State of Disunion: Americas Lack of Strategy is its Own Greatest Threat
Following last weeks State of the Union address, the headlines were filled with discussions of a gridlocked and ineffectual Congress, a “lame duck” presidency, and what direction America should be headed. This includes talk of what threatens America’s position in the world and what American national strategy should be. Before strategy comes vision and goals. Vision can be equated to an “endstate”—the final situation or circumstance one wishes to be in following a concerted pattern of actions devised to achieve that goal—the “strategy.” It is the picture of where, what, or how one wants to be after achieving goals through executing the strategy. Strategy is simply the way and means selected in the attempt to achieve goals to reach that vision or endstate.
Its easy to develop a personal vision, goals, and strategy because there are no competing visions or interests. However, the greater the number of “stakeholders” involved, the less clear and coherent the vision and goals, and therefore the strategy, become. The larger the organization or the larger the cast of characters moving in different directions with input and influence on vision, goals, and strategy, the less clear and more diluted it becomes.
In the discussion of America’s position and actions in the world in the post-9/11 era, many (myself included) have spoken of “strategic failings” by America’s top political leaders, as well as the generals at the Pentagon. I and many others often write on the rectitude or ineptitude of grand strategy, operational strategy, or tactics. These criticisms are correct, but they are symptoms of a much larger, overarching problem that, technically speaking, exists at a level or step before strategy can be devised.
If a country does not know where it is going it will never reach any destination. “American interests” are constantly referred to, but what one’s real interests are cannot be determined without strategy. That undertaking some action may cause negative consequences must be balanced with the opportunity cost of doing nothing.
Most of America’s failings in the era of the Global War on Terror, especially in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, occurred because of failures from the top in Washington. There was no specific vision and there were no clear goals. There was no strategy or the strategy was ill-conceived or incomplete. The strategy was based upon false assumptions, failed to consider vital factors, and then failed to adjust quickly enough or at all to actual conditions. At times, vital resources necessary for the success of the strategy were directed elsewhere. These failings can be divided up and attributed to different leaders at different levels over a time-span of nearly 15 years. These general or specific failures have been written about at length and will continue to be.
Identifying the root cause of these failings, among others, is important. In many ways we know intuitively what it is, yet nothing is being done about. There are unfortunately signs its getting worse. The State of the Union address, the oppositions response, and the back-and-forth rhetoric offered since are an exhibit. America’s troubles are not caused by “bad” strategy (though at times they are) but rather exist at the higher level of vision. America has no clear endstate it is seeking to achieve. This leads to inability to identify clear long-term goals. Without a vision that can identify goals, there can be no coherent strategy. America is adrift.
State of Disunion
Who “owns” American vision, goals, and strategy? Who is responsible for this? The American state is the only vehicle with the ability to marshal such activities. Authority of the American state rests with our president and our Congress together. But to blame any one of these branches or one of our major parties or one of our individual presidents or Congress-members is to miss the point and doing so is, in fact, part of the problem. It is in fact the entire system in its current manifestation by which our representatives are elected, by which policy is made, and by which the policy-making process is influenced that means America lacks vision, goals, and coherent strategy. This root problem cascades into all other areas of national endeavor.
Its easy enough to “blame the government, as many do already. However, this is also to abdicate the responsibility that each American holds to actually participate in their democracy. Almost all Americans are united in their dissatisfaction with Congress, yet getting re-elected to Congress is a sure thing. That is our fault; congressmen do not elect themselves. Yet this should not translate, as both major parties have argued over the last several elections, into an obligation to vote either Democrat or Republican. Voting is a hard-earned right which should be used; but it should not be a requirement to vote when neither major party is posting candidates worth voting for.
That Americans may have to choose between one of several political dynasties in the 2016 presidential election—something Americans profess to dislike—is further proof. The system has developed over years of gerrymandering and partisanship in such a way that new parties, new candidates, and new ideas have no chance. The influence of money and mass communication means that only those with money or those with the most provocative, shrill messages at the extreme ends of the spectrum will have their voices heard. When any state or organization spends more of its energy on internal issues than external ones, it is a troubling sign.
Those in power know this is the case and they lament it themselves, but continue to play the game and tilt it in their favor. Average Americans also know this is the case, lament as well, but continue to play a game tilted against them. The fact that we know this is the case and that we agree that it is not working and must change, but will not or cannot do anything to change it is a clear admission of national failure. It is the elephant in the room.
This failure means America has no vision, no national goals, and no grand strategy. In comparison to this failure, everything else pales. There can be nothing other than the illusion of maintaining the mantle of global leadership and progress until it is fixed. The United States has more in the way of amassed strategic resources—military, economic, social, diplomatic, and technological—than perhaps any other state in history. However, strategic resources, no matter their amount or value, mean nothing if they are employed without strategy. This is why, as Sun Tzu and Miyamoto Musashi teach, a smaller determined foe with a superior strategy can defeat larger opponents without one.
Why should this debate be couched in terms of national strategy? There are other prisms through which to view the world. Many have lamented America’s “securitization” of all things that affect it since the days of the Cold War. Some see the issue as give-and-take in an efficient political system which will eventually right itself much as the market does. Others see it as a continuing class struggle between labor and capital. Others believe it may be the first cracks showing in the foundation of America, much as de-Stalinization and power struggles caused cracks in the Soviet Union. There are, of course, other prisms, narratives or lenses with which the situation can be viewed.
So why strategy? First, security is the only thing that makes things move in the gridlock of Washington today. Second, most other views suffer from a detached, neutral view of history as a long term process that we simply participate in. They are not concerned with American success—some in fact predict America’s necessary or unavoidable downfall. These views are descriptive, but offer little in the way of prescription. While they are important for understanding history and causes and predicting possible courses of future events, they offer little in the way of figuring out how to answer the question, “What should America do now?”
It seems that many who have the ear of America’s most senior policymakers have used these descriptive tools to convince them that many of the problems America faces are of its own making or the making of its close allies. There is truth to this. To give one example, they argue that drawing map lines across ethnic and sectarian boundaries by the Allied powers in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East is the cause of much of the trouble there. Their advice has also extend to refraining from arming any competing factions in conflict, lest those we arm today we may have to fight tomorrow (as was the case with Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Mujahedeen). These descriptions of events are correct. However, they are only part of an equation.
Their advice amounts to “don’t do dumb stuff” because it will come back to hurt you. This view informed the President’s decision—based largely upon a CIA study—not to firmly support the ongoing revolution against Assad in Syria. It has also informed the subdued response to continuing Russian aggression in Ukraine, an ineffective campaign against ISIS in Iraq, and weak counter to outlandish Chinese claims in the Pacific. On the surface, it sounds like sage advice. Its strength lies in its descriptive ability to outline past actions by states and the consequences of them.
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. However, as any honest international politics scholar worth their salt will tell you, enough research will yield support for or against any action, much as the Bush administration was able to manufacture the “facts” it wanted to support its Iraq policy. The best it can do is say, “Don’t do that”, but is loath to say “Do this.” A description does not answer the question, “What should America do now?”
Strategy is neither a theory nor a lens through which to see the world. It is a tool. It is a thought process to be used, by America and every state, to envision an endstate, develop goals, and build a strategic process for achieving them. Strategy is on America’s side—if it uses it. Right now, it is not. There is no coherent vision of where America should be in 20, 40, 60 years and how it will overcome competition to get there. The environment inside the Beltway is not conducive to any sort of long-term thinking and perhaps those in Washington who are charged with developing national strategy have been listening to detached descriptive views too much. In such circumstances, the best one can hope to do is play defensively and respond to world events rather than determining and shaping them.
If America had a strategy, that would determine the answer to the question: “What should America do now?” Do nothing that is of no use. If an action tends to support achieving long-term goals, then do it. If a country, let alone a business or a person, does not know where it is going, what benchmarks it must pass to get there, or how it is going to get there, it will never reach any destination. “American interests” are constantly referred to, but what one’s real interests are cannot be determined without strategy. That undertaking some action may cause negative consequences must be balanced with the opportunity cost of doing nothing.
As yet another State of the Union passes into history and another disappointing session of Congress begins and debate over America and its position in the world continues, the fingers will surely point outwards towards issues such as terrorism, international finance, climate change, Russia’s revisionist resurgence, or Chinese competition. These are indeed threats. However, the single greatest threat to American national security is America’s broken system itself. Partisan gridlock and a system that only recognizes the voice of money are weakening the foundations of the American state. Without fixing this problem, without developing vision, goals, and strategy, America will not be able to use its abundant strategic resources to ensure success or counter threats. Right now, America is its own greatest problem.
[Photo: Flickr CC: NASA HQ PHOTO]