American Grand Strategy: Gorbachev's Critique

December 30, 2000

Comment: #400

The late American strategist, Col John R. Boyd (USAF Ret) evolved four criteria for designing and evaluating a nation's grand strategy. From the perspective of the United States, we should shape domestic policies, military strategies, and foreign policies that

  • pump up our resolve and increase our solidarity

  • drain away the resolve of our adversaries and weaken their internal cohesion

  • reinforce the commitments of our allies to our cause and make them empathetic to our success, and

  • attract the uncommitted to our cause or make them empathetic to our success.

These criteria are guidelines for evaluating the wisdom of specific policies or actions. It is obviously difficult to define policies that simultaneously conform to and strengthen to all these criteria. The challenge is particularly difficult for the unilateral military strategies and the coercive foreign policies so popular with our self-referencing foreign policy elite. Military operations and political coercion are often destructive in the short term. Their short-term strategic effects can be in natural tension with the aims of grand strategy, which should be constructive over the long term.

Moreover, the more powerful a country, the harder it becomes to harmonize these four criteria. Overwhelming power creates hubris and arrogance which, in turn, carry a temptation to use that power coercively and excessively. But lording over or dictating one's will to others creates resentment. Thus, possession of overwhelming power increases the risk of going astray grand strategically. That risk is particularly acute for aggressive external actions, policies, and rhetoric that are designed to prop up or increase internal cohesion. Very often, the effects or military strategies or coercive foreign policies that are perceived as useful in terms of domestic political cohesion backfire at the grand-strategic level because they strengthen our adversaries' will to resist, push our allies into a neutral or even an adversarial corner, or drive away the uncommitted.

The German invasion of France through neutral Belgium in 1914 is an classic example of how a policy shaped by inwardly focused strategic considerations (an inordinate fear of isolation and a two front war) can induce a self-absorbed leadership elite into perpetrating a grand strategic disaster on the most colossal scale for the most "rational" of reasons.

Germany was not trying to conquer Belgium or France in WW I. But she became obsessed with the idea that it was necessary to attack and defeat the French army very quickly in order to knock France out of the war before France's Russian ally could mobilize in the East. The German leadership elite thereby convinced itself of the strategic need to invade a small neutral Belgium, but the obsession with strategy blinded it to the grand strategic effects of such an invasion. In the event, the invasion of Belgium enraged the civilized world. It handed the British a propaganda windfall that the Brits milked to the hilt. Over the next four years, they successfully constructed an image of Germany as being an unmitigated evil force (which was not the case in World War I). This, combined with continued grand strategic obtuseness on the part of German elite (e.g., the Zimmermann Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare, etc.), served to effectively isolate Germany at the grand strategic level. Even America, with its large German population and considerable anti-British sentiment, rejected its long tradition of neutrality and joined Germany's enemies. No doubt the British grand strategic success helped also to produce the excessively vindictive atmosphere at Versailles in 1919, and thus may have inadvertently helped to pave the way for the emergence of true evil in the form of Nazi Germany.

Today, the world is still paying a price for Germany's grand-strategic disaster in 1914 and Britain's ruthless grand-strategic exploitation of that disaster - the problems in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Russian heartland, and the Caucasus, to name a few, have roots reaching back to destruction of world order between the invasion of 1914 and vengeance of 1919. So perhaps the lesson is this: When a great power fails to adequately consider the four criteria shaping a sensible grand strategy, painful unintended consequences can linger for a very long time on a global scale.

With this background in mind, Mikhail Gorbachev's recent critique of America's grand strategy makes for very important reading indeed. To the extent that his views reflect the views of others around the world, he has produced a damning indictment of U.S. grand strategy, which for the last eight years has been wrapped in our self-indulgent vision of being the world's last remaining super power, the world's "indispensable power," or what I call the Great Nanny State.

I urge you to read it carefully.

Gorbachev's Grand Strategic Critique

Mr. Bush, the World Doesn't Want to Be American
By Mikhail Gorbachev
International Herald Tribune
December 30, 2000


MOSCOW Dear Mr. Bush:


For while America's role is acknowledged throughout the world, her claim to hegemony, not to say domination, is not similarly recognized. For this reason, I hope, Mr. Bush, as the new American president, that you will give up any illusion that the 21st century can, or even should, be the "American Century." Globalization is a given - but "American globalization" would be a mistake. In fact, it would be something devoid of meaning and even dangerous.

I would go even further and say it is time for America's electorate to be told the blunt truth: that the present situation of the United States, with a part of its population able to enjoy a life of extraordinary comfort and privilege, is not tenable as long as an enormous portion of the world lives in abject poverty, degradation and backwardness.

For 10 years, U.S. foreign policy has been formulated as if it were the policy of a victor in war, the Cold War. But at the highest reaches of U.S. policy-making no one has grasped the fact that this could not be the basis for formulating post-Cold War policy.

In fact, there has been no "pacification." On the contrary, there has been a heightening of inequalities, tension and hostility, with most of the last directed toward the United States.

Instead of seeing an increase in U.S. security, the end of the Cold War has seen a decline. It is not hard to imagine that, should the United States persist in its policies, the international situation will continue to deteriorate.

It is also difficult to believe that, under present circumstances, relations between the United States, on the one hand, and China, India and all the rest of the earth that lives in abject poverty, on the other, could develop in a positive direction. Nor is it possible, on the basis of its present posture, for the United States to establish effective, long-term cooperation with its traditional allies, Europe first and foremost.

Already we see numerous trade disputes, evidence of the conflicting interests separating the United States and the European Union. At the recent conference in The Hague, where the participants were supposed to come up with a common policy on limiting greenhouse effects, U.S. positions were far removed from those of all others. As a result, no decision was taken.

... Over the past decade, the United States has continued to operate along an ideological track identical to the one it followed during the Cold War.

Need an example? The expansion of NATO eastward, the handling of the Yugoslav crisis, the theory and practice of U.S. rearmament - including the utterly extravagant national missile defense system, which, in turn, is based on the bizarre notion of "rogue states."

Isn't it amazing that disarmament moved further during the last phase of the Cold War than during the period after its end? And isn't that because U.S. leadership has been unable to adjust to the new European reality? Europe is now a new, independent and powerful player on the world scene. To continue to regard it as a junior partner would be a mistake. Europe's experience must serve as a lesson for future relations, but it can do so only if America and Europe build a genuine, equal partnership.

Finally, it is hardly a secret that relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated over recent years. Responsibility for this must be shared between Russia and America.

The present leadership of Russia appears ready to cooperate with the United States in framing a new agenda for relations. But it is unclear what your orientation will be. What we heard during the electoral campaign did not sound encouraging.

If we truly want to build a new world order and further European unity, we have to recognize that this will not be possible without an active role for Russia. This recognition is the necessary basis for setting future Russian-American relations on the right path.


The writer, the last president of the former Soviet Union, contributed this comment to the Washington Post.

End Gorbachev's Grand Strategic Critique

Let us hope we have the intelligence and courage to come to terms with the grand strategic choices Mr. Gorabachev's analysis implies. America is not Germany in 1914, but, as is evident from the raging debate over missile defense, the illegal war bombing of Kosovo, and the our growing involvement in ongoing Al-Aqsa Intifada, the United States is in a unique position to trigger world-wide grand-strategic chains of events, not all of which will work as intended or to our advantage.

Put succinctly, Gorbachev's critique of America's grand strategy posits the following question for the new year, the new President, and the new millennium: In 75 years will historians look back on our "victory" in the Cold War as the other bookend to the Twentieth Century, or will they see another Versailles, perhaps kinder and gentler, but nevertheless destructive in its long term effects.

Perhaps it is time for the United States to speak softly and with humility, because everybody knows we have the big stick.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]