4 Options for U.S. Grand Strategy Going Forward | News | Department of Political Science

One of the most critical, yet underappreciated, aspects of foreign policy any state must contend with is its grand strategy. As we have investigated, a grand strategy is a plan of how a state manages its resources as a means to its goals. Whether these ends are oriented towards conquest, security, the prevalence of a particular ideal, or economically motivated, every state requires a grand strategy if it wants to survive in the modern world. So, as a global superpower, what are the options for US grand strategy? Not only in the current geopolitical climate, but also as we look to the future?


After 20 years of occupation in Afghanistan, it is understandable that many Americans want a departure from military intervention abroad and instead focus on diplomacy. A 2021 report from RAND Corporation says that implementing the realist grand strategy would require the United States to “adopt a more cooperative approach toward other powers, reduce the size of its military and advance military presence, and end or negotiate some of its security commitments.”

A restrictive stance relies more on diplomacy to resolve conflicts and encourage other states to take the lead in their own security so that the United States can focus solely on its vital interests. What would the change in constraints look like? Through this approach, the report says, the country would have a smaller military, fewer security commitments, and a higher bar to initiate an armed response.

Among the most famous of the “restrainers” is MYTH professor Dr. Barry Posen. In his book, aptly titled “Restraint,” Dr. Posen says: “The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on unnecessary military preparations and unnecessary wars, billions it can no longer afford. The wars have been needlessly took the lives of thousands of US military personnel and injured thousands more.”

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NDISC Director Dr. Eugene Gholz, along with his co-authors Daryl Press and Harvey Sapolsky, expressed their endorsement of the grand strategy in their 1997 article “Come Home America” ​​where they said, “The United States frequently intervenes in other people’s conflicts, but without a consistent rationale, without a clear sense of how to advance US interests, and sometimes with unintended and expensive consequences.”

Deep commitment

While it is contradictory and constrained, the strategy of deep engagement is also solid. Citing Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, Jeffrey Friedman describes the four main elements of grand strategy:

  1. The United States maintains enough military power to defeat any other state.

  1. Provide security commitments to allies such as NATOJapan, and South Korea.

  1. Take advantage of this safety net for financial gain.

  1. Participation and leadership in the rules-based international order.

The deep engagement strategy is an expensive one. As Friedman points out, the United States spends more than $1 trillion on its foreign policy agenda every year.

Brooks and Wohlforth can count themselves among the deep when they say, “Repealing the security guarantee would make the world and the United States less safe. In Asia, Japan and South Korea would expand their military capabilities if the United States were to leave, which could provoke a dangerous reaction from China.

Liberal Internationalism

20221025 Ndc Grandstrategyrestraint 600x400
Through a major strategy of Containment, the United States would seek diplomatic solutions to conflicts.

While the deep engagement may sound like the status quo, the United States does not currently adhere to the strategy of deep engagement – the current grand strategy is liberal internationalism – in fact, Friedman says that President Trump was an exception to many modern Presidents when “his behavior was” largely consistent with the prescriptions of deep commitment” rather than liberal internationalism.

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If this is the current US approach to grand strategy, it is especially important to understand what that strategy entails. International liberalism refers to the belief that states should achieve multilateral agreements with each other, uphold rules-based norms, and spread and integrate liberal ideals—in particular, liberal democracy. The model of liberal internationalism allows states to intervene in other states in pursuit of liberal goals and humanitarian aid, even though violence is positioned as a last resort.

Unfortunately, the flaws of the liberal international model should not be overlooked: the NATO The intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the bombing of Yugoslavia represent dark times in the history of grand strategy.

President Woodrow Wilson is considered among the first modern liberal internationalists—particularly in his work establishing the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton also subscribe to this grand strategy.

Conservative primacy

Does global security depend on the decisions and actions of the United States? Is the United States the only hegemon in the world? If this is the case, the US should adopt a great strategy of conservative primacy. Paul Avey, Jonathan Markowitz, and Robert Reardon argue that although there may be disagreements and differences among group members, “conservative primacy formulations of all kinds combine classical liberal assumptions with hegemonic stability theory to arrive at the most active grand-strategic prescriptions. These prescriptions based on a variant of hegemonic stability theory that combines ‘benevolent’ and ‘coercive’ elements.”

Conservative primacy, such as liberal internationalism, favors the promotion of liberalism, especially democracy as opposed to authoritarianism, and capitalism and free trade as opposed to communism. Unlike liberal internationalism, however, which prioritizes diplomacy and negotiations, “conservative primacy proponents do not exclude the spread of democracy by the sword” such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Apparently, there were concerns of conservative primacy at play when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee of our lasting national interest” [emphasis added].

US Grand Strategy

The last three of these major strategies are part of the hegemonic stability theory, which postulates that “international economic openness and stability are more likely when there is only one dominant state.” Constraints, on the other hand, argue that a state can ensure its own survival by preventing another state from accumulating enough power to overthrow them.

Like all good theories, this can also be drawn in a two-by-two:

International institutions are important for securing US interests



Domestic institutions are important for securing US interests


Liberal Internationalism

Conservative primacy


Deep commitment


*Table courtesy of Texas Homeland Security Review

As you can see, looking forward there are many options available for the US grand strategy. What politics appeals to you? Are you ready to learn more and make your voice heard on a bigger scale? Notre Dame’s Center for International Security helps students build a platform for learning about International Relations, Foreign Policy, and Grand Strategy. If you want to learn more, we hope you will contact us.

Originally published by Notre Dame International Security Center in ndisc.nd.edu on October 26, 2022.


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