US officials will have to get used to operating in a world in which they can take less for granted.

The 2016 presidential campaign, and its ultimate outcome, raised sharper questions about the fundamental nature and purpose of the United States’ grand strategy than at any time in a generation. In doing so, the campaign also served as a reminder of the critical role of assumptions in shaping US statecraft. In the grand-strategic context, assumptions are the ingrained, overarching ideas that US officials have about how the world works, and about America’s role within the global arena. Simply put, such assumptions represent the intellectual foundation upon which American statecraft rests. If the foundation is solid, then American strategy has a decent chance of success. If the foundation is shaky, American strategy is likely in for a world of trouble.

Yet because assumptions are, by their very nature, often implicit rather than explicit, and because the most fundamental assumptions underlying American grand strategy do not frequently surface in the course of day-to-day policy debates, these assumptions are rarely scrutinised or even made explicit to the degree they ought to be. This is dangerous. If assumptions are not identified and stress-tested, how will policymakers know, other than by pure intuition, when those assumptions are no longer valid and the conceptual foundation of strategy has begun to crack?

Today, the need to critically examine the core assumptions of American grand strategy is becoming ever more pressing. Since the Cold War’s end, the United States has pursued a grand strategy centred on maintaining America’s global primacy, deepening and extending the liberal international order, and heading off major threats to the generally happy state of the post-Cold War world. That grand strategy has rested upon a set of bedrock assumptions that have also stayed largely constant over time – assumptions about the nature and sustainability of American dominance, the direction in which the world is moving geopolitically and ideologically, the ways in which Washington can best prevent or address emerging threats, and so on. Assumptions about specific policy issues have evolved over time, of course, but the core intellectual premises of American strategy have not been extensively revised for nearly a quarter-century. Collectively, those assumptions have added up to a broadly optimistic view of global affairs – a view that the United States enjoys essentially uncontested supremacy in most key aspects of international relations; that the dominant ideological, geopolitical and economic currents are running Washington’s way; and that, with properly vigilant and enlightened American policy, this comparatively benign situation need not be fundamentally disrupted by resurgent great-power conflict or other throwbacks to an earlier and less hopeful age.1

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Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Cornell University Press, 2016).

Peter Feaver is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, where he directs the American Grand Strategy Program and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2016–January 2017

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