Grand Strategy vs. Crisis Management and Incrementalism


My colleague Patrick Doherty just posted this fascinating review of the major Center for a New American Security Conference titled “Pivot Point: New Directions for American Security.”
In it, he captures something former State Department Policy Planning Staff Chief Mitchell Reiss said:

So in calling for the next president to hold another Solarium, Flournoy is calling for a high-level, official debate about U.S. grand strategy in the next administration. This is essential, even if CNAS, by its own admission, has yet to come up with a grand strategy. And it is important because of one reason that William and Mary’s Mitchell Reiss identified, which might have been the keenest insight in this entire conference: one of the primary obstacles to coming up with a new U.S. grand strategy is that there has been little to no demand for such for at least a decade, since Bill Clinton gave up looking for the big idea and started managing the crises all around him. With no demand, most think tanks in Washington, with a few notable exceptions like New America and CNAS, have focused on day-to-day crisis management and incrementalism.

Will the next President essentially be an incrementalist and simply be reactive to crisis after crisis? Or will he push a proactive plan, a new cohesive grand strategy?
My hope is that Obama will leapfrog out of today’s dominant incrementalism and push a new international social contract between the US and the rest of the world — but that means being as bold and innovative on the tough problems like Israel/Palestine and Cuba as the rest of the portfolio.
— Steve Clemons


12 comments on “Grand Strategy vs. Crisis Management and Incrementalism

  1. David says:

    Almost finished reading Jim Webb’s new book. I recommend it highly, including the need to be aware of some points with which I disagree. But it is a genuinely valuable read – at least for me.


  2. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    Correctly,if the next US Preident who probably seems to be no one other than Mr Obama,certainly he would have to adopt a forward looking strategy to restore the tarnished US image in the world by executing his dash and valour regarding US- proactively engineered foreign policy in the world in which domination may not be the credo of the American policy.


  3. Don Bacon says:

    Get a grip on the proper elements of a new US Grand Strategy by reading Helena Cobban’s new book: RE-ENGAGE! America and the World after Bush.
    It includes specific actions we can take on security, global inequality, human rights, climate change and other topics.
    More here:


  4. Matthew Myers says:

    I agree with you completely about the American economy needing to be the foundation for anything any administration comes up with.
    It seems that we have created what Eisenhower warned against. Most policy conversations I have had start off with a good talk about broad strategy. These discussions start with wonderful ideas about promotion of a world community, free, balanced trade and development, etc. Then somewhere along the line the discussion turns to the security side and everyone wants to hedge against a rising China or against some nefarious terrorist threat. Suddenly most of your finances are being dumped down the defense drain.
    A fundamental rethinking of the nature of security needs to take place. For my part I would venture that even if China was a threat, it is not existential. Terrorism is only as dangerous as our reaction to it. Both points of view are fine until someone throws a “what if” in my direction. The bottom line is we as a nation need to shift our security priorities from hard power to soft and sticky pretty fast and soon or we will go the way of other empires of the past.
    This is not to say I think we need to be an empire in fact or de facto. I think we should seek to build institutions that outlast our time as the preeminent power.
    Again just some thoughts…for what they are worth.


  5. Kathleen says:

    JohnH.. Indeeeed…


  6. JohnH says:

    Whatever grand strategy ultimately emerges, it will have to be based on a fundamentally sound American economy. To right the economy, the next President will have to stop its hemorrhaging through out of control defense spending. Since 2001 there has been a $400 Billion increase in spending on “Defense,” Homeland Security, and “emergency” appropriations for GWOT. By comparison, all other discretionary expenses have risen only about $66 Billion since 2001, which is below the rate of inflation. Eliminating the increase in “Security Spending” would immediately generate a balanced budget and eliminate the government’s need to borrow from China to finance its operations.
    Without a sound economy to back American policy, no grand strategy will be worth its weight in paper.


  7. PacificCoastRon says:

    Frankly, the record of the “foreign policy establishment” centered on Washington DC, in both its liberal and whacko wings — the centrists have been bulldozed — is unspectacular enough that one may very reasonably argue that almost ANY grand strategy thought up our next President’s likely advisors would be essentially mistaken in its perception of global realities, and would almost certainly be held hostage to American-exceptionalist and Israeli-exceptionalist nonsense deemed necessary to get the strategy thru Congress, the media fatheads, and other powerful interest groups.
    In short, more likely than not to harm the actual interests of America’s living, breathing citizens, and more than likely to shortly be scrapped for short-term crisis management anyway, since the unrealities of the plan will help hasten the next unforeseeable crises of global reality refusing to abide by American political mythologies.


  8. Matthew Myers says:

    It is a shame that there is not more open discussion on the topic of grand strategy. One could argue that at a very basic level the Bush administration at least sought pre-eminence as its goal. The Bush national security strategy all but states this even if the supporting documents don’t even come close to aligning with it. The Bush administration never practiced anything close to a strategy at any level. It managed, poorly, its crisis. In this it was much more similar to the Clinton administration than it would likely want to admit.
    An interesting point is that mid-level military officers are called upon, during their joint training, to study grand strategy and also propose ones of their own. From what I can tell, in my limited field of view, there is a desire in the military for a more liberal-internationalist approach to grand strategy. This strategy would increase the influence and power of international institutions to deal with crisis. This should be all the more interesting given the more conservative bent of the military. Should Obama go down this path he would have some pretty significant support in the military, at least in the mid to lower ranks.
    Just some thoughts…for what they are worth.


  9. Mr.Murder says:

    …as is my own keyboard typing at this time, dissappointing, indeed…


  10. Mr.Murder says:

    Clinton had Congress fighting most of his moves.
    We don;t have the Social Contract right here, why would you think we could implement it abroad?
    BTW, much of the CLinton era Free Trade contingency points dealt with this, AWOl flushed it.
    This isn’t new talk, you narrow perspective is disappointing.


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