Posts Tagged ‘alliance’


Strategy is an act of imagination. Strategic planning is important because it forces government bureaucracies to think imaginatively about how the world works and what the nation can achieve. Strategic planning creates space for leaders to articulate priorities, and match diverse capabilities to overarching goals. When done well, it allows powerful governments to become forward-looking international agenda-setters, avoiding the all-too-frequent tendency to react to emerging crises in piecemeal fashion. Strategic planning sees order and opportunity in the chaos and threats of daily politics.

Unfortunately, imagination and power often have an inverse relationship in the modern world. The history of the last quarter-century shows that the United States has had trouble imagining how to use its power to promote order in an increasingly complex international system. American policymakers have displayed a repeated tendency to react (and overreact) to problems, rather than create enduring solutions. That is not because of absent capabilities or insufficient ambition. Quite the contrary, unprecedented military tools (including precision unmanned weapons) and universal claims (“end tyranny as we know it”) have encouraged frenetic action against emerging threats around the globe.

Since the end of the Cold War, the geographic range of American force deployments has increased, as have the demands upon those forces. The United States is fighting terrorism in countless failed states and seeks to rescue individual hostages held beyond the reach of legitimate local authorities. In addition to protecting its own citizens, the United States has sent its military across the globe to save other populations under attack. America is a country of global bad-asses and humanitarians, at the same time.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

American hyper-reactivity to threats represents the opposite of strategic planning. The actions of adversaries — large and small — dictate the immediate priorities for our national resources and attention. Our leaders operate in perpetual crisis mode, fearful of looking passive in the face of the next international incident. Crisis reaction encourages an emphasis on immediate responses and a narrowing of analysis to address the most pressing problems of the day. A broader perspective on the priorities of the nation is lost as our policymakers rush to preempt another terrorist attack or counter another incursion in Ukraine or the South China Sea. Our reactivity is enabled by the range of our capabilities, and it is motivated by the pressure of our media. It is not the best way to promote our national interests.

The excessive demands on American resources and attention are not new, but American leaders used to respond with imaginative organizational solutions to support broader strategic goals. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower contended with similar challenges when they created, in the decade after the Second World War, a permanent strategic planning and implementation structure — including the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both formed by the National Security Act of 1947. Secretary of State George Marshall created the Policy Planning Staff within the State Department at about the same time, first chaired by George Kennan. With the end of the Cold War and the recognition that globalization was producing fundamental changes in world affairs, President Bill Clinton formed the National Economic Council, designed to build synergies between national security and economic decision-making. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 President George W. Bush and Congress created a new Director of National Intelligence to integrate all of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The president and Congress also empowered a new executive agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to improve coordination among intelligence, military, transportation, immigration, and customs offices protecting American territory.

All of these organizational changes responded to a new international environment by integrating diverse government actors. The reforms sought to bring a fragmented bureaucracy together to collaborate on setting priorities, allocating resources, and imagining the future for American foreign policy. When they worked well, these new agencies added enormous value by giving different parts of government clear definitions of national interests, including overriding policy goals. They also defined (sometimes by default) the areas and issues that were not government priorities, and therefore deserved fewer resources. When these organizations did not work well, as they often have not, they engaged in log-rolling, multiplying parallel commitments for the U.S. government to please every interest and spread American resources thin.

Since the start of the 21st century, spreading resources thin has become the norm as Washington has taken on unprecedented peacetime commitments in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, where it has achieved very little. In other regions — particularly in East Asia — the United States has given contradictory signals of “pivoting” with more force and simultaneously showing a nagging reluctance to back its claims with real muscle. Without clear strategic guidance, confusion in Washington has contributed to growing uncertainty among American allies and adversaries, compounded by the cacophony of domestic political voices that will only grow louder as the presidential campaign season continues.

Confusion, uncertainty, and bellicose grandstanding have characterized American responses to recent terrorist attacks by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other groups. The spread of extremist ideologies and violence imperils social stability and citizen safety, especially in urban centers like Paris, London, and New York. The expansion of the Islamic State’s territorial footprint and its foreign recruitment promise more lethal attacks on high value targets in the near future. American responses, however, must focus on doing more than responding to violence with violence and loose talk about “war,” refugee restrictions, and anti-Islamic prejudice. So far, our public reactions to recent terrorist acts have been visceral and tactical, not strategic. The White House has not offered a coherent and persuasive plan for promoting long-term American security against terrorist threats.

A strategy for combatting terrorism must integrate a deep analysis of its sources with disciplined thinking about the full range of American capabilities, and the likely effects of deploying particular tools. Replaying the failed military interventionist policies of the last decade in the Middle East will further undermine American interests. To think strategically about terrorism requires more than a forceful reaction, but great care to insure that that the American resources deployed against terrorists fit the threat, its sources, and a sustainable outcome. The new president must work very hard to be a strategic leader on this and other pressing issues, not a global firefighter — creating new fires with every effort to smother the current flames.

Strategy Starts Early and At the Top

The place to start, even during the presidential campaign, is to return to the basics of strategic planning. The next occupant of the White House must possess the intellectual ingredients to formulate a national security strategy that makes sense of a very complex international system — defining threats, opportunities, and American national interests. A new strategy will need to align America’s considerable resources with a clear set of goals, defining specific policies to achieve those goals. Most of all, the next president will have to imagine a new global role for the United States that offers a compelling narrative for diverse actors within America and abroad. Our citizens, allies, and adversaries need consistency and predictability to calibrate their behaviors around our strategic purposes.

As we illustrate in our current Washington Quarterly article, national security strategy documents have been important for American policymakers since 1949. Unfortunately, these strategy documents received low priority in the Obama administration because it viewed its predecessor’s dogmatic strategy as a root cause of foreign policy failure. When effective, however, strategy documents have framed the most difficult and important foreign policy decisions. They allow the United States to lead rather than follow, defining priorities around American interests, not the crisis of the moment. The most important strategy documents of the post-World War II period demonstrate that a president’s first term is the time for a major statement of direction and purpose. The president, national security adviser, or secretary of state must empower one well-placed individual to lead the drafting process in order to produce a readable document with a clear assessment and a call to action.

Presidential candidates should begin generating ideas now that can be implemented early in the next administration. They must think about how they will articulate a national security strategy that nudges international dynamics to American advantage, organizes the labyrinth of American agencies, and, most important, imagines a better world.

There are numerous medium to long-term foreign policy challenges facing the next president, including those posed by China, Russia, and Iran, but the immediate struggle against terrorist organizations makes a disciplined and coherent national security strategy a clear imperative. What is the United States fighting for? How can we maximize our long-term goals? How can we make sure that we are not creating deeper problems for our nation in our immediate responses to terror, as happened in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks? The difficult formulation of a coherent strategic document that articulates national interests, assesses threats, and identifies the appropriate mix of resources is necessary to answer these questions. Otherwise, we will continue to react to attacks with vigor, but continued disappointment, and perhaps worse.

Co-authored with James Goldgeier, Dean of the School of International Service at American University.

Originally published by War on the Rocks (18 January 2016).


Henry Kissinger was born on 27 May 1923, in the shadow of the First World War. As a child, he witnessed the democratic exuberance of Weimar Germany and the terrible despair of Nazi tyranny. As a refugee, he became an American citizen in the U.S. Army, fighting to save civilization, as he and others understood it. Kissinger returned from war and quickly established himself as a leading proponent of American anti-communism, nuclear diplomacy, and great power negotiation in the Cold War. He is now, at 90 years of age, the world’s most recognized foreign policy “wise man.”


No other foreign policy expert commands more attention across societies and parties than Kissinger. He is an object of unmatched fascination, veneration, and condemnation. His life story is compelling, even for his detractors: a former refugee who climbed to the heights of the American government and then became an independent global diplomat moving seamlessly among the shifting leaders of the most powerful states. No other figure combines more than six decades of high level diplomatic experience with such a deep historical sensibility and an articulate understanding what he has seen. No one else has the consistent record of influencing and explaining foreign policy, amidst so much change, for so long. Kissinger is the living historical repository for the world’s twentieth century wisdom on the enduring dilemmas of foreign policy.


These dilemmas of foreign policy have defined Kissinger’s long career. As we reflect on his lasting policy influence, they are the appropriate place to start.

Enduring Foreign Policy Dilemmas

The first dilemma that Kissinger confronted, as early as the 1950s, was the question of how to use overwhelming capabilities for discrete ends. The most powerful weapons do not automatically translate into political leverage. Often the opposite is the case, because the damage from deploying total force hurts the most powerful actors, despite all of their advantages.


Kissinger’s earliest writings about policy criticized the Eisenhower-era doctrine of massive retaliation for failing to address the limits of overwhelming military power. Despite clear superiority in the number and sophistication of its nuclear capabilities, the United States was hamstrung, Kissinger argued, by a strategic posture that threatened full-scale nuclear warfare as the main American deterrent to limited communist aggression. When vital national interests were not immediately at stake, adversaries doubted American willingness to go nuclear. The Soviet and Chinese-supported North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 proved this point. The communists recognized that the United States would not start a nuclear war to defend its ally, and the communists doubted that Washington would mobilize sufficient conventional capabilities to reverse the North Korean ground assault. On this latter point, North Korea’s gamble almost paid off. Kissinger and his contemporaries feared repetitions of the Korean War around Berlin, Taiwan, and Japan.


In the Council on Foreign Relations study that he famously summarized for his 1957 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger called for a diverse range of American nuclear and non-nuclear military capabilities to provide a more vibrant and flexible deterrent against enemy aggression. The problem was that new military capabilities would widen the range of “limited wars” attracting American intervention. Capabilities create temptations, Kissinger understood. Fighting on the enemy’s terms, Washington would risk sending soldiers to more distant and difficult territories where the initial costs of engagement were low, but rose precipitously. That was the experience of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, each of which Kissinger supported, but with frequent criticisms of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson’s limited escalation tactics. In both cases, Kissinger called simultaneously for wider threats to coerce the enemy (including nuclear threats) and more intensive efforts at negotiation. He implemented both of these approaches, with great controversy and mixed results, as Richard Nixon’s chief foreign policy aide. Striking the correct balance between overwhelming force and flexible capabilities has been a central area of analysis for Kissinger throughout his career, and it remains foundational to debates about contemporary counter-insurgency and war-fighting doctrine.


Kissinger’s reflections on military strategy underpinned the second foreign policy dilemma that has animated his career as a thinker and policy-maker: negotiating necessary compromises with enemies that do not reward bad behavior. The legacy of failed Nazi “appeasement” before the Second World War colored Kissinger’s fears of weakness, as it did for most of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, he was one of the most consistent critics of this frequently invoked analogy in the postwar decades.


Kissinger argues that negotiated compromises, even with “evil” enemies, are necessary for the successful conduct of foreign policy. He contends that effective diplomacy can turn strategic compromises into substantive contributions for the national interest. Even in times of war, Kissinger claims, effective leaders must combine the escalation of force with simultaneous efforts at negotiation. Force and diplomacy are not alternatives, but integrated elements of security. The role of the national leader, in these terms, is to manage the mix of force and diplomacy, finding the right moments to increase one and reduce the other. They never exist in isolation, despite our political rhetoric to the contrary.


Although he supported the main elements of American containment doctrine, Kissinger was also a trenchant detractor. As a scholar, a policy-maker, and a public commentator he has argued that U.S. leaders did not pursue opportunities for negotiation aggressively enough during the Cold War. In late 1945, at a time of maximum American advantage, and also in mid-1953, following Josef Stalin’s death, the United States was too passive, too reactive, and too uncreative according to Kissinger. He chastises Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, and others for failing to make concrete proposals to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China that could have unfrozen divisions in Europe and Asia, and associated strategic tensions.


Kissinger followed this precise advice in the early 1970s. The opening to China was a vigorous and risky effort, prioritized by both Nixon and Kissinger, to negotiate new opportunities for American power amidst rising Sino-Soviet tensions and the debilitating quagmire in Vietnam. Through detente with Moscow, Nixon and Kissinger energetically worked to re-define the Cold War with new forms of summitry, arms control, non-aggression agreements, and even “basic principles” for peace. In the Middle East after the 1973 War, Kissinger used intensive “shuttle diplomacy” to orchestrate new deals among long-time adversaries in Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman, and even Damascus.


Kissinger (”Super K,” as some called him in the early 1970s) proved that the United States could gain great value from negotiating with adversaries in diverse regions. At the same time, his efforts at compromise inspired angry resistance from critics, particularly within the United States, who believed he was “selling out” American ideals and projecting weakness. His successes abroad created conditions for debilitating attacks at home from liberal humanitarians, like Jimmy Carter, and anti-communist hawks, like Ronald Reagan.


The political controversies surrounding the Nixon administration raise the third and most enduring dilemma from Kissinger’s long career: What is the legitimate role for executive power in U.S. policy-making? Kissinger has written more than anyone else for the public about foreign policy, and he spent many hours in office giving speeches and testifying before Congress. Nonetheless, he and Nixon worked very hard to insulate their deliberations and actions from immediate public accountability. They argued that managing delicate relations with adversaries, especially China, required secrecy to maximize speed and flexibility. They also believed that the American public was too ill-informed, impatient, and emotional to understand their carefully calibrated policy in Vietnam.


Kissinger’s skepticism about democratic constraints on executive authority, and his frustration with the extreme politicization of policy deliberations in the early 1970s, contributed to his extraordinary efforts to centralize power in the White House. He was not alone, however. Kissinger and his predecessors, McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, tranformed the National Security Council from an inter-agency planning body, as it was used by Dwight Eisenhower, into a small policy-making shop closely controlled by the President. Nixon and Kissinger managed the details of American foreign policy through the NSC, often locking the State and Defense departments, as well as Congress, out of decision-making. Other presidents have done the same.


Kissinger contributed to a larger trend in the growth of American executive power, and a similar diminishment in public oversight for war-making, intelligence operations, and recent aerial drone attacks on alleged terrorists, including an American citizen. Kissinger has been one of the most eloquent and thoughtful writers about how and why national executives must exercise greater foreign policy freedom than traditionally envisioned in American governance. Kissinger has also been the target of lawyers, historians, and activists who wish to restrain the “imperial presidency” and strengthen various congressional, judicial, and even international limits on the power of the White House.


These three dilemmas of modern American foreign policy – matching overwhelming power to discrete ends, finding appropriate mechanisms for negotiating with adversaries, and determining the acceptable range of presidential authority – have animated Kissinger’s rise from refugee to global sage. More than any other figure, he has defined these problems and proposed solutions in writing and in practice. Since the early 1950s, his life has been an ongoing dialogue about how to deploy power, how to conduct diplomacy, and how to re-define democratic authority for a threatening world.

Enduring Insights

Kissinger does not offer a single coherent philosophy for policy-making. His long career captures some valuable insights that continue to attract the attention of powerful and ambitious actors. This is the wisdom he dispenses, and it is probably the set of topics that scholars, policy-makers, and citizens will continue to debate for the next half-century:


American power is good and it can be calibrated to effective purposes with the correct leadership. Kissinger uses his career as a case in point. He argues that during the Cold War the United States managed to improve the lives of its own citizens and many in other societies because figures like Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and of course Kissinger, deployed the nation’s military, economic, and political capabilities to different parts of the world in the cause of defending free and peaceful societies. Kissinger admits to many exceptions, but he embodies the positive vision of what the Cold War was all about.


American leaders can conduct sophisticated and delicate diplomacy with diverse societies, securing the national interest through negotiation, compromise, and cooperation. Kissinger points to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, détente with the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War as his primary evidence. Despite the popular tendency to seek quick and easy “solutions,” the United States managed complex relationships with a wide range of societies in the second-half of the twentieth century, often showing great willingness to accommodate the needs of allies, and even recognize the concerns of adversaries. American diplomacy had its share of failures, but it proved resilient, consistent, and largely effective when figures like Kissinger were at the helm. He reminds observers of the diplomatic capital the United States still commands.


Last, but not least, the American government can address big problems with mature leadership and bipartisan consensus. For all the controversies swirling around Kissinger, he remains a figure who can engage listeners on both sides of the political aisle in sophisticated policy discussions. He does not dumb things down and he does not pander to party. He writes long historical books about U.S. relations with China and he gives ponderous lectures about diplomacy and the national interest. Kissinger’s career points to the functional potential of the often chaotic and stagnant institutions that make up our system of government. Although he is quick to lament the challenges of democratic governance, Kissinger is also compelling in his example of how the messy workings of power can still produce bright light and big ideas.


After more than six decades deeply entangled in wars, coups, negotiations, and other foreign policy complexities, Kissinger is recognized less for the specifics of his policies than for what he represents. He is the living embodiment of what it means to be a modern foreign policy expert. He, of course, calls himself a “statesman.” With all the positive and negative associations that come with that word, we still have a lot to learn by studying Kissinger’s long career and what it means for the next ninety years.


This blog post originally appeared at

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.