Throughout the Cold War, the United States had a single defining strategy that drove nearly every aspect of its foreign policy. That goal was the opposition to Soviet communism and the spread of anti-American regimes all over the world. Ultimately, this strategy worked. Or, at the very least, Soviet communism was defeated in some part thanks to the American strategies of containment and rollback. But since then, America has struggled to find a new national strategy. We've lurched from generic support for human rights, to fighting a "War on Terror," to supporting democratic movements in Middle Eastern countries (well at least the ones that aren't part of core interests). But what should a Grand National Strategy look like? And why does it matter?
A Grand National Strategy isn't usually a document carved in stone. More often than not, it is simply a single unifying directive that all parties (political and otherwise) agree is part of the core national or international interest. Opposition to Soviet communism fit this bill nicely during the Cold War. After all, the Soviet Union was thought to be pushing its influence all over the world in an effort to destabilize democratic nations and undermine the United States. Democrats and Republicans alike recognized the importance of this directive and worked together towards this end. Even when national politics were at their worst, everyone recognized that "politics stops at the waters edge." Now, nearly every policy decision (foreign policy especially) is criticized to death by every media outlet and under-informed talking head in the country. This isn't to say that we shouldn't all have a say in our foreign policy, but more often than not this type of scrutiny leads to political deadlock. Either America can't agree on it's policy priorities, or it wastes an entire presidential administration trying to undo what the last administration did. Something has to change.
Other nations are arguably already doing this. Russia has an obvious policy of subverting Western democracy and causing chaos throughout the Liberal International Order. The focus of this singular policy has paid off greatly, as the United States is now more politically gridlocked as ever, while the leader of the "free world" seems more interested in tearing down the institutions that have made America (and much of the world) great for decades. China, on the other hand, has adopted a Grand National Strategy of expanding its influence throughout as much of Asia and the Pacific as possible. China has nearly succeeded in gaining de facto control of the South China Sea (where nearly one third of the world's sea trade travels through). And their "Belt and Road" initiative is seeking to create a Chinese band of trade and economic influence that extends from China all the way to Europe. This wouldn't be so bad, except that China's policy involves making extraordinary loans to other nations to pay for this investment, then seizing the properties when poor nations default on these loans. China has a Grand National Strategy, and it is working.
So what should be the United States' strategy? There are many possibilities here. One could be the eradication of terrorism wherever it may lie, but we've already tried playing this game of whack-a-mole for nearly two decades to no avail. Another could be the promotion of human rights protections and the prosecutions of these abuses. This would be easy to do against China, but other strategic allies like Saudi Arabia would become complicated if we started pressing them too hard.
Instead, I believe the United States should pursue a defensive strategy of protecting its core strategic alliances and preventing the further erosion of democracy both at home and abroad. There are deeply concerning trends of fascism and authoritarianism spreading throughout Europe. If left unchecked, these have the ability to dissolve the core alliances that have made American power possible since the end of the Second World War. This strategy would recognize that "great power competition" is the most important struggle of this new century, not attempting to fight a vague ideology like "terrorism." While shoring up America's position, this strategy would also put the United States on the offensive, pushing back against Russian and Chinese authoritarianism as it attempts to swallow up American allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Naturally, this would recognize that some authoritarian nations will have to remain American allies. After all, pushing for democracy in Saudi Arabia would mean the end of their strategic cooperation in other areas of international security. But in all, it would redirect America's efforts toward core American interests and away from wayward conflicts in remote parts of Africa and the Middle East.
It's not an easy conversation to have, but it needs to be done. America must recognize that it has lost the core directive of its foreign policy and work to correct this. We already know that the preservation of American postwar alliance system is a core national interest, but now we need a strategy to carry this out. Or, if this isn't the strategy we should choose, we must still define something. After all, if you don't know where you are going, you will surely end up there.