Grand Strategy and the Gap Between Academics and Policymakers

Could President Obama learn something from academics about how to conduct U.S. foreign policy?

Grand strategy refers to a country’s broad approach to achieving its foreign policy goals.  It specifies how one will employ the elements of national power (military, economic, and political capabilities) to achieve core goals.  America’s strategy during the Cold War was containment of Communism and its chief proponent, the Soviet Union.  For the decade after the Cold War, U.S. policymakers struggled to define a coherent grand strategy as scholars debated the merits of strategies including neo-isolationism, cooperative security, selective engagement, and primacy.  After 9/11 the Bush administration embraced a primacy-based grand strategy that provoked considerable domestic and international opposition.

In the wake of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and growing fiscal limitations at home, the strategy of offshore balancing has become increasingly popular among scholars and pundits.  This strategy is defined by noted realist scholar (and offshore balancing enthusiast) Stephen Walt as follows:

“That strategy — which would eschew nation-building and large onshore ground and air deployments — would both increase our freedom of action and dampen anti-Americanism in a number of key areas. It would acknowledge that Americans are not very good at running other countries — particularly when their histories and culture are vastly different from our own — and that trying to do so is neither necessary nor wise. Offshore balancing would take advantage of America’s favorable geopolitical position, most notably its distance from most of the world’s trouble spots and centers of power. (Why should a country that has no great power rivals near its own borders be so eager to send its military forces deep into the Asian landmass, in search of monsters to destroy, especially when there are no threats to the overall balance of power in these areas? Better to follow Muhammed Ali’s famous advice and “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.)   Offshore balancing is not isolationism, however, because the United States would still be diplomatically engaged in many places and committed to intervening in key areas if and when the balance of power broke down. By eschewing costly onshore commitments and fruitless exercises in “regional transformation” and nation-building, however, it would husband the resources on which America’s long-term prosperity depends and help us rebuild a society that used to be inspire others and increasingly disappoints.”

But there are serious obstacles to translating the sorts of strategies championed by academics into concrete policy decisions.  First, such theories are frequently presented as simple “all upside” alternatives to the current dreadful policies–which must be the result of stupidity and malice–and thus they do not grapple with the difficult tradeoffs and uncertainties that confront real-world policymakers.  Secondly, assuming that a strategy such as offshore balancing would work wonders if implemented consistently by enlightened policymakers, one still runs into the problem that policymakers are politicians and are not free to make ideal foreign policy choices unencumbered by domestic constraints.  To his credit, Walt recognizes this:

“Nor is offshore balancing a magic bullet or a panacea. To make it work, you need to know a lot about the diplomatic and security constellations in key areas; you need expert diplomats who know how to play hardball in subtle ways; and you need a foreign policy establishment that pursues U.S. interests ruthlessly and doesn’t get sidetracked by ideological crusades or the pleadings of special interests. And in case you hadn’t noticed, those features are in short supply these days.”

What do you think?  Is there hope for “bridging the gap” between policymakers and academics?  Do scholars have something useful to offer policymakers, or are academics’ theories too abstract and their foreign policy critiques simply “Monday morning quarterbacking” from the sidelines?

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