More please

‘America is not doing enough…’ How often have we heard that criticism over the past decade? Whole bookshelves groan with works arguing that the titan should work harder at solving regional conflicts, brokering peace in failed states, engaging with growing states, injecting resources and expertise, forging multilateral bargains on climate change and weapons proliferation, or broadcasting its good intentions via more efficient ‘information’ campaigns.

The problem all these solutions address  is the classic means-ends imbalance. It can also be called the ‘Lippmann Gap’, named after the strategist Walter Lippmann. The ‘gap’ occurs when a nation’s foreign policy and commitments  exceeds its power.

The ‘do more’ critics accept ambitious ‘ends’, or take them as givens, and advocate that America should expand its ‘means’ and ‘ways’. Whether its mastering the art of small wars with radically reconfigured military forces, or mastering the art of ‘narrative’ and reassuring others of America’s benign intentions, this approach to strategy would take many evenings.

By contrast, the spirit of this little blog is to think more about the ‘ends’ as the main point of miscalculation. As Andrew Bacevich says,

‘America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller — that is, more modest — foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise.’

And not just soldiers, but diplomats, propagandists and statesmen too. In a similar vein, Richard Betts argues that the guiding assumption of the US defence budget ought to be “Half a trillion dollars is more than enough.”

The intellectual discipline of strategy exists precisely because of the limits of power, and the linked problem of the limits of our knowledge.

In thinking about this problem, there is a sophisticated literature on what America’s ‘world profile’ should be. While hegemony and primacy are still the dominant goals of the Washington foreign policy establishment and are agreed by liberal hawks and muscular Rightists, scholars such as Christopher Layne, Stephen Walt, Andrew Bacevich, Colin Dueck, Robert Art and Jack Snyder amongst others are trying to find a space between provincial isolationism and over-reaching hegemony.

This blog is a small contribution to that project – from the point of view not of an insider or an IR theorist, but of an outsider and an historian. The research I’m working on looks at the history of these kinds of questions, by diagnosing the strategists themselves, their complex relationship with the US, and what makes them tick. But that, as they say, is for another post.

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