grand strategy


By Major General Richard B. Goetze, Jr., Ph.D.
U.S. Air Force (Retired) and Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

Some say that the United States has not had a grand strategy since the policy of containment during the Cold War. What is a grand strategy? How is a grand strategy different from a national security strategy and/or a national defense strategy? In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly last month, was President Donald Trump attempting to establish a new America First grand strategy, one that will endure beyond his administration?

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What Is a Grand Strategy and How Does It Differ from a National Security Strategy?

The DOD Dictionary defines strategy as “A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.” There is no mention of a grand strategy.

In an October 2014 National Defense University INSS Strategic Monograph, R.D. Hooker Jr., wrote: “Grand strategy is therefore related to, but not synonymous with, National Security Strategies, National Military Strategies, Quadrennial Defense Reviews, or Defense Strategic Guidance. Grand strategy transcends the security pronouncements of political parties or individual administrations.”

However, the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reauthorization Act of 1986 outlines a national security strategy thus: “The President shall transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States.” The law goes on to describe in some detail what will be included in the national security strategy and when to submit it.

Since the Goldwater-Nichols Act, we’ve seen 17 National Security Strategy documents from the White House (out of a possible 33 required annual submissions). Some administrations have issued subordinate National Defense and/or National Military Strategies as they deemed appropriate. To date, however, the Trump administration has produced just one national security strategy document.

Does the United States Have a Grand Strategy?

The Office of the State Department Historian tells us that “George F. Kennan, a career Foreign Service Officer, formulated the policy of containment, the basic United States strategy for fighting the Cold War (1947–1989) with the Soviet Union.” The end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union removed the focal point of U.S. strategy — containing the Soviet Union.

The future direction of U.S. foreign policy has been a subject of much debate. Some would argue that the core interests and grand strategy of the United States have been to support and maintain the system of liberal international organizations, processes and procedures that the U.S. and its allies created in the aftermath of World War II.

Hooker writes that “… American grand strategy shows great persistence over time, orienting on those things deemed most important — those interests for which virtually any administration will spend, legislate, threaten, or fight to defend.”

On the other hand, Blueprint for America, edited by former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, states: “For the past twenty years, across administrations of both political parties, the United States has been operating largely unguided by strategy. We have been much too reactive to events and crises, and have allowed others to define the perception and outcomes of our engagement around the world.”

Has US Leadership of a Rules-Based International System Been the De Facto Grand Strategy?

As an example of the continued U.S. focus on a rules-based international system, the 2015 Obama National Security Strategy was all about U.S. leadership of a continuing rules-based international system that promotes global security and prosperity. In its conclusion, the Obama NSS affirms: “We will uphold and refresh the international rules and norms that set the parameters for such collaboration and competition. We will do all of this and more with confidence that the international system whose creation we led in the aftermath of World War II will continue to serve America and the world well.”

Is President Trump Attempting to Establish America First as a New Grand Strategy?

The 2017 Trump National Security Strategy takes a decidedly different approach to foreign policy. The President’s approach emphasizes national sovereignty rather than an international system.

In his cover letter on the 2017 NSS, President Trump states clearly that “This National Security Strategy puts America First.” In its introduction, the Trump NSS says, “It is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad.”

President Trump refined his sentiments about the importance of putting national interests over global concerns when he told the UN General Assembly last month that “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.”

He went on to say, “Globalism exerted a religious pull over past leaders, causing them to ignore their national interests, but as far as America is concerned, those days are over.” In his final remarks, Trump cautioned his fellow leaders that “the path to peace and progress and freedom and justice, to a better world for all of humanity; it begins at home.”

National Security Strategy: Next Steps

We see a clear break in continuity and a refocus of U.S. strategy since the Trump administration came to power in January 2017. An important consideration for the strategic thinkers of future administrations will be whether to:

  1. Accept the Trump perspective on the basis for interaction with the other sovereign entities and the many international organizations of the world
  2. Return to an emphasis on the rules-based international system
  3. Develop another, better strategic approach to American interaction with the world

What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below.

About the Author

Major General Richard B. Goetze Jr. (retired), Ph.D., served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 30 years. He was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (the nation’s highest peacetime award for defense leadership and management).

Dr. Goetze earned his Bachelor of Science degree at the United States Air Force Academy in 1959. He earned his Master of Arts Degree in Latin American Area Studies at the School of International Service, American University in 1967 and his Ph.D. in International Studies from American University in 1973.

In the 1980s, Dr. Goetze was vice director of the Joint Staff, Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for supervising, coordinating and administering the work of the Joint Staff as well as providing guidance to the specialized activities of the Joint Staff. From 1992-1997, he served as the President of the College of Aeronautics in New York City. From 1999-2004, he was an adjunct faculty member, a member of the Board of Trustees, and then Chairman of the Board of Trustees of American Military University, where he continues to teach as adjunct faculty.