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More Diplomacy, Less Intervention, but for What? Making Sense of the Grand Strategy Debate

Heather Hurlburt
Friday, June 7, 2019, 8:03 AM

Whatever else 2019 turns out to be, it will enjoy a strong case for being remembered as the golden age of debate over American national security strategy. In the month of April alone, four publications published 14 articles in which more than 20 academics, practitioners and advocates weighed in on what the ends, means and themes of U.S. security policy should be. The thinkers included members of Congress and veterans as well as activists, academics, think-tankers and former diplomats.

President Trump tours the Churchill War Rooms in London with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, June 2019. (Source: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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Whatever else 2019 turns out to be, it will enjoy a strong case for being remembered as the golden age of debate over American national security strategy. In the month of April alone, four publications published 14 articles in which more than 20 academics, practitioners and advocates weighed in on what the ends, means and themes of U.S. security policy should be. The thinkers included members of Congress and veterans as well as activists, academics, think-tankers and former diplomats. They were overwhelmingly—but not entirely—the product of elite institutions; unusually, a large minority were women or people of color. Many of the names are recognizable to members of the foreign policy establishment, but very few readers will be familiar with all of them. I wasn’t.

Though the authors include Republicans, Democrats and people unaffiliated with either party, all share an eagerness for a day when Donald Trump and his acolytes are not running U.S. foreign policy, and each seeks to push forward the national security community’s preparations for that day. (The Texas National Security Review’s 2018 symposium provides an excellent contrasting window into how conservative thinkers are working to build Trump’s actions and utterances into doctrines that might outlast him and where those doctrines diverge.)

Their preoccupations offer a snapshot of what two years of this presidency has clarified—and what it has left contested—among the anti-Trump camp. The writers broadly agree that the post-Cold War years were a time of (bipartisan) hubris and overreach that now must end; they agree, too, that military tools of engagement have been allowed to swell while diplomacy has atrophied, and this must be reversed. Perhaps surprisingly, writers from hard-bitten realists to anti-war liberals to internationalist conservatives nearly all see a continuing role for at least some parts of the alliances and multilateral organizations against which Trump and his enablers have successfully rallied their supporters.

Those may sound like commonplaces. But rallying legislative support for them has felt—since at least the 1990s—like a herculean task. So any progress toward a world in which it is possible to pass budgets that recapitalize the State Department, return important diplomatic tasks and funding to its purview from the Defense Department, and end game-playing with U.S. contributions to international organizations would be a welcome and unexpected coda to the Trump era, should its end arrive in 2021.

A functional and balanced international affairs apparatus is a necessary, but hardly sufficient, condition for a coherent U.S. approach to the world as it presents itself in the decade ahead. Here the authors diverge around a set of enormous questions: Should Washington’s goal still be U.S. primacy on the world stage; whether or not China will become and remain a true, full peer competitor; whether the United States is now a combatant in an ideological and moral struggle against authoritarianism.

Last, and perhaps most important, these authors are using the prism of grand strategy to play out their version of one of the defining arguments of our day. They take positions on what does or doesn’t belong in American security strategy, which I would recast as: How should Americans understand ourselves and our relationship to the world beyond our shores? Are we, as President Trump seems to have convinced 30-some percent of the electorate, best understood as a beleaguered European male culture, under siege from alien values, nuclear weapons and fake news at every turn? Or, as a significant number of strategy thinkers across the political spectrum suggest, are we a noble, diverse democratic experiment under siege from some combination (depending whom you ask) of autocrats and crony capitalists? Are we living, instead, in a postideological age, just the first among a set of edgy great powers reliving the 18th century with nuclear weapons and WhatsApp? Or are we self-involved fools, highlighting all these minor differences while the climate apocalypse bears down on us?

If that is the central debate convulsing our politics, it should be unsurprising to find these disagreements splintering discussion of strategy, too. And they are. But it can be hard to get there because so much of our foreign policy discourse is set up to keep those extraneous issues at bay. An examination of the strategy debate, though, ultimately makes clear that security strategy will be completely dependent on the answers to those questions.

Readers will want a scorecard or a set of categories to slot authors into—Republicans or Democrats, realists or internationalists, Jacksonians or Wilsonians. I am indebted to Thomas Wright, the Brookings scholar and frequent writer on strategy, for offering three very broad categories and for immediately pointing out the most interesting debates that are happening within each. In his view, progressives differ over how far to pare back the military, and what constructs of U.S. leadership, if any, are legitimate. Liberal internationalists are also divided over what constructs of U.S. leadership can be salvaged after Trump and whether primacy should remain the aim of U.S. policy. And then there are the realists. They debate vigorously between offshore balancers, who would like to extract Washington from all its alliances, and restrainers, who want to pare back the current system of alliances and commitments considerably but not completely. Readers who are accustomed to the realist plaint that both their scholars and their ideas are shut out from the blobby halls of power may be surprised, or just amused, to find classic restraint dogmas in the writing of well-regarded experts from both major parties—and explicit offshore balancers taking up prime real estate in prestigious policy journals.

In these essays, the lines between schools and dogmas often blur—and that is to their credit. Many of the authors explicitly see their project as redefining what it means to be a progressive, liberal internationalist, or realist.

This review essay considers 14 recent pieces in order to get a clearer picture on where the debate over American foreign policy stands right now, covering major disagreements and emerging schools of thought but also shared underlying assumptions (of which there are a surprising number) and gaps or strains that can reveal to us how our understanding of our country and its relations with the world is changing—and how it is not, or not yet. (The pieces include New Voices in Grand Strategy, a collection of seven essays published by the Center for a New American Security [CNAS]; “Searching for a Strategy,” a four-piece collection published by Foreign Affairs; and contemporaneous articles by Sen. Ben Sasse in Texas National Security Journal, Ganesh Sitaraman in War on the Rocks, and journalist Alex Ward’s synthesis of interviews with a number of key congressional progressive voices in Vox.)

Their debates built on a 2018 that saw more than a dozen pieces on the same theme published in numerous outlets as well as two collections in the Texas National Security Review.

Shared Themes—“It Was the 90s, Stupid.”

More shared understandings emerge than one might have expected from a group that includes former Bush and Obama administration officials, anti-war campaigners and well-known realist academics. Notably, and unlike critiques of prior years that tended to focus on the limitations and hypocrisies of Cold War-era U.S. policy, this group uniformly points to the post-Cold War 1990s as the period in which U.S. strategic ambitions and accomplishments got out of whack. Across ideological divides, the authors convict Democrats and Republicans alike of overreach and hubris. All of them want Americans to be clear that the problem with U.S. foreign policy, whatever it is, predates Trump and his administration.

While the question of whether or not the 2003 Iraq War was worth it is again a hot topic in American politics., these authors all agree on its abject failure, and most cite it as a major cause of Washington’s subsequent woes. The outlier is Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner, who says that while the war was a mistake, it “didn’t permanently weaken the U.S. position.”

The authors also broadly favor more discriminating use of military force, though what this looks like in practice varies widely. Some—chiefly academic Stephen Walt and others identified as favoring strategies of “offshore balancing” or “restraint”—advocate significant retrenchment, withdrawal of permanent bases overseas and/or cuts in military spending. Ganesh Sitaraman, who advises Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, asserts that “the new progressive foreign policy” “is highly skeptical of military interventions” and “seeks to reshape the military budget by both cutting the budget overall and reallocating military spending.” Rebecca Friedman Lissner of the Naval War College even describes the purpose of a new American grand strategy as taming the U.S.’s own temptation to intervene militarily around the globe. Others want to maintain or even expand the $750 billion (base budget) military establishment that we have but be more judicious about its use. Former Pentagon official Hal Brands calls for a strategy that is both “less ambitious and more assertive.”

They universally, and specifically, go out of their way to stress the need to reinvigorate and expand U.S. diplomacy. Some, like Lissner, Kate Kizer and Kori Schake, see focusing on nonmilitary tools as an important update to U.S. national security strategy; others, like Walt, see “a major effort to rebuild and professionalize the U.S. diplomatic corps” as something important but outside the realm of grand strategy.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the flood of critique of our allies from right and left alike in recent years, the writers generally support maintaining the U.S. network of treaty-based alliances (generally understood as NATO, Japan and South Korea). Sitaraman summarizes left-of-center views: “[P]rogressives are thus far more skeptical of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia and far more interested in reinforcing and deepening ties with allies like Japan—and are concerned about the erosion of alliances like NATO from within.” That concern is shared by the writers who identify themselves as centrists or Never-Trump Republicans—or by those who have stayed out of partisan national security politics. The realists, usually the ones offering skepticism about U.S. alliances, share enthusiasm for retaining an alliance with Japan as part of a strategy that has the central goal of sustaining U.S. global freedom of movement in response to China’s rise. Walt, known for his caustic and comprehensive critique of U.S. post-Cold War policy, argues for deepening U.S. alliances with other Asian nations, while Emma Ashford and Jasen Castillo prefer lighter structures focused primarily or entirely on Japan. Only Joshua Shifrinson calls for an approach that leaves the United States entirely “freed of firm and fixed security commitments.”

Alert readers will note that I have hopped over the question of U.S. allies in the Middle East. The essays largely do the same. Sasse offers that “there’s little end in sight to [America’s] involvement in the Middle East.” Most other authors allude to Washington becoming less involved in the Middle East as part of their strategies. The unspoken message: Across party lines, the expectation that regional alliances are central to U.S. values or interests has declined. (And, yes, that includes Israel.)

The authors also generally assume that the United States will continue to engage in cooperation with groups of nations in various multilateral fora. With the notable exception of Kizer’s call for a redefinition of U.S. interests as fully universal, however, the authors have quietly shifted away from fully embracing the Cold War-era nostrum that Washington’s own interests were entirely coherent with those of a rules-based international order. Schake combines a call for a re-funded, rebuilt State Department and development assistance architecture—and explicitly removing those functions from the military’s to-do list—with a pungent definition of what strategy should be, which she sources to Henry Kissinger: “What are we trying to achieve, even if we must pursue it alone?” and “What are we trying to prevent, even if we must combat it alone?”

Key Differences

As the preceding discussion implies, the essayists differ fundamentally about what national security strategy—and national security—is, or what it ought to encompass. Looking back at periods in which Washington’s military, economic and political might were unchallenged, the authors reach different conclusions about what status it is wise or even feasible for the U.S. to seek going forward. They have major differences over how, or even whether, to define and counter opponents along ideological or values-driven grounds. And they have a set of very specific differences around China’s trajectory, and what different U.S. responses to China will produce as results.


The essays diverge, as one might expect, over the question of primacy and the role of American leadership. Can and should the United States retain its unequaled world power status? Is a dominant U.S. role in world affairs “indispensable,” as Sasse (an unacknowledged quote from Madeleine Albright) says, or a luxury the country can no longer afford, as Obama administration official Jeremy Shapiro suggests?

Many of the writers sort themselves predictably by ideology on this question. The avowed restrainers (Ashford, Castillo, and Walt) explicitly oppose primacy, while Never-Trump Republicans Drezner and Schake join Sasse in insisting that the U.S. leadership role can be recouped, and that the investment needed to do so would be worthwhile.

A number of authors identified with the left and center-left attempt to sketch out a U.S. role that entails leadership but rests less on the leadership as an organizing principle and assumes something less than primacy. Brands wants U.S. policy to be “less ambitious but more assertive.” Lissner and her Foreign Affairs co-author Mira Rapp-Hooper suggest a downsized goal—from world dominance to defense of openness. Kizer offers a strenuous critique of primacy and then continues: “The United States remains in a unique position to lead the world in addressing collective security threats such as climate change and nuclear weapons.”

Sitaraman argues that

Action along progressive lines—making a more equitable international economic system, confronting nationalist oligarchy and crony capitalism—will obviously require American leadership. Progressive foreign policy advocates are showing the direction in which they will lead instead of spending time talking about decades-old buzzwords.

Ideology and Values

Perhaps the place where the authors’ views are the hardest to sort into emerging schools of thought is on the future role of ideology and values in U.S. foreign policy.

Security establishment and progressive thinkers are split over whether the United States is already engaged in—or on the cusp of—a generational struggle pitting democracies against authoritarians. For thinkers who run the partisan gamut from Sitaraman to Sasse, a contemporary set of undemocratic rulers has weaponized autocracy, technology and markets to mount a comprehensive challenge that goes well beyond the battlefield to the economy and onward to the realm of politics and ideas.

Although these thinkers agree on the very broadest definition of the problem, there follows an almost-immediate split between them. Sasse (as well as Wright) is not on board with the distributional argument advanced by Sitaraman as well as Senators Warren and Sanders, which places corruption and concentration of wealth as equally concerning effects of authoritarianism. Indeed Sasse and Wright, along with Brands and others, tend to leave economics out of their analyses.

Another set of establishment and progressive thinkers sees this line of thinking as a problem in itself. As Lissner and Rapp-Hooper put it, “[T]he world is not entering a new Cold War pitting liberal democracies against authoritarian regimes: China and Russia are revisionist participants within the existing international order, not enemies standing outside of it.” Ashford goes farther:

With the exception of a few questionable maritime claims—there also is little evidence that China is a revisionist power seeking to dominate Asia or the world, and there are strong concerns that a strategy of confrontation with China is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interestingly, the writers who perceive Washington as facing an existential contest of systems and values diverge on how they want the United States to promote its values abroad. Schake explicitly calls for revitalizing the traditional U.S. democracy-promotion and foreign-assistance architecture and returning to a cooperative stance in existing international institutions. Sasse, by contrast, wants to build entirely new institutions.

Both Brands and Lissner put the kinds of programs that in the post-Cold War period were classed as human rights and democracy promotion under the label of political warfare targeted at authoritarian opponents. That approach will discomfit many of the field’s current professionals, but it certainly represents a return to how such efforts were understood during the Cold War. Kizer has an entirely different approach: She wants to shift U.S. policy aims to make “the protection of human rights as a core priority of U.S. engagement in the world.” To do that, she says, Washington should prioritize solidarity with oppressed peoples over governments and assess prospective foreign policies based on whether they have the support of affected communities and lift up the most marginalized in other societies with which we interact. It also seems important to note a strand of thinking that is implicit in Sitaraman’s piece, and, as Shapiro points out, central to how a number of elected officials and prominent national voices are approaching the issues: that values are best integrated into policymaking in a coherent continuum that ignores a traditional domestic-foreign divide on issues such as migration and gun safety.

Those thinkers who define themselves as realists or restrainers, true to their brand, either ignore entirely the role that values might play in strategy (Shifrinson) or decry what they see as the pernicious influence of values-driven policies (Ashford).


As the most rapidly rising global power and, by some measures, a larger economy than the United States, China attracts particular attention aside from its status as an authoritarian opponent in the realm of values. In parallel with disagreements among China experts, the authors disagree on China’s trajectory and intentions, as well as on how the U.S. should respond. Unlike many other areas, too, here realists and restrainers are as divided as their more establishment peers over how strongly Washington should organize against China’s rise.

The authors start from fundamental disagreements about China’s ultimate potential. Lissner and Rapp-Hooper assert that China is already, or will soon be, a full peer competitor to the United States. Walt and Shifrinson assert that this is a possibility against which U.S. policy should hedge. And while Sasse paints Beijing’s strength in near-apocalyptic terms, Ashford and Castillo point to Beijing’s internal weaknesses and argue that it has not yet and will not soon sustain full peer status.

Brands and Sasse urge Washington to muster a response that is society-wide and all consuming, a frame that many analysts who favor and oppose it have called a “new Cold War.” Brands argues that U.S. policy should seek to actively reverse the past two decades of economic and other integration with China. The U.S. cannot compete against China, he posits, while pursuing integration with it.

Others, implicitly at least, disagree; Lissner and Rapp-Hooper, Kizer and Shifrinson point to the need to cooperate with Beijing on some key priorities while competing vigorously on others.

But some authors push against the mere concept of a security strategy providing the kind of overall animating energy for society that Brands and Sasse propose. Drezner wants the next president to take the lead in rebuilding public and congressional engagement in international affairs. (Some of us remember Madeleine Albright explicitly taking this on twenty years ago, and being pilloried by the armchair strategists of the 1990s for spending too much time in the heartland.)

Shapiro argues that “summoning a sense of national purpose at least akin to the mobilization needed for the Cold War” is “a political fantasy” and “not necessary.” Lissner takes the typical realist approach of insisting that the goals of grand strategy should be few in number in a new direction, seeing grand strategy as a tool to tamp down ambitious security undertakings.

Grand Strategy—What Is It Even Good For?

The authors’ uncertainty about a U.S. response to China highlights an underlying division that says the most, perhaps, about how thinkers opposed to Trump are still struggling to come up with a coherent worldview to oppose to his. They don’t agree among themselves about what Washington can or should be trying to accomplish in the world—or how those goals might relate to what a post-Trump government should be trying to accomplish at home. Writing in Foreign Policy last year, Alasdair Roberts set a task for strategy writers that a number of these essays begin to reach for but don’t quite grasp:

A bigger view of strategy is also useful in moments when the conventional wisdom about national policy has broken down. The United States is suffering through one of these moments right now. The old consensus about domestic and foreign policy has shattered, and we are struggling to reassemble the pieces in a new configuration. We need a conversation about the overall design of national policy—and not just about the domestic or foreign components in isolation.

With this as a definition, some of the gaps in these essays are particularly concerning. A surprising number of the thinkers explicitly exclude economic considerations from their strategic constructs, except to ask whether the United States can afford a particular ally. Sitaraman argues that a hallmark of contemporary progressive thinkers is that they place the interrelationships between economics and security at the heart of their strategy. But it’s hard to find much evidence of that among the writers on strategy who are known for their left-of-center views; and it is equally urgently needed for writers who start with other ideological lenses.

For example, authors who favor pulling back from economic integration with China as part of competition over security and values should believe that it is possible to reorient the U.S. private sector away from its Chinese supply chains—and should have a plan for dealing with the political fallout if the U.S. private sector does not agree. Sitaraman, to be fair, has Warren’s plan to break up U.S. big tech as his starting point for this approach. Sasse appears to believe that lecturing U.S. companies for “tacitly undermining the U.S. national security community” will do the trick. Brands doesn’t mention it.

Authors who do genuflect at the economic-security linkages miss offering priorities for how international economic policies would need to shift to reinforce security, broadly defined. Similarly, some of the discussion around the threat posed by authoritarianism touches on the insecurity that political polarization brings to even well-established democracies. But specific cleavages around race, religion and gender are playing a core role in undermining the security of states, including our own, and empowering extremist challengers to the existing order—and if those issues are mentioned, they are usually listed as concerns a more modest and humble U.S. foreign policy should downgrade.

A number of the authors invoke climate change as a major global issue that Washington should work on with the dividends freed up by less focus on military interventionism; only the progressive congressional voices interviewed by Vox’s Alex Ward see it as a major target of U.S. security strategy. None address how the global cooperation needed to combat and adjust to climate change might affect other elements of U.S. strategy. When I asked Loren DeJonge Schulman, who commissioned and oversaw the seven-essay CNAS volume, she commented that she had attempted to address the gap but found that “my national security peers generally feel we lack the vocabulary and framework to address such a huge challenge.” It wouldn’t surprise me if this were the case for the economic issues as well—though it’s odd that the authors weren’t worried about their lack of expertise in human rights advocacy or about the fact that few are deep experts in both Russia and China. But it highlights the extent to which future effective grand strategies are going to have to be team sports. In a globalized and highly technical world, and a polarized and diffuse domestic environment, the fantasy of finding the next George Kennan or Henry Kissinger and imposing her brilliance on policymaking is just that—fantasy.


There’s a great deal more to say about these collections of essays, their preoccupations, disputes and lacunae. Russia, for example, is characterized as either one part of the autocratic threat or a declining power that can’t muster regional hegemon status in central Europe. Iran, likewise, is either a subset of the autocratic threat or an overblown regional power with which the U.S. should try to improve relations; not a single author thought it worth repeating the Trump administration’s rhetoric about Tehran being one of the most threatening U.S. adversaries that is a staple of our politics. Perhaps a surprising number of the authors seem to endorse the idea of a “new Monroe Doctrine” for the Western Hemisphere. Africa gets only brief mentions as a site of competition with China. Particular aspects of power that have been seen as central to U.S. strategy in the past were surprisingly absent (nuclear weapons, for one). Counterterrorism was mentioned more often as a past excess than a future priority. Perhaps more surprisingly for devotees of great-power competition, while several authors evoked the United States’s unique continental advantages, none considered either its natural resource strengths or its deficits in a world where a small number of minerals and energy sources play such a large role in economic and military affairs, as my New America colleague Sharon Burke has identified.

The absence of hand-waving about high technology and artificial intelligence changing everything, by contrast, was welcome; indeed, Lissner warns that “strategists should be wary of new forms of military intervention that appear to lower costs and risks.”

The fact that so very many prominent publications think it’s worth devoting massive column-inches to the topic—and promoting younger experts who, glittering as their resumes are, can’t be tagged as authors of the strategy of recent years—may be the most important takeaway. When senators and presidential candidates get asked about foreign policy, we still mostly hear sound bites that could have been written any time in the past 20 years. These writings show that the sound-bite authors—as well as the reporters, editors and producers who ask the same old questions—might be falling behind the curve.

Heather Hurlburt runs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America, which partnered with the Global Gender Parity Initiative, the Compton Foundation and POLITICO Focus to perform the research. She has held foreign policy and national security positions in the White House, State Department and Congress.

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