[Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, The End of Grand Strategy. US Maritime Operations In the 21st Century. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY, 2017. 238 pages]


REVIEWEmili J. Blasco [Spanish version]

The concept of Grand Strategy is not univocal. In its most abstract sense, used in the field of geopolitics, Grand Strategy refers to the geopolitical imperatives of a country and determines what a State must necessarily do to achieve its primary and fundamental purpose in its relationship with others, usually in terms of power. In a lesser degree of abstraction, Grand Strategy is understood as the principle that should govern the way a country confronts conflicts on the international stage. This is what, in the case of the United States, is usually called a Presidential Doctrine and aims to create a norm for the response, especially in the realm of military force, to the challenges and threats that could arise.

This second meaning, more concrete, is the one used in The End of Grand Strategy. Its authors do not question that there are geopolitical imperatives that should determine the action of the United States over time. What they reject is the intention of giving a unique strategic response to the variety of security risks facing the country. “Strategies have to be calibrated according to operational circumstances. They exist in the plural, not in a singular grand strategy,” say Simon Reich y Peter Dombrowski, who are professors at Rutgers University and at the Naval War College, respectively, and experts on defense issues.

For these authors, “the notion of a grand strategy entails the vain search for order and consistency in a ever-more complex world», «the very idea of a single, one-size-fits-all grand strategy has little utility in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is often counterproductive.”

Despite the unique doctrines sometimes invoked in some presidencies, in reality different strategic approaches coexist in the same mandate or there are even specific strategies that transcend presidencies. "America does not favor one dominant strategy, nor can it", warn Reich and Dombrowski. 

The End of Grand Strategy. US Maritime Operations In the 21st Century

“The concept of grand strategy is debated in Washington, academia, and the media in the 'singular' rather than the 'plural'. The implication is that there is one path to securing US interests in a complicated world. The debaters also tend to accept a fundamental premise: that the United States has a capacity to control events, and so it can afford to be inelastic in the face of a changing, and increasingly challenging, strategic environment”, write the authors.

The book examines the US military operations so far this century, focusing on naval operations. As a maritime power, it is in this domain where the US action has greater strategic expression. The result of that examination is a list of six strategies, grouped into three types, that the United States has operated in “parallel” and “by necessity”:

1. Hegemony. It rely on American global dominance: a) primacist forms are commonly associated with American unilateralism; in the twenty-first century it included a neoconservative nation-building variant (Iraq and Afghanistan); b) leadership strategy or «cooperative security» is a traditionally liberal coalition in which the United States assumes a primus inter pares role; it aims to secure greater legitimacy for American policies (military drills with Asian partners).

2. Sponsorship. It involves the provision of material and moral resources in support of policies largely advocated and initiated by other actors: a) formal strategies that are specifically authorized by international law and protocols (collaboration against pirates and terrorists); b) informal strategies that respond to the request of a looser coalition of states or policy entrepreneurs rather than being authorized by intergovernmental organizations (interceptions at the sea).

3. Retrenchment: a) isolationism wants to withdraw US forces from overseas bases, reduce US alliance commitments and reassert American sovereignty through stricter border control (barrier against drug-trafficking from South America); b) restraint, which implies selective engagement or offshore balancing (Arctic).

The description of all these different actions shows that, in contrast to the theoretical approach seeking a unifying principle, in reality there are a variety of situations, as the military knows. “Military planners, by contrast, recognize that varied circumstances require a menu of strategic choices», say Reich y Dombrowski. «American policy, in practice, does not replicate any single strategy. It reflects all of them, with different strategic approaches applied, depending on circumstance.”

The authors conclude that “if observers were to accept that no one grand strategy is capable of prescribing responses to the full of threats to American national security, they would necessarily recognize that the primary purpose of a grand strategy is only rhetorical —a statement of values and principles that lack operational utility.” “By definition, the architectural design of any single, abstract strategy is relatively rigid if not indeed static –intellectually, conceptually, analytically, and organizationally. Yet that one grand strategy is expected to work in a context that demands enormous adaptability and that routinely punishes rigidity. (...) The military's leadership is far more aware that scholars or policymakers of that inherent problem.”

Which are the benefits of a plurality of calibrated strategies? According to the authors, it underlines to the policymakers and the public the limits of the US power; it shows that the US is as well influenced by global forces that cannot completely domain, and it tempers the expectations about what the US military can achieve.

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