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A Question of Attainability: States of Grand Strategy in the United States and China - Event Recap

In November, 2019 the Asia Program and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States brought speakers Daniel Drezner and Jude Blanchette to the Wilson Center to whether countries can still craft grand strategy given domestic challenges and perceptions of an increasingly fragile liberal international order.

Daniel Drezner speaking at the Wilson Center.
Daniel Drezner speaking at the Wilson Center.

Grand strategy, or the combined mobilization of military, diplomatic, political, and economic capabilities to achieve overarching national interests, is usually a clear indicator of country’s long-term plans. Essentially, nations harness their powers for a strict set of purposes or, as the Tufts Fletcher School’s Daniel Drezner more effectively articulates, “an attempt to marry state capabilities with social purpose–it’s an intentional act of intellectual creation.” Close examination of resource deployment and policy agendas can help decipher those plans and, further, be viewed as symbols of a collective belief and identity—at that moment, at least. With shifting political climates in nations around the world, grand strategy is at risk, and so are nations’ abilities to formulate and execute long-term goals.

To grapple with the questions of how and why, the Wilson Center’s Asia Program enlisted the Drezner and Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to sit down to discuss the current state of grand strategy formulation for two competing world powers: the United States and China.

Part of what has made the United States effective at grand strategizing in the past has been what Drezner terms “a healthy marketplace of ideas” and strong institutions that can credibly commit to the goals they have set. Drezner, who further expands on these ideas in his 2017 book, The Ideas Industry, cites those two factors as necessary for the formulation of good, long-lasting ideas and, more importantly, for weeding out bad ones. In addition, the diffusion of responsibility among various bureaucrats, congresspeople, and outside experts helped to keep strategy from straying to one extreme or another.

The discussion quickly departed from the trust, collaboration, and cooperation enjoyed in the days of George Kennan and Paul Nitze and into, well, today. To Drezner, trust in bureaucrats has significantly eroded giving way to what he terms “the rise of quackery.” Some healthy skepticism is necessary, but too much undermines the authority of expertise. As Drezner asserts, “The barriers to entry have been lowered dramatically, and the barriers to exit have gone because, essentially, we’re now in a world where stupid ideas don’t die.” The marketplace of ideas, once the proud indication of a healthy liberal democracy, is falling by the wayside in a politicized space where distinguishing bad ideas from good ideas no longer matters.

Speaking of politicization, Drezner also cites political polarization across the federal government as a main reason for the decay of American grand strategy, “The moment a foreign policy issue is treated as a partisan issue, essentially the effect of outside expertise on public attitudes becomes nil.” The division between the political parties has manifest itself in policy strategies that are growing shorter and more contentious—they have lost the ability to be effective foreign policy actors. In the absence of a functional congress, the executive branch has stepped without congressional correction to the point that, in 2017, the official National Security Strategy went so far as to criticize the preceding administrations’ strategies, which is completely unprecedented.

With congressional Republicans largely operating as another arm of the executive branch, congress has inherently delegated responsibilities like declaring war, setting tariffs, and ratifying treaties to an unpredictable executive branch. In sum, Drezner warned these developments coalescing into a frightening realization:

“If you are operating in a universe where essentially foreign policy is only emanating from the executive branch and the executive branch has considerable amounts of power, and you combine that with increasing political polarization, essentially you’re going to wind up with a grand strategy, and foreign policy for that matter, that can best be described as schizophrenic.”

The second half of the panel in which Jude Blanchette thoroughly covered China’s approach to grand strategy told a markedly different story with some eerie similarities. Notably, China’s one-party system renders the type of polarization in American politics impossible within the framework of their political system, and they also lack the same networks, like CNN or Fox, for voicing opinion or holding discourse. Blanchette noted reliance on expertise has waned since Tiananmen Square in 1989, meaning answers to large policy questions emanate solely from the Communist Party’s upper echelon—the National People’s Congress is basically ceremonial. In both China and the United States, political polarization and lack thereof, respectively, have rendered both congresses ineffective in expressing foreign policy concerns.

Grand strategy is hardwired into China’s political DNA; the country’s very construction under the Communist Party is a strength for ensuring an intellectually cohesive government that plans specific, long-term policy goals. The entire political hierarchy, down to the local level, can latch onto a specific set of goals from national leadership.

China can design grand strategy, but the implementation remains an entirely separate challenge. Lofty goals set in Beijing, goals which are not reviewed by policy experts, create a situation that Blanchette describes as, “Even just having a grand strategy that is the design of the executive without robust external input, in China’s situation, is going to lead to much more insular, inflexible, and uncreative grand strategy.” Academia, expertise, society at-large are shut out of the debate due to Beijing’s desire to control all facets of policy realization and enactment. No amount of bureaucratic efficiency can alter the fact that shunning knowledge and criticism leads to long-term ineffective governance.

Another glaring problem with China’s centralization is, Blanchette states, “When it is locked on a trajectory and a current way of thinking about policy, it’s very hard to unstick it.” While the United States bounces from the priorities of one administration to the next, China remains fixed on a set course that cannot be altered barring a substantial change to approach from leadership—such as the one-child policy. Even the Belt and Road Initiative, a proud example of China’s vision for the future, has fallen short of expectations when one considers the resources at their disposal. An over-reliance on goal-oriented planning and disregard for oscillating circumstances has left China with some fairly significant obstacles to overcome.

In terms of their capacity to outline grand strategy, the United States and China sit on two different sides of the spectrum. The United States, unable to reach any sort of consensus, remains in limbo as the two prevailing political parties drift further and further apart. Congress is too polarized to be civilized, leaving power to whoever happens to inhabit the White House. One the other hand, China’s single-minded approach to long-term goals grants top-to-bottom synchronization in terms of goal setting, but the insularity of that single-minded approach renders policy execution sloppy and misguided. At the very least, China has the strategic advantage of having a strategy, but the question execution remains. In both cases, the death of expertise at the government’s highest level hampers the creation of strong, stable policy and, thus, the role that each will play in the changing world order remains anxiously uncertain.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Benjamin Pereboom

Intern, External Relations

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The mission of Kissinger Institute on China and the United States is to ensure that informed engagement remains the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations.  Read more