[Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, The End of Grand Strategy. US Maritime Operations In the 21st Century. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY, 2017. 238 pages]


review / Emili J. Blasco [English version].

The concept of Grand Strategy is not univocal. In its most abstract sense, used in the field of geopolitics, the Grand Strategy refers to the geopolitical imperatives of a country and determines what a state must necessarily do to achieve its primary and fundamental purpose in its relationship with others, usually in terms of power. In a lesser Degree of abstraction, the Grand Strategy is understood as the principle that should govern the way in which a country faces conflicts in the international scenario. It is what, in the case of the United States, is often referred to as a President's Doctrine and aims to create a rule for the response, especially military, to be given to the challenges and threats that arise.

This second, more concrete sense is the one used in The End of Grand Strategy. Its authors do not question that there are geopolitical imperatives that should mark a particular U.S. action, constant over time, but rather that a single strategic response to the variety of security risks facing the country is intended. "Strategies must be calibrated from agreement with operational circumstances. They exist in the plural, not in a singular grand strategy," warn Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, professors at Rutgers University and the Naval War College, respectively, and both experts on defense issues.

For both authors, "the notion of a grand strategy is a vain search for order and coherence in an increasingly complex world", "the very idea of a single, all-purpose grand strategy is of little use in the 21st century. In fact, it is often counterproductive".

Despite the doctrines that are sometimes invoked in some presidencies, in reality different strategic approaches often coexist in the same mandate, or there are even specific strategies that transcend presidencies. "The United States does not favor a dominant strategy, nor can it," Reich and Dombrowski warn.

The End of Grand Strategy. US Maritime Operations In the 21st Century

"The concept of grand strategy is discussion in Washington, in academia and in the media in the 'singular' rather than the 'plural.' The implication is that there is a way to secure U.S. interests in a complicated world. Those debating even tend to accept a fundamental premise: that the United States has the ability to control events, and thus can afford not to be elastic in the face of a changing and increasingly challenging strategic environment," the two authors write.

The book examines US military operations so far this century, focusing on naval operations. As a maritime power, it is in that domain that US performance has the greatest strategic expression. The result of that examination is a list of six strategies, grouped into three types, that the US has operated in a "parallel" and "by necessity" fashion.

1. Hegemony. It is based on the global dominance of the United States: a) primatist forms are commonly associated with US unilateralism, which in the 21st century has included the neoconservative variant of nation building (Iraq and Afghanistan); b) leadership strategy or "cooperative security" is based on the traditional coalition in which the United States assumes the role of first among equals; it seeks to ensure greater legitimacy for US policies (military exercises with Asian partners).

2. sponsorship. It involves the provision of material and moral resources in support of policies basically advocated and initiated by other actors: a) formal strategies, which are specifically authorized by law and international protocols (partnership against pirates and terrorists); b) informal strategies, which respond to the request of a loose coalition of states or other entrepreneurs rather than being authorized by intergovernmental organizations (seizures at sea).

3. Entrenchment: a) isolationism wants to withdraw US forces from outside instructions , reduce US commitments in international alliances and reassure US control through strict border control (barrier against drug trafficking from South America); b) containment, which implies selective engagement or balancing from outside (Arctic).

The description of all these different actions demonstrates that, as opposed to the theoretical approach seeking a unifying principle, there is in fact a variety of situations, as the military knows. "Military planners, by contrast, recognize that a variety of circumstances requires a menu of strategic choices," say Reich and Dombrowski. "U.S. policy, at internship, does not replicate any single strategic one. It reflects all of them, with the application of different strategic approaches, depending on the circumstances."

The authors conclude that "if observers were to accept that no grand strategy is capable of prescribing responses to all threats to U.S. security, they would necessarily recognize that the primary purpose of a grand strategy is only rhetorical-a statement of values and principles that lacks operational utility." "By definition, the architectural design of any single, abstract strategy is relatively rigid, if not static in fact-intellectually, conceptually, analytically, and organizationally. And yet that single grand strategy is expected to work in a context that claims enormous adaptability and routinely punishes rigidity (...) Military leadership is far more aware than academics or policymakers of this inherent problem."

What are the benefits of a plurality of calibrated strategies? According to the authors, it underscores to policymakers and citizens the limits of US power, sample that the US is also influenced by global forces it cannot fully dominate, and tempers expectations about what US military power can achieve.

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