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.


Before Strategy

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.


Why Strategy?

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]



  1. needj@battelle.org 27 January, 2015 at 14:00 Reply

    This is an incredibly concise and insightful piece. If only we could redirect our energies to areas of compromise instead of division…

  2. Henry Gaffney 27 January, 2015 at 16:49 Reply

    Washington is has never been any good at writing “strategy,” whatever that is (some look-em-up-book like Das Kapital?). It typically is written only by some low-level weenies. As Elliot Cohen once said, “Nobody in the U.S. Government ever reads it (they don’t have time to read), but all the foreign countries go over it with a fine-tooth comb to find out what they think we’re thinking. Then they’re surprised when we do everything else.”

    When I first joined OSD/ISA in 1962, the Kennedy Administration was struggling with an unfinished “strategy” called the Basic National Security Policy (BNSP) left over from the Eisenhower Administration. Nobody could agree on anything in it, except the lead-off Preamble to the Constitution, and some people wanted to change that. Assistant Secretary Paul Nitze said, “You wanna know what our strategy is, go read our speeches,” which were then compiled. It’s the same today. We really know what our military strategy is now: don’t do any more Iraqs and Afghanistans. Military strategy is to defend America. Why that means we should invade Ukraine is beyond me.

    • Chris Miller 27 January, 2015 at 21:03 Reply

      Agreed, Henry. Most of the stuff in Washington that gets the word ‘strategy’ slapped on the cover is more political eyewash than anything. That’s not to say that serious thought and effort does not go into it from the poor wonks who have to write it, but the way our system works–as your comment describes–is that our leaders’ ‘strategy’ is typically whatever they say in political speeches, which we know change with the prevailing wind. It has a shelf-life as long as the next election. You can’t form vision, goals, or strategy 2 to 8 years at a time. Strategies must always be adjusted over time to conditions, but the vision and long-term goals must remain relatively consistent. We have no consistent national vision or goals anymore. Washington has turned to cannibalism. And, honestly, a nation’s real, hard strategy should not be written down for others, foreign and domestic, to peruse at their leisure. But since we don’t have one, it’s not really a concern at the moment. Having no strategy will keep our opponents guessing, but it is a road map to nowhere.

  3. Ron Penninger 29 January, 2015 at 05:45 Reply

    Mr. Miller:

    I agree with your article wholeheartedly. I will submit to you the theory that a viable alternative to both Putin-like oligarchy and the tyranny of Islamism exists, and most importantly it has been fairly successful in the past. The alternative strategic answer to both enemies is the promulgation and cultivation of free markets and liberal (little “l”) human rights and self-determination. I think we can posit without too much worry that this formula worked during WWII and the Cold War. Yes, both were bloody, terrible, and expensive. Yet the West won. By doing so the East (Japan, Taiwan, Korea) won and most countries who adopted free markets and free ideas. This is the only strategy that the US should adopt. First, the strategy has a natural moral quality that cannot be argued against seriously. Second, it should be effected with all the powers of our state: hard and soft. Third, it can engage the military, the civilian government, and US business and academia. It can, in short, become our grand strategy for the future. There are plenty of places where democratic ideas do not reign. And they are the regions giving us fits, and costing us blood. Certainly, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq got the democratic inoculation we promised. We should not give up, lest we return every 5-10 years to fight anew over Fallujah or Maiwand. Russia is a closed, robber-baron megastate where free market reforms would lift even more Russians out of gloom. Africa is entrepreneurial, creative, and bursting with potential. Instead of colonizing with arms and fleets, we should make it our national strategy to protect US security and economic interests by spreading democracy and free and fairer markets. A people heavily engaged in commerce do not want war to interrupt the getting and spending. Just look at us now! Thanks for your insights. We need to take your ideas one step further and propose a grand strategy, a strategy originating from those of us who fight for it.

    Very respectfully,
    -Ron Penninger IZ/AF Veteran

  4. Henry Gaffney 30 January, 2015 at 04:44 Reply

    As a student of the developing areas since 1959, having done NATO for 13 years and the Middle East and Security Assistance and Sales for 11 years in OSD, I can only say that the U.S. doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to install democracy and free markets. We botched it in the new Russia, creating instead an oligarchic economic system. But that’s alright: we’re doing the same back here in America now: the U.S. capital has moved to Wichita, Kansas and the Koch Brothers are buying up the whole American system, including the Supreme Court — just like Khodorkovsky tried in Russia before Putin threw him in jail. But really, in all my experience, the U.S. has done its foreign diplomacy and its development assistance all on an absolute shoestring — I know, having spent the 1980s arguing for it before Congress. Congress hates, hates, hates it and cuts it all the time. All we have to roam around out there is our military, and you see how badly that has worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan — our military does neither democracy nor development. We cannot run the world — but then, despite the propaganda, we never did. Nostalgia for post-World War II U.S. rescue of Europe is nice, but does not apply in the rest of the world.

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