Democracies, Dictatorships, and Grand Strategy | Wilson Center
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Democracies, Dictatorships, and Grand Strategy

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Can countries still craft grand strategy given domestic challenges and perceptions of an increasingly fragile liberal international order? Daniel Drezner argued that in advanced industrialized democracies, several national trends—the erosion of trust in elites, the rise of political polarization, and the retreat of the legislative branch from foreign policy—have undercut the ability to fashion a viable grand strategy. Jude Blanchette discussed China’s approach to grand strategy, including Beijing’s systemic advantages and disadvantages for Beijing's ability to formulate and execute a grand strategy.

Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

“Essentially, the argument that I’m making is that, traditionally, we’ve always thought of grand strategy, particularly within the advanced industrialized democracies, as being better coming from those places for two reasons. The first is that, presumably, advanced industrialized democracies have a healthy marketplace of ideas, and, second, democracies, because they have legislative branches, as well as executive branches, can engage in credible commitment. Grand strategy is, almost by definition, an attempt to marry state capabilities with social purpose – it’s an intentional act of intellectual creation.”

“For grand strategies to matter, they have to be clear, and they also have to be enduring. And so, as a result, you would expect that places that have relatively robust marketplaces of ideas, and places that have credible commitment devices, should be better at articulating grand strategies. With respect to the marketplace of ideas, the purpose of the marketplace of ideas, the metaphor, is not so much that it always generates great ideas, but, rather, that it ruthlessly weeds out bad ideas.”

“Another element of grand strategy in the United States, traditionally, has been that the U.S. foreign policy machinery was often so decentralized – split among various bureaucracies, as well as congress, as well as outside experts – that, essentially, that Balkanization which many (including, I would add, George Kennan) thought of as a weakness, actually proved to be strength. It wound up essentially checking U.S. grand strategy in terms of containment from going too far in the form of expansionism, or too far in the form of the restraint approach.”

“So this is where my fun, super-optimistic take on this comes in. In that, essentially it’s worth noting that the sort of dominant U.S. grand strategy of 150 years of the republic was isolationism. Then, containment lasted about a half-century. Then, you could argue the grand strategy of primacy lasted, after the end of the Cold War, for maybe 25 years. So, we’re in a situation where each grand strategy seems to be lasting less and less long, which raises the interesting question of how long ‘America First’ will endure.”

“It should be noted that it’s not just Americans’ trust in government [that] has collapsed, Americans’ trust in almost every institution in the country – with the exception of the U.S. military – has collapsed. This includes trade unions, it includes the media, and it includes scientific communities as well, which suggests that foreign policy experts, as we understand them, are not necessarily held in the same kind of exalted level of trust that they were, let’s say, during the days of George Kennan or Paul Nitze.”

“You want a certain amount of healthy and skeptical mistrust. The problem is that if you have too much, which is where we are now, essentially it allows for the rise of quackery…. People have looked at this from both the left and the right, and they both observe that if you don’t have trust in authority and expertise, it essentially allows anyone with a crackpot idea to come forward. And precisely because traditional experts are not necessarily respected, it means they can’t necessarily force out these ideas. In terms of the marketplace of ideas, to use an economic metaphor, essentially the barriers to entry have been lowered dramatically, and the barriers to exit have gone up. Because, essentially, we’re now in a world where stupid ideas don’t die.”

“The moment a foreign policy issue is treated as a partisan issue, essentially the effect of outside expertise on public attitudes becomes nil. Take climate change, for example. Climate change has now become such a politically polarized issue, that it doesn’t matter if you throw expert consensus at voters. If voters are extreme Republicans, they’ll just double down on their beliefs, and if voters are Democrats, they’ll do the same.”

“Polarization also has made it increasingly difficult, I think, for the government to exercise any kind of effort at grand strategy – in no small part, because, during the Trump years, you have seen what I can only describe as a war on expertise within the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies.”

“As Congress has gotten more polarized, it’s also become extremely difficult for them to have any kind of constructive role in terms of the articulation of foreign policy. Because, essentially, the party that is aligned with the executive branch just functions as an adjunct to the executive branch. And so, as a result, there’s less concern within Congress [about] executive branch overreach.”

“Congress… in the Constitution was given significant powers to help set foreign policy. Congress is supposed to declare war or not. Congress is supposed to set tariffs. Congress is supposed to ratify treaties. It turns out Congress can do none of these things, and they have consciously delegated a lot of these authorities to the president, because the president was viewed, essentially, as the last adult in the room.”

“When you combine all of these things, you wind up with a very frightening realization about why grand strategy can’t work. Which is: 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 [a] foreign policy for that matter, that can best be described as schizophrenic.”


Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies

“To highlight some things I think are not present in China’s social and political system that Dan touched on. One of them is diminishing expertise. It’s not to say that there’s not diminishing trust in expertise in China. It’s simply to say that that doesn’t manifest in the same way that Dan just talked about, for the simple reason that that the role of intellectuals and academics in formulating policy has come under increasing pressure, and since the post-1989 period. The role of intellectuals and academics directly involved in policy and policymaking has been increasingly circumscribed.”

“Second is polarization. This seems a rather obvious in a one-party state. But while we’re certainly seeing – under this current leadership group of Xi Jinping – more tensions in Chinese society, and even within the political elite, there aren’t the venues to see these manifest into impact policy. So, in other words, if we take something like the National People’s Congress, which, theoretically, is the analog to our Congress here. You’re not going to see a bifurcation to the extremes of opinion, simply because the National People’s Congress votes lockstep, as per the instructions of the party elite and the party leadership.”

"Similarly, the platforms where you would be able to express divergent views, and should I even say “quackery,” have all but vanished in China. So, the room for open political discourse that space has shrunken significantly, leaving, really, only the policy debates happening at the upper echelons of China’s political system.”

“We’re returning to an environment where policy disagreement needs to take the form of veiled historical analogies, like we used to see in the Mao era, because directly coming out and challenging the dominant policy line is untenable – both for professional and personal reasons.”

“We’re not seeing a polarization in the sense that all government organs are under direct control by the Communist Party of China. You don’t have differences across, let’s say, a USTR under the leadership of a Robert Lighthizer, or a Commerce Department under the leadership of Wilbur Ross. A personalization, and, almost, a unique DNA for certain political organs and other regulatory organs; you don’t see that in China’s political system, and especially under this leadership.”

“The absence of a democratic veto over fiscal decisions also leaves the Communist Party much more leeway to allocate funds towards strategic investments than in a democratic system. There [are] also no opposing political parties to scupper well-designed plans, nor do you have venues like CNN and Fox for disgruntled former officials to go on air and criticize existing party policy.”

“There’s also a more core reason that I think China’s system is more well-suited to designing a grand strategy. Dan writes in the paper, and I’m just going to quote this, he calls it, ‘An intentional act of intellectual creation, guiding foreign actors’ national security bureaucracies, outside analysts, about what to expect from a country’s foreign policy.’ And I think if there’s a political system well-designed to do all of those, it’s the Chinese political system under the Leninist Communist Party.”

“China’s entire political system is goal-oriented. The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott used to talk about teleocratic political systems, after the Greek word ‘telos’ – meaning ‘ends-oriented.’ And that very much describes the way that the Communist Party is situated. Grand strategy is simply an extension of the party’s natural tendency hard-wiring to plan.”

"We often talk about China as if it’s ten feet tall. I don’t think it’s that. I also don’t think it’s four feet tall. I think it’s six-foot-seven. Just to say that China has extraordinary strengths. Some of them I just outlined. But it also has some pretty significant weaknesses.”

“When you look at China’s quote ‘plans from on-the-ground perspective,’ they look ad hoc, ill-devised, and scattershot. This is captured in the old saying of: ‘The sky is high, the emperor is far away.’ Despite Beijing’s best efforts to have a level of control where it can reach out into the hinterlands, and tell a party secretary exactly what to do, these plans often don’t get that far out of Beijing.”

“Even plans that fall aquarely within the bucket of grand strategy, like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, when looked at from a granular perspective, are facing extraordinary problems…. That’s the third attempt at rebranding its name, and if we look at the reception of the Belt and Road Initiative across the countries who are investment recipients, we see that it’s been met with a mixture of scorn, fear, ridicule. Yes, certainly some acceptance. But it hasn’t been the clear home run that we would expect from a country which has the advantages of designing a grand strategy like China does.”

“Conceptualizing, or having a grand strategy, is different from doing a grand strategy. And I think most of the benefits China has lean towards the former, which we’re incapable of doing. But I’m not entirely convinced, in the ‘doing’ of that grand strategy, that China has material advantages of the United States.”


Image: Flickr/DiazWerks (CC BY-NC 2.0)




  • Daniel Drezner

    Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School, Tufts University
  • Jude Blanchette

    Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies