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America’s Biggest Foreign Policy Weakness: No Grand Strategy

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Michael DiCiana

As 2024 begins, the global threat to American interests is on the rise as the interests of adversaries continue to align. However, Washington policymakers appear either unable or uninterested in displaying resolve

As 2024 begins, the global threat to American interests is on the rise as the interests of adversaries continue to align. However, Washington policymakers appear either unable or uninterested in displaying resolve.

The late Henry Kissinger noted, “Convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office.” From the opera box, it seems American leaders walked into their current positions without any ideas or historical understanding to take on the crises erupting before them. Bets are being hedged, and punches are pulled. Conflicts are crises to be managed, not wars to be won. Adversaries shun every treaty and deal they’ve signed, but diplomats insist on more talks. The United States has always struggled with producing a coherent grand strategy, and whether Washington has the ability to create one is a matter of debate. To the extent that a U.S. grand strategy exists, it seems to be the hope that things don’t deteriorate further—a precarious stance that falls short of effective policy, especially in today’s geopolitical minefield.

If the U.S. support for Ukraine continues to arrive slowly and only after significant deliberation in Washington, it will be the first and most glaring case study of American strategic lethargy after the next global war. Following stunning successes in 2022, the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive struggled to achieve objectives, facing fortified Russian lines without sufficient air cover or armor. Ukraine’s great successes—driving the Russian Navy out of Sevastopol and clearing the Black Sea—are thanks to Ukrainian ingenuity and the material support of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

A serious administration and Congress should see the folly here. Invading Ukraine should have been the vice that crushed Putin’s war machine. Instead, the Russian military gnawed its way out of bear traps in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson and recovered enough strength to defend its gains in Eastern Ukraine. American rhetoric on the war belies the lack of strategy. “As long as it takes” should have given way to “Help Ukraine win now.” A victory in Ukraine would have crippled Russia and brought a powerful, experienced, and modernized force into NATO. Currently, our Eastern European allies are worried that NATO still doesn’t comprehend the threat. That can still happen, but feckless policy risks a frozen conflict. Worse, if Western support is allowed to disintegrate, we risk summoning the ghosts of the Munich appeasement to solidify Russian gains.

The Biden administration’s efforts to link the Israel-Hamas War to the Russo-Ukrainian War seemed prescient. The Moscow-Tehran partnership is strengthening, and Russia was already making public outreaches to Hamasbefore the October 7 massacre. Now, that linkage seems bitterly ironic. The White House is losing daylight between its initial promise of full support to Israel, facing demands from left-wing Democrats for a “permanent ceasefire.” Attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen were answered belatedly.

Where rhetoric and resolve fall short, so does the mate. The United States seems unable to produce basic arms such as howitzer shells in numbers enough to aid the two allies. Legislatively, the efforts to link Ukraine and Israel’s funding have become a trap for Democrats as the House GOP insisted on stronger border funding to the massive bill. While the original linkage showed strategic foresight, the tone of the ongoing negotiation shows how this fecklessness has become bipartisan. Democrats show hesitation to compromise on important border protection, and Republicans seemingly downplay the significance of European security. While the audience of this comedy might make strategists want to pull at their hair, at least some have pointed out that the solution to a weapons shortage is to make more weapons. A collection of Republicans have shown themselves to be pro-Israel hawks, but Russia doves. Apparently, the friendship between Putin, the Ayatollahs, and Hamas does not factor into this calculation. Perhaps pretending they have made any calculation is the mistake.

A terrible symptom of these uncoordinated policies is the tongue-lashing American leaders deliver to our allies. Despite Israel’s success in pushing Hamas out of northern Gaza, American leaders warned Israel of  “strategic defeat.” In a moment where a decision is required, the decision is global tepidity.

A worse symptom reared on January 28, when Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. forces finally resulted in direct-fire fatalities. There’s no room now for the United States to hide behind the claim of “no U.S casualties” to avoid effective retaliation.

The looming prospect of a U.S.-China confrontation hangs over this moment of caution and indecision. What will the United States do when the figurative (and literal) “balloon goes up”? At this juncture, one must question if Americans can put their money where their mouths are. Despite calls across the aisle to reform our defense industrial base, there’s no movement on Capitol Hill. With the Ukraine conflict demonstrating the necessity of massive stocks of artillery shells and precision-guided weapons and a massive shipbuilding gap with China starting to look insurmountable, any serious policymaker should be demanding changes. Without a proven capacity to prevent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from establishing a beachhead in Taiwan or a stifling blockade of the island, U.S. resolve is an open question. What concessions might the United States offer? How long might it be until Washington “freezes” that conflict? Broadening out to the wider western Pacific, will there ever be a plan to roll back Chinese aggression?

The word “ever” is pertinent because this institutional incapacity to formulate lasting, coherent strategies did not begin with this administration or today’s minority party caucuses. However, this intellectual and moral stunt needs to be addressed now.

The most charitable read on the hedging of Washington’s policymakers could be that the United States is being forced to react to different threats on multiple fronts across the globe. The fault here is that the threats facing the United States are merging into one coalition. In a piece for National Review, Mike Watson of the Hudson Institute drew parallels between the threat landscape today and that of the mid-1930s, where revanchist and aggressive powers, though not formally aligned, collaborated in eroding the global order. From North Korean artillery shells to Iranian drones, the threats span international shipping routes in the Black Sea, the Red Sea, and the South China Sea. While Washington prays and tiptoes, its adversaries watch how far it will walk into the minefield.