This is the first in a SERIES on how American Politics always involves interactions between several “levels”: national, supranational, and subnational. Here the topic is how the executive branch reconciles external and internal demands when choosing a type of Grand Strategy.
AMERICAN GRAND STRATEGY: EXTERNAL THREATS, INTERNAL POLITICS
Peter Trubowitz 2011. Politics and strategy: Partisan ambition and American statecraft. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 185 pages.
A correct model of national states regards them as facing challenges from both their supranational and subnational environments (international society and domestic society). Nevertheless, much analysis of international politics and foreign policy has proceeded entirely in terms of the external relations between powers and the external exigencies that states face. Some authors did address internal “domestic determinants” of foreign policy, but then they tended to leave out the external side.
Accordingly it is a truly fine accomplishment of Peter Trubowitz 2011 Politics and strategy to combine external and internal factors into a single model. This is how national leaders actually must face reality: they must respond to both external and internal challenges, and they must respond adequately to both or suffer costs, potentially including both external and internal defeat (losing a war and losing an election). Observers who need to interpret the foreign behavior of any country should do this kind of analysis.
A main point of such analysis, for any country, is that external behavior does not result simply from structural characteristics of a country such as its relative power, historical grand strategy,
level of development, nationalist sentiments, or whatever. Instead, the external behavior that leaders choose varies with changes in both external and internal environments.
Trubowitz uses the USA as his example, showing that it was not always “isolationist” or “imperialist.” Nor did it progress in some structurally determined way from isolationist to imperialist. The USA has had different kinds of grand strategies throughout its history, depending on the exact external geopolitics and internal politics that national leaders faced.
An interesting upshot of Trubowitz’s analysis is that, because for much of its history the USA has been relatively secure geopolitically, American national leaders have often been able to choose whether to engage with their external environments or not. Of course, a sudden drastic geopolitical threat would demand their attention. Otherwise, presidents could decide whether it was to their domestic political advantage to make foreign policy a priority or not.
Trubowitz’ first step is to identify TYPES of “grand strategies” (10-16). His typology posits two dimensions: ambitious versus modest and expensive versus cheap. Thus there are four general types of grand strategy: ambitious & expensive, ambitious & cheap, modest & expensive, and modest & cheap. Ambitious here means “revisionist,” attempting to CHANGE existing exteranl power relations. Modest means “status quo,” merely trying to PRESERVE existing external relations.
Trubowitz predicts only the general type of grand strategy that is likely under given external and internal circumstances. Those circumstances are sufficient to constrain national leaders to one general type of grand strategy or another, but not sufficient to determine the specific grand strategy within that general type that national leaders will choose. Specific grand strategy is influenced by many specific factors that a very general model cannot include.
Thus each of the four general types of grand strategy contains many specific grand strategies (figure 2.1, page 15).
<> The ambitious and expensive type of grand strategy (to change external relations by using many internal resources) includes specific grand strategies such as imperialism, wars of conquest, and establishing spheres of influence.
<> The ambitious and cheap type of grand strategy (to change external relations using few internal resources) includes specific grand strategies such as blackmail, subversion, and “binding” lesser powers to oneself (all “underhanded” or devious).
<> The modest and cheap type of grand strategy (to preserve external relations by using few internal resources) includes specific grand strategies such as appeasement, balancing other powers against each other (“external balancing”), and passing responsibility on to other powers (“buckpassing”).
<> The modest and expensive type of grand strategy (to preserve external relations by using many internal resources) includes specific grand strategies such as internal mobilization of resources (“internal balancing”) and external preemptive war.
Trubowitz’ second step is to construct a model of how national leaders choose a general type of grand strategy (16-37). There are two main dimensions. The external environment can be either threatening or non threatening. The internal environment – specifically the domestic coalition on which the national leader depends for political support – can support or oppose expending resources on external action. Thus, in order to predict which type of grand strategy national leaders are likely to attempt, analysts must answer the following questions: Is the external environment quite threatening, requiring that, ideally, leaders and nation respond? Or is it not threatening, allowing national leaders much geopolitical “slack” to choose between ambitious and modest external goals? Is the internal coalition on which national leaders rely for political support willing to expend internal resources on external defense (“guns”)? Or would that coalition prefer instead to concentrate internal resources on internal consumption (“butter”)?
The answers to these questions largely determine what general type of grand strategy national leaders will choose, though again not the specific grand strategy (figure 2.2, page 31).
<> A threatening external environment and defense-oriented internal coalition imply specific grand strategies of mobilizing for war or even conducting defensive war, often “wars of necessity.” Trubowitz labels this type “balancing,” here for clarity we call it “PERFORMING” adequately in geopolitics.
<> A threatening external environment and domestically-oriented internal coalition imply specific grand strategies – appeasement, external balancing, buckpassing – that rely on what we will call “diplomacy of necessity”: that is, having to make do with diplomacy because military options are not available. Trubowitz calls this type “satisficing,” here for clarity we call it “BARELY PERFORMING” in geopolitics.
<> An unthreatening external environment and defense-oriented internal coalition allows the options of specific grand strategies such as imperialism and wars of conquest, always “wars of choice.” Trubowitz calls this type “expansionism,” here for consistency we call it “OVER-PERFORMING” in geopolitics.
<> Finally, an unthreatening external environment and a domestically-oriented coalition allows the options of specific grand strategies such as retrenchment or isolationism. Trubowitz calls this type “underextension,” here for consistency we call it “UNDER-PERFORMING” in geopolitics, relative to what one’s power permits.
We now note some appearances of these four general types of grand strategy in American history. Please note that our presentation is NOT chronological. Some accounts of the history of American foreign policy assume that, for most of American history, American grand strategy was, for example, “isolationist” and only during World War II became “expansionist.” In fact, in all periods of American history, American leaders have resorted to quite different types of grand strategy. It is true that, between about 1800 and 1900, the United States only gradually achieved enough power to challenge Great Britain (which it then did not do) or to project power beyond North and South America (as, gradually, it did do in East Asia). Nevertheless, even between 1800 and1900, USA grand strategy was often highly expansionist, albeit mostly within North America: against Native Americans everywhere, against Spain in Florida, against Canada in New York, and against relatively weak Mexico in the Southwest. Moreover, American grand strategy was not always automatically successful or even automatically in what an outside observer might consider “the national interest.” For example – in addition to having challenged the British in the 1776-1783 War of Independence – the US again challenged the UK in the War of 1812: imprudently and disastrously, mostly because of domestic politics.
PERFORMING: WAR OF NECESSITY
If the external environment is quite threatening, and the internal environment supports external action, grand strategy is likely to be robust: leaders mobilize the nation against foreign enemies, the whole country doing its best to perform adequately relative to objective geopolitical challenge. The classic example in American history is the American response to the 1941 Japanese attack on the American navy in Hawaii. Amid instant public outrage, the USA immediately declared war on Japan and mobilized for total victory. Because 1941 was the only time that a major power directly and suddenly attacked the USA, arguably 1941 is the main example of such robust and immediate response.
Nevertheless, another major example of fundamental challenge and sustained response was the 1950-1990 Cold War. The Soviet Union certainly was hostile to the United States, with comparable capacities for destruction. The public certainly supported a response to “communist threat,” and industrial interests gradually formed a (congressional)-“military-industrial” complex that gained economic benefits from national spending on defense. The main break in public support came only when American forces became bogged down fighting a country that did not pose much threat to the USA, 1960s Vietnam.
OVER-PERFORMING: WAR OF CHOICE
If the external environment is not threatening, national leaders have a choice of whether to pursue ambitious or modest grand strategies, probably depending on whether the internal environment supports external action or not. If the internal coalition thrives on national appropriations for military “defense,” responses are likely to be robust – “over-performing” relative to objective geopolitical challenge.
An example is Bush’s early 2000s response to the 2001 terrorist attack on New York and Washington. To be sure, that was an attack that required some response. But overall, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the USA remained basically quite secure. Bush could have chosen a modest response, narrowly targeted on the terrorist networks that had conducted the 9/11 attack. Instead he chose to broaden his “war on terror” as far as possible. (97-104)
There are other famous and important instances of “over-performing” in the history of American external relations. One was James Monroe’s 1823 declaration that European powers (France and Spain) should stay out of the Western Hemisphere. One might think he was declaring this on the basis of new American military power and new American resolve to defend the hemisphere. Actually Monroe was simply aligning the United States with Great Britain, which had just defeated France and itself wanted Spain and Russia to stay out of the Americas. With its main imperial interests elsewhere, Britain was happy to leave policing the Americas to the USA. Monroe could take this initiative because the only great power that could attack the USA was Britain, which had no interest in doing so, so long as the USA did not challenge vital British interests. Monroe took this initiative for domestic political reasons: his Southeast dynasty of Jeffersonian presidents from Virginia was gradually losing power to the rising West. Monroe was maneuvering to retain power by coopting support from declining Federalists in the Northeast, who supported an assertive foreign policy (which the West opposed). (79-90)
Another famous and important instance of American geopolitical “over-performance” was William McKinley’s 1898 decision to declare war on Spain to seize its colonies – originally just Cuba, but eventually also the Philippines. When McKinley took office in 1897, he opposed war, for carefully calculated external and internal reasons: he feared European intervention in Cuba and he feared domestic opposition from his business support coalition. However, by 1898 it was clear that Europeans would not intervene and domestic business had begun to favor war. Moreover, to combat a strong challenge from populist Democrats, a muscular Republican foreign policy mobilized popular sentiment behind Republicans. That reelected Republican McKinley in 1900 and elected his Republican successor Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. Meanwhile, the external over-performance of McKinley and Roosevelt carried American “imperialism” overseas. Having spent the 1800s conquering most of North America, arguably the USA had now run out of continent to conquer. (90-97)
BARELY PERFORMING: DIPLOMACY OF NECESSITY
If the external environment is quite threatening, but the internal environment opposes external action, grand strategy is likely to consist of temporizing maneuvers intended to minimize external dangers. The country “barely performs” relative to objective geopolitical demands. National leaders are doubly constrained, by both external and internal forces.
For example, before the 1941 Japanese attack, in the late 1930s Franklin Roosevelt had been unable to mobilize the USA against rising threats in Europe and Asia. Not only were many Republicans still isolationist, but many Democrats were as well – Democrats whose support Roosevelt needed in order to pursue his domestic objectives. From about 1936, Roosevelt considered the USA’s external environment increasingly threatening, but congress limited what he could do. So temporarily even he tried to “appease” Hitler. By 1938 that clearly had failed, so Roosevelt switched to aiding Britain and France against Germany (what Trubowitz calls “buckpassing”). However, Roosevelt could increase such aid only gradually, as Democrats only gradually became less isolationist. Trubowitz notes that, throughout depression and war, Roosevelt skillfully adjusted his external and internal strategies to minimize conflict between the two. (64-74)
Another famous example of doubly constrained grand strategy in American history was 1790s George Washington. He well knew that America was still no military match for Britain and therefore must avoid provoking a war with it. Besides, domestically, Washington had sided with Hamilton’s “statist-developmentalist” domestic coalition, which needed peace with Britain in order to pursue the USA’s economic development. So Washington had to “appease” Britain – just enough to avoid provoking it and no more – to avoid provoking France. Washington called this appeasement “neutrality.” (46-55)
A less well known but important example of doubly constrained grand strategy was early 1860s Abraham Lincoln. He knew that Britain was still the decisive global power and that therefore he must not provoke Britain into intervening in the American Civil War on the side of the South. Britain could easily have opened a northern front from Canada, forcing the North to fight a two-front war (north and south). Lincoln averted this by exempting British ships from his naval blockade of the South. He gradually appealed to anti-slavery sentiment in Brtiain – for example, through his dramatic Emancipation Proclamation freeing southern slaves. (55-64)
UNDER-PERFORMING: DIPLOMACY OF CHOICE
If the external environment is not threatening, and the internal environment opposes external action, national leaders are likely to avoid external action, even though the external environment would have permitted it. Such leaders “under-perform” relative to objective geopolitical opportunity. Often the reason is that such leaders are constrained domestically.
The constraint may be that the leader knows that if he takes external action it will create divisions in his domestic political coalition. In the 1830s, Martin van Buren had been the architect of the North-South Democratic political coalition that put Andrew Jackson in the presidency. However, by the time that van Buren succeeded Jackson as president, that coalition was under strain. Events in Texas, Canada, and Maine gave van Buren opportunities for external intervention. However, he eschewed intervention because it would have further split Democrats. A grand strategy of retrenchment created little opportunity for political gain, but it avoided dangerous risks of political loss. (108-114)
Trubowitz argues that the situation of president Herbert Hoover in the 1920s was similar. Before becoming president, Hoover had already long been a committed and experienced internationalist. Therefore many expected him to pursue an active foreign policy. In the 1920s, the USA was quite geopolitically secure, which would have permitted an ambitious foreign policy. Moreover, Hoover had many opportunities for foreign intervention, particularly in Latin America. However, no external threat required external action, and Hoover eschewed external opportunities. The reason was that Hoover’s Republican party was divided on most external issues. Raising them would have further divided the party. So Hoover downplayed foreign affairs, delaying the USA’s emergence as the great power it already was and exacerbating the international aspects of the Great Depression. (114-120)
In the 1990s and 2010s, Clinton and Obama both displayed many characteristics of “retrenchment” external policy, such as preferring diplomacy to defense and, within defense, ordering missile strikes instead of deploying ground troops. Nevertheless, Clinton and Obama pursued different versions of geopolitical “under-performance,” variants that are significant, both historically and analytically.
In the 1990s, president Clinton provided a complex case. He presided over an era of transition in both foreign affairs and domestic politics, when both levels presented mixed readings on the variables in Trubowitz’s model of how presidents choose their grand strategies. As a result, the strategic result too was mixed. In domestic politics, Clinton was famous for “triangulating” between opposing positions: taking an intermediate stand, or alternating between stands. Evidently he did somewhat the same in defense policy. (120-127)
“Victory” over the Soviet Union in the Cold War had left the United States in an unthreatening external environment that ostensibly permitted the president to choose between activism and passivism in foreign policy. However, it was not clear how long that unthreatening environment would last. So Clinton received mixed messages about the USA’s external situation. He did not precipitously abandon Cold War defense arrangements.
Politically, Clinton and his Democrats favored attention to domestic not foreign policy. Clinton did lower defense budgets, did rely on diplomacy, and used force only through from-a-distance and narrowly targeted “missile diplomacy.” On the other hand, Clinton’s domestic political situation was not strong, even among Democrats. Moreover, he was trying to govern as a Democratic president in an era mostly dominated by conservative Republicans. Clinton managed Republican challenges in complex ways (more behind-the-scenes cooperation with Republicans than was visible at the time). Republicans demanded external activism.
The upshot of these cross-pressures was that in foreign policy, under a rationale of “selective engagement,” Clinton did as little as possible as late as possible. Nothing he did was either completely active or completely passive. Moreover, on successive foreign policy issues, he in effect alternated between activism and passivism!
What has been America’s grand strategy under Barach Obama? Retrenchment: in a non-threatening external environment, downsizing Bush’s ambitious foreign policy to Obama’s modest one. Following Bush’s geopolitical “over-performance” in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama gradually extricated the USA from both conflicts. After all, Bush’s Republican domestic coalition favored “a strong military” (guns), while Obama’s domestic coalition favored social programs (butter). (145-148)
For the post-cold war “sole superpower,” the external environment remained basically unthreatening, at least in terms of the conventional threats from national states that would induce one to go to war with whole countries. To consolidate the support of his domestic mass coalition and to maximize his dominance of domestic political elites, Bush had chosen a maximalist response to “terror,” invading whole countries. To relieve Americans’ war-weariness and shift resources toward economic recovery and social programs, in external defense Obama chose to narrow his targets and attack them from afar with precision weapons.
Obama has displayed the same strategic modesty in response to other geopolitical challenges: in the Middle East, the Far East, and now in Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, Obama has pressed for a diplomatic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, maintained ties with all sides as the “Arab spring” first warmed and then cooled, “led from behind” in Libya, and declined direct military intervention in Syria. In the Far East, Obama may be “pivoting” toward balancing China, but direct confrontation would be inconsistent with his Retrenchment grand strategy. In Eastern Europe, Russian seizure of parts of Ukraine poses the greatest foreign challenge during Obama’s presidency, and the deepest crisis in global geopolitics since the end of the Cold War. Obama’s response remains in line with his overall Grand Strategy: no immediate direct military intervention, instead gradual indirect economic pressure. Whether that will much affect Russian behavior – at least under the adventurist leadership of Vladimir Putin – seems doubtful.
For more on American Grand Strategy, including by region, see Post 130309.