Security Studies Program Seminar

A No-Strategy Nation: Muddling Through Will No Longer Do

Lawrence Wilkerson
The College of William and Mary

November 10, 2010


In describing American strategic debates, Colin Powell had a metaphor: “We’re a rubber life-raft, our sail is broken and askew, there’s water all over; our raft floats with the breeze and currents, but it never sinks.”  To which one could ask, “Then why is it worth being in the raft?” And the response was, “It never sinks.”

The metaphor is absolutely apt.  Yet in the past, as long as we had 50 percent of world GDP, could outfight or out produce any nation or combination of nations, this “muddling through” strategy could suffice.  Today, however, a combination of factors - traditional issues such as rising powers (e.g. China, India, Brazil) and new challenges such as climate change and energy security – presents us with a different kind of future for which the United States is ill-equipped.   American strategists and policymakers simply lack a coherent conceptualization of U.S. interests, the prioritization among them, and the means-ends chain that can connect U.S. resources to those goals.  Yet as the margin for error shrinks, this strategy is increasingly unsustainable – the United States needs to think through the strategic issues systematically.

A few examples illustrate the point.  With rising powers, the United States both wants to peacefully manage the rise of China, but it also needs to hedge its bets.  Hedging bets without a solid economic foundation, however, is problematic at best.  Moreover, the history of U.S. strategic planning is not encouraging.  It took the United States nearly 10 years between the end of World War Two and Eisenhower’s Solarium Initiative to develop an integrated grand strategy.  The present challenge is even greater as 1) the balance of power changes, 2) new problems (e.g. climate, energy) emerge, and 3) there is a dearth of civilian strategists able to contribute to the debate.  The country’s democratic nature is an even greater impediment in some ways: how is it possible to convince a democratic leadership subject to the whims of the public to formulate and stick to a grand strategy?

One solution actually comes from the market.  The market – broadly defined – is going to impose a change in American behavior; not only is money becoming tighter, but demographically, the country is getting older.  Combined, these trends encourage a type of localism – a desire to invest locally to make quality of life and services more available.  This desire is gradually causing a shift in resources and funding priorities.  The housing market is at the forefront of this shift.

Yet the market has never operated on its own: the government always intervenes and guides macro-economic trends.  The solution, then, is to reorient incentives – taxes, subsidies, and so on – to encourage the trend towards localism and spur economic growth.  Suburban life is changing, and the U.S. should take advantage of the shift while it is in its earliest phases.  In the process, new markets for new technologies (green, highly computerized – in short, 21st century technologies) can be created that can be used to spur U.S. economic growth once again.  Only by encouraging these trends can the United States operate in the world with the power and wherewithal to manage the rise of new great powers, manage its decline, and address the new problems facing the globe.

If the U.S. uses demography, the market, and technology wisely, the United States can strategically prepare itself for the challenges of the next several decades.  This is the first component of a grand strategy that can be executable.  Housing is the hook that can be used to both entice people and spur growth.  Thirty-five percent of U.S. wealth is in housing and housing infrastructure.  If this portion of the economy can be spurred to action, it can be used as an engine to drive the rest of the economy to recovery.

The analogy is to President Dwight Eisenhower.  Just as Eisenhower feared a military-industrial complex that would destroy the American way of life, so too does the U.S. today need to worry that a combination of apathy, fear of terrorism, and economic stagnation will undermine the present U.S. way of life.

Question and Answer Session

The question and answer session following the talk centered around two general sets of questions.  The first set of questions concerned the ends to which renewed economic power should be directed: where did Wilkerson see the principal problems confronting the United States and what should the United States do – in a functional sense – to address them?

Wilkerson observed that policymakers seem torn between two distinct worlds for the United States: one in which terrorism, insurgency, and post-conflict reconstruction are the major problems, and another which emphasizes conventional actors.  Wilkerson argued the second world is the more problematic of the two and the one for which the United States ought to prepare.  Indeed, the U.S. ought to prepare its military and economic instruments of statecraft to hedge against rising powers while creating mechanisms to encourage other states to help resolve problems of common interests (e.g. terrorism, climate change).

A second set of questions concerned the feasibility of fixing the U.S. economy. If, as senior policymakers seem to believe, the U.S. is in a perpetual state of war, is it feasible to put the American economic house in order?  Or is the resource drain going to undermine economic recovery?

Wilkerson acknowledged this as a striking and significant problem to which there are no easy answers.  Senior policymakers are aware of the tension in their positions, but do not seem to have a solution.  In fact, it is precisely this indecision and uncertainty that indicates the need for the strategy discussed above: by revitalizing the economy through any means possible, the U.S. can hopefully avoid resource drain problems that could in and of themselves constrain U.S. freedom of action abroad.


back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2010