Thought leaders and foreign policy veterans can't stop themselves from writing about the new era of great power competition with China and America's lack of a grand strategy. Gen. James Mattis wrote about it in 2015. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton penned an opinion piece about it earlier this year. The RAND Corporation has a Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy. Universities are adding grand strategy programs—Yale, Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Texas, and most recently Florida, to name a few. Would-be diplomats and policy wonks are poring over writings of Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and Henry Kissinger. They debate the Thucydides Trap and the clashes that often result from a rising power's efforts to replace a ruling power.
Efforts to ensure American strength and containment of those who most threaten the rules-based order are laudable. Democrats seek to channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republicans invoke the spirit of Ronald Reagan. Each landed upon a whole-of-government approach to face the challenges of their times, be they Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or Soviet totalitarianism.
However, the lessons of World War II, let alone the Cold War, are growing distant. Just by attrition, cold warriors are increasingly scarce among American policymakers. While some three-star generals and admirals began their careers under Reagan, many did not start their service until George H.W. Bush became president in 1989. Those commanding Army divisions or aircraft carrier strike groups began their careers under the elder Bush or Bill Clinton. Few intelligence analysts have any memory of the Cold War, and fewer diplomats do. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was in high school when the Soviet Union fell.
Historical amnesia is one factor for American neo-isolationism, but politics play an even bigger role. Populism fuels division, and that division is only growing. Americans are increasingly wary of defending nations under attack by revisionist regimes. The United States used to rally against aggressors from invading and annexing their neighbors, but the trend appears to be coming to an end. We came to the aid of South Korea, South Vietnam, and Kuwait. Americans similarly refused to tolerate ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe. Clinton had Republican support in his defense of Bosnia and Kosovo. The breakdown of consensus over Ukraine and Taiwan is likely a sign of things to come unless American leaders begin to prioritize the national interest above the national political debate.
Thought leaders can call for a grand strategy until they are blue in the face, but even the most comprehensive strategy will fail if policymakers cannot get past the self-inflicted wounds caused by hyperpartisanship. Neither party has a monopoly on reckless rhetoric. The unwillingness of party leaders to marginalize those most to blame has a long-term cost.
No less than 70 House Republicans voted last month to cut off all security assistance to embattled Ukraine, while key Democrats supported the White House's outrageous $6 billion (or more) side deal with the regime in Iran that might be better described as a ransom payment.
While both sides exchange recriminations, neither party has a coherent vision for how to shape the country, let alone the world. The strategic impatience demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, yields an advantage to those who prioritize posturing over strategy.
Social media makes this worse. Foreign adversaries use these platforms to overwhelm Americans with so much spin that many no longer know the difference between truth and lies, let alone who we are or what we want.
Democracies debate, of course. America has always been an ambivalent superpower, even though our reign and liberal influence has coincided with some of the greatest advances in human history. Just as Charles Lindbergh's World War II-era isolationism collided with reality, so too does the neo-isolationism of today. The longer America remains aloof, the more China will attempt to flip key energy producing allies like Saudi Arabia. American isolationism emboldens Iran to produce drones for Russia in its war with Ukraine. The perception of a declining America has led Panama, Djibouti and others from the "global South" to cultivate Chinese investment while Egypt gravitates toward Russia, granting America's top adversaries dominance over the great maritime chokepoints.
If the world appears chaotic now, just wait a few years. Should the American-led world order erode, the irredentist clashes and power grabs of today could mushroom into full-blown battles.
Obsequiousness in the face of revisionism and aggression by the Iranian and Chinese regimes is not "responsible statecraft," to borrow a favorite term of Washington's leading isolationists. George Washington warned of "foreign entanglements," but his successors also understood the country cannot remain aloof to grave injustice.
While relatively minimal American support prevents Russia from gaining the upper hand in Ukraine, it is China's rise that will push America toward its next major decision point. Americans recognize President Xi Jinping's aggression, but there is no consensus on how to address the threat. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have taken a relatively tough line, but public intellectuals like Kissinger and Harvard's Graham Allison make influential pleas for accommodation. The perception of American decline only amplifies their voices.
For those seeking to ensure that the American century extends into the future, hard work lies ahead. Our grand strategy cannot be predicated only on what Americans want to prevent. Rather, a coherent strategy needs to reflect who we want to be as a nation, and what kind of world we want to shape. In the 2017 National Security Strategy, President Donald Trump pledged, "We will never lose sight of our values and their capacity to inspire, uplift, and renew." The strategy defined those principles as those at the core of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: "Liberty, free enterprise, equal justice under the law, and the dignity of every human life are central to who we are as a people." Biden's 2022 National Security Strategy touched on the same themes. "We continue to do the work at home to better live up to the idea of America enshrined in our founding documents," Biden wrote.
That and Biden both emphasized core American values suggests that a political culture of cooperation is possible. This does not mean that our leaders must agree with one another. But it does mean that they must find ways to find consensus to serve the national interest. Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar did it for the sake of arms control. Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman forged a genuine friendship in their pursuit of bipartisan policies that served America.
At a minimum, Congress should agree to keep core national security committees—such as Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Armed Services—insulated from partisan battles. Members should hold their staffers to the same standard. Close consultation to determine areas of common ground, without the influence of cable news talking points, can help these committees subsequently defend their strategies in a bipartisan manner. A focus on forging a better future rather than litigating the past is necessary for all of this.
Admittedly, now is not an easy time to forge such alliances and policies. The politics of today don't reward it. But without such collaboration, focus upon grand strategy is not only meaningless, it might even do harm if intellectuals and policymakers use it as a crutch to avoid the real problem: the domestic discord fueling America's identity crisis.