Wrote it for Esquire back in the fall of 2008 at the request of an editor there, but it never got published. Recalled it today when queried in a lengthy interview with a member of the CNO's SSG and realized I never posted it anywhere, so I do so now - just for my own personal recordkeeping:
How to Become a Grand Strategist (draft title)
AN UNTESTED NEW PRESIDENT FACES TWO ONGOING WARS, A DEEPLY DISTRESSED NATIONAL ECONOMY, AND AN INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM UNDERGOING MORE DEEP-SEATED ECONOMIC TURMOIL THAN AT ANY TIME SINCE THE GREAT DEPRESSION … IF THERE WAS EVER A TIME WHEN WE NEED FAR-SIGHTED STRATEGISTS, THIS IS IT. SO WE ASKED RESIDENT STRATEGIST, THOMAS P.M. BARNETT, WHO JUST FINISHED HIS LATEST BOOK, “GREAT POWERS: AMERICA AND THE WORLD AFTER BUSH," TO HELP US FIGURE OUT HOW TO BUILD SUCH A CADRE FOR THESE TURBULENT TIMES. HERE’S HIS CRADLE-TO-GRAVE EXPLORATION OF WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A “GRAND STRATEGIST,” ALONG WITH A QUICK ANALYSIS OF WHETHER OUR PRESIDENT-ELECT SEEMS UP TO THE TASK HIMSELF.
There are four fundamental reasons why American grand strategy matters more right now than any other nation’s grand strategy.
The first is that the American example is provided the source code for this era’s version of globalization, which superseded the colonial model of world integration previously pursued by the Eurasian imperial powers. These United States represent the oldest and most successful multinational economic, political and security union on the planet, a collection of states whose integration has been so successful and so deep that we forget the fantastic journey that brought us to this present state of being. We should not, because it is our essential gift to world history, currently finding its replication—finally—in the European context from which we sprang. The success of that model, the European Union, has made it the second great source code for the future of globalization. By both improving on and falling short of the original, it provides the world a much-needed contrast (i.e., “go slow” globalization compared to our “go fast” model) in these tumultuous economic times.
The second reason is that America currently serves as the sole historical bridge between settled Europe’s post-military, post-nationalistic achievement of stable identity and rising Asia’s pre-military, pre-nationalistic pursuit of the same. In other words, while Europe has evolved past the great sources of 20th century conflict (militarism, nationalism, ideologies in general), Asia’s emerging powers—save for Japan—are rapidly approaching these historical phases, largely clinging to the hope that comprehensive marketization of their economies alone will so integrate their societies with the larger world as to render these traps obsolete. The trade-off, however, is substantial for the planet as a whole, because in so rapidly integrating with the global economy, Asian nations have turbo-charged globalization’s dynamics to the point of resurrecting fears of zero-sum competitions among great powers for resources, markets and military allies in the decades ahead. They’ve resurrected the specter of empires. Having avoided that historical path through our pursuit of an “empire of ideals,” America remains at once militarily empowered and still ideologically committed enough to use that power in defense of the global system we did so much to create. Europe is no longer able to play that muscular role and Asia—save Putin—seeks to avoid the temptations associated with it.
Thirdly, America’s ability to maintain its status as global military Leviathan is far from assured absent a clear grand strategy that articulates the rationale for such a role. That articulation is what sustains the American public’s support for the regular employment of that force, while dispelling the fears of the rest of the world regarding the use of military might that is often seen as arbitrary or self-aggrandizing. The “sweet spot” to be targeted is thus a vision that says to both Americans and the rest of the world: “These are the mutually agreed upon conditions under which U.S. military forces are deployed to improve the global security environment.” Does this give the world a say in how we use military force? Yes. But it defines more the “ceiling,” or those lines we shall not cross, than the “floor,” the minimum effort we are compelled to make. Frankly, America’s fears have always tended more toward the higher boundaries (Have we gone too far?) than the lower ones (Should we be doing more?), given our overall wealth, geographic security and sense of duty to others. And so, we desire constraints on our tendency to go overboard just as the world does. If reasonably achieved, such a grand strategy both preserves and sanctifies our status as sole global military superpower.
Finally, America’s grand strategy matters most right now primarily because it is so off-kilter from globalization’s current trajectory. We’re fighting a “global war” that no one else on the globe seems to recognize, against enemies whose power we consistently exaggerate to the point of provoking disbelief among even our closest allies. America seems paranoid and belligerent at exactly the historical moment when the world is going our way. And when that exemplar, sporting the world’s biggest gun, seems so disturbed about global trends, it sows the seeds of uncertainty across the international system by suggesting that we don’t have a clue about what lies ahead. Neither Europe nor Asia can fill this vision void, because while each can offer models (Europe’s integration of states, China’s national development), none other than the United States of America can offer a trusted mechanism for eliminating the risk of debilitating conflict—however scaled. The price of war determines all other prices in the global marketplace. America either backs those “securities” or they—much like our financial markets--will become subject to wild fluctuations.
In the tumultuous times since 9/11 sent our world spinning that much faster, America has searched for a grand strategic vision to animate our spirit and guide our actions, and it has failed. When we should have inspired hope, we have stoked fears, and where we should have built bridges, we have erected walls.
We simply have to do better. Globalization is currently held in the grip of its worst financial crisis ever, arguably the first truly global catastrophe of our networked age that unfolds—layer upon complex layer—like the system-wide perturbation of our worst Y2K fantasies. If there was any remaining doubt that the world’s great powers either all swim or all sink together in this interconnected global economy, then this unprecedented contagion has erased it. Globalization is no longer a national choice but a global condition.
So how do we develop appropriate grand strategy for this day and age?
Part of the problem is that, since the Cold War’s end, America has largely gotten out of the business of thinking in terms of grand strategy. I mean, when you’re the system’s sole superpower, your grand strategy would logically seem to consist of making sure you remain #1 and little else. In strict military terms, that goal was both sufficient and easily achieved. But once we discard our neocon blinders and widen our vision to take in the full panoply of globalization’s growing complexity and all the rising great powers it has generated, that tendency to reduce grand strategy to mere, “hard power” dominance seems woefully inadequate—especially to this now insolvent Leviathan.
So, in terms of building up America’s capacity to generate and sustain a lasting grand strategy, we need to generate enough leaders with the full range of skill sets required for this crucial task.
What is grand strategy? A simple definition is to say that, as far as a world power like America is concerned, a grand strategy involves first imagining some future world order within which our nation’s standing, prosperity, and security are significantly enhanced, and then plotting and maintaining a course to that desired end while employing—to the fullest extent possible—all elements of our nation’s power toward generating those conditions. Naturally, such grand goals typically take decades to achieve, thus the importance of having a continuous supply of grand thinkers able to maintain our strategic focus.
In that vein, let me run you through some of the attributes and skills that I’ve come across in my own study of American grand strategy and strategists, along with my own attempts (alas) to play that role within the U.S. national security community for the last two decades.
We’ll start with some basics and then move on to the more complex skills, finally examining the current market for grand strategy.
Prepare ye the way of the grand strategist
First, it pays to have a happy childhood, not a perfect one, but certainly not one that leaves you permanently damaged. You can’t see too far down the road if you’re always in a defensive crouch. Child psychologists say that every child grows up thinking the world is exactly like his or her family, so tough childhoods yield dark, pessimistic worldviews while pleasant ones generate the sort of can-do optimism required of somebody with the natural ambition to shape the world for the better. Grand strategy isn’t merely about bad futures to be prevented. That’s called contingency planning. Rather, grand strategy is about accessing the best possible future, one in which your nation can be all it can be.
Second, birth order matters. First-borns tend to be the chief executives, meaning they’re often in charge of implementing grand strategic designs, while the “babies” of the family tend to be the vision hamsters, happily spinning out new ideas from their wheel. So if you think of grand strategy as a sort of religious triptych, it’s the younger siblings that play prophet, generating the word, while it’s the older ones who end up assuming the role of deliverer. Grand strategists need to be natural salesmen, or persuaders of great artistry, and you find that emotional IQ further down the family ranks, among those forced to charm their way in a world of more powerful siblings.
Third, keep it gay. Since the British economist John Maynard Keynes, arguably the greatest grand strategist of the 20th century, was a homosexual, being gay can’t be described as a handicap. In fact, that sense of living outside the accepted mainstream is an occupational advantage, however it’s artistically achieved, for it gives you the intellectual cojones to imagine future worlds that conventional wisdom judges as “inconceivable!” Holistic views of the future require a deep ability to see life from a wide variety of angles, otherwise you’ll be constantly flabbergasted by all those “irrational actors” who pop up in opposition to clear logic of the path you’ve constructed.
Doing a complete 180, it’s also highly beneficial to end up married with children. Successful marriage forces constant personality adaptation, or the ability to rationalize your way to happiness despite the ongoing challenges of daily life. Grand strategists need to be happy warriors, because temporary setbacks and roadblocks constantly abound in any long-term quest to shape world order. Having kids is important because they connect you personally to downstream futures, meaning, in the long run, we won’t all be dead. Bonus points for interracial marriage and/or adoption, because nothing forces you out of your comfortable skin more thoroughly.
Beware the mid-life crisis. Grand strategy, like youth, is largely wasted on the young. It’s your middle years when you’re most able to process complexity in all its . . . uh . . . complexity, but that’s also the timeframe when people are most likely to suffer depression, or the ultimate personal challenge of rationalizing lost dreams versus remaining possibilities. Processed well, your middle years can turbo-charge your mental skills, moving you past mere analysis into true synthesis—the hallmark of grand strategic thinking. Done badly, you’ll find yourself alone in that red Miata, world-weary cynicism in tow, driving to pick up your kids on the alternate weekend.
The grand strategist as personality type
Ego comes first. You can’t be a grand strategist without a sizeable ego. Why? The more successful you become in spreading your vision, the more often you’ll be called a complete dumb ass by total strangers. Grand visions of better futures are—intellectually speaking—the fattest possible target for deflating criticism. Everyone and anyone can name that “one thing you’ve clearly overlooked!” The trick is, to spread vision, you need to remain ultimately accessible, especially to young minds you seek to capture, and they tend to be, when unconvinced, the most disrespecting audience possible. So a thick skin is a must, along with the confidence that allows you to resist dumbing down your material in the face of initial poor sales. As a contemporary said of Keynes, “He never dimmed his headlights.” When you think in terms of decades, you gotta stick with the high-beams.
Optimism reigns supreme. Noted futurist Peter Schwartz declares, “optimists are not people who expect no challenges,” but rather are those who “believe that challenges can be overcome.” Grand strategists tend to be more “fox” than “hedgehog,” meaning they generate many possible solutions to a particular problem instead of always reaching for the most comfortable, conventional answer—hence their confidence in being able to work around any one road block. They are rationalizers of the highest order, such that virtually any outcome can be cast as yet another indication that “everything is going according to my plan!” Megalomania is an occupational hazard (see Richard Nixon), best treated with a self-deprecating sense of humor (Abraham Lincoln).
The closet introvert. Alexander Hamilton possessed the classic split personality of a grand strategist: the charismatic winner of hearts and minds who, as intellectual loner, took perverse pride in standing against the crowd. Grand strategists are the Groucho Marx of the intelligentsia: desiring mass acceptance while avoiding any club that might accept them as a member, they seek to steer conventional wisdom while escaping its stultifying grasp. As such, they’re a weird mix of benevolence and intolerance in their relationships: despite being the acquaintance of thousands, they possess few close friends (e.g., Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt). Expert at getting others to understand their ideas, they still view themselves as lonely, persecuted visionaries (Nixon, along with one of his idols, Woodrow Wilson).
The insatiable sponge. Strategic thinkers are curious about everything and everyone—Teddy Roosevelt being the exemplar. They read widely and possess tremendous memories for people they’ve met and stories they were told. They have a genuine interest in popular pursuits, and befitting their high emotional intelligence, they exhibit a remarkable empathy for people unlike themselves. As Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of Lincoln, he had “the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” Ironically, it is that intense empathy that affords them great equanimity in the face of danger—even disaster. Armed with this knowledge, they are able to distance themselves from the dynamics of crisis. Grand strategists are rarely surprised but often saddened by the course of human events. They see a world of “when’s,” not “if’s.”
Educating the grand strategist
Beautiful minds. Grand strategists tend to view the world horizontally, rather than vertically. They connect dots naturally, recognizing processes and patterns before others. They thrive on exposure to the new as opposed to deep study of the familiar. They tend to learn “how” over “what,” and prefer to teach themselves than to be taught formally by others. They are most interested by the intersections of knowledge (i.e., the Medici effect), or where different domains overlap with one another. They have an innate capacity to discern force from friction, so they spot underlying causes without being distracted by symptoms. Take, for example, Theodore Roosevelt’s ability to dissect the great social and economic issues of his day from the perspective of a self-taught naturalist/environmentalist. He understood politics as a struggle of the fittest, yet sought to level those playing fields—both at home and internationally—so as to avoid overly self-destructive and therefore unsustainable competition.
Natural translators. The best practical preparation for becoming a grand strategist is to learn as many languages as possible—another legendary TR skill. Studying languages—both actual and technical—teaches you how to master new vocabularies and the logic that underlies them. In a world of increasingly specialized lexicons for almost every profession, that’s a huge skill. Studying language immerses you in the thought processes of others, giving you different lenses for viewing the world. It puts you in the other guy’s shoes, which is crucial for out-of-the-box thinking. Language study also boosts your skills at mimicry, because to speak Russian or Chinese, for example, you’ve got to act a bit Russian or Chinese. If you really want to connect with foreign leaders and audiences, you have to get inside their comfort zone, and one of the best ways to do that is to play the part. Pope John Paul II was a more recent master of this stage art, along with JFK (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Reagan (“Doveri, no proveri”/”trust but verify”).
The softer sciences. Grand strategists are more naturally located in the so-called softer sciences of political science (Wilson, Henry Kissinger), economics (Keynes), history (TR), and especially law (Hamilton, Lincoln). Indeed, when hard scientists wade into the fray, it’s often with a moralistic bent that’s difficult to stomach, because they typically effect such conversions late in their careers, often out of great anger at the injustices of the political world. So while harder scientists often make the best dissidents (e.g., physicist Andrei Sakharov, mathematicians Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Anatoli Scharansky) and caustic regime critics (like the linguist Noam Chomsky), they’re rarely a good source for grand strategic thinking. Grand strategy essentially involves political struggle at a global/system level, so it’s best practiced as an art of the possible as opposed to a design problem logically solved through number crunching.
The right credentials. Generally speaking, a graduate degree gets you inside the door of participating institutions and government agencies, but a PhD is required to avoid any glass ceilings later on. Law degrees equate to a PhD, but an MBA ranks somewhat lower. As a rule, a PhD from anywhere beats a graduate degree from somewhere. Credentializing experience includes stints in the government, the military, or international investment banking. For cachet, it’s hard to beat an Ivy League PhD (like uber-journalist Fareed Zakaria) or a premier teaching position at one (see law prof Philip Bobbitt). Of course, the King Kong today is arguably 4-star army general and commander of Central Command, David Petraeus (PhD Princeton), who seems intent on checking every power-job box on the list. Increasingly, we see the premier legacy artists (e.g., Kissinger, James Baker) wielding their talents in the private sector following extensive government stints. Befitting this frontier-integrating age of globalization, many of the world system’s biggest structural linkages are being built today between emerging-market governments, globe-spanning multinational corporations, sovereign wealth funds, and “universal” banks (meaning, those with both retail and investment divisions). That’s where yours truly (Harvard PhD, 7 years in the Defense Department) plies his craft these days. Finally, it’s de rigueur nowadays to publish a thick, lofty volume every 3-t0-5 years, and if they’re mega-bestsellers, like those of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, then you go to the head of the Davos line. The problem with columnists as grand strategists, however, is that, due to the news-sensitive nature of their business, they tend to switch gears too frequently on topics to sustain a lasting vision.
Grand strategist, strategize thyself
Plan for opportunism. As knowledge worker guru, Peter Drucker, argued, “Successful careers are not ‘planned.’ They are the careers of people who are prepared for the opportunity because they know their strengths.” The key distinction for the grand strategist is whether he’s adept at decision-making or more cut out for the adviser role. In other words, are you a Nixon or a Kissinger? Once you figure that out, it makes sense to ally yourself with your opposites—concentrating on your strengths and outsourcing your weaknesses. You want to collect these people as you advance throughout your career, using them to venture into as many fields as possible to build up your street cred, balancing time inside government with time in the private sector. Because you can’t get rich in government (alas), success in the private sector is essential to building up the fuck-you! money that allows you to maintain that g0-ahead-and-fire-my-ass! bravado when you finally land your dream post in the administration of your choosing (right around the time your oldest kids head to college). Sad to day, but if you really need that salary, it gets much harder to speak truth to power.
Seek out mentors. Another Drucker truism: “Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. People know what they are not good at more often.” Mentors are crucial for telling you what you’re good for and where you best slot in, so you want to collect as many of these as possible early in your career. The world of grand strategy is full of mentor-protégé relationships. Grand figures (e.g., Kissinger, Baker, Brent Scowcroft) typically spawn small networks among subsequent generations, because nobody moves up the ranks on their own. Look at Dick Cheney’s decades-long dance with Donald Rumsfeld, stretching from the Ford administration (where Cheney succeeded Rummy as White House chief of staff) right through that of George W. Bush (where Rummy assumed Cheney’s former slot at the Pentagon). The problem with this reality, of course, is the tendency toward groupthink within the various lineages. As such bad habits can be passed on inappropriately. Good example: Brent Scowcroft’s “honest broker” model as George H.W.’s national security adviser in the late 1980s yielded protégé Condi Rice’s disastrous performance during George W.’s first term, when her passive approach to managing the interagency process produced a magnificently dysfunctional postwar effort in Iraq.
Building the canon. The grand strategist doesn’t just think in decades, he or she needs to view their career similarly. Your twenties are for picking up academic credentials, while your thirties see you honing your entry-level skills. Many grand strategists will spend their forties racking up private-sector successes (and money), only to hit their stride in their fifties. The top-drawer jobs in government typically come then, to be followed by the “wise men” years spent headlining a global consultancy or law firm that bears your name (Kissinger & Associates, Scowcroft & Associates, Baker & Botts, and so on). The field is crowded at all levels of progression, so building a known canon of widely read works is a key way to set you apart. Ideally, when your name comes up, it’s readily attached to strategic concepts that have permeated the community, so that observers frequently spot echoes of your canon in the decisions of policymakers. In the end, most of the grand strategist’s greatest victories are nearly untraceable—your “bold” proposals of yesteryear imperceptibly morphing into today’s conventional wisdom.
Finally, do whatever it takes to avoid ending up as the aged doomsayer who wanders the halls of influence warning of the End Times. These guys tend to view their careers in power as “one big lie,” so if they worked nuclear weapons, now they want them universally abolished! If they worked energy, they’ll bend your ear on “peak oil” or global warming. Whatever they feel they didn’t adequately accomplish in their ambition-filled careers, they reluctantly bequeath to the next generation—their “idiot kids”—as one giant guilt trip. Robert MacNamara is the poster child for this in national security, while George Soros now claims that title in high finance—brilliant strategic minds twisted by decades of rising regret over worlds they now realize they could have created but didn’t.
A life in the day of the grand strategist
Brain-time is everything. Since grand strategists are logically interested in just about everything happening in our vast world, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the crisis du jour. The problem, of course, is that grand strategy doesn’t aspire to clairvoyance. Grand strategy isn’t about predicting future events; it’s about having a consistent worldview that allows you to contextualize current events as they unfold. Again, if you’re given to a new grand strategy every other month, you’re better off being an op-ed columnist or TV commentator. Because the true grand strategist emphasizes continuity, he makes for a relatively boring interview whereas the media craves “new” views and voices—no matter how regurgitating the actual content. Of course, once you commit yourself to a government position, you’ll likewise find yourself routinely engrossed in today’s “shocking event,” in turn logically finding solace in whatever out-of-power strategic thinkers you can routinely tap for advice. Upshot? Successful grand strategists schedule plenty of time for either deep thinking on their own or networking with those that do.
Managing an intellectual portfolio. In our media-saturated age, a grand strategist needs to “hit for the cycle” in terms of intellectual output. “Singles” are things like five-minute appearances on cable news channels or blog posts that connect you to a dedicated daily readership. A prominent op-ed or speech is more like a “double,” while a “triple” extends into the realm of a major article in a mainstream media publication, testifying before Congress on some pressing issue, or a keynote address to one of those Davos-style gatherings of the global superclass. “Home runs” include bestselling books, serial TV or talk radio appearances in programs that are based around your core ideas, and the Holy Grail of grand strategy—being summoned to the White House for an off-the-record conversation. The danger of this mad chase for influence, of course, is the trade-off between richness and reach—as in, the bigger the audience you seek, the more you’ll inevitably dumb down your material. If you’re not careful, your vision can quickly be reduced to mere sloganeering, which often makes you even more appealing to politicians—the “best and the brightest” bowdlerized for the “rest and the lightest.”
Zen and the art of grand strategy. The reason why actor Christopher Walken is constantly busy making movies is because, as he puts it, there’s only one Chris Walken-type—himself! Rather than trying to be all things to all people, Walken continues to hone his stylistic niche—movie after movie. Typecasting to some, but a full-employment act to Walken. The dedicated grand strategist aspires to the same sort of brand-name status: being so closely identified to his strategic concepts that his influence moves beyond the need for mere footnoting. Think about Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” (originated by Bernard Lewis), Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history,” Joseph Nye’s “soft power,” or Thomas Friedman’s “flat world.” All of these strategic concepts have moved into popular discourse as strategic memes. The intellectual danger here consists of “bouncing the rubble”: as in, you spend the rest of your career seeking to pulverize your opponents by either extending the concept or defending yourself against how others choose to distort it. Still, every performer wants a “hit song” to define their legacy, so as purgatories go, this is a small price to pay.
The tantric grand strategist. If anticipation isn’t your favorite joy, then forget about trying to play grand strategist. It’s not just that strategic visions typically take decades to unfold, you’re likely to wait equally as long for the credit. In contrast, the blame, as master grand strategist George Kennan discovered, tends to arrive far faster, such as when his early-Cold War “containment” strategy soon fell hostage to the domino theorists of America’s disastrous—and largely pointless—intervention in Vietnam. In short, don’t go into this business to make your parents proud but rather to safeguard your grandchildren.
The creative tools of the grand strategist
Conceptual arbitrage. As biographer Robert Skidelsky wrote of Keynes, whose “spend to save” monetary theories defined much of FDR’s mobilizing response to the Great Depression: “His achievement was to align economics with changes taking place in ethics, in culture, in politics and in society—in a word, with the twentieth-century spirit.” Most of what the grand strategist does is arbitrage strategic concepts between those analytic fields that seem furthest ahead in understanding today’s world and those that lag behind. Living, as we do right now, in a world of pervasive and persistent revolutions triggered by globalization’s rapid advance, there’s plenty of work to be done. As the ongoing worldwide financial crisis demonstrates, globalization’s growing networks far outpace even our economic understanding of what’s going on, much less our political capacity to manage resulting dislocations. Proof in point: for close to two decades now, we’ve only been able to identify our age in terms of where we know it began—as in, a post-Cold War world, or a post-9/11 security environment. Where are we heading next? Again, Fareed Zakaria posits a post-American world, as if that’s direction enough! Meanwhile, historical arbitraging seems all the rage: Are we rerunning 1914? Or is it 1929, 1938, or 1946? In grand strategic terms, we have no idea when we are—much less where we’re heading.
Alternative futures. A lot of grand strategizing involves scenario-based planning, or what futurist Peter Swartz likes to call, “memories of the future.” It’s the use of scenarios that leads many outside observers of the field to assume that its main aim is to predict the future, when nothing could be further from the truth. As Swartz explained in his seminal book on strategic planning, The Art of the Long View, the end result of scenarios is “not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.” Good scenario exercises are primarily useful for reducing strategic surprise: you guide government and/or industry leaders through a series of alternative futures, engaging their analytic feedback, to reduce the chance that, following some downstream “bolt from the blue,” they’ll be reduced to muttering to themselves, “I had no idea anything like this could happen!” Want to know what our Pacific Fleet’s greatest intellectual advantage over the Japanese navy was in World War II? Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz declared that it was the naval war games he and his fellow officers had played in the 1930s: “The war with Japan had been reenacted in the game rooms at the Naval War College by so many people, and in so many different ways, that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise . . . absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war.”
A focus on rules, not specific solutions. Again from Drucker: “Effective people do not make great decisions. They concentrate on the important ones. They try to think through what is strategic and generic, rather than ‘solve problems.’” The grand strategist cares less about the specifics of any decision than the formulation of the rules by which decisions are regularly guided. Does this choice give us more enemies or more friends? Does it sap our nation’s moral strength or is it a good fit? Do we have sufficient resources to do this on our own or must we seek alliances? Take a look at the first seven years of Bush-Cheney’s “global war on terror” and you see bad outcomes all around: more enemies, fewer friends, moral conundrums and fiscal bankruptcy. So we have to ask ourselves, “Is this the future we were hoping to create?” Shine that light into the eyes of our president-elect and what you’ll see reflected are the outlines of the Obama Doctrine—the putative myths of our next best future.
Spreading the gospel
Never turn down a chance at public speaking …. First, you need all the practice you can get, because for the top-level audiences too busy to actually read any of your works, your primary manner of reaching them will be through speeches or presentations. So it’s essential that you be a killer speaker—as in, knock ’em dead the first chance you get. Plus, being a strong speaker, whether you’re standing in front of thousands or just that one crucial decision-maker, is how you make strong first impressions, the key to the grand strategist’s ability to network widely. In today’s world, speaking skills typically need to be blended together with engrossing slide presentations, which puts a premium on your stage timing. Elevated to an art form, it’s Joel Osteen (evangelical fervor) meets Laurie Anderson (multimedia glitz) meets Chris Rock (stage presence), because if it’s your vision versus somebody else’s and you’ve got the better show, your content will win every time—especially with the PowerPoint-obsessed military. Finally, due to the typical complexity of your message, you’ll want to be a mesmerizing speaker because you’ll often have to give the same presentation—multiple times—to the same audience in order to get full buy-in.
… Because successful grand strategists are brilliant speakers. Grand strategists have to be able to argue the most complex logic but deliver it in the language of commonsense. They have to speak with great authority and moral conviction, and yet still approach the audience as a supplicant, winning their devotion. It is a complex package few can master, but one that separates the wannabes from the players. Alexander Hamilton was a stunning orator, as was Henry Clay and Clay’s self-admitted devotee, Abraham Lincoln. All could hold audiences in the palm of their hands—for hours on end. Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s first great global strategist, peppered his Naval War College lectures with brilliant analogies that linked historical narratives to deductive reasoning. He also had a gift for coining buzz phrases, like the Middle East. Woodrow Wilson was a master at connecting ideas to audiences, giving them the feeling that, as biographer Clement Kendrick put it, “he was merely saying well what they always felt.”
The stump speech as your instrument. The grand strategist markets reproducible strategic concepts, or fully formed ideas that arrive in your brain like zip files and then decompress in all their complexity, transferring the full implications of the long-term vision. Kennan’s Cold War concept of containment fit that bill: so simple and compact that it’s immediate meaning is apparent in the very word, even as its embedded rule sets were both lengthy and subject to wide interpretation. The best way to develop these transferrable concepts is through the highly iterative process of presenting them—time and time again—to a wide variety of audiences. Like the politician, the grand strategist essentially gives the same speech at every venue, tailoring the delivery and technical details according to the listeners’ distinct backgrounds. So while the playlist may vary plenty, the overall performance and its effect on the audience do not. Ronald Reagan’s supreme on-stage confidence as a politician stemmed in large part from his persistent honing of “the speech,” which he first started delivering in the 1950s on behalf of his corporate sponsor, General Electric. Al Gore, backed up by his stunning slide deck (Keynote, mind you, not PowerPoint), won his Nobel Peace Prize essentially for giving the same compelling presentation the world over. Ditto for Air Force colonel John Boyd, who, through dogged determination, revolutionized U.S. military thinking about warfare across the 1980s by delivering the same breakthrough brief thousands of times to young officers.
Picking the right choirs to preach to. The grand strategist, while taking every advantage to speak truth to the powers-that-be, focuses most of his attention on the powers-that-will-become. Thus, his preferred audience consists of future decision-makers early in their careers but not before they’ve had some real-world executive experience. In national security, that equates to thirtysomething mid-level career officers (or their civilian equivalents) who’ve landed in one of the military service “war colleges” following their first command in the field. In the corporate world, it’s those rising young executives who’ve been selected by their bosses for mid-career educational tune-ups, like a compressed-schedule “executive MBA.” Casting your net more widely, there’s a small universe of high-end confabs and ultra-cushy retreats for those high-powered connectors and cross-pollinators of new ideas in media-centric industries. Besides rubbing elbows with lots of celebrities, your message can pick up a good deal of insider buzz that leads you to additional worthwhile speaking venues and further media opportunities.
The grand strategist’s customer base
Desperate policymakers. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his White House memoirs, “There is little time for leaders to reflect. They are locked in an endless battle in which the urgent constantly gains on the important. The public life of every political figure is a continual struggle to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstance.” As such, Kissinger argued, “a policymaker’s greatest need for outside advice is in an intermediate realm between tactics and goals”—otherwise known as the “out years” in Washington. For civilian policymakers, that’s the two-to-five year time frame beyond the current budget cycle; for defense policymakers, it’s the 5-to-10 years just beyond the FYDP—or Future Years Defense Plan. That’s the sweet spot where the policymaker faces just enough wiggle room to make a difference somewhere downstream but likewise needs some navigational guidance. Unfortunately, as Kissinger noted, most outside academics brought in to advise leaders “tend to flood the policymaker with minute tactical advice or elaborate recommendations as to grand strategy until, glassy-eyed, he begins to feel new and unaccustomed affection for his regular bureaucracy.” Lesson being: don’t try to tell policymakers how to do their job but also don’t attempt to re-invent the grand strategy “wheel.” Instead, help them realistically see the medium-term connections between the former and latter, or what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State (and preeminent practitioner of grand strategy) Dean Acheson once termed, “the struggle through illusion to policy.”
The corporate strategic planner. Today’s global corporations face a competitive landscape that’s unremittingly unforgiving. Thomas Friedman, who coined the phrase, “flat world,” likes to say the world known as globalization is far from mature, turning only 19 this year. Good to hear, because as the global economy heads into “middle age” over the next couple of decades, it’s tastes and wants are going to mature along with its rising income level, generating the first truly global middle class in human history. Global corporations the world over want to access that ballooning disposable income, the problem being that most of it will be found in the relatively low-trust environments of emerging and/or “frontier” economies, where legal and regulatory structures tend to be unsophisticated, weak and decidedly corrupt when compared to the advanced West’s high-trust business environment. So if you thought only great power governments get involved in nation-building, you’re wrong, because increasingly their flagship corporations are moving into that nebulous space so as to achieve first- or early-entry into anticipated consumer markets. And if they don’t move quickly? Well, Western companies often find their Eastern counterparts (often state-owned) have already fenced off much of these economies—along with their natural resources—from effective competition. In the past, trade followed the flag, but in today’s global economy, it’s often the other way around, meaning corporations increasingly play a part in any great power’s grand strategy, whether they like it or not.
The military commander. Since the end of the Cold War, Western military leaders—especially American ones--have been among the most active and eager consumers of grand strategy, the irony being that—constitutionally speaking—Western militaries aren’t authorized to make such decisions! Currently inside the U.S. military there is a fierce ideological struggle between two camps: 1) those who favor a doctrinal focus on the potentiality—dare they say, inevitability? —of renewed great power rivalry and even full-blown wars (typically projected to occur over access to energy resources in third-party regions); and 2) those who believe that, thanks to long-established patterns of nuclear deterrence and exponentially increasing economic interdependencies, the age of great power war has ended and thus we face, amidst globalization’s continued advance into unstable regions, a future of endless but minor small wars—especially those involving insurgencies. Here’s where grand strategy really matters: depending on how the world’s rising great powers, along with the West’s established great powers, view globalization’s future unfolding, they’ll collectively either recognize overlapping strategic interests and thus choose to cooperate with one another (a progressive, 21st-century mindset), or determine that their strategic interests are being increasingly threatened and choose to protect them in whatever manner necessary (a return to a more 19th-century colonial mindset). In terms of grand strategy, the stakes couldn’t get much higher for the United States. If we continue sticking our necks out by playing globalization’s Leviathan and we’re unable to win the support of other great powers (meaning, besides Europe), there’s no way we can afford to pursue this course much longer. But if nobody’s minding the global store, so to speak, it’s hard not to imagine that the East’s rising great powers will feel compelled (even empowered?) to pursue such actions on their own, like Russia claims it was doing recently in Georgia (to selfish ends—big surprise). Eventually, that second pathway will start to look uncomfortably like 1914, meaning any number of small-nation leaders might soon be auditioning for the role of Archduke Ferdinand (but thank you, Misha, for your contribution to global insecurity!).
Mad Men for flag and country
Strategic optometry. Grand strategy is a non-stop sales job. As a rule, most grand strategists never push a button or launch an attack or negotiate an alliance. Instead, their ideas and visions shape a generation of senior executives, military officers and policymakers who do all those things. Since any grand strategy, like any war plan, is constantly altered in response to real-world events, its vision of the future undergoes continuous debate. In an eye exam, the optometrist keeps switching lenses and asking, “Does this seem better or worse?” The grand strategist does much the same through his persistent marketing efforts, always asking the same question of his audience, “Does this future seem more or less achievable?” The grand strategist doesn’t go where no man has gone before; he’s of no use if he dreams up worlds that can never be. Done well, he simply arrives at logical futures before others and then articulates the pathway. Sometimes the grand strategist dreams too far ahead, like Woodrow Wilson did after World War I, but because of that failed attempt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who idolized Wilson and served in his administration, entered World War II armed with a clear vision of where he wanted to take the world.
There are no pre-Wilsonians. Sizing up John Maynard Keynes’ impact on the modern field of economics, his biographer Robert Skidelsky proclaimed that “while many economists are anti-Keynesian, no economists are pre-Keynesian.” The same can be said about Woodrow Wilson’s seminal notion of a peaceful world order shaped—in no small measure—by an America willing to intervene overseas in the defense of freedom and human rights. Most of America’s presidents since then—both Republican (e.g., Nixon, Reagan) and Democrats (JFK, Jimmy Carter)—have either openly identified themselves as Wilsonian or simply revealed themselves as such, including both of our post-Cold War presidents to date. It may have taken WWII to prove Wilson was right, but no wars--not even our loss in Vietnam nor our difficulties in Iraq—have since rendered his vision irrelevant.
Great nations require great ideas. Early in his first term, Nixon told Kissinger that “Nations must have great ideas or they cease to be great.” Nixon’s dream was to bring about a permanent peace among great powers by removing the potential for East-West war in Europe (détente), slowing down the superpower arms race, and bringing China in from the cold. Given that America was bogged down militarily in southeast Asia at the time, Nixon’s grand strategic design was insanely ambitious. But two decades later, all of Tricky Dick’s dreams came true—and he lived to see it happen. Nixon liked to play madman for real, engaging in acts of strategic brinkmanship (e.g., carpet bombing North Vietnam, taking the fight into Cambodia, secretly negotiating with Beijing behind Moscow’s back) that lesser leaders would have balked at. His confidence (or recklessness) derived from his strategic vision. He knew where he wanted America to lead the world.
We see in Obama all the makings of a strategically minded president. With no personal demons in tow and a bi-racial make-up that revolutionizes the very notion of national politics in America, he brings all the characteristics of a transformational leader.
A first-born child of a broken home, Obama’s childhood was nonetheless a happy and adventurous one, to include a stint living abroad (Indonesia) and an adolescent period of being raised by loving grandparents in Hawaii. Now deep into his forties, he’s happily married with two daughters. Far from signaling any internal instabilities, Obama projects such an above-the-fray serenity that he was popularly cast as “Spock” (another guy with a split background) opposite John McCain’s fiery “Kirk” across a long and contentious general election. A lawyer by training (Harvard, no less), Obama naturally sees connections and similarities where others spot divisions and differences. He promises—and often actually delivers—a post-partisanship in his policies.
Technically a tail end Boomer, Obama’s elevation nonetheless suggests a popular rejection of the last two decades of Boomer rule, making him the most symbolically potent president since Ronald Reagan swept into town. He becomes the first president born after 1960, meaning he was a true child of the sixties, but came of age in the 1970s, when arguably much of today’s globalized world first began to appear. Thus, Obama is a man of this age, much like JFK, the first president born in the 20th century, symbolized a modern, grown-up America back then.
Neither a Nixon nor a Kissinger, Obama seems more an amalgam of FDR’s aloofness, JFK’s mystique, and Reagan’s theatrical discipline—a wonderfully appropriate show of personality and inspirational speaking skills, given the current panoply of overlapping crises. But having amassed an equally appropriate and impressive cast of older mentors (e.g., Warren Buffet, Colin Powell, Paul Volcker, Chuck Hagel), Obama signals his awareness that the mere promise of changed leadership must rapidly be followed-up by distinguishing action.
However, to the extent Obama has revealed great ideas to revitalize our great nation, his strategic vision so far seems more inwardly than outwardly focused. In most ways, his suggested foreign policy course speaks more to an America catching its strategic breath than aggressively shaping the world to desired ends. Obama clearly wants to unwind America’s strategic tie-down in Iraq, promising an enhanced effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but all that ambition merely points in the direction of finishing what George W. Bush and the neocons started, rather than revealing where an Obama administration might want to focus next. Truth be told, because of the strategic overhang created by Bush, Obama’s entire first term is likely to be characterized by strategic retrenchment and a certain accommodation of globalization’s rising great powers—namely, a fairly strong continuation of Bush’s own anti-neocon foreign policy of the last two years.
Of course, the world in all its complexities and turmoil is unlikely to afford an Obama administration enough quietude to concentrate wholly on America’s domestic regeneration. If the last two years have been any guide, he will face a lot of disrespect around the world, not all of which will magically disappear at the sight of his face. The current financial crisis has definitely taken down, by several pegs, a number of rising rogues (e.g., Russia, Iran, Venezuela) that bedeviled Bush in his final months, but given the high degree of state intervention in our economy right now, Obama will be forced to dramatically recalibrate America’s message to the rest of the world regarding globalization’s benefits and perils and the appropriate models for handling each.
For now, it seems a good bet that any Obama grand strategy will await a potential second term, having emerged—through trial and error—across the long expanse of his first. If America had wanted a putative grand strategy right now, it would have voted in McCain and his “central focus” on winning the global war on terror in Iraq-segueing-into-Iran, along with his promised “league of democracies” to do ideological battle with the East’s authoritarian powers (e.g., Russia, China). Instead, thanks in no small part to the October stock market crash (definitely not the October surprise McCain was hoping for), America voted in Obama’s heal-this-nation-and-repair-America’s-standing-abroad, decidedly un-grand strategy, suggesting that America’s grand storyline for globalization will be resumed only after a significant period of self-reflection and self-mending.
If so, Obama’s strategy of having America re-gather its strength and regroup its resources in the near-term is being amply aided by the ongoing financial crisis in the sense that none of the world’s great powers, being themselves significantly distressed right now, are likely to step into any strategic breach created by our breather. If anything, most of them are quite open right now to discussing a collective way out of this accumulating mess, affording Obama a historic opportunity to reconnect the United States to the world with a new brand of leadership, one that calms great powers by suggesting that America now recognizes their growing interests and fears and is willing to re-partner with them on that basis.
In sum, Obama’s first term was never slated to present any grand strategic design. George W. Bush and the neocons killed that possibility years ago. However, if Obama’s administration can navigate the next four years in such a way as to restore America’s economic health and international standing, a second Obama administration would be well-placed to both propose and impose a new American grand strategy that’s logically focused on the biggest structural change the planet faces over the next generation—the rise of a global middle class whose center of gravity will be located in the Pacific/Indian rim and not those of the Atlantic/Mediterranean. Toward that end, Obama’s worldview, being far less Eurocentric than any previous president, will serve him well.