Rediscovering A Grand Foreign Policy Strategy

Lessons from the late Bill Martel.

I was saddened when Dr. William Martel died earlier this year. He was taken from us at too young an age. He was a professor at Tufts with a strong interest in public service. Bill and I both served on Gov. Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team in 2012. He was an upbeat person, an action-oriented intellectual, and a patriot.

Bill was one of Romney’s advisers on Russia. He helped formulate the position that Russia was a geostrategic threat. This was greeted with snickers from many in Washington — after all, we had “reset” our relations with Moscow. The snickers stopped after the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

Although Bill was sick, he maintained an active schedule, and finished his final book, Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice, an ambitious review of the sources of grand strategy and the grand strategies applied by the United States since its founding. He intended for it to serve as a long memo for current and future policy makers. It is a dense 360 pages, with an additional 150 pages of notes. The book was published just a few months ago and is timely.

Bill’s book describes grand strategy’s components as being global in scale and long term in impact. He also writes that a grand strategy should use all means of national power, and seek to achieve the highest political ends. Bill describes grand strategy as encompassing what a state should accomplish as well the policies that are needed to bring about those goals. Bill wrote the book because “the foreign policy establishment has failed to define a widely accepted and compelling successor grand strategy (to containment), much less broad concepts, to help the American people and their policy makers answer some of the fundamental questions about what choices to make in foreign policy.”

A key message is that a successful and effective foreign policy derives from a coherent grand strategy. Bill warns that the cost of failure to come up with a consensus on a grand strategy is that the United States will squander its chance to create a peaceful, prosperous, stable twenty-first century.

Another message in the book is that containment is not the right template for this era. The foreign policy establishment keeps hoping to find an answer in containment, whereas Bill believed that the answer lies further back in history. In the book, Bill comments that divisions in American society have also made it difficult to develop a consensus. He recognizes the difficulty in formulating a grand strategy given the absence of a primary adversary since 1991.

The book takes us back to the beginning of civilization and looks at how various societies have successfully or unsuccessfully used grand strategy. Bill uses examples from ancient Greece and China, Imperial Spain, and the Ottoman Empire. A busy reader might skim this front section.

The other part of the book is a review of various grand strategies the United States has used, from Washington to Obama. Again, the reader focused on Bill’s message for today would do well to skim the book up until the FDR section. A third section focuses on the presidents since the end of the Cold War. After reviewing the four presidents of this era, Bill has the most praise for President George H. W. Bush for bringing the Cold War peacefully to a peaceful end.

The book’s final section deserves the most attention because this is where he delivers his punchline, drawing conclusions from broader history and from U.S. history. Bill concludes that there are three basic principles for a successful grand strategy:

  • Global power requires strong domestic foundations including fiscal discipline, functioning domestic infrastructure, a strong education, and a culture that encourages innovation. The United States or any other global power is at its best internationally when its domestic house is in order and its global power flows from domestic strength.
  • The exercise of leadership is best used to restrain the forces of disorder and disruption. Bill reminds the reader that the United States has confronted and defeated various forces including anarchism, fascism, and communism. The United States is best when it is a gradualist power — not a revisionist power (seeking to overthrow the system) nor a status quo power (not making any change), but instead serving as a brake on rapid or radical change in the international system. Without putting words in Bill’s mouth, I think he would say “two cheers for democracy promotion” that favors slow democratic change under limited circumstances. The sources of disruption today are “resurgent powers such as China and Russia, destabilizing middle powers (Iran and North Korea), a rising authoritarian axis, and non-state actors.”
  • The reinforcement of alliances and partnerships to address mutual threats and challenges. Bill reminds us that containment was a grand strategy not of the United States but of the United States and its strategic allies. He calls on a renewed and deepened set of partnerships and alliances and urges European powers to increase defense spending.

Bill’s critique of each grand strategy reviews how different leaders have over emphasized one of the above principles at the expense of another.

What does his book say about soft power? It discusses Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps (an important public diplomacy instrument but a limited instrument for development) and the Alliance for Progress. Bill references the role of the Marshall Plan in Europe, but gives short shrift to important innovations and instruments of soft power such as the founding of the Bretton Woods institutions under Truman and the founding of USAID under Kennedy. Later, he references the importance in Bush 41 and Bush 43’s respective national security strategies, articulating the importance of spreading free markets and democracy.

Bill’s book has all the attributes of an excellent graduate school textbook, but it deserves a reading by all 2016 presidential campaign advisers and all those who plan or hope to serve in foreign policy or national security roles. Bill leaves us with the message (quoting George H.W. Bush) that the essence of strategy is “determining priorities and making hard choices.” It is clear that Bill wrote this book on the assumption that the United States still has the capabilities to remain the preeminent power for the foreseeable future but he warns us that we will have to resolve our grand strategy drift.

article published in on April 28, 2015.

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