After I wrote the post Grand Strategy and Morality, blogfriend T. Greer had a serious objection:
Grand Strategy, I submit, does not provide us with a moral purpose. Rather, grand strategy is the means we use to satisfy the demands of this purpose. You cannot have grand strategy without the purpose – but they are not one and the same. Purpose transcends individual statesmen. It is the work of peoples, not politicians. As I state later in the piece:
Greer cites his erudite essay on the subject, Dreaming Grand Strategy for the full explanatory argument ( here is Greer’s excerpt but you should read the whole thing):
In Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History Frederick Merk states that the defining feature of the American polity has been its “sense of mission.” Americans, says he, have always been invested in the idea that their Republic served a great purpose. They could never delegate their destiny to the realpoliticking of the upper echelons of power. In times of crisis it is this sense of of purpose that has sustained the Republic, and in achieving national goals it is this sense of purpose that has acted as the unconscious guide of American statesmen and citizens alike. Strip away America’s mission, and you have stripped away America. And in doing so you have stripped away our grand strategy as well.
You will be hard pressed to find a strategy articulated and pursued by American statesmen that was not embedded in a larger sense of American purpose. The isolationism of the early 1800s was rooted in the conviction that America was creating “an Empire of Liberty”, untouched by the despotism of the old world. 50 years later the nation fulfilled its “Manifest Destiny” to “Extend the Area of Freedom” by expanding to the Pacific coast. Before Roosevelt could put “Germany First”, he needed to declare that his country was “The Arsenal of Democracy”. Kennan’s policy of containment was reliant on the assurance that America was the true and only “Leader of the Free World.”
Phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “Arsenal of Democracy” were not merely the rhetorical flourish used by canny politicians to justify the exercise of power. They were the reason power was exercised in the first place. These phrases were, in essence, bit-sized distillations of the mission and purpose Americans claimed for their nation. Containment only worked because the American populace believed that it was America’s mission to act as the Leader of the Free World. Cold War grand strategy was an outgrowth of this mission – a means to maintaining the mission’s end.
Purpose provides America with a vision. It prioritizes our interests, informs us of our enemies, and tells us what position we seek to hold on the international scene. A nation without a purpose is a nation without a grand strategy to achieve it.
I’m very sympathetic to much of what is in this post at Scholar’s Stage because we are grasping toward the same point: the relationship between grand strategy and moral purpose. Having reflected on T.Greer’s argument and my own prior post, here is my response:
- While moral purpose is a constant variable in grand strategy generally, in specific historical cases it’s importance will vary significantly.
- At times, Greer is right that grand strategy is embedded in a prexisting moral purpose. I certainly agree that that civilizational values and mores govern the nature of the grand strategies that societies will construct.
- Greer’s essay, albeit persuasive, is too American-centric. The US among a handful of nations ( France, the former USSR, Imperial Japan, etc.) that requires a more explicit and rhetorically robust moral-ideological justification for a grand strategy than is typical. Some states only need a grand strategy that does not flagrantly contradict national moral principles, while other states require a grand strategy that champions them. Americans want America to be the “Citty on a hill”; others just want their country to survive with honor.
- At other times, when realpolitik reigns, a successful grand strategy can ignite or act as a catalyst for a resurgence of moral purpose rather than be driven by it. Bismarck’s successful articulation of grand strategy went against prevailing elite opinion in the German states that was weighted heavily against Prussian domination of a united Germany, the military arguments of von Moltke’s grossgeneralstab and the preferences of Bismarck’s own monarch, King Wilhelm of Prussia. Bismarck’s wars of choice against Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France made Wilhem Kaiser and unleashed a ferocious dynamism of German nationalism whose consequences were to shake the world.
My preference would be for strategic theory to be neat and clean, but history is a messy business.