This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
Making sense of U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy at this
moment is difficult. Not only is it a work in progress, but the pending
decisions he has to make — on Iran, Afghanistan and Russia — tend to
obscure underlying strategy. It is easy to confuse inaction with a lack
of strategy. Of course, there may well be a lack of strategic thinking,
but that does not mean there is a lack of strategy.
Strategy, as we have argued, is less a matter of choice than a matter of reality imposing itself on presidents.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush, for example, rarely had a chance
to make strategy. He was caught in a whirlwind after only nine months
in office and spent the rest of his presidency responding to events,
making choices from a menu of very bad options. Similarly, Obama came
into office with a preset menu of limited choices.
He seems to be fighting to create new choices, not liking what is on
the menu. He may succeed. But it is important to understand the
overwhelming forces that shape his choices and to understand the degree
to which whatever he chooses is embedded in U.S. grand strategy, a
strategy imposed by geopolitical reality.
Empires and Grand Strategy
American grand strategy,
as we have argued, is essentially that of the British Empire, save at a
global rather than a regional level. The British sought to protect
their national security by encouraging Continental powers to engage in
land-based conflict, thereby reducing resources available for building
a navy. That guaranteed that Britain’s core interest, the security of
the homeland and sea-lane control, remained intact. Achieving this made
the United Kingdom an economic power in the 19th century by sparing it
the destruction of war and allowing it to control the patterns of
international maritime trade.
On occasion, when the balance of power in Europe tilted toward one
side or another, Britain intervened on the Continent with political
influence where possible, direct aid when necessary or — when all else
failed — the smallest possible direct military intervention. The
United Kingdom’s preferred strategy consisted of imposing a blockade —
e.g., economic sanctions — allowing it to cause pain without incurring
At the same time that it pursued this European policy, London was
building a global empire. Here again, the British employed a
balance-of-power strategy. In looking at the history of India or Africa
during the 19th century, there is a consistent pattern of the United
Kingdom forming alliances with factions, whether religious or ethnic
groups, to create opportunities for domination. In the end, this was
not substantially different from ancient Rome’s grand strategy. Rome
also ruled indirectly through much of its empire, controlling
Mediterranean sea-lanes, but allying with local forces to govern;
observing Roman strategy in Egypt is quite instructive in this regard.
Empires are not created by someone deciding one day to build one, or
more precisely, lasting empires are not. They emerge over time through
a series of decisions having nothing to do with empire building, and
frequently at the hands of people far more concerned with domestic
issues than foreign policy. Paradoxically, leaders who consciously set
out to build empires usually fail. Hitler is a prime example. His
failure was that rather than ally with forces in the Soviet Union, he
wished to govern directly, something that flowed from his ambitions for
direct rule. Particularly at the beginning, the Roman and British
empires were far less ambitious and far less conscious of where they
were headed. They were primarily taking care of domestic affairs. They
became involved in foreign policy as needed, following a strategy of
controlling the seas while maintaining substantial ground forces able
to prevail anywhere — but not everywhere at once — and a powerful
alliance system based on supporting the ambitions of local powers
against other local powers.
On the whole, the United States has no interest in empire, and
indeed is averse to imperial adventures. Those who might have had
explicit inclinations in this direction are mostly out of government,
crushed by experience in Iraq. Iraq came in two parts. In the first
part, from 2003 to 2007, the U.S. vision was one of direct rule relying
on American sea-lane control and overwhelming Iraq with well-supplied American troops.
The results were unsatisfactory. The United States found itself
arrayed against all Iraqi factions and wound up in a multipart war in
which its forces were merely one faction arrayed against others. The
Petraeus strategy to escape this trap was less an innovation in
counterinsurgency than a classic British-Roman approach. Rather than
attempting direct control of Iraq, Petraeus sought to manipulate the internal balance of power,
aligning with Sunni forces against Shiite forces, i.e., allying with
the weaker party at that moment against the stronger. The strategy did
not yield the outcome that some Bush strategists dreamed of, but it
might (with an emphasis on might) yield a useful outcome: a
precariously balanced Iraq dependent on the United States to preserve
its internal balance of power and national sovereignty against Iran.
Many Americans, perhaps even most, regret the U.S. intervention in
Iraq. And there are many, again perhaps most, who view broader U.S.
entanglement in the world as harmful to American interests. Similar
views were expressed by Roman republicans and English nationalists who
felt that protecting the homeland by controlling the sea was the best
policy, while letting the rest of the world go its own way. But the
Romans and the British lost that option when they achieved the key to
their own national security: enough power to protect the homeland.
Outsiders inevitably came to see that power as offensive, even though
originally its possessors intended it as defensive. Indeed, intent
aside, the capability for offensive power was there. So frequently,
Rome and Britain threatened the interests of foreign powers simply by
being there. Inevitably, both Rome and Britain became the targets of
Hannibals and Napoleons, and they were both drawn into the world
regardless of their original desires. In short, enough power to be
secure is enough power to threaten others. Therefore, that perfect
moment of national security always turns offensive, as the power to
protect the homeland threatens the security of other countries.
A Question of Size
There are Obama supporters and opponents who also dream of the
perfect balance: security for the United States achieved by not
interfering in the affairs of others. They see foreign entanglements
not as providing homeland security, but as generating threats to it.
They do not understand that what they want, American prosperity without
international risks, is by definition impossible. The U.S. economy is
roughly 25 percent of the world’s economy. The American military controls the seas, not all at the same time, but anywhere it wishes at any given time. The United States also controls outer space.
It is impossible for the United States not to intrude on the affairs of
most countries in the world simply by virtue of its daily operations.
The United States is an elephant that affects the world simply by being
in the same room with it. The only way to not be an elephant is to
shrink in size, and whether the United States would ever want this
aside, decreasing power is harder to do than it might appear — and
much more painful.
Obama’s challenge is managing U.S. power without decreasing its size
and without imposing undue costs on it. This sounds like an attractive
idea, but it ultimately won’t work: The United States cannot be what it
is without attracting hostile attention. For some of Obama’s
supporters, it is American behavior that generates hostility. Actually,
it is America’s presence — its very size — that intrudes on the world
and generates hostility.
On the domestic front, the isolationist-internationalist divide in
the United States has always been specious. Isolationists before World
War II simply wanted to let the European balance of power manage
itself. They wanted to buy time, but had no problem with intervening in
China against Japan. The internationalists simply wanted to move from
the first to the second stage, arguing that the first stage had failed.
There was thus no argument in principle between them; there was simply
a debate over how much time to give the process to see if it worked
out. Both sides had the same strategy, but simply a different read of
the moment. In retrospect, Franklin Roosevelt was right, but only
because France collapsed in the face of the Nazi onslaught in a matter
of weeks. That aside, the isolationist argument was quite rational.
Like that of Britain or Rome, U.S. grand strategy is driven by the
sheer size of the national enterprise, a size achieved less through
planning than by geography and history. Having arrived where it has, the United States has three layers to its strategy.
First, the United States must maintain the balance of power in
various regions in the world. It does this by supporting a range of
powers, usually the weaker against the stronger. Ideally, this balance
of power maintains itself without American effort and yields relative
stability. But stability is secondary to keeping local powers focused
on each other rather than on the United States: Stability is a
rhetorical device, not a goal. The real U.S. interest lies in weakening
and undermining emergent powers so they don’t ultimately rise to
challenge American power. This is a strategy of nipping things in the
Second, where emergent powers cannot be maintained through the
regional balance of power, the United States has an interest in sharing
the burden of containing it with other major powers. The United States
will seek to use such coalitions either to intimidate the emerging
power via economic power or, in extremis, via military power.
Third, where it is impossible to build a coalition to coerce
emerging powers, the United States must decide either to live with the
emerging power, forge an alliance with it, or attack it unilaterally.
Obama, as with any president, will first pursue the first layer of
the strategy, using as little American power as possible and waiting as
long as possible to see whether this works. The key here lies in not
taking premature action that could prove more dangerous or costly than
necessary. If that fails, his strategy is to create a coalition of
powers to share the cost and risk. And only when that fails — which is
a function of time and politics — will Obama turn to the third layer,
which can range from simply living with the emerging power and making a
suitable deal or crushing it militarily.
When al Qaeda attacked what it saw as the leading Christian power on
Sept. 11, Bush found himself thrown into the third stage very rapidly.
The second phase was illusory; sympathy aside, the quantity of military
force allies could and would bring to bear was minimal. Even active
allies like Britain and Australia couldn’t bring decisive force to
bear. Bush was forced into unilateralism not so much by the lack of
will among allies as by their lack of power. His choice lay in creating
chaos in the Islamic world and then forming alliances out of the
debris, or trying to impose a direct solution through military force.
He began with the second and shifted to the first.
Obama has more room to maneuver than Bush had. In the case of Iran,
no regional solution is possible. Israel can only barely reach into the
region, and while its air force might suffice to attack Iranian nuclear
facilities, and air attacks might be sufficient to destroy them, Israel
could not deal with the Iranian response of mining the Strait of Hormuz
and/or destabilizing Iraq. The United States must absorb these blows.
Therefore, Obama has tried to build an anti-Iranian coalition to intimidate Tehran. Given the Russian and Chinese positions, this seems to have failed,
and Iran has not been intimidated. That leaves Obama with two possible
paths. One is the path followed by Nixon in China: ally with Iran
against Russian influence, accepting it as a nuclear power and dealing
with it through a combination of political alignment and deterrence.
The second option is dealing with Iran militarily.
His choice thus lies between entente or war. He is bluffing war in hopes of getting what he wants,
in the meantime hoping that internal events in Iran may evolve in a way
suitable to U.S. interests or that Russian economic hardship evolves
into increased Russian dependence on the United States such that
Washington can extract Russian concessions on Iran. Given the state of
Iran’s nuclear development, which is still not near a weapon, Obama is using time to try to head off the third stage.
In Afghanistan, where Obama is already in the third stage and where
he is being urged to go deeper in, he is searching for a way to return
to the first stage, wherein an indigenous coalition emerges that
neutralizes Afghanistan through its own internal dynamic. Hence,
Washington is negotiating with the Taliban, trying to strengthen
various factions in Afghanistan and not quite committing to more force.
Winter is coming in Afghanistan, and that is the quiet time in that
conflict. Obama is clearly buying time.
In that sense, Obama’s foreign policy is neither as alien as his
critics would argue nor as original as his supporters argue. He is
adhering to the basic logic of American grand strategy, minimizing
risks over time while seeking ways to impose low-cost solutions. It
differs from Bush’s policies primarily in that Bush had events forced
on him and spent his presidency trying to regain the initiative.
The interesting point from where we sit is not only how deeply
embedded Obama is in U.S. grand strategy, but how deeply drawn he is
into the unintended imperial enterprise that has dominated American
foreign policy since the 1930s — an enterprise neither welcomed nor
acknowledged by most Americans. Empires aren’t planned, at least not
successful empires, as Hitler and Napoleon learned to their regret.
Empires happen as the result of the sheer reality of power. The
elephant in the room cannot stop being an elephant, nor can the smaller
animals ignore him. No matter how courteous the elephant, it is his
power — his capabilities — not his intentions that matter.
Obama is now the elephant in the room. He has bought as much time as
possible to make decisions, and he is being as amiable as possible to
try to build as large a coalition as possible.
But the coalition has neither the power nor appetite for the risks
involved, so Obama will have to decide whether to live with Iran, form
an alliance with Iran or go to war with Iran. In Afghanistan, he must
decide whether he can recreate the balance of power by staying longer
and whether this will be more effective by sending more troops, or
whether it is time to begin withdrawal. In both cases, he can use the
art of the bluff to shape the behavior of others, maybe.
He came into the presidency promising to be more amiable than Bush,
something not difficult given the circumstances. He is now trying to
convert amiability into a coalition, a much harder thing to do. In the
end, he will have to make hard decisions. In American foreign policy,
however, the ideal strategy is always to buy time so as to let the
bribes, bluffs and threats do their work. Obama himself probably
doesn’t know what he will do; that will depend on circumstances.
Letting events flow until they can no longer be tolerated is the
essence of American grand strategy, a path Obama is following
It should always be remembered that this long-standing American
policy has frequently culminated in war, as with Wilson, Roosevelt,
Truman, Johnson and Bush. It was Clinton’s watchful waiting to see how
things played out, after all, that allowed al Qaeda the time to build
and strike. But this is not a criticism of Clinton — U.S. strategy is
to trade time for risk. Over time, the risk might lead to war anyway,
but then again, it might not. If war does come, American power is still
decisive, if not in creating peace, then certainly in wreaking havoc
upon rising powers. And that is the foundation of empire.