A phrase started circulating in political circles earlier this year.
It was described as President Obama’s organizing principle in foreign relations:
“Don’t do stupid stuff.”
Often, the phrase is relayed with an expletive in place of the word I’m using here.
Hal Brands, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and History at Duke University, takes a look at this much-derided phrase in a speech at the Savannah Council on World Affairs.
He examines the ideas behind it.
And he takes a broader look at the administration’s “grand strategy” in general.
“A grand strategy is really just a set of generally coherent, interlocking ideas about what we want to do in the world and how we should get there,” Brands says. “And those ideas need to be firm enough to keep our policies anchored and oriented amid all the things that are happening in the world. They also need to be flexible enough to allow us to adapt and even to improvise when the unexpected happens.”
Brands recently wrote a book on “grand strategy,” published by Cornell University Press.
He describes President Obama’s prime directives in world affairs as three:
1. Preserve the unipolar world order, in which America dominates global affairs. This strategy dates back through multiple U.S. presidents since the end of the Cold War. It manifests itself in policies such anti-nuclear proliferation.
2. The smarter use of force. This strategy is more recent. It comes as a result of the war in Iraq. The administration doesn’t want to deploy American soldiers abroad. So it relies a lot more on foreign allies and drone strikes.
3. A pivot to Asia. This strategy realizes that the world is shifting power to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and especially toward China. Economically, this could be the Asian century. So, the administration wants to shift focus.
And he says, overall, these are not bad ideas.
“You could make a case that this has actually been a pretty reasonable strategy to pursue and that none of its core principles are obviously wrong or misguided in a fundamental way,” Brands says.
But there are problems. Some of these ideas are inherently risky. And others have been implemented poorly. Here are five problems Brands has with Obama’s “grand strategy.”
1. It’s not very inspiring. “Preserving the status quo and avoiding big mistakes are worthy objectives but there’s nothing particularly stirring about them,” Brands says. “Grand strategies need domestic support. And domestic support is easier to get when we can describe our strategy in terms that intuitively make sense to people who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about foreign affairs.”
2. The U.S. is facing fiscal problems that could hamper the country’s ability to maintain overwhelming dominance. “The ends of our grand strategy may be sound,” Brands says. “But the means simply may not be there, the resources simply may not be there.”
3. Europe is becoming less stable. Specifically, Russia is demanding more attention than anyone expected even a few years ago.
4. Getting out of the Middle East is easier said than done. We can’t expect this region to be stable anytime soon. And we can’t leave in a bad way.
5. And finally, restraint and non-intervention are not always wise. Retrenchment can lead to even worse scenarios, like the one in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS has taken over.
Brands says as the Obama administration enters its final years, it’s coming to realize some of the mistakes of its “grand strategy.”
Already, officials have done some turnaround on some clearly troubled policies.
But as long as the world’s powers pursue “grand strategies” and the world remains an unpredictable place, America will continue to turn its ship of state, however slowly.
I recorded Brand’s 25-minute talk at the Coastal Georgia Center.