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What Good is Grand Strategy? by Hal Brands

Reagan in Red Square
Reagan in Red Square
Photo by The White House/Getty Images

Hal Btands suggests in his new book “What Good Is Grand Strategy?: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush” that the very definition of grand strategy is somewhat elusive. He makes a stab at it by suggesting that it is the way that a nation employs all of its power, military, diplomatic, economic, and moral to achieve certain ends. To illustrate how this is done. Brands creates four case studies of post-World War Two presidents of the United States and how they employed grand strategy.

Harry Truman was tasked with creating some kind of stable world order after the calamity of World War II and at the same time confront and contain the Soviet threat. Economic aid was employed to rebuild Europe under the Marshal Plan. Alliances such as NATO were formed to provide a military counter balance to the Soviets and their allies. Even espionage proved useful for undermining communist parties in western European countries. On one occasion, Truman was obliged to go to war to stop communist aggression in Korea. By and large Truman’s grand strategy was judged to be a success.

Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, with the aid of their foreign policy consigliore Henry Kissinger were obliged to attempt to reestablish American power in the wake of Vietnam while at the same time containing the Soviets and decreasing the possibility of nuclear war, Some of the initiatives of this era, such as the opening of China, were brilliant. Some, like the SALT arms control treaties, were controversial. The extraction from Vietnam, which Nixon inherited, proved to be a disaster. The grand strategy employed in this era could be judged to have mixed results.

President Ronald Reagan set out to go on the offensive against the Soviet Union and, eventually, place it on the ash heap of history. He did this with a number of initiatives, such as arming and supporting insurgents in Central America and Afghanistan, using economic and political pressure, starting a military buildup that included a missile defense system known as SDI and, when Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, enact arms control treaties that removed the threat of nuclear war. History has shown that Reagan succeeded brilliantly.

On the other side of the ledger was he effort by President George W. Bush to create conditions in the Middle East that would stop that region from becoming a cradle of terrorism. He proposed to do this, in particular Iraq and Afghanistan, by helping countries become democracies that respected human rights. The goal, while well intentioned, has proven to be elusive.

Brand suggests that there are certain elements to a successful grand strategy. It has to have a focused purpose but also be flexible enough to change with changing circumstances. There has to be a match between goals and capacities, not only resources, but the stomach to do things that might be considered unseemly. Finally there has to be a rough consensus in the government and, in a democracy, the populace at large on the goals and the means to carry out those goals.

Brand’s book, just from the historical analysis, should be a must read for anyone who is interested in foreign policy. The fate of nations and the international order is dependent on how adroitly leaders pursue grand strategy. Indeed, as the travails of the current president proves, it can depend on whether there is an actual grand strategy,

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