Rebuilding Strategic Thinking

Not just strategic analysis but strategy is more important now than ever. Churchill is said to have com­mented after a particularly undistinguished meal, “The pudding [that’s dessert for us Americans] lacked a theme.”[1] That is too, too true of the world before us. If that world is less existentially dangerous than the high Cold War, it is scary in its shapelessness. Threats seem to emanate from everywhere, unpre­dictably, even at a luncheon in San Bernardino or a nightclub in Orlando. It is a world that cries out for old-fashioned strategic analysis as an input to strategy: what is important, what is less so? How do issues connect or relate to each other? And where are the trends taking us? Where and how should we inter­vene, and where should we disengage? What are the important investments to make? What should we be aiming for a decade hence?

By Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

What Does Strategy Require?

In contrast to now, strategy was not much of an issue during the long Cold War: containing the Soviet Union was the overwhelming priority. To be sure, if most of the debates occurred at the edges of an agreed strategy, sometimes they were heated: were China and the Soviet Union allies; did revolutionary regimes in Central America or Africa upset the bipolar geopolitical order? Then, with the demise of communism the United States fell prey to the opposite, the lure of the “unipolar moment,” which made many Americans think the country could simply dictate the future. When 9/11 happened, it was almost as if the country had at last found the foe for which it was searching, and the result was the badly-misguided “global war on terrorism,” which substituted a war on a tactic for a strategy that dealt with the world.[2]

It is not as though it is impossible for the United States to be strategic. The U.S. decision to give priority to the European front in World War II, despite Pearl Harbor, is taken for granted now, but was a contro­versial strategic choice then. Here are examples of instances when the United States behaved strategi­cally:

Marshall Plan. In the instance of the Marshall Plan, as in other cases like the fall of communism, the world itself all but required the United States to be strategic. Europe was prostrate. The Plan was generous, though not hugely so—$140 billion in current dollars, compared to a current defense budget of over $800 billion, and a cost of over 4 trillion for U.S. combat operations overseas since 9/11.[3] What is more striking about the Plan is that it left the onus on the Europeans to decide. In Marshall’s words: “It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically.”[4] It was a long way from the whiney preachiness that so often characterizes U.S. policy pronouncements. And in the end the United States tolerated a degree of central planning on the European side that was uncongenial for Americans even in the 1940s.

If in many respects, the Marshall Plan looks easy in retrospect—the United States emerged from the war owning half the global economy and a trade surplus equal to four percent of gross national product (GNP)—its central features are suggestive for the making of strategy. Something, some strategy, plainly was necessary. It was driven from the top—no accident that it was called the “Marshall” Plan. It was no single shot but rather a program to be implemented over time. And it took prominently into account the preferences of those it intended to help.

Nixon-Kissinger opening to China. This is probably the clearest instance since World War II’s aftermath of strategic thinking driving a major policy change. Both Nixon and Kissinger had separately come to the idea, and Nixon had foreshadowed it in a Foreign Affairs article.[5]

As Winston Lord, Kissinger’s close aide and later ambassador to China, put it:

Kissinger’s rationale, and Nixon’s, included the following. First, an opening to China would give us more flexibility on the world scene generally. We wouldn’t just be dealing with Moscow. We could deal with Eastern Europe, of course, and we could deal with China, because the former Communist Bloc was no longer a bloc. Kissinger wanted more flexibility, generally. Secondly, by opening relations with China we would catch Russia’s attention and get more leverage on them through playing this obvious, China card.[6]

Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 stands in history as one of the greatest strategic achievements of the Cold War. “The week that changed the world,” as Nixon himself dubbed it, not only altered the balance of the Cold War but also laid the groundwork for China’s opening to the world under Deng Xiaoping. The normalization of the US-China relationship remains vital even forty-five years later, with implications for contemporary international affairs, all the more so as the world faces a China on the rise.

End of communism and the Soviet Union. Like the end of World War II, the collapsing Soviet Union could not but raise big questions about the implications for the future of NATO, of Eastern Europe and of the Russian space itself. It too cried out for strategy. Still, the performance of the George H.W. Bush admin­istration was impressively strategic. It did stretch several moves into the future.[7] This episode also serves as a reminder that neither strategic analysis nor strategy is enough to act strategically. The machinery of government has to be adjusted to the change.

With change coming to Eastern Europe in the spring of 1989, especially in Poland where an agreement in April promised openly-contested elections for the summer, the administration made the strategic calculation that the Cold War, if it ended, would end where it began—in Germany. Events quickly out­ran any policy discussion, so improvisation became the order of the day. The Polish elections in the summer of 1989 brought Solidarity to power, and the floodgates were opening. The breaching of the Berlin wall in November changed everything. Then, East Germany imploded. The administration used a variety of techniques to reach forward—scenarios, thinking forward to a desired end-state, then rea­soning back through how to get there. Given the fast pace of events, the end of communism is a reminder of the adage that while plans often are useless, planning is imperative.

Camp David Accords. Here, perhaps the most important strategy at play was that of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who understood, as Israel (and the United States) didn’t, that while he couldn’t win a full-scale war with Israel, victories in battle would restore Egyptian pride, perhaps paving the way for negotiations.[8] The Carter administration, however, understood that the changed strategic circumstances after the 1973 war opened an opportunity, and it had the staying power to persevere despite setbacks in the negotiations. It also came to the strategic conclusion that only the direct involvement of the president, with his prestige and interpersonal skills, could break the logjam—hence Camp David.[9]

Yet despite the drama of Sadat’s trip to Israel, the two sides remained far apart, with Sadat telling an Israeli paper a year later, in early 1978, that “Begin gave me nothing… I gave him security and legiti­macy, and got nothing in return.”[10] Thus, the final element was the U.S. decision to involve President Carter. The result was the Camp David meetings, informal but secret, with the president personally moving from delegation to delegation, offering suggestions but also stern lectures when one or the other side was prepared to go home. The eventual accord was messy, and both leaders faced opposition at home. Sadat, in particular, saw his country ostracized by other Arab nations, particularly because he had not insisted on a direct link between bilateral peace and autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza. But the peace has endured for nearly forty years, no small feat in human history.

Strategic Planning for the Future

The instances when the United States acted strategically provide pointers to the future. Most plainly, the visible need for some strategy helps; that was plain at the end of World War II and with the impending demise of communism. But opportunity can spur strategic thinking, as it did with Camp David. Strategy has to be driven from the top, in these cases by presidents but also by the presence of senior officials who think strategically. Capacity has to be adjusted or created. Think how hard it would be to change U.S. counterterrorism strategy now, given the interlocking and mutually reinforcing set of officials that has coalesced around the current approach since 9/11. Finally, since the future is unpredictable, the goal of strategy is to enable tactical flexibility while sustaining a vision of desired futures. The goal is planning, not a plan.

The purpose of the challenge problems that follow is not to recommend a strategy. Rather it is to frame provocative questions about the current U.S. approach and lay out steps that might lead to a more stra­tegic approach. For each issue cluster, the analysis begins with U.S. interests and current trends related to them, along with wild cards or scenarios to consider, then turns to what vision would make sense for U.S. policy ten years out, and finally to questions the process raises about U.S. policy now.

Challenge Problem: Greater Middle East

U.S. interests and current trends related to them:

  • Countering terrorism. Trends neutral: Threat modest in general and mostly home-grown. Wild card: new groups morph out of old, use ungoverned territory in region to build training camps and perhaps new caliphate.
  • Avoiding nuclear proliferation. Trend was messy but positive; with U.S. withdrawal from Iran deal, now negative. Wild cards: Iran breaks out; Saudi Arabia (or Turkey) mounts accelerated program to nuclear weapons.
  • Assuring Israel’s security. Trend relatively positive: Israel secure now. Wild cards: collapse in Lebanon leads to Iranian/Hezbollah control, or other significant escalation in Israel’s conflict with Iran; Egypt taken over by jihadists.
  • Assuring energy supplies. Trends positive: U.S. production up, renewables cheaper and cheaper. In region, constraints are violence in Iraq and Libya, sanctions on Iran. Wild cards: regime change or major violence in the Gulf
  • Containing “outside” influence, especially Russia and Iran. Trend negative—Russian and Iranian influence on rise. Wild cards: again, Iranian “take over” of Syria (and Lebanon)
  • Special challenge of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Trend in Afghanistan is negative: U.S. and govern­ment slowly losing to Taliban. Pakistan committed to links to terrorists to preserve leverage in Afghanistan. Wild card: Pakistan loses (or uses) a nuclear weapon

U.S. vision ten years out:

  • Terrorism not spilling out into Europe or America.
  • No nuclear weapons state in being or in visible prospect. No use of nuclear weapon by states at edge of region, India and Pakistan.
  • Israel secure.
  • Global oil flows keep prices reasonable.
  • No major state—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, especially—ungoverned or taken over by Muslim extremists
  • Violence in region, especially sectarian violence, waning, not increasing

Policy questions raised in getting from here to there, given trends:

  • How do we deal with the prospect of a redrawing of existing national boundaries? It is a scenario we would prefer to avoid, but which may present itself nonetheless.
  • Given the modest terrorist threat emanating from region, increasing global energy supplies, and a secure Israel, is the greater Middle less important than it has been in recent history?
  • In particular, given the home-grown nature of terrorism, and the demise of the caliphate, is there an argument for some U.S. disengagement from the region? Or does the risk of “another ISIS” justify continued major engagement?
  • In the same vein, the U.S. has been most successful in Afghanistan when it worked directly with the warlords, not the government. Should that again be the focus of U.S. policy?
  • Is it worth asking whether the “whack-a-mole” strategy against terrorist cadres in the region, one mostly carried out by drone strikes, is worth it in terms of collateral killing and adverse public reaction (and a recruiting windfall for terrorists)?
  • Ditto for countering Russia and Iran: are their capacities self-limiting? And what leverage should the United States seek in the Sunni-Shia conflict, recognizing that it was U.S. intervention that tilted the balance dramatically in favor of the Shias?

The region is a reminder that long-term planning often gets eclipsed by short-term challenges that must be met. Bureaucratically, it has proven difficult over multiple administrations, going back to the end of the World War II, to wrest strategic planning from the purviews of powerful departments. In the Middle East, for many years the United States pursued “dual containment” with Iraq and Iran, with the goal of maintaining a regional balance. Then, after the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. sided with Iraq, because we opposed the actions of the Iranian regime. Then we invaded Iraq—twice—tilting the balance back to Iran and the Shia and setting loose enormous violence. These shifts were not thoughtless; indeed, each was informed by what was thought to be strategy. But they were short-term and ultimately destabilizing moves.

Challenge Problem: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations in the Shadow of Increasing Russian Activism, including in U.S. Elections

U.S. interests and trends related to them:

  • NATO’s survival and successful adaptation—or, failing that, its replacement by a viable European security system closely tied to the United States. Trends mixed: defense spending by European rising but U.S. commitment to NATO in question.
  • No war and risk of escalation. Trends mixed: Russia seems to understand the red-line but will keep pushing for what it regards as its rightful place as major power. Wild cards: Putin miscalculation; U.S. over-reaction.
  • Containing Russian intervention in U.S. (and allied) elections and politics. Trends also mixed: once Russia MO discovered, Russian actions no secret, but secrecy may not matter much; interventions in electoral infrastructure were practice for next time, and new tools will develop (especially “fake” pictures and videos). Wild card: dramatic new cyber tools
  • Facilitating Russia’s long-term decline. Trends mixed: Russian activism has, if anything, reinforced its dependence on hydrocarbons, but it is playing weak hand well, including an impressive, if limited, military modernization. Russia likely to favor tools that it has, like nuclear weapons, or that are cheap, like cyber. Wild cards: global events that drive up energy prices; election of reformer as president.
  • Sustaining cooperation with Russia on issues of common interest. Trends negative: limited CT coop­eration, intermediate nuclear force treaty violation. Wild cards: renewed terrorism in Russia spawns interest in collaboration; longer term: Chinese influence in Russian Far East limits Sino-Russian col­laboration.
  • European Union (EU) a stable and capable economic partner; ditto for NATO in the security realm. Scenarios for Europe:
    • Europe without NATO. Under continued pressure from migrants and continued uncertainty about the role of the United States, NATO becomes more name than a capacity. European states are un­able, and unwilling to commit military force, especially outside Europe.
    • Multi-speed EU with an inner core and outer perimeter. Driven by continued migration and eco­nomic doldrums, the Eurozone reduces to a core around Germany, borders return, and other major countries—perhaps Italy and Spain—follow Britain’s lead exiting.
    • Europe loses its liberal ethos. Here, again, migration and very different economic trajectories drive populist responses, especially in Europe’s east. Other countries follow Russia’s lead into the surface stability of illiberal democracy—a reminder that a liberal internal order and democracy are not the same, for the latter only means that the majority rules, perhaps into illiberal measures.

U.S. vision ten years out:

  • No war, no NATO member turned into Russian satellite.
  • Russia deterred from meddling in U.S. elections.
  • Russian global influence not increasing; no Sino-Russian strategic alliance.
  • Russia at least a sometimes-cooperative problem-solver.
  • NATO and EU remain stable and able partners for the United States, even as both sides of the Atlantic are led by younger people for whom Cold War alliances are only history.

Policy questions raised in getting from here to there, given trends:

  • How to refashion and reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship despite the diminished sense of common security interests, as compared to the Cold War era?
  • Does the U.S. have the right mix of inducement and deterrence in Europe? Under Russian pressure, NATO has moved from being a “soft” alliance in, for instance, Baltic members, to more militarized deterrence. At the same time, it is plain that Ukraine, for instance, will not be a NATO member.
  • Should the United States rethink sanctions? The U.S. role in the global economy and global IT net­work has enabled the country to target sanctions on individuals. The main risk is that second-order effects will push Russia out of international economics bodies.
  • Can the United States usefully support reform in Russia? In the early years when Russia wanted to reform, the answer seemed yes. Now it seems no; actions even of western NGOs bring cries of “foreign interference” from Moscow, and reinforce the Kremlin’s narrative that the West, and the United States, are out to contain Russia.
  • Is a major nuclear build-up warranted, including following Russia into lower-yield (and thus poten­tially more “usable”) weapons?
  • Should the U.S. be rethinking the implications of a Russia that is too weak, not too strong?
  • What levers does the United States have to produce the kind of Europe it seeks? Even a major trade agreement, like TTIP, would have only modest economic effect, especially given the scale of trans-Atlantic commerce now. Military measures to reassure European NATO members, especially in the Baltics, cannot help but play into the Russian narrative of being surrounded.

This challenge problem drives home the need, analytically, to move beyond prevailing mind-sets. In the late 1980s, CIA devoted almost no analytic work to the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, while whereas many hundreds of analysts focused on the Soviet military. In many respects, its analyses of the Soviet economy were prescient, but those were conducted within a mind-set, understandably at the time, that made the end of the Soviet Union virtually impossible. Small wonder that the United States failed to anticipate the Soviet collapse and, what is worse, was unprepared when it occurred. Suddenly the United States needed to know about power brokers at the republic and sub-republic level. The ques­tions that needed answer after 1992 were very different from Cold War priorities. The same is true now: in some ways we are back to Cold War Kremlinology, in asking who influences Putin and who might succeed him. But for all the current fecklessness of Russian “civil society,” it is critical to ask how it might become more important as Russia declines.

Challenge Problem: China and Order in East Asia

U.S. interests and trends with respect to them:

  • China as critical economic partner. Trends mixed: basic economic relationship continuing but turbu­lence, mostly introduced by Washington. U.S. withdrawal from TPP confers leadership on China and diminishes U.S. economic role in Asia. So do tweets and threats of tariffs, not to mention tariffs them­ Wild cards: serious U.S. turn toward protectionism; extended economic trouble in China if financial bubble bursts. Longer-term: will China escape the middle-income trap?
  • Containing Chinese expansionism in Asia. Trends negative though mixed: China’s militarization of the South China Sea continues, though sparked backlash in neighbors, most importantly Japan. Wild cards: crisis over Taiwan, which is no longer defensible by U.S.; collapse in North Korea leads to Sino-American race to control nuclear weapons.
  • Dealing with a rising China. Trends negative: this is a historical first for the United States, which always was the rising power. U.S. and Western assumptions dashed: as China gets richer, it is not becoming less repressive and more plural. Wild cards: serious internal struggle or turmoil in China; continuing U.S. retreat from global leadership.
  • Turning a rising China into a cooperative partner and participant in neo-liberal order. Trends mostly negative: opposing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a mistake, one that only reinforced China’s conviction that the current global order is stacked against it. U.S. retreat from that order con­vinces China it was right. China as model more and more appealing around the world. Wild cards: again, Chinese economic and/or political turmoil; dramatic change in U.S. policy toward multilateral engagement, including in trade.
  • Sustaining security of allies, especially Japan and South Korea. Trends positive: Japan and South Korea more able to defend themselves, and Chinese incursions unlikely in any case. Possibilities for easing tension with North Korea, which might further diminish need for U.S. role in their defense
  • Containing North Korea’s nuclear capacity. Trends had been negative, now perhaps trending up­ward, though with major uncertainty about outcomes and implications for the United States. Possible North Korean scenarios:
    • A North Korea (whose longevity has already defied expectations) that limps along (“muddles through”) for some time to come. The regime remains fragile and insecure, unable and unwilling to give up its nuclear program but also incapable of reform. China and South Korea, fearful of a chaotic breakdown of order, continue abetting the regime.
    • North Korean collapse, leading to unification whether South Korea and China are ready or not. South Korea, fearful of a chaotic breakdown of order, would be the driving force (much as the Federal Republic called the shots on German unification), but neighboring states would demand a role, especially but not only in the disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
    • North-South convergence, in which a weak (but not yet collapsing) DPRK and a worried ROK begin negotiating the terms of their evolving relationship. This might start with symbolic steps like marching under the same flag at the Olympic games and having de facto joint representation in international fora, but it would transmute into something like confederalism. This would be a more orderly scenario than the previous, in that the two Koreas would be in control as more nearly equal partners, but it could have more consequences, such as retention of the nuclear program under dual control. This could provoke regional conflict and pressure on Japan to develop a nuclear deterrent.

U.S. vision ten years out:

  • China a stable and predictable economic partner
  • Internal governance less repressive if hardly democratic
  • China’s external initiatives mostly driven by expanding economy; geopolitical competition with U.S. relatively stable
  • Japan and South Korea remain stable and prosperous, and close American friends even if the military dimension of the alliance lessens
  • North Korean nuclear capacity contained

Policy questions raised in getting from here to there, given trends:

  • The immediate question is about how to deal with an apparent opening with North Korea. Here, the intelligence had been clear—Kim Jong-un will not give up his nuclear weapons—but is less clear after the summits of 2018. But might outcomes short of immediate de-nuclearization suffice in the context of a broader lessening of the temperature on the Peninsula?
  • How forthcoming can the U.S. afford to be in pursuit of peace and denuclearization? What constraints on exercises, missile defenses and troop levels should it consider, and in exchange for what?
  • China stands to be the big winner if negotiations go well: its troublesome partner’s security will be affirmed; it will be seen as the great facilitator; and the U.S.-South Korean alliance will be weakened, along perhaps with Korean missile defenses. Given the longer-term perspective, is that a price the U.S. should pay?
  • In the longer run, the bigger questions are about China. First, how much influence does the United States have? Economically, the two are locked in a kind of economic version of the Cold War’s mutual assured destruction: we could destroy their economy, and they ours, but that would be pretty silly.
  • What will be the future of China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project, which would extend China’s global reach far beyond its historic horizons? The project could (a) succeed, (b) fail, leading to severe repercussions for regime security, or (c) turn China into a new imperial power, trying to manage the conflicts its ambitions spawned.
  • What is the right combination of carrots and sticks? In particular, does the precedent China is setting the South China Sea justify more than freedom of navigation (FON) demonstrations? If so, what?
  • In any event, China’s economic rise will continue to increase its military power, in the process denying the United States options in China’s neighborhood it once thought it had. Taiwan will become inde­fensible short of the risk of a major Sino-American war.

An implication for strategic intelligence on both North Korea and China is underscored by the Korea case, where intelligence is more or less prepared for the first scenario, but scenarios two and three call for information and analysis that the nation lacks the capacity to provide. Who are the second and third order power brokers in the DPRK? What might be the contours of a new balance of regional nuclear power? The government won’t be ready to confront such scenarios if we do not begin posing these questions now. In a crisis, it will be too late to “surge.”

Conclusions: Getting There from Here

As the regional challenges make all too vivid, the United States faces multiple fundamental challenges in a world that has grown more complex and unpredictable, and our power and influence, while still formidable, is no longer as decisive as it was in the latter half of the twentieth century. The need for strategic planning has never been more urgent, yet the disdain for strategic analysis has never been greater under an administration that favors bluster and impulse over disciplined policy. What is needed is not an elegant ”grand strategy” statement of the kind that so often appeals to expert pundits, but a disciplined and nimble strategy that recognizes the limits of both power and prescience, proceeds from a sense of enduring national interests, and matches resources to realistic objectives.

Government capacity is hardly a popular subject in these days of Trump appointees running depart­ments whose missions they oppose. But it is a theme throughout these pages. Strategy needs to start at the top, but it will not go far without senior officials who are experienced strategic thinkers. And building strategy often requires major adjustments in government capacity, given that any strategy is imple­mented by hundreds or thousands of lower-ranking officials.

Knowing when and whether to act calls for good strategic analysis, understanding the interaction among many moving parts and making sound judgments about where they will (or might) lead two, three, four steps down the road. It is that capacity that is being severely eroded. Our foresight and judgment over the past half century were far from perfect, but we got some things right, often thanks to good strategic intelligence. And we can do so in the future.

[1] This is drawn from a longer paper by me and Robert Hutchings of the same title. It is available at csis.org/analysis/rebuilding-strategic-thinking. And that paper grew out of Robert Hutchings and Gregory F. Treverton, Truth to Power: A History of the U.S. National Intelligence Council (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019).

[2] See Robert Hutchings, “Is There a Map to the Future?” Foreign Policy, August 31, 2011.

[3] This draws on Gregory F. Treverton, America, Germany and the Future of Europe, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 92ff.

[4] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, 3: 237-9.

[5] Richard M. Nixon, “Asia after Viet Nam,” Foreign Affairs 46 (1): 111-125, available at foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/1967-10-01/asia-after-viet-nam.

[6] As quoted in “Moments in Diplomatic History: Nixon Goes to China,” Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, available at adst.org/2013/02/nixon-goes-to-china/#.WnJRHainHIU.

[7] This account draws on Robert Hutchings, “American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War in Europe,” in Robert Hutchings and Jeremi Suri, eds., Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy, Oxford University Press, 2015.

[8] For a wonderful case on why Israel failed to heed abundant warning of war in 1973, see Bruce Riedel, Enigma: The Anatomy of Israel’s Intelligence Failure Almost 45 Years Ago, brookings.edu/research/enigma-the-anatomy-of-israels-intelligence-failure-almost-45-years-ago

[9] For a nice summary of this case, see Galia Golan, “Sadat and Begin: Successful Diplomacy to Peace,” in Hutchings and Suri, cited above.

[10] As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, January 12, 1978.

Published on February 20, 2019 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow