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Grand Strategy: The Four Pillars of the Future

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
Winter 2012
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

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Tectonic shifts in international affairs and in political and economic conditions within the United States call for reconsideration of the first principles of American grand strategy—the fundamental tenets guiding the nation's statecraft. The global landscape is fast changing due to the ongoing diffusion of wealth from the West to the rest and the social awakenings taking place in the Middle East and beyond. At home, Democrats and Republicans are locking horns on most foreign policy issues and on how to control debt and stimulate growth; the resulting political stalemate risks compromising the purposeful exercise of U.S. power and eroding the economic foundations of national strength. Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a shrinking defense budget have diminished the political appetite for sustaining the full portfolio of America's global commitments.

American grand strategy needs to adjust to these potent international and domestic constraints. The alternative is an erratic statecraft that switches direction as power changes hands in Washington. Worse still, partisan paralysis, especially when coupled with economic duress, has the potential to stoke isolationist sentiment, just as it did during the 1930s. A world in the midst of tectonic change can ill afford an America that is not up to the task of providing steady and enlightened leadership.

In this new era, a progressive grand strategy for safeguarding the nation's interests should rest on four first principles. To begin, grand strategy and national power start at home—with political and economic solvency. Only if the United States recovers consensus and prosperity will it have the political purpose needed to provide effective leadership in a changing world. Second, the United States must rebalance means and ends by pursuing a judicious retrenchment; the nation needs to bring its strategic commitments back into line with its interests, resources, and public will. Third, Washington should work with emerging powers to fashion a more inclusive and representative global order—one that updates, but preserves, a rules-based international system. Fourth, the United States should breathe new life into the Atlantic community. As countries that practice authoritarian capitalism rise in power and influence, the democracies of the West need to continue to serve as the anchor of liberal values and progressive change.

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