Why Washington Still Doesn’t Really Debate Grand Strategy

Former colleague and flourishing restaurateur Justin Logan and I have an essay in the current edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly: Why Washington Doesn’t Debate Grand Strategy. For now, you can read it for free.

Our argument is that defense policy analysis here is mostly in the grips of what we call an operational mindset, which accepts the existing policy goals and evaluates the means of achieving them—building a better mousetrap rather than asking whether a mousetrap is worth building. In the essay, we describe both the demand for and supply of analysis about grand strategy, which means a theory about how states create security for themselves.

We argue that there’s little demand for such analysis in Washington because of a near consensus in the foreign policy establishment in favor of the grand strategy of primacy, which is sometimes called “liberal hegemony” or even “deep engagement.” We discuss the limits and cause of that consensus. It comes, we argue, mostly from the historical growth of U.S. wealth and military power. We reject two alternatives sources, democratic preferences and inherent intellectual superiority, by noting that neither the public nor academics are nearly as fond of primacy as foreign policy thinkers in Washington.

Turning to supply, we explain why defense analysts, including those think tanks, respond to that demand, or really its absence, by focusing on operational questions, in contrast to academics, who devote more scrutiny to strategic questions. We describe the various incentives that encourage analysts to serve power. But unlike some who see the problem similarly, we deny that the solution lies in protecting defense analysis from political interests:

A standard reaction to this notion that politics often wants science to serve rather than guide it is to propose emancipation, schemes to liberate analysis from political influence. That means keeping campuses and think tanks free of political ambition and government funds or somehow protecting “the policy process” from “self-interested individuals and groups.” But it is neither possible nor desirable to purge policy debates of self-interest. Washington’s marketplace of policy ideas is flawed—but democratic. Were it possible to purge it of self-interest, the market would be barren and silent but for the few failing merchants proudly disdainful of customers that never arrive. Think tanks totally divorced from political interests would wither or die, leaving their job to entities that respond to political demand. The solution to bad policy is better politics, meaning more productive conflict that demands new ideas, not quixotic attempts to empower Platonic guardians by quieting interested parties.

But what about Trump, you might be asking? Doesn’t he defy the foreign policy establishment in his disdain for allies, musings about nuclear proliferation, and affection or Russia, and thus generate demand for the debate we say is lacking? I plan to thoroughly answer that question in a coming essay. For now, I have two brief responses.

First, as I discussed recently in War on the Rocks, Trump will likely deviate less from establishment thinking than many expect. In fact, his appointments suggest he’ll govern like a hawkish Republican, with some tics. Time will tell, of course.

Second, the essay considers the possibility of a president that bucks the primacy consensus, though not as much as it should have, in retrospect. That’s one function of the wimpy modifiers throughout that dilute the strength of its claims. I even wanted to drop a “really” or “much” in front of “debate” in the title, as I’ve done here, but got overruled. More importantly, we note there that public opinion allows for the election of leaders that buck the consensus, and we observe its strength in the bipartisan attacks on Trump for his foreign policy heresies during the campaign. The incoming administration offers a strong test of the operational mindset, at least.