decades, to explain why this precise formulation is still worth defending. Holding on to this idea for the last 20 years has looked increasingly disconnected from reality.

In fact, the two-war strategy is the textbook definition of fighting the last war – or rather, fighting the third- or fourth-last war. The Second World War was the last contingency during which the United States was compelled to fight in two major theatres at the same time. Ever since America’s victory in that war, the Pentagon has been unable to free itself from the intellectual construct of preparing to fight it all over again (it is always tempting to relive one’s glory days). But today’s security environment is dramatically different than it was during the Second World War or the Cold War that succeeded it. The United States faces the possibility of major conventional military crises not just in two theatres, but in five, as the number of nuclear-armed authoritarian powers hostile to the United States grows decade by decade. In addition to however many conventional wars Washington and its allies might have to fight, they also need to ready themselves against the aforementioned threats from failed states and rogue actors. ‘War’ is not a monolithic concept against which states can raise a predetermined number of troops.

In the face of this security environment, preparing to fight a set number of conventional wars at the same time simply misses the point. The answer is not to concoct a five-war strategy. Rather, Michael O’Hanlon has developed an insightful recommendation to adopt a ‘one plus two’ strategy: that is, the ability to prosecute one major war and up to two contingencies or stability operations.37 O’Hanlon’s idea of distinguishing between different tiers or types of conflict points in the right direction: the United States needs to develop capabilities matched to the kinds of missions it is likely to face. O’Hanlon’s numbers might be low – the United States might need a ‘two plus two’ capability – and policymakers may even want to add a third tier to devise a ‘one plus two plus two’ approach, meaning one major land-based conventional war, one or two major air or littoral actions (bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities or providing the air component of a war against North Korea, for example), and two stability operations.

Regardless of the precise formulation, the point is that America’s defence strategy should be framed around the actual threats facing the country and the actual capabilities required, rather than a template slapped down from 1942. The United States needs the ability to fight large, conventional land wars against enemy states. It also needs the ability to execute shorter, more limited air or naval operations against specific threats (such as Iran’s or North Korea’s weapons programmes). And it also needs the ability to support sizeable stability operations. Happily, it does not need to be prepared to undertake all of these missions simultaneously, a requirement beyond the capabilities of even the world’s strongest superpower. Rather, it needs a military that is flexible enough to undertake different mission sets and that is globally deployable on short notice.

In practice, that means keeping, and even expanding, forward-deployed equipment and bases, overseas infrastructure and training capacity to rapidly raise and deploy a major land army anywhere in the world. For example, in Europe the United States maintains major air bases at Incirlik, Turkey; Ramstein, Germany; Aviano, Italy; and Lakenheath, United Kingdom; and naval stations at Naples, Italy; and Rota, Spain. The air and naval facilities are the means by which the United States is able to project power onto the European continent, whether in response to a crisis with Russia, for onward deployment into Africa or the Middle East, or to stabilise a collapsing state in the Balkans. These facilities are not manpower intensive: there are fewer than 10,000 US military personnel in the United Kingdom, less than 11,000 in Italy, and only 1,500 each in Spain and Turkey. That means about 25,000 troops (out of 80,000) secure almost all of the strategic benefit of a US military presence in Europe.

The rest, constituting the vast majority of US troops in Europe (including the 170th and 172th Infantry Brigade, the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, and the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment) are combat troops sitting in Germany. Their missions typically include participating in training exercises with European partners and being available for contingency operations. The real strategic value of their presence is simply to add heft to the American commitment to European security. That means they should be first on the chopping block if fiscal conditions require further cuts to the US military posture abroad. By contrast, the naval and air facilities and the personnel who maintain and operate them should remain as long as possible. The combat units are not unimportant, and allies would be justifiably nervous at the further lowering of US troop levels, already at their lowest point since the Second World War. But the combat units can be redeployed and sent back to Europe when future budgets permit more easily than the air or naval facilities could be completely shut down for a few years and then started back up again, and the strategic impact of losing the air and naval facilities would be dramatically worse.

The same strategy should apply worldwide. The United States should prioritise the preservation of its access platforms in different theatres. Air bases in Qatar and Afghanistan; and naval facilities in Bahrain, Japan, South Korea, Djibouti and Guam, along with the Navy’s Carrier Strike Groups, are the sinews of US power projection worldwide. They are the facilities the United States would need if it were forced into a major war with any of the nuclear autocracies, or if it undertook a limited strike against a regional actor. They are also the facilities from which US forces would stage a targeted strike against a rogue actor or deploy into a failed state for a stability operation. The facilities are applicable to all possible mission sets. If policymakers are forced to choose, preserving this network of bases, naval stations and air fields should take priority over the maintenance of large numbers of combat troops in Europe or East Asia.

These facilities are so important and useful, in fact, that policymakers should seriously examine if new ones should be developed in strategically important theatres. The US military’s infrastructure is relatively well developed in Europe and East Asia; less so in South Asia and the Middle East; and almost non-existent in Africa and Latin America. This being the case, it seems clear that the Obama administration’s failure to secure a Status of Forces Agreement allowing US troops to remain in Iraq was a serious missed opportunity, one that a future administration may want to revisit if the political situation in Iraq permits. The US–Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, by contrast, opens the door to deepening ties and an enduring, mutually beneficial military partnership in South Asia. US policymakers may want to explore whether a similar arrangement with India is possible. Elsewhere, the failure to find an African country willing to host the headquarters for the US military’s Africa Command ensures that the command itself, and US policy on the continent more generally, will remain hamstrung unless and until US diplomats can convince African leaders of the benefit to them of a stronger US presence in their region. In Latin America, the United States might capitalise on growing US–Colombian ties over the past 15 years to establish a more enduring presence to fight the drug trade, deliver humanitarian assistance, help stabilise fragile countries, and prevent Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez from fomenting instability in the region.

Because of the fiscal constraints to which it is subject, the United States cannot be prepared to do everything all at once. But it can probably develop a select group of additional facilities and sustain the current size of the Air Force and Navy, and offset any higher costs by reducing overseas combat forces and temporarily slowing the pace of research, development and weapons procurement until an economic recovery allows budgets to rise again. If possible, policymakers should avoid reducing the absolute size of the active-duty Army and the Marine Corps – already about a third smaller than during the Cold War – but, if pressed, should prioritise sustaining the Air Force and Navy, because they are harder to recreate rapidly than infantry and armour units. Collectively, these initiatives should enable the United States to continue to meet its current obligations around the world in the emerging security environment.

Finally, the diverse array of missions for which the US military must be prepared suggests it should train for the full spectrum of conflict. Unfortunately, the United States’ fiscal situation compelled the Obama administration to reverse its initial intention to build up American stabilisation capabilities. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Obama administration’s first major statement of defence policy, stated that the United States needed to retain ‘the capability to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations’. The Defense Department ‘will continue to place special emphasis on stability operations,’ it said, because stability missions will be a permanent requirement of the twenty-first-century environment: ‘Stability operations, large-scale counter­insurgency, and counterterrorism operations are not niche challenges … Nor are these types of operations a transitory or anomalous phenomenon in the security landscape.’ That is why ‘U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations … Such operations include … conducting large-scale stability operations.’38

However, the 2012 defense strategic guidance reversed course and said that ‘U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations’.39 The reversal of two decades’ worth of investment and grinding experience in stability operations is an unfortunate risk that ignores the realities of the contemporary security environment. Weak and failing states, and the rogue actors who operate within them, represent a real threat to regional – and even global – stability. Cutting back on stability operations now will mean throwing away hard-fought gains, and expose the United States to new risks from across the globalising, fragile world. The Obama administration, or its successor, should jettison the 2012 guidance – formulated, one hopes, under the pressure of short-term fiscal considerations and domestic political manoeuvring – in favour of the more well-considered 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.

* * *

After the Cold War, international-relations scholars debated the shape of the world to come. Realists like Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union would usher in great-power rivalry, power balancing, the end of NATO and instability in Europe.40 Liberal internationalists like G. John Ikenberry believed that world order would be sustained by the growth of international institutions, global norms and the spread of democracy.41 Both camps agreed that the end of the Cold War signalled the end of a major chapter in international order, and that their rival views of the coming era were incompatible – each vision implied different US grand strategies to cope with it.

Twenty years on, both premises seem doubtful. The realist scholars were right that the Cold War was simply another phase in the perennial contest for power and influence among great powers, unique only in the bipolar nature of the competition and the sharp ideological divide between the blocs. The end of the Cold War simply marked the end of a state (the Soviet Union), not the system of rivalry itself. States are still states, and they continue their quest to increase their power as the best guarantee of survival in an anarchical system. Their behaviour is still shaped by a mixture of systemic constraints, perceptions of power and interest, and the distribution of norms, institutions and ideologies throughout the world. That is why the post-Cold War era shows some remarkable continuity not only with its predecessor, but with eras even further removed.

But the realists and internationalists were wrong to think that power balancing sidelined the role of norms in shaping international behaviour. Power balancing is not the opposite of liberalism, but a constraint under which the latter operates; liberalism is the lens through which US policymakers perceive which powers are threatening and should be balanced against, and which are potential allies. Spreading liberalism, investing in good governance and allying with fellow democracies are key ways of creating a more favourable balance for the United States – a point almost always missed by traditional realists and one reason why NATO has endured beyond realists’ expectations.

That is why American grand strategy is both broader and more consistent than either realists or liberals have recognised, and why the post-Cold War era shares so many continuities with its predecessors. The United States has always had to carefully manage relations with other great powers – before, during and after the Cold War. And it has always championed democracy as well. Together with other common-sense foreign-policy initiatives – protecting the homeland and punishing rogue actors – these constitute the pillars of an enduring US grand strategy.

In the struggle to articulate America’s grand strategy, ‘containment’ has been strategists’ worst enemy. Not the foreign policy itself, which was a great success, but the catchphrase: by reducing a broad approach to the world to a mere slogan worthy of a bumper sticker, it implied that all grand strategies should have similarly short and catchy titles. Coining the term ‘containment’ was a rhetorical strategy that helped sell American efforts during the Cold War, but the search today for a pithy mantra, whether ‘offshore balancing’42 or a ‘national strategic narrative’ of ‘sustainment’,43 is intellectually limiting. American foreign policy must be more nuanced and multifaceted than that.


1 Paul D. Miller, ‘American Grand Strategy and the Democratic Peace’, Survival, vol. 54, no. 2, April–May 2012, pp. 49–76.

2 For a broadly similar conception of five pillars of US strategy, see Peter Feaver, ‘American Grand Strategy at the Crossroads’, in Richard Fontaine and Kristin M. Lord (eds), America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, May 2012), pp. 57–70.

3 David Kilcullen, ‘Countering Global Insurgency’, in Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo (eds), Strategic Studies: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 326–41

4 For a longer exposition of this argument, see Paul D. Miller, ‘Be Afraid’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 91, no. 4, July–August 2012, pp. 146–51.

6 Unclassified excerpts from the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative’, are available at

7 See, for example, Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force (New York: Knopf, 2007); Martin van Kreveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1991); Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, 2nd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

8 According to the US Defense Department, ‘Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible US support for the island [meaning Taiwan] in the event of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.’ US Department of Defense, ‘Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2011’ , p. I.

9 I am drawing here on the idea that the actors in the international system construct the system itself through their choices and behaviour, and through their responses to other actors’ choices and behaviours. See, for example, John Ruggie, Constructing the World Polity (New York: Routledge, 1998).

10 Barack Obama, ‘Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa’, The White House, Washington DC, 19 May 2011,

11 See Stephen D. Krasner, ‘Talking Tough to Pakistan’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 91, no. 1, January–February 2012, pp. 87–96.

12 Miller, ‘American Grand Strategy and the Democratic Peace’, p. 69.

13 Stephen Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987). That does not mean any ideologically defined bloc will enjoy perfect harmony among all its members, as if there were an Islamic peace or a communist peace analogous to the democratic peace (though Walt found weak support for ideological solidarity among Muslim states in his original study). After all, the democratic peace holds not simply because of feelings of camaraderie between policymakers of democratic countries, but because of institutional features unique to democracy, such as the separation of powers and a free press, that constrain war-making powers. But ideological solidarity does mean that conflict between ideologically similar states might require added justification, while alliances among them might be easier and more enduring. Witness, for example, the routine solidarity among Muslim-majority states on issues thought to threaten Islamic identity, such as Palestine or Kashmir.

14 See, for example, John M. Owen, IV, Liberal Peace and Liberal War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); and Keith A. Shultz, Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

15 See John Owen, ‘The Foreign Imposition of Domestic Institutions’, International Organization, vol. 56, no. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 375–409; and The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510–2010 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

16 Miller, ‘American Grand Strategy and the Democratic Peace’, p. 60.

17 See Ben Runkle, Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (New York: Penguin, 2002).

18 UN Security Council Resolution 1373, S/RES/1373 (2001), 28 September 2001, available at

19 US Department of State, ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’,

20 The website for the Joint Interagency Task Force South can be found at

21 ‘Combined Task Force 151’,

22 Much of the following is drawn from Paul D. Miller, ‘The Case for Nation Building: Why and How to Fix Failed States’, Prism, vol. 3, no. 1, December 2011, pp. 63–74.

23 As I put it in my previous article, such an approach is the equivalent of playing ‘global Whack-a-Mole with the crisis du jour, sniping pirates one day, drone-bombing terrorists or barricading drug cartels into narco-statelets the next. Such policy is reactive, defensive, and events-driven, the opposite of what strategy is supposed to be.’ Miller, ‘American Grand Strategy and the Democratic Peace’, p. 61.

24 Ibid., p. 59.

25 George C. Marshall, ‘The Marshall Plan Speech’, 5 June 1947, RecordedAddress_000.html.

26 The White House, ‘A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement’, July 1994, p. i; February 1995, p. i; and February 1996, p. ii; The White House, ‘A National Security Strategy for a New Century’, May 1997, p. 6; October 1998, p. 2; December 1999, p. 2; The White House, ‘A National Security Strategy for a Global Age’, December 2000, p. 6; The White House, ‘National Security Strategy’, May 2010, p. 37.

27 See Larry Diamond, The Spirit of Democracy (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008).

28 In my previous Surival article, I noted that the recent review represented a missed opportunity because ‘it did not offer a prioritised list of countries most important to US interests, a necessary starting point for determining where and how to foster democracy most effectively and to the greatest advantage to US interests’. Miller, ‘American Grand Strategy and the Democratic Peace’, p. 63.

29 Even that is giving bin Laden too much credit. He was less responsible for Islamist ideology than several more notable thinkers before him, such as Sayed Qutb and Hassan al-Banna.

30 David Kilcullen, ‘Countering Global Insurgency’.

31 New America Foundation, ‘The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of US Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004–2012’,

32 Martin Plaut, ‘Ethiopia in Somalia: One Year On’, BBC News, 28 December 2007,

33 George W. Bush, ‘Speech at the National Endowment for Democracy’, Washington DC, 6 October 2005, available at

34 US Department of Defense, Personnel and Procurement Statistics, ‘Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and By Country’, 31 December 2011,; and 30 September 1988,

35 Much of the following is drawn from Paul Miller, ‘Why We Need to Move Beyond the “Two War” Doctrine’, Shadow Government (Foreign Policy blog), 6 January 2012,

36 See Department of Defense, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense’, January 2012, especially p. 4,

37 Michael O’Hanlon, ‘End Two-War Planning for U.S. Ground Forces’, Defense News, 18 December 2011, 112180303/End-Two-War-Planning-U-S-Ground-Forces.

38 US Department of Defense, ‘Quadrennial Defense Review Report’, February 2010, pp. viii, xiii, 20, 44–5,

39 US Department of Defense, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense’, January 2012, p. 6,

40 Kenneth Waltz, ‘The Emerging Structure of International Politics’, International Security, vol. 18, no. 2, Autumn 1993, pp. 44–79; ‘Structural Realism After the Cold War’, International Security, vol. 25, no. 1, Summer 2000, pp. 5–41.John Mearsheimer, ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War’, International Security, vol. 15, no. 1, Summer 1990, pp. 5–56.

41 G. John Ikenberry, ‘Institutions, Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Order’, International Security, vol. 23, no. 3, Winter 1998–99, pp. 43–78; After Victory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

42 Christopher Layne, ‘From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy’, International Security, vol. 22, no. 1, Summer 1997, pp. 86–124; Stephen M. Walt, ‘In the National Interest: A Grand New Strategy for American Foreign Policy,’ Boston Review, vol. 30, no. 1, February–March 2005.

43 Wayne Porter and Mark Mykleby, A National Strategic Narrative, (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar, 2011), National Strategic Narrative.pdf.

Paul D. Miller is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington DC. He previously served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The views expressed here are his own.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2012

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