The Era of Grand Tactics

“Grand Strategy” is a word that gets tossed around rather carelessly, a buzzword everyone hears but very rarely qualifies. The implications of this include that the United States has a coherent goal in mind and is actively utilizing cultural, economic, military, moral, political, and social means to achieve that objective within the bounds of securing the nation. As R.D. Hooker of the National Defense University makes clear, grand strategy “means that what the state does matters more than what the state says”. In this mindset, a nation could be a great advocate of democracy and freedom, just like North Korea clearly expresses in its constitution. However, unless a nation is actually acting to strengthen democracy and freedom both abroad and domestically, they have no grand strategy to strengthen democracy and freedom. This is very much the case of the United States under President Trump.

Several months into his Presidency, Donald Trump has racked up an diverse array of foreign policy achievements, such as increasing the troop count in Afghanistan, shooting cruise missiles into Syria, chastising NATO allies for not having appropriate levels of military spending, and withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, none of these policies have provided any sound of grand strategy. A recent Foreign Policy article by Mark Kennedy noted how President Trump is playing in the international arena like a novice, and there is a lot of truth to this.

None of these efforts have seemed to accomplish much. Troop increases in Afghanistan have done little to combat the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalism in the country, as the opposition is counting on American forces leaving eventually. Cruise missiles in Syria were ineffective as planes were taking off from the target site within hours and did little to hinder the Assad regime from projecting airpower it could use to commit more chemical attacks. The chastisement of NATO only strengthened a reinvigorated European Union and promoted speculation on whether they should continue to rely on American support going forward. The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has led to a great deal of bewilderment by almost everybody and called into question whether America will actually honor its historical steadfast commitments going forward.

Each of these policies has been made in a zero-sum, narrow dimension. If something in the world inhibits or threatens the United States in any way, it will be opposed. However, that’s poor policy to endorse, since all of these deals Mr. Trump claims to make require compromise, especially from us. The world is not the playground of America to dictate terms that only benefit us, but a competitive arena where mechanisms of cooperation have come to tie the United States to most countries. It is why the UN and the IMF have served as key points in American foreign policy as they make the world institutionally suited to our benefit. We have literally written the rules of the world order that we use to justify our international actions. NAFTA and NATO provide unprecedented security for the American homeland so that we might act abroad. The American commitment meant something. While each new institution, policy, or treaty meant America was inhibited, it also meant America benefited in the long term, with access to markets and greater international security.

Leaders are supposed to have a strategy, but the United States is not behaving like a leader anymore. Instead, President Trump has opted for the track of “America First.” Yet how can America get ahead by tossing aside our commitments, questioning the foundations of alliances and trade pacts, and acting in a unilateral way on questionable facts in a manner considered controversial at home and abroad? Each of these events has been far more about some individual immediate situation, mostly to address a domestic audience increasingly polarized over investigations and scandal.

Tactics do not win struggles and the Trump Administration has appeared to replace any effort to think long term for a focus on immediate pains. This is the equivalent of prioritizing one’s desire for fast food when it would be better to work out more. Each new policy, enhanced by Twitter, has only served to paint the United States as a noncommittal, self-interested egoist. American foreign policy since World War II has been the dream of a better world but that dream has since materialized into a nightmare. The Trump foreign policy is not even creating a realist world. Instead we are left with temper tantrums over not being treated well by foreign populations and threats against historical allies. Any opponent of the United States would see this as a prime time to make an advantageous move.