American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy

American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy

by Paul D. Miller


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American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy by Paul D. Miller

Paul D. Miller offers a tough minded critique of recent trends in American grand strategy. He rejects retrenchment but also the excesses of liberal internationalism. He prescribes a conservative internationalist grand strategy to preserve the American security and leadership in the world while avoiding overstretch.

Originally written before the 2016 US presidential election, this first paperback edition contains a new preface that repositions the book’s argument for the Trump era. Miller explains why President Trump’s nationalist vision for American grand strategy damages US interests and world order. Miller blends academic rigor with his experiences as former member of the National Security Council and intelligence community to offer prescriptions for US grand strategy. He advocates for narrowing regional priorities and focusing on five strategic objectives: balancing against the nuclear autocracies, championing liberalism to maintain a favorable balance of power, thwarting the transnational jihadist movement, investing in governance in weak and failed states, and strengthening homeland security.

This book is a must read for scholars and students of international affairs and for anyone who is concerned about America’s role in the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626163423
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,300,900
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Paul D. Miller is a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is also a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He previously held the position of Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council from 2007 to 2009, worked as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, and served as a military intelligence analyst with the US Army in Afghanistan. He is the author of Armed State Building: Confronting State Failure, 1898–2012.

Read an Excerpt

American Power & Liberal Order

A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy

By Paul D. Miller


Copyright © 2016 Georgetown University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62616-342-3


In Search of a Twenty-First-Century Grand Strategy

It is commonplace to lament the United States' lack of a coherent grand strategy. Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis argued in 2009 that the United States suffered from a "grand strategic deficit" that went back two decades to the fall of the Soviet Union. One scholar recently wrote that America "is squandering the moment" because "it has no grand strategy," has been "floundering," and is "a great power adrift." Another wrote, "The absence of even an incomplete grand strategy means that all foreign and security policy issues are treated in virtually an ad hoc fashion." Yet another: "During the span of two decades American foreign policy has swung between the extremes [because of] the failure to develop a new national strategy for dealing with fundamental changes in the international system." Ike Skelton, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, held hearings on American grand strategy in 2008 because, as he told the committee,

there does not seem to be a comprehensive strategy for advancing United States' interests. This strategy is void, and it detracts from almost every policy effort advanced by the United States Government. Our international actions can be likened to a pick-up sandlot baseball game, rather than a solid course of action. Major policies are sometimes inconsistent and contradictory, and so we sometimes suffer from a splintering of national power and an inability to coherently address threats and reassure and cooperate with allies around the world.

There is much truth to these criticisms. The American foreign policy establishment has not covered itself in glory in the recent past. Its record of failure and scandal includes the terrorist attacks of 2001; the intelligence failure surrounding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction; the botched execution of postwar reconstruction in Iraq; the irresponsible exits from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya; ineffective responses to Iran's nuclear program, Russia's aggression, and China's assertiveness; and fears that the government's war powers, allegedly including targeted killings, indefinite detentions, and overbearing surveillance, have grown beyond oversight and accountability. After two difficult wars, the failed Arab Spring, and decades of China's rise, US policymakers are scrambling to respond. There is no consensus about America's role in the world, and we still lack a strategy for using American leadership to invest in liberal order. The first and biggest problem this book addresses is the need to rethink America's grand strategy and its role in the world.

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to rethink American foreign policy is to relearn the history of what is, in fact, a remarkably successful record. Despite the litany of failures above, the United States has a much longer, and startlingly impressive, record of foreign policy — from achieving independence and securing continental hegemony to emerging victorious in three world wars in the twentieth century. This past provides us a useful trove of wisdom from which we can rethink the present and plan for the future. But "our national ignorance of our own past successes impoverishes our foreign policy process today." A second problem this book addresses is our tendency to forget our past, exaggerate discontinuities, and focus on our failures. I take a historical approach to articulating a grand strategy for America, seeking to understand where we have come from in order to chart a course for the future because "most grand strategies begin with a look backward before they look forward."

A third problem is a tendency to misunderstand what strategy is and, thus, to misdiagnose the problems in US foreign policy. The standard complaints against US foreign policy are often fair criticisms of its day-to-day management, but they can obscure a deeper and longer consistency to US strategic goals and success in pursuing them. Many recent failings of US foreign policy were failures of management, oversight, and implementation. Strategy is not management; poor management does not necessarily suggest the absence of a strategy meant to guide implementation. Blaming every failure on poor strategy can cause some policymakers to question a good strategy that had the misfortune of being poorly implemented and others to question the idea of strategy altogether. During Skelton's hearings on US grand strategy, several witnesses expressed skepticism that the United States has had a grand strategy or that having one was even possible, and one member suggested the United States give up on "fuzzy Grand Strategy stuff." It also encourages a perennial search for the next grand strategy every four or eight years that, its advocates hope, will cut the Gordian knot of all US foreign policy problems. Such a search is unrealistic. As Sarah Kreps has rightly argued, "one individual, even the most powerful, may be unequipped to change a country's grand strategy. American interests, threats, and capabilities do not change on Inauguration Day. Grand strategies are characterized by their longevity, often spanning many years, with little more than minor tweaks around the margins." Rather than proposing an ambitious and entirely new grand strategy out of whole cloth, I suggest "tweaks" to what I argue is already established strategy. In doing so, I attempt to clarify what strategy is, and what it means to think strategically, by concrete example.

A final problem is that scholars and policymakers have not come to a consensus about America's role in the world or the relationship between American security and world order. Some have suggested that the United States is a state like any other and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, faces few things that truly qualify as threats to its national security. In this view, the United States can afford to retrench from its various commitments abroad. Others argue that the United States is exceptional because of the extent of its power and appeal of its values, which is how the United States became the leader and architect of liberal order. They are apt to argue that there is no end to threats facing the United States, including nonstate groups, failed states, and even environmental collapse, and thus the United States should expand its international role. Each camp's preferred grand strategy differs from the others because of the different threats it believes the United States should guard against. At root of this disagreement is a tendency to overemphasize the extent to which the security environment has changed and thus to exaggerate the extent to which the United States needs to change its grand strategy. In fact, there is a greater degree of continuity in the security environment, and thus in the United States' ideal grand strategy, than is widely appreciated. This book's historical approach attempts to correct for that.

The Post–Cold War Debate

The post–Cold War debate over US grand strategy, which has unfolded in three phases, has failed to resolve these problems. First, in the years after the end of the Cold War, scholars and policymakers debated whether the fall of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed the international system and whether the United States could or should sustain its uniquely powerful "unipolar" position within it. Liberal internationalists argued that the appeal of liberalism and international institutions had largely replaced the need to engage in the balance of power. Advocates of "restraint" argued that the United States could now afford to retrench in the face of diminished threats abroad and adopt a more hands-off strategy of "off-shore balancing." The liberal internationalists largely won the policy debate. The United States cut its military budget and reduced its overseas military presence, as both camps wanted, but did not pare back its international commitments. It sustained its ambition to lead and expand the community of democratic states, defended access to the global commons and the principle of nonaggression, and even increased its interventions abroad for peacekeeping and humanitarian causes.

In retrospect, the debate over unipolarity seems misguided. The true unipolar moment dawned in 1945, when the United States produced almost half of world gross domestic product (GDP) and had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, a moment that passed quickly. By 1989, the United States' economic unipolarity had ebbed considerably; by 2015, China and the European Union (EU) were peer competitors. Militarily the United States spends more than most of the world combined, but the spread of nuclear weapons created a crude sort of equality, limiting the United States' ability to use its vastly greater military power, while terrorism and insurgency proved partially effective at playing to the US military's weaknesses. The mischaracterization of America's power position, coupled with liberal internationalist assumptions about the end of great power balancing, led policymakers to believe they could wield American power at will even while cutting its budget and disregarding the shifts in power among and between other states and the rise of unconventional threats. As a result, the United States allowed an unacknowledged gap to grow between its decreasing military, diplomatic, and intelligence capabilities and its continued global ambitions, reflecting a naive under appreciation for the continued realities of power in the post–Cold War world.

In the second phase of debate, after the terrorist attacks of 2001, scholars debated the rise of failed states, terrorists, and other nonstate actors and argued how best the United States should organize its grand strategy to construct a new global order to respond to the apparently growing chaos. Some characterized the United States' conflict with al-Qaida and its sympathizers as an ideological struggle on par with the struggles against fascism and communism, which demanded a similarly ambitious grand-strategic response from the United States. Others, who took the rhetoric of the "War on Terror" at face value and sidestepped the question of jihadist ideology, focused only on the question of how to thwart terrorist tactics and argued that the United States had overreacted to the attacks of 2001. Scholars also argued over whether or not reconstruction and stabilization operations were necessary (or possible) to drain the swamp from which jihadist groups grew.

It is not clear that a consensus position ever emerged in these years. Scholars and policymakers remained divided sharply over whether or not the war in Iraq was a useful exercise of US power, how it related to the war against al-Qaida, and how important traditional security concerns, such as great power politics, remained in the post-9/11 era. The conceptual clutter was matched by policy failure. The United States never fully committed to either a lean and surgical counterterrorism approach nor to fully resourced and competently executed counterinsurgency, reconstruction, and stabilization operations. The muddle achieved neither the economy of the first option nor the ambition of the second. And the United States remained distracted while traditional rivals proved increasingly assertive. China embarked on a markedly more assertive foreign policy after 2008, North Korea tested nuclear weapons for the first time in 2006, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and Iran resisted efforts to halt its nuclear program.

Third and most recently, since the United States began to wind down its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, simultaneously, suffered a contraction in its fiscal situation, scholars and policymakers have debated whether the United States is now facing an unprecedented limitation on its freedom of action and whether it needs to begin limiting its commitments abroad in line with a new and emerging world order in which it will play a diminished role. Advocates of restraint have become even more vocal than in the aftermath of the Cold War. Other scholars have sought to find ways of preserving America's influence through greater reliance on allies and partners abroad or better use of diplomacy and development assistance.

A major problem with the post–Cold War debate on grand strategy from both realists and liberal internationalists is that their arguments tended to take an insufficiently short-term view of events. Neither the terrorist attacks of 2001 nor the war in Iraq, nor even the fall of the Soviet Union, were events of sufficient magnitude to fundamentally alter the United States' century-old strategic courses of action. It was in the United States' interest to protect itself and maintain a favorable balance of power both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. These events altered the global strategic context (or reflected underlying changes that had been developing for some time), and consequently they certainly required the United States to adapt the means it used to pursue its ends. However, there seems to be a tendency for scholars and policymakers to overreact and treat the most recent past as the most important facts — an example of "recency bias" in international relations. That is why some scholars and policymakers were attracted to the concept of "unipolarity" in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, why the Clinton administration was drawn to the spread of democracy, and why George W. Bush made the War on Terror the centerpiece of his foreign policy. Individually, they were all imbalanced overreactions to recent events, part of the reason post–Cold War administrations have failed to articulate a coherent grand strategy.

Against Restraint

But a larger problem is the rise of restraint as a school of thought among American scholars and policymakers after the Cold War and, even more dramatically, after the Iraq War. Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky argued that the United States can and should withdraw most of its military forces deployed abroad and pull out of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and other alliances, and need not be concerned about the success or failure of democracy in other countries because "America faces almost no discernable security threats." Their argument has gained ground since the failure of US efforts in Iraq. Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen argued in Foreign Affairs more recently that the United States is actually very safe because it faces no "existential" threat, great power war is unlikely, democracy, prosperity, and public health are all on the rise, and the international challenges today are unlikely to kill many American citizens. Considering these developments, in their view, the United States is certainly safer today than it was during the Cold War and does not need to continue investing in its military establishment at current levels. Similarly, Barry Posen in his recent book Restraint distrusts hypothetical causal chains that purport to explain how small incidents would lead to major threats: "The United States should focus on a small number of threats. ... It can do that because the United States is economically and militarily strong, well-endowed and well-defended by nature, and possessed of an enormous ability to regenerate itself." Posen believes that the United States can choose the threats it focuses on because they are small enough compared to its strength and argues that the United States should redeploy its military forces homeward and withdraw from most alliance commitments.

There are major problems with restraint. First, even if the assumptions that undergird the policy recommendations were true, withdrawing military forces and ending alliances would still be inappropriate. Even if territorial defense were the extent of American security, the United States would still require a more forward presence around the world than advocates of restraint understand. Advocates of this view rightly argue that the United States is one of the few large countries in the world that never has to worry about a land invasion from a hostile power. Since Canada's independence from the British Empire and Mexico's loss in the Mexican–American War, neither country has, nor ever will, pose a significant threat to the United States. A hostile Eurasian hegemon, like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, might dominate the wealth and power of much of the globe but even then would find it almost insurmountably difficult to project power across the Atlantic and Pacific, storm the beaches of California or Virginia, defeat the US military in open battle on its home turf, and subdue the best-armed partisan resistance in history — short of annihilating the country altogether with an indiscriminate nuclear attack.


Excerpted from American Power & Liberal Order by Paul D. Miller. Copyright © 2016 Georgetown University Press. Excerpted by permission of GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Part I: A Framework for Thinking about US Grand Strategy,
1. In Search of a Twenty-First-Century Grand Strategy,
2. Power and Liberty in US Diplomatic History,
3. The New World Disorder,
Part II: Strategic Courses of Action,
4. The Balance of Power and the Democratic Peace,
5. Barbarians, Failed States, and Stability Operations,
Part III: Regional Application,
6. The Frontline: Europe and East Asia,
7. The Opportunity: South Asia,
8. The Quagmire: The Middle East,
9. The Periphery: Latin America and Africa,
Part IV: The National Security Tool Kit,
10. Homeland Defense,
11. Diplomacy and Development,
12. Military, Intelligence, and National Security Decision Making,

What People are Saying About This

Hal Brands

Paul Miller’s American Power and Liberal Order represents an important contribution to the growing literature on American grand strategy. This book offers a robust defense of strong American leadership and engagement in support of a liberal global order, and it provides a range of specific and often provocative recommendations for how to implement that strategy. Miller’s book deserves a wide reading among those who take an interest in grand strategy and in America’s relationship with the world.

Colin Dueck

In his new book, Paul Miller argues that the United States can and should use its power to uphold a classically liberal world order. Miller's strategy would combine a range of economic, diplomatic, and military tools to promote democratic values along with regional balances. Nor does he shy away from recommending stability operations in failed states, for example to combat terrorism. Precisely because this argument is today unfashionable, Miller is to be commended for making it, and he does so in an unusually clear and detailed way. The region-by-region breakdown of current international security challenges is especially welcome and relevant. Altogether, a fine contribution to the ongoing debate over best directions for American grand strategy.

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