The Future of U.S. Grand Strategy

In this panel, the Charles Koch Institute’s vice president for research and policy William P. Ruger led Michael C. Desch of the University of Notre Dame, Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and Eugene Gholz of The University of Texas at Austin in a discussion of grand strategy, U.S. national interests, and what constraints and threats the United States faces in the future.

Ruger started the discussion by defining grand strategy. He said, “In its narrowest sense, grand strategy is a statement of how military means can be used to accomplish national or state goals in its foreign relations. In the broadest sense, it is something akin to a foreign policy vision, namely a country’s roadmap for how it ought to manage its international interests and obligations.”

Desch revealed that he prefers the narrow definition of grand strategy and paired it with a narrow definition of what is in the United States’ national interest, i.e., “things a state is willing to go to war over.” In his opinion, “a narrow definition of interest and of grand strategy… is a good mental discipline to avoid mission creep.”

O’Hanlon preferred the broader definition of grand strategy and offered a wider definition of what is in the United States’ national interest. While he agreed with Desch that the fundamental issue is the safety of the United States from threats like invasion and terrorism, he also included protecting allies, achieving economic success, and stopping nuclear proliferation as significant interests. He indicated, however, that not all interests are equally important, with physical security always being paramount.

Gholz argued that in considering interests, it is important to ask questions such as, “What are the best ways to achieve our selected ends?” and “How do military means allow us to accomplish those ends?” Gholz also brought up the topic of values and discussed how U.S. interests and efforts can affect or be affected by values.

Their different views on grand strategy and what is in the U.S. national interest led Desch, O’Hanlon, and Gholz to describe different visions of the future of U.S. grant strategy.

O’Hanlon envisions a world that follows U.S. leadership in a “Goldilocks Zone,” where there is neither too much nor too little U.S. intervention.

Meanwhile, Desch and Gholz both favor a grand strategy of restraint, in which the United States enjoys the protection of its secure geographical position and engages with the world through trade and diplomacy but otherwise doesn’t pursue military interventions or nation-building projects. Gholz argued that the risks of a liberal hegemonic model (the frequent name for what O’Hanlon supports) are much greater than those of restraint; a restraint mistake would mean intervening in a conflict slightly late, whereas a liberal hegemonic mistake would mean another Iraq War.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued the liberal hegemonic model. This debate between Desch, O’Hanlon, and Gholz provided an important opportunity to put it and the alternative model of restraint to the test in a discussion of the future.

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