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The Fall of the Wall and American Grand Strategy

Author: James M. Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University
November 5, 2009

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Twenty years ago, the people of Berlin brought down the wall that had divided their city, not only ending the tragic chapter of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but also closing the book on post-war American grand strategy. For forty years, the strategy of containment guided American elites of both parties; two decades later, U.S. policymakers are still searching in vain for containment's replacement.

The development of coherent strategies for using American power remains a vital goal in what has become an increasingly complex world. The U.S. military is overstretched thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. economy remains fragile. Transnational threats are abundant. It's no wonder that a misplaced nostalgia exists for the supposed simplicity of the Cold War, when the United States faced one major enemy.

In 1946 in his famous "Long Telegram" and a year later in the "X article" in Foreign Affairs, George Kennan laid out a rationale for using the instruments of U.S. power--military, economic, and political--to keep that enemy, the USSR, from expanding the areas under its control. Kennan's main focus was on keeping core areas of the world, such as Western Europe and the Persian Gulf, out of Soviet hands and on putting pressure on the Soviet system itself. "The United States," he argued, "has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power. For no mystical, Messianic movement--and particularly not that of the Kremlin--can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs." It was a brilliant statement, as the events of 1989 to 1991 magically demonstrated.

[B]y and large, a bipartisan consensus held that containing America's Cold War enemy was the vital, central purpose of U.S. foreign policy.

That isn't to say there weren't huge debates about how best to pursue a strategy of containment, and as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has suggested, it's more accurate to recognize that the United States pursued "strategies" of containment. Kennan himself decried what he viewed as the over-militarization of the policy. Huge splits emerged in the country over the appropriateness of containment policies as applied toward Vietnam in the Johnson and Nixon administrations and toward Central America in the Reagan years. But by and large, a bipartisan consensus held that containing America's Cold War enemy was the vital, central purpose of U.S. foreign policy.

Post-Cold War Policy Drift

When the Berlin Wall fell, the American foreign policy establishment was suddenly adrift. There were brilliant and widely read analyses of the world produced in the early post-Cold War period such as Francis Fukuyama's End of History and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, but those were assessments not strategies.

The most developed strategy early on was articulated by Dick Cheney's Pentagon in the notorious 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, which was leaked to the New York Times. "Our first objective," an early draft read, "is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union."  What made the document controversial was that it argued that the United States needed to prevent not only its adversaries from gaining greater power in core regions, but also major allies such as Germany and Japan.  The White House disavowed the Cheney document, and George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, later described the Pentagon's approach at the time as "nutty."

What became clear by the time Bill Clinton became president was that formulating a simple and relevant new strategic purpose for the United States was no easy task. Clinton often harangued his aides for failing to come up with a Kennanesque vision, believing that he needed a replacement for containment to explain his foreign policy to the American people. His top State Department advisers even arranged a dinner in 1994 with Kennan, who was still going strong at age 90. The old master's response to their quest? Forget the bumper sticker, he said, the world was now too complex. Try, instead, he suggested, "for a thoughtful paragraph or two."

Kennan had hit upon a central truth of the post-Cold War world: with no single enemy and a range of diverse challenges--including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, pandemics, terrorism, the rise of new great powers, and globalization--there would be no bumper sticker.

The process of developing [a grand strategy] requires gauging what power the United States has to achieve its purposes, in other words, reconciling means with ends, something often missing in discussions of foreign policy.

"War on Terror"

In case there was any doubt as to the wisdom of Kennan's suggestion to the Clinton team, consider the Bush administration's response to the attacks of 9/11: the "War on Terror," a simple and clear statement, just like containment. But even the president's top advisers were uncomfortable with the approach. "I don't think I would have called it a 'war on terror,'" Donald Rumsfeld admitted as he left the Pentagon in 2006. Colin Powell said later that the "war on terror" was a "bad phrase. It's a criminal problem. This is not the Soviets coming back." And even if it were the right way to combat the problem of Islamic extremism, it would not address all of the other challenges mentioned above.

Even without a bumper sticker, however, strategy is important.  The process of developing one requires gauging what power the United States has to achieve its purposes, in other words, reconciling means with ends, something often missing in discussions of foreign policy. But when the Berlin Wall came down, so did the possibility of a single, simple strategy. What the United States needs today is a set of strategies.

Recognizing the world's complexity (as well as the limits of American power), President Obama has avoided talk of an "Obama Doctrine." He has clearly changed the country's approach to the world, emphasizing multilateralism and engagement. But, for the most part, he has yet to define in any detail the purposes to which this new approach is applied.

A Vision for Reducing Nuclear Threat

One area in which he has laid out a vision backed up by a set of policies is in his call for a nuclear weapons-free world. Even if such a world is improbable if not impossible (thus lessening its value as strategy), the steps he has outlined in the name of pursuing it are valuable and coherent. The president has called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, lowering the numbers of strategic weapons in a new START treaty with Russia, achieving a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, completing a new agreement on ending the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons use, strengthening the Nonproliferation Treaty, creating an international fuel bank to encourage the peaceful use of nuclear power without risking proliferation, and securing vulnerable materials to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on them.

Nonproliferation and disarmament were one of the four pillars that Obama cited in his September speech to the UN General Assembly, and he has clearly laid out a comprehensive policy approach to these issues that will provide the basis for a strategy. That is not true of the other three pillars (the promotion of peace and security, the preservation of our planet, and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people). As for democracy and human rights, which he argued underlie all four pillars, beyond saying that we are in favor and that others should be as well, the president has not articulated a proactive strategy for advancing values. Even on terrorism, the president's focus has understandably been on developing a strategy for Afghanistan, but not on developing a more comprehensive approach to combating the problem of Islamic extremism.

No doubt all these things are hard, and that is the central feature of our post-containment world.  Kennan's advice that we need to develop a thoughtful paragraph or two remains sound. Doing so won't make anyone as famous as Kennan, and it won't solve the political problem of needing to provide a clear explanation for the U.S. role in the world, but even that thoughtful paragraph or two is a challenge given the complex world unleashed by the collapse of communism twenty years ago.

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